On any given night, David Goren can tune into more than 30 underground radio stations from his apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “About a dozen of them broadcast in Creole, to the Haitian community,” Goren, a local journalist and producer who researches the city’s pirate stations, told The Outline. “A lot of the stations will air news from home.” In addition to news and politics updates, Goren said, these stations feature Caribbean music that doesn’t get airtime on mainstream stations, advertisements for local businesses, and occasional call-in sessions with immigration attorneys.
For some immigrant communities across the country, these underground radio stations are an easy way of staying connected to one’s roots. In New York City, there may be more unlicensed broadcasters than licensed ones. Some of these clandestine broadcasters are small enterprises, while others are full-fledged stations that run advertisements and generate revenue. All of them run the risk of being fined — or in some states, including New York, New Jersey, and Florida, having their operators imprisoned — if they’re caught by the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC has been chasing down unlicensed pirate stations for decades — in 1987, The New York Times reported on a raid of a pirate station that was operating from a boat off the coast of Long Island. But with the recent appointment of Ajit Pai, President Donald Trump’s pick for FCC chairman, the federal government seems to be taking a new zero-tolerance approach to pirate stations, one that may drive these broadcasters off the air for good. In late March, federal authorities raided the headquarters of two Boston-based pirate radio stations and seized their equipment. And last fall, the popular Miami-based pirate station Touche Douce was hit with a proposed $144,344 fine, the maximum allowed under FCC regulations at the time.
A map of enforcement actions on the FCC’s website illustrates the crackdown. The FCC has undertaken 306 pirate investigations since Pai took office in January 2017. The majority of these actions — 210, according to a press release issued by the agency on Wednesday — were Notices of Unauthorized Operations, warnings from the FCC telling the unlicensed stations to immediately shut down or risk fines and prison time. The release also notes that the FCC “took more than twice as many actions against pirate broadcasters” in 2017 than it did the previous year. (For the first time since its inception, the agency said, it has begun holding property owners liable for “supporting this illegal activity on their property.”)
Five of the 224 actions issued since January 2017 were Notices of Apparent Liability, a “preliminary decision” to fine stations that have “willfully or repeatedly” ignored FCC warnings, the map shows. This is the kind of notice Touche Douce received last September.
Last month, New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance and New York Rep. Paul Toko introduced the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act, which would increase the maximum fine for operating an illegal radio station from $19,639 per day to $100,000. Under current laws, the FCC can fine licensed stations up to $147,290; the PIRATE Act would increase the cap to $2 million. In addition to raising fines, the legislation would require the FCC to conduct at least two annual raids in the cities with the highest concentration of pirate broadcasters — often immigrant communities of color — and to seize any illegal radio equipment from underground stations.
According to Lance, pirate radio operators don’t only compete with licensed operators for airspace, but also pose “significant harm to public safety and public health,” because their signals can interfere with emergency broadcasts. “By disrupting and interfering with licensed broadcasters, these ‘pirate radios’ can cause radio listeners to miss important updates during times of emergency by blocking the Emergency Alert System,” Lance said during a March 22 hearing regarding the PIRATE Act.
Lobbying groups including the National Association of Broadcasters, the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association, and the New York State Broadcasters Association have spoken out in favor of the PIRATE Act. David Donovan, president of the New York group, called private stations a “vexing problem” and suggested that some “may be part of a larger criminal activity” in a statement endorsing the legislation. Donovan claimed that, unlike legal radio stations that “are licensed by the FCC to serve the public interest,” pirate stations “do not serve their communities” and instead “often prey on the most vulnerable communities.”
What these stations are doing is serving their communities in ways that they don’t get from licensed stations.
Inside Radio reported last year that broadcasting associations across the country have found an ally in Pai. “What I see is a determination by the Commission to go after this issue,” the president of the New York broadcasting association told the website. In a statement announcing Touche Douce’s fine notice, Pai issued a statement making it clear that he would be ramping up enforcement against pirate stations:
One week ago was International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which is probably the only holiday that can trace its origin to a racquetball game. When the two co-founders were playing, one of them suffered an injury and screamed out ‘Aaarrr!’ By contrast, there’s nothing funny about pirate radio, which interferes with the lawful use of the airwaves and can disrupt public safety communications. Since becoming Chairman, I’ve made it quite clear that the FCC won’t tolerate the unauthorized and illegal use of the radio spectrum. Towards that end, I’ve made it a Commission priority to crack down on pirate radio operations.
Pirate radio’s defenders say the unlicensed broadcasters serve communities that are often ignored by mainstream stations, both in the U.S. and abroad. In the UK, pirate radio played a pivotal role in the rise of grime, enabling upstart MCS and beatmakers without access to a traditional label or PR team to connect with audiences and get the word out about new records. Over in Miami —which, according to the FCC map, has the highest concentration of pirate radio stations after New York — the format has been similarly instrumental for certain local hip-hop artists. Shortly after moving to Miami, DJ Khaled tried to get radio stations to play his songs; the only one that agreed was Mixx 96, a Caribbean pirate station on Biscayne Boulevard.
“What these stations are doing is serving their communities in ways that they don’t get from licensed stations,” Goren said. “You can hear soca music, dancehall, reggae, konpa, Caribbean gospel.” He notes, however, that the pirate stations can interfere with broadcasts from licensed ones.
In Miami, fans of Touche Douce are wondering what they’ll do if popular pirate stations get taken off the air. “We need it,” Touche Douce listener Wilky Saint-Hilaire told the Miami Herald after the station was fined last October. “This was probably the only station that played our music genre, konpa, exclusively on a daily basis.”
The Herald reported that other pirate stations in the region are currently under investigation. After the FCC fined Touche Douce, some Haitian pirate radio fans wondered if the Haitian community would purchase its own FM station, the Herald reported. But FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who supports the fine on Touche Douce but is sympathetic to underground operators, wrote that underserved communities of color often turn to pirate radio because of the high costs associated with being licensed.
“If those unlicensed operators were ever afforded the opportunity to transition to a licensed station, would they take it?” Clyburn wrote. “Unfortunately, in most large media markets, that opportunity may never exist, both because of the lack of an available license and high financial hurdles.”
FCC spokesperson Will Wiquist told The Outline that a few options exist for pirate stations that want to comply with the law. “The FCC has licensed low power radio stations in markets where licensing can be done without causing interference,” he said in an email. “Also, obviously there are online resources like streamed radio services and podcasts.”
According to Goren, it’s possible that some pirate stations may choose to go completely digital to evade the FCC crackdown — and that some of those that do get forced off the air will just resurface again later. He said he was in touch with the operator of one Spanish-language station in Brooklyn, which streams both digitally and over the radio, who was concerned about getting caught by the FCC. (Goren didn’t suggest that this operator was worried about getting caught because of the increased enforcement, but rather that fines and prison time are always a risk for pirate broadcasters in New York.)
The Outline reached out to Radio Unidad and Radio Independans, two pirate stations that were recently issued notices by the FCC. Radio Unidad, a Spanish-language Christian station, is located in Connecticut; Radio Independans is based in Brooklyn. Both stations’ phone numbers appear to have been disconnected. For these pirate stations and others across the country, it’s unclear what the future holds.
Update: This piece was updated to reflect official statistics on FCC enforcement of pirate radio stations released on Wednesday, April 11.