The Real Pirate Radio Story
by Doc Searls Thursday, March 15, 2018

I wrote this originally as a comment under Tougher Legislation To Fight Pirates On The Way, in RadioInk. It hasn't been published yet there, and may never be, which is why I'm putting it here.

Some weekend evening, drive to the hilly end of Manhattan: Hudson and Washington Heights, Inwood, Fort George. Take one of the bridges across the Harlem River to Morris, University, Fordham or Kingsbridge Heights. Head down University Ave to Highbridge, Mt. Eden. Go out to Tremont through Mt. Hope. Explore the Pelhams, the West, East and South Bronx. Take another bridge or two to the outer regions of Queens, and work your way down to the less hip sections of Brooklyn.

All along the way, keep hitting SCAN on your car radio. Most of what you'll hear that's not in Obvious English will be pirates. In any one spot, such as were I live in a part of Manhattan the locals call Washington Depths (down along Broadway north of 181st), you'll hear not just one or two pirates, but dozens. On your whole trip you might hear a hundred or more. Some you'll hear for miles on your journey. I once listened to a pirate on 89.7fm all the way to JFK Airport and back. For most of the trip, it destroyed reception of adjacent WKCR/89.9.

All these stations serve either the obsessions of their operators or communities licensed broadcasters don't serve or abandoned long ago. I suspect in most cases it's both.

This phenomenon needs to be understood, and cannot be reduced to the "piracy" label alone. It's too big for that.

From what I can tell, few outside the phenomenon understand what's going on. Not the industry, not lawmakers, and especially not the mainstream media.

In fact, most of the coverage I've read is what I've written about every two years or so: and .

So, since you might be asking, here's why I think it's a Thing:

1) It's cheap. Do this search and see how easy it is to put out a pirate FM signal: . For a studio, use your iPad. For an antenna, run some cable TV co-ax to a 30-inch whip antenna on your building's roof.

2) New York's licensed FMs are weak, by design. All are Class B (50kw/150m max), and there are no high-power grandfathers. To get above the city's concrete canyons, most of New York's Class Bs radiate only 6kw from the master antenna near the top of the Empire State Building, 413 meters above the ground there. Soon there will be six other structures higher than that in Manhattan.

2) A signal from midtown reaching a low floor at the north end of Broadway in Manhattan will pass through, around and over a hundred-plus blocks of other buildings and terrain to get there—and will sound like crap. (Perhaps oddly, listening in HD helps a lot, if the signal is still there.) This leaves lots of room for hyper-local pirates to step in, especially in the hilly places I named above.

3) Nearly all the pirates are in Spanish or some other language (or English dialect). Being into Hispanic Radio, you guys should care about this. If you do, come visit. I'll show you around.

4) It's social. This matters a lot.

Anybody up for actually covering this thing? Just wondering.

BTW, this comment seems to have failed moderation, at least so far, at RadioInk.