Community Waves: "…too real and dangerous."
As the workday unwinds across the sprawling West Indian enclaves of Flatbush and East Flatbush, homegrown unlicensed radio stations begin to switch on. Using names like Irie Storm, Boom Station, Radio Gospel Train and Wei-Vybz, these stations are often labeled "pirates" for the way they commandeer occupied radio frequencies. Secretly placed transmitters scattered around Brooklyn generate radio waves that flow from simple rooftop antennas. This collection of signals traces an invisible electro-magnetic counterpart to the pulsing poly-cultural neighborhoods below. Radios transform them into the sounds that resonate from local shops and the dollar vans that ply Flatbush Avenue.
The Flatbush atmosphere oscillates with the rhythms of music rarely heard on conventional licensed stations. From improvised studios hidden behind storefronts, in houses of worship and down the stairs in bodega basements, live DJ's spin Reggae, Soca, Konpas, Caribbean Gospel and more. Pastors preach to the faithful and seek to reach lost souls. Merchants hawk their wares.
By dinnertime, over thirty stations are on the air spreading along New York City's already crowded FM radio dial. Many have been on for ten to fifteen years or more, but new stations continue to pop up. They cram in where they can, causing interference with licensed stations and other pirates alike. The kaleidoscopic, very local programming combines with an often shaky grasp of the technical art of broadcasting. The result is a raucous, chaotic counterpoint to the steadfast blandness and predictability of corporate-owned, commercial radio.
About a dozen of the stations cater to the large Flatbush Haitian community. The remainder serve listeners from Jamaica, Grenada, Trinidad, Guyana and other Caribbean nations. Closer to the Flatbush/Midwood border, Kol Hashalom (the Voice of Peace) broadcasts in Hebrew to the Sephardic Orthodox Jewish community.
An unlicensed station is subject to a range of measures that can potentially lead to fines, shutdowns and confiscation of equipment overseen by the Enforcement Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The risks to pirate operators are real. But for over twenty years, several factors have converged to allow for a critical mass of stations to occupy the airwaves in mostly urban pockets. The soaring costs of legal airtime, easy access to inexpensive transmitters, and cuts to the FCC enforcement budget created an opening for a high level of continuous activity. The cultural importance of radio to the pirate stations' listeners keeps them on the air.
New York City, Boston and Miami are currently pirate radio hotspots with multiple stations that serve mostly Caribbean and Latino audiences. There's a kind of safety in numbers. Some stations get busted, but given limited resources and the scope of existing laws, there are just too many stations for the majority to be taken off the air permanently.
Pirate stations play multi-faceted roles for listeners, providing music, entertainment, a connection to their home culture and support for surviving in a new home. Fresh news is crucial. During the early evening hours, several of the Flatbush pirates relay newscasts from Jamaica, Haiti and Grenada, Guyana and Trinidad.
Access to news and cultural content via the radio, particularly in Kreyol, is vital for Haitians. Their need for multiple, independent sources of information has roots in the repressive regimes of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, which lasted from 1957 to 1986. That time was known as the "transistor revolution". Haiti's media was controlled by the government with programming delivered in French, the language of the elite. Ordinary Haitians saved up to buy small, easy to conceal radios to access news from outside of the country.
The Flatbush stations also provide a source of up-to-date information on immigration issues; a concern that cuts across the entire West Indian community.
On weekdays, programming runs late...sometimes all night. Most stations switch off by 10 am or so, as station operators (and the listening audience) go off to work.
Staying off during the day is likely a strategy to reduce the risk of interference complaints and escape the attention of the local FCC field office. A handful remain on air, but often without programming. Their silent signal blocks other pirates from taking over the frequency. On weekends, the stations broadcast continuously from Friday evening to Monday morning. During holidays, and especially during the late summer Carnival celebration, many stations go all out with special programming.