MAKING WAVES:  "How the hell are you on the radio?!" DJ Cintronics.


Unlicensed stations in the US are prohibited to transmit using power over a few milliwatts (which is basically enough to reach the building next door), but radio rogues have been around since the early days of broadcasting. In New York City, pirate radio activity stretches back at least to the 1970's. During that era, broadcasting without a license was considered largely taboo and the complexity of assembling and operating broadcasting equipment kept the bar for entry fairly high. If a pirate made it on air, they faced a potential visit and shutdown by investigators from their local FCC field office.

In 1982, the New York Times noted that there were 12 active pirates citywide. Currently, media watchers estimate there are at least 100 unlicensed pirate stations across the NYC metropolitan area including New Jersey.

Many of the pirate stations of the 70's and 80's delighted in putting their own spin on the rock radio of the day. They made up fake callsigns like WBUZ and WAXY. In Brooklyn, "Hank Hayes" and "Jim Nasium" ran WFAT, WFUN and WHOT. The usual practice for pirates was to sneak on the air late at night and on weekends when they hoped the FCC wasn't listening. 

For many, broadcasting without a license was a kind of irresistible, technically challenging prank. Once on, some pushed it as far as they could. Stereo Nine FM, out of Queens, staged an elaborate remote broadcast covering the protests live from outside Madison Square Garden during the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Regardless of how they went about it, all pirates had to contend with the threat of FCC enforcement. They tried to outsmart Judah Mansbach, the FCC's determined (and derided) field agent of that era. Pirate operators monitored the communication channels the FCC used when tracking a station, shutting down when they got close.

During the 1980s, there was an air of cooperation among most of the NYC pirates. They would meet and work out an informal schedule to share what were regarded as the two open pirate radio frequencies in New York City. 91.9 was preferred as it was clear of local stations. The second, 91.5, was available only after midnight when WNYE, owned by the local school board, signed off for the day. The local pirates also collaborated on special broadcasts and relays, culminating in the daring, but short-lived Radio New York International (RNI). Masterminded by pirate pioneer Alan Weiner, RNI broadcast to the whole city in July 1987 from a ship anchored in international waters off Jones Beach, Long Island. After four days and two "Notices of Apparent Liability" from the FCC, the Coast Guard boarded and dismantled the station.

NYC's pirate radio soundscape began to change in the 90s as more diverse voices came on air. New stations like WJQR-Nasty Radio, and WBAD-Bad Radio veered away from the usual rock music and inside jokes, instead playing hip hop and the latest club music to an African American and Latino audience. WJQR’s founder, the raunchy and technically adept Dr. X, broke pirate convention by going on the air earlier and on weekdays. He also pioneered selling airtime to aspiring DJs, a method that some  pirates use today. 

After Dr. X sold a spare transmitter to his protégé Dave Cintron (aka DJ Cintronics), WBAD was born. DJ Cintronics started out spinning house music, his first love, but soon switched to a new format to exploit a hole in hip hop programming on Sunday nights. That's when hip hop giant WQHT- HOT 97 would break format to air talk programming and a reggae show. To fill the gap, Cintronics recruited experienced staff including an ambitious young DJ: Dren Starr. Together they broadcast raw, uncensored hip hop that kept the party going in living rooms and gathering spots across Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.

In 1998, WBAD was raided and shut down by the FCC, shortly after they were featured on a television newscast. They had been on the air weekly for over three years, a long run for a pirate station at that time.