CLANDESTINE WAVES: "Large up the BIG station NYC baby!"
During WBAD's time on the air in the mid-90's, the number of Brooklyn pirate stations increased dramatically. A new wave of unlicensed broadcasters, trying to reach immigrant and other outsider audiences, began to slip through the cracks caused by rapid changes in the media landscape. Airtime costs on conventional stations were soaring, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 changed the rules to allow for one owner to have several stations in single media market. This led to format consolidation and fewer diverse voices on air. Inexpensive, easy-to-use transmitter kits were becoming widely available by mail order and through the burgeoning internet. At the same time, the budget for the FCC enforcement bureau was being cut. Many station operators who were cited for illegal operation just ignored the penalties and stayed on the air. Often, when a station was taken down, they waited a bit and then went back on with new gear. The dozens of newcomers flooding the dial rattled long time pirates like WBAD who felt they'd earned the rights to 91.9 through seniority. They fought back, using a combination of persuasion, jamming and sabotage.
The bulk of the newcomers in Brooklyn broadcast to the thriving West Indian neighborhoods in Flatbush, East Flatbush, Crown Heights and Canarsie due to the scarcity of Caribbean programming on conventional stations at the time. Pirates like BIG, Bashment, and the Fire Station were popular for their cutting edge DJ mixes and underground vibe.
At the same time a civil disobedience-style movement comprised of many types of unlicensed stations was growing all over the United States
This push to take back the airwaves by activists and community members could be traced in part to the elimination of low power community-oriented stations in the late 70s. The nationwide micro-broadcasting movement swept up radio experimenters, media artists and progressive political activists. An early catalyst was the primordial micro-broadcaster Black Liberation Radio.
Another groundbreaking station, Free Radio Berkeley, peddled FM transmitter kits and tangled with the FCC in a protracted legal battle. That led to a grace period in which they were allowed to stay on the air which provided cover for other stations to do the same. When the FCC took down Radio Mutiny, a collectively organized pirate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the members voted to reorganize as the Prometheus Radio Project, which advocated for a legal form of licensing called Low Power FM (LPFM.) They held barnraisings to build community stations across the country, and teach the skills necessary to run them.
In 2000, The FCC commissioners voted in LPFM. The commercial broadcasting industry and National Public Radio fought this change and delayed its implementation for years, trying via Congress to limit the numbers of new stations. After two brief licensing windows held in 2000 and 2013, there are now 2,150 noncommercial low power stations. But in urban areas like Boston, Miami and New York City, LPFM spacing rules left very few available slots. Pirate activity remained high as did the level of interference to legal stations.
With so many pirates on the FM band, the FCC Enforcement Bureau was largely rendered a paper tiger, losing its ability to enforce broadcasting regulations and quickly address the majority of complaints from the licensed stations and their listeners.