Pirate radio in North America

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For an introduction to the subject, see Pirate radio.

The strict definition of a pirate radio station is a station that operates from sovereign territory without a broadcasting license, or just beyond the territorial waters of a sovereign nation from on board a ship or other marine structure with the intention of broadcasting to that nation without obtaining a broadcasting license from that nation (such as Radio Caroline before its present incarnation).

Cuba[edit]

Pirate radio by Cuban exiles[edit]

Unlike the sanctioned and fully licensed transmissions by the United States government, a number of groups in exile, mainly based in Florida, have attempted various offshore radio broadcasts to Cuba, from time to time. These stations are mainly short lived and sporadic in transmission times, but because their broadcasts are not licensed by any nation, their signals are considered to be from pirate radio stations and the USA has taken various physical and legal steps to close them down at different times.

Mexico[edit]

Pirate radio in Mexico[edit]

There are a number of pirate radio stations in Mexico. Radio Insurgente, the voice of the Zapatista movement, operated from 2003 to 2009. The station was unlicensed, but according to the San Andres Accords, the indigenous communities targeted by Radio Insurgente had the right to broadcast their own content. The most recent example of a true pirate radio station in Mexico is La Tremenda 106.5 in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. It broadcast international contemporary music and news in Spanish and English. It used the fictitious U.S. call sign "KLPR" on its logo. The station began operations in May 2006, was shut down in June 2008 by the federal police in a "violent" take over. It was suspected that the signal was also used for transmitting messages of members of organized crime. Today, there are several other pirate stations in Nuevo Laredo as well.

The border-blaster or other border stations in Mexico do not meet either above definitions of pirate radio station, however may be considered as such by some governments.

Border blasters[edit]

Main article: Border blaster

From the earliest days of the history of broadcasting, a number of radio stations licensed in Mexico, became known to the general public as border-blasters. This was due to their excessive use of power which was necessary to reach their intended audience in American cities far north of the border. The traditional border-blasters were AM radio stations; though there are numerous FM radio and even television stations along the border that broadcast to the U.S. from Mexico, the power of FM stations along the border is limited by a U.S.-Mexican agreement.

However, because these stations are licensed by the government of Mexico, they can only be classified as pirate radio stations in the same way that the British government classified Radio Luxembourg as a pirate radio station. Radio Luxembourg was a licensed station broadcasting with a power and on a frequency that the British authorities objected to, because the intended audience for its programs were located within the United Kingdom. The objection by the government of the United Kingdom to commercial broadcasts from Luxembourg, France and other countries, was primarily based upon its protection of the non-commercial BBC Radio monopoly. Also, the UK at the time required a license for radios, which was limited to UK stations; it still requires a license for television sets. However, the U.S. has never required a license to listen to broadcast radio or TV; today, it even issues routine licenses under the Brinkley Act, originally enacted to silence the border-blaster charlatan John R. Brinkley, for the operation of Mexican stations from studio facilities in the U.S.

United States of America[edit]

Land-based unlicensed broadcasts[edit]

In the United States, the term pirate radio implies the unlicensed broadcasting use of any part of the radio spectrum that is reserved for use by governmental, public or commercial licensees by the Federal Communications Commission. This includes the FM, AM and shortwave radio bands.

Compared to authoritarian systems of government which restrict access to the means of communication, the airwaves of the USA are relatively free from direct government censorship.[citation needed] As a result of this difference, the term pirate radio has a different interpretation than in countries where access to communication is limited.

In the USA pirate radio is frequently, but not always, associated with anarchism which considers governmental spectrum regulatory schemes as favoring the interests of large corporations, due to reasons such as high licensing costs. Therefore, some anarchists consider pirate radio transmissions to be a challenge to that authority.

Pirate radio is also in large part the resulting backlash from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations restricting low-power broadcasting, although this is how nearly all college radio stations began. NPR and the NAB convinced the FCC to eliminate the class D license in 1979. This kept all new low-power stations from getting a license, and bumped all of the old ones down to secondary status, forcing many more off the air since then. Despite this, an explosion of broadcast translators on FM, technically identical but rebroadcasting other stations, most part of religious broadcasting networks, has occurred since then. This further fueled pirate operators in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1982, an organization of pirate radio monitoring enthusiasts was formed by Darren Leno. Known as the Association of Clandestine Radio Enthusiasts (ACE) the organization was and remains a very popular conduit for sharing information about North American pirate radio and other unusual radio transmissions.

