Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map Seeks to Expand Citywide

NYC Pirate Radio Sound MapDavid Goren is a radio producer and journalist with an inherent love of radio sound. I originally found him through his blog, Shortwaveology, which documents interesting finds on the shortwave radio spectrum, whether it be curious programming from a variety of international origins or ephemera like clicks, buzzes, and interval tones. Goren spent time at Wave Farm last year for a residency in which he explored the sun’s effect on shortwave radio propagation.
Goren also lives in the Ditmas Park section of the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn – which just so happens to be one of the hottest spots for unlicensed AM and FM broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area. A few years back he invited me to his house, where I drooled at the listening post he’d set up to scan the bands for pirate signals, including a plethora of antennae and receivers with computers set up to record stations.
While he’s been hip to the NYC pirate radio scene since the 1980s (and produced an excellent documentary about the seminal hip-hop pirate WBAD), over the last few years Goren’s spent a lot of time sampling illicit sounds from around the city, and estimates that in his particular slice of Brooklyn alone there’s more than 30 stations on the air on a daily basis. (According to a New York State Broadcasters’ Association study in 2016, more than 100 unlicensed broadcasters occupy the FM dial alone in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, outnumbering the number of FCC-licensed stations.)
Since then, Goren’s taken his archives and, with the help of some generous and creative coders, launched the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map. A sonic ethnography of unlicensed broadcasting in and around his neighborhood, the site includes audio essays about the history and practice of pirate radio in the New York area, but the cornerstone is an interactive map of several Brooklyn neighborhoods, where you can sample programming from many of the pirates Goren’s found and learn more about their operations. You’re given the option of tuning through a virtual FM dial or zooming in on a map to check out the scene at the neighborhood-level.
Goren previewed the project in my class this past spring and formally presented it to the world at the Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference last month, and his talk is worth a watch. Since its formal launch the Sound Map has received a charitable write-up in the New Yorker and caught the attention of anti-pirate hoodlums at the FCC and elsewhere – but sorry, all of the data and content contained in the Map is publicly available, as broadcasting (unlicensed or not) is an inherently public act.
Now comes news that Goren is looking to massively expand the Sound Map: this crowdfunding call notes that Goren would like to “add new features to the map, and expand the map to the other pirate radio neighborhoods of Queens, the Bronx and suburban New Jersey.” That’s extremely ambitious, as just about 10% of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods are captured in the initial map/archive. Via email, Goren reports that he’s “made a few field expeditions” to Flushing, Queens, and West Orange, New Jersey.
One thing to keep in mind is that most pirates operate with coverage areas of just a few miles, so the radio neighborhood one finds on the AM and FM bands changes just as much as the physical neighborhoods do in the five boroughs and beyond. The vast majority of these stations cater to immigrant enclaves wholly ignored by licensed broadcasters – and given that many swaths of the America in which we live today does not look favorably on them, this diverse media culture faces the potential for increased oppression.
As for monitoring on a much larger scale, Goren’s already procured a software-defined radio receiver which allows him to capture and record more than one-third of the FM dial in any given area, but “that eats up disk space pretty quickly though.” He’s also exploring piggybacking on some internet-accessible remote radio receivers in the region, but that needs further research. “I am approaching [this project] as a jouralist,” Goren told HOPE attendees, “but I’m hoping that it will get the message out that these [stations] are really important to the community.”