As Tech Costs Decline, Haitian PirateRadio Thrives

Shoppers on Flatbush Ave. peruse a stand of bootleg Caribbean CDs.

Shoppers on Flatbush Ave. peruse a stand of bootleg Caribbean CDs. Photo by Jerry Iannelli/GlobalCityNYC

At 90.9 FM, a man is speaking Creole in a hushed monotone through the receiver. He’s floating in an ocean of static: Waves of fuzz wash over entire phrases, turning the broadcast into a series of garbled words and half-sentences. Pangs of jazz piano stab through the chaos at odd intervals.

To the layperson driving around Brooklyn, the static amounts to little more than white noise, but for the members of New York’s sizeable Haitian diaspora, stations like Radyo Independans, which broadcasts at 90.9 FM, represent the sound of home, transmitting Creole-language news, konpa music and political discourse across the metropolitan area.

To those in the broadcast industry, however, it’s the sound of something else entirely: Roving pirates transmitting illegally over frequencies used by licensed FM stations, thus violating the federal Communications Act of 1934.

Although “pirate” radio broadcasters have existed in the U.S. since the federal government began regulating wireless transmissions in 1910, the widening availability of home transmission devices and broadcasting technology has led to a large uptick in illegal broadcasting, according to the FCC website. New York State has been the epicenter of the pirate boom, with 371 FCC enforcement actions – anything from cease-and-desist letters, fines and equipment seizures – from 2003 to 2013, roughly 24 percent of the agency’s total actions across the nation.

Because unused radio frequencies are next-to-impossible to find in New York City, pirates are forced to broadcast directly on top of established stations, thus interfering with legal broadcasts.

A sizeable amount of the FCC’s citations over those years can be traced to neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn like Flatbush, the center of New York City’s Haitian-American community.

“I can tell you that Haitians make up a very large part of the pirate radio scene in Flatbush,” said Ike Hull, a former volunteer at the Jersey City-based public radio station WFMU and the founder of @BKPirateWatch, a Twitter account that keeps tabs on the city’s pirate broadcasters. Hull said he had counted around six Creole-language pirate stations operating in Brooklyn as of Oct. 4, though “the number of Haitian stations seems to vary” as pirates jump back and forth across frequencies.

On Sept. 19, the FCC sent a warning letter to Radyo Independans, whose signal had been interfering with WFMU, ordering its owners to cease broadcasting without a license within the next 10 days or face “substantial monetary fines” and imprisonment. According to the @BKPirateWatch twitter account, Radyo Independans was still broadcasting as of Oct. 18, though the station’s website is now offline.

While the FCC has sent 13 warning letters to various stations operating illegally in Brooklyn since June, it has not fined a station since 2011.

Radyo Independans has developed a sizable presence within Central Brooklyn. According to the station’s Facebook page, Radyo Independans regularly interviews local business owners and health professionals, and even hosted a public barbeque on Aug. 30, replete with a vinyl sign advertising the station’s broadcast frequency. The station also plays Haitian kompas music daily.

Radyo Independans’ Facebook page is also used to post ads for local businesses, including the Prime Time Driving School and the Andy Deronette Barbershop, both based in Flatbush. A barber at the Deronette Barbershop denied placing advertisements with the station.

According to local community leaders, the need for Creole-language radio can be tied back to life in Haiti, where very few Creole speakers could read or write in their own language. According to UNICEF, the adult literacy rate in Haiti is 48 percent, the lowest in the Western hemisphere.

“Historically, Haiti is a place where the national language is French, but the majority of the people, the common people, spoke Creole,” Jackson Rockingster, the president and CEO of the Flatbush-based Haitian-American Business Network, said.

For a pirate, setting up a radio station “is much more expedient” than buying a printing press or camera equipment, he said.

Similarly, setting up a station that can reach the entirety of New York City is quite simple using today’s technology. A 20-watt FM transmitter, which can reach a radius of about 10 to 15 miles, can be purchased on the Web for about $200.

“The small size of an FM antenna also makes one easy to hide,” David “Doc” Searls, a fellow at the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said.

Searls said it’s become harder to track down unlicensed operators, as antennas can be hidden in cars and moved once the FCC has tracked them down. This has angered a few legitimate Haitian radio hosts, who compete with the pirates for local advertising dollars.

“The FCC is not doing its job,” Jeffrey Joseph, a host and general manager at Radyo Pa Nou in Flatbush, said. Joseph said he was aware of “five or six” stations that, because they did not need to pay licensing fees, were able to undercut his station’s advertising rates. “We charge $1,500 or $2,000 for an ad. The pirates can charge $300. The fines or the penalties are not harsh enough.”

Unlike FM pirates, most legitimate Creole-language stations in Brooklyn, including Radyo Pa Nou, Radio Soleil D’Haiti and Radio Tropicale, are “sub-licensed” by the FCC, and operate at frequencies that can be heard only through special receivers.

The FCC did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment for this article.

Casey Rae, founder of the Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit that campaigns for greater community involvement in radio, stressed that it will be tough for either the side to come up with any sort of solution in the near future. New York’s few usable frequencies have long been snatched up, he said, but what can be changed is the amount of community coverage done by the city’s corporate stations.

“There’s only so much bandwidth in general, but that doesn’t mean it’s being used intentionally or serves the public interest,” he said.

Isabel Dorcel, a Canarsie resident, said she listened to Radyo Independans’ music programs each week.

“In New York, there is not a lot of Haitian programming you can listen to all day, and that’s a problem,” she said.


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