Another such group, calling itself "The RPMRADIO Network" launched a series of projects aimed directly at the corporate radio media in central Texas. Responding to FCC raids of several pirate FM stations in the San Antonio-Austin area, RPMRADIO started by gathering grass roots support, then turned on 10 pirate fm radio stations across the entire area, with the promise to replace each station raided with 10 more stations. Fueled by remarks made by Alex Jones on his radio talk show, this "Ten for One" campaign is reported to have caused the FCC to rethink its approach to the fight that was developing between Pro-Corporate radio and Anti-Corporate radio forces.

Because of this severe lack of access, numerous pirate radio operators (such as Stephen Dunifer), as well as other groups petitioned the FCC for a new LPFM service. After many years of trying, this finally was passed around 2000, although it blocked former pirate operators from holding licenses. Lobbied by the commercial radio industry, the U.S. Congress intervened and limited the new service even further, though technical tests later proved this to be baseless, and the added restrictions were lifted.

Although this should mean that pirate radio has seen a decrease, most of the licensees are churches, colleges, and state or local government transportation departments, as the FCC requires the licensee to be a non-profit organization. Pirate radio also continues because legal open spots on the FM dial have been filled in since and because of the 1979 ruling, by both full-power and translator stations.

Part 15 of the FCC rules allows the use of spectrum without a license but emissions pursuant to this rule are not practical for broadcasting due to extremely restrictive power levels which limit range (range varies depending on frequency spectrum). Part 15 is intended to allow for operation of a broad range of electrical devices that emit radio energy either as an intended element of their operation (e.g. garage door openers, FM modulators for iPod auto use) or as a by-product of their operation. Despite the limited range possible under Part 15, some small broadcast stations are operated within its parameters, while others operate claiming to be Part 15 compliant but with signals exceeding what is permitted under the rule.

Because basic radio transmission equipment is relatively easy to obtain in the USA and because it is relatively easy to hide, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has the authority to regulate radio communications, sometimes has difficulty in finding and prosecuting offenders who transmit without a license. Triangulation may be used, but most frequently a spectrum analyzer is driven around the affected area, with a person monitoring where the suspect signal is highest, and another one looking for any obvious signs such as an antenna or small tower (like that used for amateur radio).

Hearing pirate radio stations in North America[edit]

Finding, identifying and even corresponding with pirate radio stations is, for many radio enthusiasts, itself a hobby. Most radio listeners in North America, however, will never hear a pirate station unless they seek one out.

Pirate radio stations on FM are often found towards the bottom of the FM broadcasting band, particularly between 87.9 MHz and 91.9 MHz, which is allocated to non-commercial educational, public and religious broadcasters. On mediumwave (AM), pirate radio stations are often found between 1610 kHz and 1710 kHz with the later frequency 1710 being far the most popular. On shortwave (SW), the most common frequencies to check for pirates in North America is the 6800 to 7000 kHz (42.86 metres-44.11 metres) range, with 6855 (43.76 m), 6875 (43.64 m), 6925 (43.32 m), 6950 (43.16 m) and 6955 kHz (43.13 m) being most commonly used, and 6925 kHz being by far the most commonly used frequency. Pirates can pop up anytime, but evenings and weekends are the best time to listen. Pirates operating on shortwave from North America often use single sideband modulation as an alternative to AM.

There are a wide variety of stations. Some just play music; others, like The Crystal Ship and Radio Free Speech are political; KIPM produces its own science-fiction programming with radio plays reminiscent of old-time radio; WHYP is the James Brownyard memorial station, playing clips from an old PA daytime AM station of that same name. Radio One recreated the sound of 1960s top-40 radio and played oldies with an echo chamber reverb effect behind the announcer much like WABC had done. The Voice of the Sea Cucumber was known for some very strange programming, its announcer calling himself "Dear Leader." There are also many stations that are specifically aimed to the pirate radio listening community; many are long-running gag stations such as WBNY, the Voice of the Rodent Revolution, with programming by its leader Commander Bunny, who frequently sends coded messages to operatives in the field, as well as instructions to Al Fansome to check his tire pressure. There are also a few stations that mysteriously appear once a year, such as WJFK, which is usually on the air around November 22.

