Having lived here for a couple of years now, it’s true that New York City is a melting pot of culture like few other places. Sure, there’s Manhattan, from where the most nationally-recognizable symbols of the city’s culture emanate, but each borough’s got its own flavor, with distinctive neighborhoods and narratives.
This is very true for the radio dial. And of the five boroughs, nobody’s airwaves are more active than Brooklyn. Last year, I conducted a bandscan of receivable FM stations from my location on the Midwood/Flatbush border and picked up some 30 pirates; now it’s a new year and the FM dial remains alive with them. Somebody’s even established a Twitter feed that tracks (and samples) what’s on the air here. By and large, every frequency from 87.7 to 107.9 has something on it, and where I live there’s a one-in-three chance that it’s unlicensed. You can find everything from Afro-Carribean talk and music to Orthodox Jewish teachings and Hebrew music. There’s also stations devoted to the more mundane, like dance music, gospel, and death metal. Many are commercial, in mom-and-pop fashion. The languages are multivariate, but it’s all live and local, and despite its rough edges this FM dial is vibrant like nowhere else (save London, perhaps).
The licensed broadcasters in town are not happy with the situation, to put it mildly. They’ve asked Congress to intervene on their behalf, and at least one area rep has obliged, asking the FCC to beef up the pour souls in its field office on Varick Street in lower Manhattan to address this “growing problem” and “serious matter.” Licensed broadcasters convinced the state of New York to criminalize pirate radio in 2011, as a misdemeanor offense subject to fines and possible jail time. But this has led to few (if any) notable arrests and convictions, much less acted as any meaningful deterrent.
Having been on both sides of the law in my broadcasting adventures, I see the variety of perspectives on the “pirate problem” in NYC. The dial is admittedly messy, with many pirate stations running rigs of unknown configuration with overmodulated audio and resultant splatter. Not to mention that the niceties of channel-adjacency are all but non-existent, with the possibility of hearing two pirates sparring on the same frequency. On the other hand, there are stations that do run “clean” operations (save for being right next door to a licensed station), and the content and community speech the majority of these stations provide add a new dimension to the listening experience in this radio market.
While haters call the pirates an “epidemic” or “scourge,” I’d rather think of them as junkies. Or maybe teenage kids wrestling with puberty. Heroin distribution and use is illegal, and even the fiendiest addicts know that needle-sharing could result in a death sentence—but the practice continues. In many states, it’s against the law for minors to have sex, but kids will be kids—so the practice continues. Addiction is difficult and complicated, the human urge to procreate even more so. They are also impossible to eradicate.
Many communities have responded to these problems using princples and practices of harm reduction. Harm reduction comes to terms with the scope of what seems like intractable social problems by embracing their existence. It has been most closely associated with drug-related problems, but the paradigm has been applied to address other issues. Witness the rise of needle-exchange programs throughout the 1980s and 90s, which helped siginificantly reduce the transmission of blood-borne diseases, and serves as a gateway into rehabilitation for some addicts. This occurred even though early needle-exchanges were considered criminal operations, engaged in the trafficking of drug paraphenalia. Similarly, many school districts provide access to birth control; here in NYC, that means more than condoms. I’m old enough now to remember how socially taboo it was to even talk about birth control, and the idea of free condoms in schools was wildly controversial. Fortunately, in both instances, times have changed, and harm reducation has proven its usefulness.
It would take nothing short of the militarization of the FCC to clear the Brooklyn airwaves of pirate stations, and that’s not in the cards. So perhaps it would be best to focus energies on harm reduction—coming to grips with the dial as it exists, and working with softer power to address the situation.
For starters, many stations could use some engineering TLC. This might involve a transmitter check-up/overhaul, the installation of signal-filters and rudimentary audio processing, and a check of the antenna and line run. Considering that many pirates are targeting very specific communities, and those can change block-by-block, many pirates might benefit from the use of a directional antenna, or could use some help in maximizing use of the urban topography. These tactics would make each station, and the FM dial as an aggregate, more listenable.
Harm reduction might also open up (indirect) collaboration between stations, most of which share common goals and challenges but don’t currently communicate with each other. If FM spectrum is a shared resource, and the stakes are already high from the congestion that is NYC, then it might make sense to share what potentially-defensible crumbs of spectrum there are, perhaps through informal time or channel-sharing arrangements.
Were the FCC to take this “pirate problem” seriously, it might look to LPFM and the unrealized LP-10 class of license for a partial remedy. In the early days of LPFM policymaking, the FCC was open to the notion of considering flea-powered stations on first-adjacent channels (i.e., next door) to full-power ones. The NAB and NPR reacted viscerally, and flexed so much legislative muscle that the FCC’s LPFM rules were amended to keep these stations at least three channels away ofrom other stations. Since then, the rules have been amended to allow for second-adjacent LPFM stations, but the fundamental engineering of contemporary FM transmitters and receivers certainly doesn’t preclude an LP-10 next door to someone running thousands of watts. That’s just a matter of political will. LP-10 was ultimately dismissed by the FCC as being spectrally-inefficient, which makes some sense for everywhere in America except its urban cores. In Brooklyn a single LP-10 could cover hundreds of thousands of people. That’s why licensed broadcasters are paying millions to shoehorn FM translators wherever they can in the four bouroughs (sorry, Staten Island).
Licensed broadcasters and the FCC would consider participants in such efforts to be co-conspirators, much like those who founded the first needle exchanges and teen birth control resources. But times change, and radio itself is changing out from underneath traditional broadcasters. With so much market fragmentation taking place, isn’t harm reduction a strategy worth considering? Start small, like one borough, and see if some best practices develop. If so, there are other markets, like Miami and Boston, who could use similar relief.