Geographically, FM and mediumwave pirates tend to cluster in urban areas such as New York City, San Francisco, Toronto, and throughout Florida. However, pirate stations are active throughout all regions of North America. Shortwave pirates are widely dispersed throughout North America and can be heard hundreds and even thousands of miles from their location. Most shortwave pirates operate on the East Coast of the USA.

Differing somewhat from the pirate radio stereotype of "kids playing radio," there has been a growing trend towards ethnocentric pirate radio in North America. Usually these stations broadcast in native languages such as Spanish or Haitian Creole, but sometimes English, as in the case of a widely heard mediumwave pirate with a Jewish Orthodox format.

Pirate radio in Europe can often be heard in North America with a good shortwave radio and antenna. This is considered DXing. The 6200 to 6300 kHz (47.62-48.38 m) range is most commonly used.

Partial list of pirate radio stations in the United States[edit]

  • Big City 101.3 in Boston, Massachusetts, broadcasts hip hop and rhythmic CHR.
  • Hot 97 Boston 87.7 in Boston, Massachusetts, broadcasts Urban AC. (Now an Internet radio Station)
  • Touch FM 106.1 in Boston, Massachusetts, broadcasts as a Community pirate radio station in Boston that also plays Reggae, Urban AC, and R&B.
  • Radio 1 Boston 98.9 in Boston, Massachusetts, broadcasts Haitian-French Caribbean Music.
  • Choice FM-102.9 in Boston, Massachusetts, broadcasts Caribbean Music. Other Haitian French Pirate Stations in Boston are 88.5 Dorchester/88.5 Boston, 90.1 FM Radio Energy, and an 100.1 Dorchester.
  • Haitian-language pirate stations broadcast from the Brockton, Massachusetts area on 94.9 and 96.5 FM and 89.3 from Randolph, MA. The Randolph station is still on the air eight years after being fined $10,000.
  • RFWS: Radio Free Western Springs broadcasts on 99.1FM on Friday Nights in Western Springs, IL as of October 1, 2010
  • Grosse Pointe Radio 920 kHz AM operates on Saturday nights out of Grosse Pointe Michigan originally on 970-kHz, now being heard on 920-kHz, featuring mostly classical and big band music. This station claims to be operating out of fictitious Grosse Pointe Gardens dance hall and off Lakeshore Drive. Good signal outside Grosse Pointe. Heard off and on, recently heard January 7, 2012.
  • FRSC: Free Radio Santa Cruz (1995–2010)
  • Pirate Cat Radio 87.9 FM San Francisco and simultaneously in Los Angeles, also has a TV station, Pirate Cat TV, on channel 13 in San Francisco. First station to use Code of Federal Regulations Title 47 Section 73.3542 to broadcast legally. The FCC since shut them down and fined them $10,000.
  • FRSD: Free Radio San Diego (on-air since 2002)
  • FRO 98.5 Free Radio Olympia They have been on the air since March 2001 in Olympia, Washington. The broadcast is also streamed through the Internet.
  • KBLT: Los Angeles (on-air in the 1990s)
  • San Francisco Liberation Radio 93.7 FM (started in 1993, ceased operation in October 2003 after raid by FCC & SFPD)
  • Beat Radio 97.7 FM Minneapolis, Minnesota (1996)
  • T-FM: 90.7 & 105.1 in Nashville, TN. (From 1999 to 2001, a controversial and sometimes subversive program called Pirate Radio aired Friday nights from midnight to 1 AM. The live show featured music, on-air personalities, pre-recorded sketch comedy, and uncensored call-ins. The parent station, WNAZ eventually canceled it due to production staff changes and questionable content. 78 complaints were filed with the FCC during Pirate Radio's 2-year run.)
  • Lake Shore Radio operated out of St Clair Shores, Michigan and first appeared around the winter of 1997 into 1998. Transmitted on 94.3, later on 89.1. Would sign on within a minute of WPHS signing off at 89.1. Played mostly one hit wonder rock, top 40 and local garage/bar scene bands. Sometimes played bizarre sound effects for hours. Other times the station would simulcast SW pirates either live or recorded. Station would run several hours to all night. Station could be reliably heard up to 20 miles away in stereo. Signal and sound quality were of commercial standard. Disappeared in the early summer of 1998 and was never heard again. Station had a following especially with the local rock and jock crowd. Station also had a webpage for a short time, but little info was supplied on this page. Claimed to have a 300-watt commercial-grade transmitter.
  • The Womb was a South Miami Beach Florida radio station in the late 1990s. Dubbed the "Creation Station", The Womb featured DJs from each of Miami Beach's then famous nightclubs. Broadcasting 24 hours per day, the 100-watt radio station was featured in Rolling Stone in 1997 for its concurrent web-based streaming, which was built into the Real Audio G2 player. Shut down by the FCC, The Womb continues on the internet today.
  • Florida Low Power Radio Stations - constantly updated list of unlicensed (though not necessarily pirate) radio signals heard throughout Florida.
  • Power Hits 103.3 FM (on-air April to November 2006) Available in the Quad Cities metropolitan area, this station had been a controversy due to the interpretation of Code of Federal Regulations Title 47 Section 73.3542 saying you can broadcast without a license during time of emergency. The regulation states that a war is considered a "time of emergency." The station's online stream was on its MySpace page. Most of the music played on the station fell under a CHR or Top 40 format with some occasional 1980s and 1990s hits. The station also occasionally aired commercials for a local Honda dealership and a nightclub. A rental dispute caused a change in operation (from the station founders to their landlords, as the landlords seized Power Hits' equipment and rental space for their own to pay off back rent), which eventually led to the station going off the air.
  • 103.3 Radio Limbo in Tucson, Arizona, uses a mobile transmitter to avoid detection, sometimes broadcasting at night in the valley area.
  • KBFR (pirate radio) Boulder Free Radio (KBFR) 95.3FM. Highly active from 2000 to 2005 (24/7 operations); now on-air sporadically from a location near downtown Boulder and from mobile units.
  • 90.5 WINO FM Napa, California. This radio station was active for a short time in 1997. It was broadcast out of a repair shop, and the signal had a radius of about 2 miles. It lasted about six months, and was shut down by the FCC after KVYN FM / KVON AM Napa filed a formal complaint because while the station operator was out of town his equipment overmodulated and drifted into their signal. The station had a huge following, and stickers proclaiming Napa as "wino country" can still be seen on cars around town in 2006.
  • D'z Nutts Radio / Hip Hop, Rap, Underground - Vallejo, Ca 91.3FM - Broadcasting on 91.3 FM since December 1996. Staying true to the Vallejo, Bay Area Rap scene. Also collaborated with Free Radio Berkeley (Stephen Dunifer), HipHopSlam. Publications featured in: XXL Magazine, URB, Murder Dog, BAM, and other local industry related publications. Visited by the FCC three times for "Listener Stealing" but never fined.
  • RPMRADIO Central Studio" in San Antonio, Texas operated on 97.7FM, broadcasting uncensored rock and roll for over five years. Using publicity stunts and public demonstrations at large music concerts to gain supporters, The RPMRADIO Network brought the first pirate radio broadcasts to an area that was considered "the Garden of Eden" of radio markets, and caused a minor revolution in the programing practices of radio broadcasters in that area. When they finally received their first notice to quit from the FCC, the station operators went underground, and continue to operate several "Low Power Pirate FM Stations" throughout the area. During this time, the local corporate media outlets, including all the TV stations, newspapers, and radio stations, maintained a total news blackout as to the existence of this group of pirate radio stations.
  • Radio CPR of Washington, D.C. - Station concerned with negative impacts of welfare and immigration reform legislation in the 1990s on those communities, plays Latin, punk rock, underground hip-hop, and world music.
  • Wicked Radio (Edgerton and Door County simulcast on Shoutcast)
  • LUNk Radio (Lincoln, NE)
  • Radio Free Canton on air since 2000
  • Free Radio Folsom (CA)
  • Lewis FM, broadcast a mix of predominately American and British Top 40, as well as Christian Rock to a section of Lewis, New York, which has a total population of approximately 1,200 people. Lewis FM used a Ramsey FM-30 transmitter. Operations ceased in January 2007 after seven months of broadcasting. Regular operations are set to resume in Willsboro, New York, either under an entirely different name or using "The Radio" branding.
  • http://www.wickedradio.org one of the oldest pirate radio stations located in Edgerton, WI, which ceased FM transmission on May 13, 2009, at midnight, albeit still streaming online.
  • Berkeley Liberation Radio works to facilitate ordinary non-commercial community access to the airwaves for the purpose of political discourse as well as cultural enhancement. BLR has been broadcasting on 104.1 fm since 1999 and serves Berkeley and Oakland, California. Since 2007, the broadcast has been streamed through the internet.
  • 91X, WLGX-FM, La Grange, IL (1997–1999). Ran a continuous 24/7 operation on 90.5 FM at 250 watts from a basement in a house near downtown La Grange. The station played a mix of alternative and hip hop. Ran special formats for various holidays. Live DJs, morning show and strong community following. Ceased operations in 1999 after the operator graduated high school and went to college. Broadcast again briefly during the summer of 2000 and heard once again in June 2003 for a "91X reunion weekend" but not heard since.
  • KFAR, Knoxville (Tennessee's) First Amendment Radio. 90.9 FM. Varied formats, music, hip hop, progressive programming; a uniquely cooperative venture, with DJ's contributing towards expenses to broadcast. Operated briefly as CROK (Community Radio of Knoxville) before being shut down by an FCC raid September 2004. An effort was made to operate as a network of ultra-low power transmitters with internet feed, but languished for lack of sufficient interest. Archived website, 2001
  • WNRC shows up at National Radio Club conventions over Labor Day, and has operates on different an AM or FM frequencies at each convention. It also has conducted "tests" on 1580, 1610, and 1710 during the winter with sweep tones and Morse code ID.
  • Radio Iowa City, successor to Iowa City's previous pirate FM stations.
  • WoDD FM - Toms River, New Jersey, which operated from 1989 till 1992 on various frequencies, usually over existing commercial stations, such as WXRK (92.3 FM) and WPAT (93.1 FM). WoDD finally settled in late 1991 on 95.3 FM, which was established as an "open channel" via its own engineering survey. Pirate Pat was the owner operator of WoDD and the station format was a range of classic rock, alternative and metal. Comedy "bits", live phone calls, live bands and political commentary were key components of the of WoDD's weekly broadcast. Highlights included live phone calls from jails, live calls to senators, congressmen, the FCC and the White House.
  • 104.7 FM / Black Disciples street gang - A commercial-free hip hop station that operated on the south side of Chicago in 2003 and 2004.[1] The station was shut down on May 13, 2004, by FBI agents and the Chicago police as part of a crackdown on the Black Disciples street gang, which was operating the station to broadcast warnings of police activity.[2]
  • 90.5 FM - East Chicago, Indiana, which operated in 2006, airing uncensored gangsta rap music.[3]
  • KXPX 101.5 Rock Variety Radio - A commercial-free Mesquite, Texas pirate radio station which has been operating in north Mesquite across a 7-10 mile radius on and off since mid 2009. Most of the music played is often 2000s active rock, alternative, metal, indie, pop and rarely rap scattered in one playlist. They normally play music back to back sometimes with the station ID but, occasionally the station will occupy a DJ usually on the weekends. The station is also known for having on air glitches from time to time. The station sometimes moves frequencies to 99.9 or 92.9 but, is almost always on 101.5.
  • 2000 Flushes Pirate Radio, broadcasting from the Twin Cities[where?] in the early 1990s. Its name was inspired by a brand of in-tank toilet-bowl cleaner as was widely advertised at the time.
  • WJDI 1620, broadcasting from Kingston, New York since January 1, 1989. This was one of the more successful pirate stations during the 1980s. It remained on until final close-down on Christmas 1996. During its test broadcast, the announcer says they are "broadcasting with 1,000 clear watts".
  • Free Radio Prison City "FIXX 96" 95.9 FM, was a 20 watt station that broadcast in Jackson, Michigan between 1996 - 2001 playing hard rock and alternative rock music mixed with such outrageous antics as live on-air parties and spontaneous pranks. The station was quite popular with inmates at the nearby State Prison of Southern Michigan, and fan mail from inmates was read on the air regularly. "FIXX 96" went off the air in an unsuccessful attempt to receive a license to legally use that frequency. Periodically, the station will hold reunion broadcasts, normally on Halloween weekends.
  • WRFI - Radio Free Ithaca 88.5 FM - Local community station in Ithaca, NY broadcasting from December 1980 - April 23, 1981. Station DJs claimed to be broadcasting from a zeppelin flying high above Cayuga Lake. Ranked #2 in local Arbitron ratings for radio listenship, in part due to nightly broadcast of BBC World Service Radio news at 10pm EST. DJs featured: Dr. Quasimodo (Q-The Night Doctor), Dr. Whoopie (Space/Blues), Fred & Fred Show (New Wave), Ozmo the Great, Guido (Folk/Rock), Vermont (Folk), Juan More Time, Zacharias Space, Capt. America, and Rasputin the Mad Monk, among others. The community station had rented a P.O. Box which was used to receive letters and cassette tapes for broadcast. WRFI was shut down by the FCC on April 23, 1981. Mark Stenzler AKA Dr. Whoopie is now the host of the Blues Zeppelin on Swiss Community Radio, Radio RaBe in Berne. Since July 2012, the program is also broadcast on Ithaca Community Radio.
  • WEDG - Animosity Radio 88.9 FM - Silver Springs, Florida- Mostly underground musical content with a couple of talk shows. This station is always online and on the air and always accepts new dj's. www.animosityradio.com is the website.
  • WRFN - AM 1580, Niles Illinois, Identified itself as "Radio Suburbia", "The radio station with sex appeal" was on the air from 9 to midnight on Friday nights in 1968. Using 45 watts, WRFN DJ Al Vincent spun the latest pop & rock as well as oldies-but-goodies. WRFN was shut down by the FCC on March 22 1968 during a broadcast. Articles about this station appeared in the Chicago Tribune ("Radio Station 'Way Out'; FCC Closes It"); Broadcasting magazine April 8, 1968, pg.67 ("Chicago's Caroline silenced by FCC fuzz") and in "Valley Voices: A Radio History" by John Russell Ghrist.
  • The Big-Q 1710 AM, Location unknown, mostly heard in the central & upper midwest states. High quality AM broadcast with most shows centered around a late 60s early 70s top 40 AM station theme. Also broadcast old 1940s radio shows and commercials. Heard mostly on weekend early mornings around 0600 UTC.
  • WLE (We Love Englewood)1966-1969 one of the early pirates in Chicago operated by African American high school students in the Englewood neighborhood on AM at 950 following sign off of WAAF WGRT later at 1030 AM. operated at 280 watts.Would rebrodcast University of Chicago station WHPK as well as NBC news from WMAQ. Was used during the Chicago Riots of 1968 to call for calm on the streets of Englewood. Was closed down by FCC inspection. Operator said to be teenager, Larry Langford now licensee of WGTO in Cassopolis Michigan.
  • WOOF (Woofin' Out Of The Fryin' Dog Pound) - Pirate radio station in the Shortwave band that broadcast a mix of New Wave, Heavy Metal, and Acapella music from an abandoned survey vessel in New York. Now a licensed radio station.

Stations from international waters[edit]

  • 1933
RXKR, aboard the SS City of Panama anchored off California, USA.
  • 1973
Radio Free America, a brief religious station by Dr. Carl McIntire aboard the MV Columbus anchored off New Jersey, USA.
  • 1987 & 1988
Radio Newyork International, from a ship anchored off Jones Beach, Long Island, New York, USA.


See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Feder, Robert (December 11, 2003). "WFMT exec decries radio's 'vicious' mergers". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 67. 
  2. ^ Feder, Robert (May 14, 2004). "Channel 2 sports team keeps Howard Sudberry". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 71. 
  3. ^ Feder, Robert (October 31, 2006). "Pirate radio station raises listeners' ire". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 51. 

External links[edit]

  • [1] The Free Radio Network is popular for message forums mostly geared towards shortwave pirate operations in North America. It is not currently accepting new users.
  • [2] The Free Radio Cafe focuses on pirate radio stations broadcasting from North America and Europe, with forums for loggings, QSLs, shortwave and FM broadcasting. FRC welcomes new members.
  • [3] Radio Free New York is a detailed history of some Brooklyn NYC-area AM and FM pirate radio stations from the 1970s to today.]