Friday, January 8, 2010

Hunting Pirates

Back in the early 1970s, the FCC mandated that broadcasters could no longer simulcast their AM stations on FM, so wild experimentation began. FM became a new and popular medium filled with free-form radio. Many young broadcasters suddenly had the opportunity to be on the air and create an all-new listening experience! Somebody was listening, right? Great adventure awaited!


My earliest memories of FM were received via my family’s first TV set. My Dad brought home a Pilot 15 inch black and white TV back in 1950. Connected to a classic V-beam antenna in our attic, it featured continuous tuning in three bands: VHF low (channels 2 through 6), VHF high (channels 7 through 13) and FM. This TV was my only connection to FM radio when I started listening around 1966. It was primitive, but it opened a whole new world of radio!


The very first New York City station to enter this new world was WOR-FM or simply OR-FM. Their lead personality was the legendary Scott Muni who later went on to rule the roost at WNEW-FM. NEW-FM had a lock on rock radio for years and years. If you were into radio, you wanted to be a high-profile DJ like Muni. With very limited amounts of jobs available at local stations and no public access to the airwaves, many, many people entered the fray by setting up personal radio stations of their own.


Personal broadcasting, without a license, was, of course, illegal. Pirate stations often waited until late night when professional stations would sign off (and FCC inspectors were sound asleep) to go on the air. The New York City Board of Education station, WNYE on 91.5 MHz, signed off nightly around 10 pm. From ten until dawn, this frequency was alive with pirates. 87.9, one frequency below the bottom of the American FM band, also served as roost to many pirates. Any open frequency was an invitation to go on the air!


Pirates followed irregular schedules and often switched broadcast frequencies to avoid being caught. It seemed like the FCC was always listening. FCC busts would occur regularly, sometimes arriving at your door during the daytime when your station was not even on the air. News of a bust would travel fast: All unofficial stations would disappear for weeks until the heat was off.


Pirate programming varied from highly distorted incongruous nonsense to quite professional stereo broadcasts with phone-in request lines and jingle packages. Obscene and randy records were often aired and much of the DJ chatter was of a personal nature towards local friends. It was harmless and innovative. Many stations had quite a following. I remember one station, operating in lower Manhattan, claiming to not only moving from night to night but actually broadcasting mobile from time to time to avert being caught.


Many of my friends and I were great fans of pirate radio and budding radio nerds ourselves. We had begun on Citizen’s Band. Our first move to the dark side was realizing that if you swapped the receive and transmit crystals on a Lafayette walkie-talkie set for Channel 10 you would find yourself on a Civil Air Patrol channel (26.620 MHz.) Unlike CB, this frequency was crystal clear and we could talk to each other much, much farther instead of fighting the continuous drone of CB heterodynes. One day, a booming voice came to us on 26.620 yelling “Hey, who are you kids?” We were never really good with authority!


Some of us built little FM transmitter kits made by companies like EICO. One or two of my pals actually went legit and became licensed radio amateurs. Some of their ham radio transmitters found their way down to 1620 kHz (at the very top of the AM band) broadcasting from time to time to impress local girlfriends and mates. All of our experimentation was minor league using, at best, small battery-powered microphone mixers or simply microphones aimed at stereo speakers. We were all fascinated by ‘the big boys’ with powerful transmitters and fancy equipment.


Late at night, we would listen and listen and listen. I kept a pencil and paper log of who I had heard and when. Stations would come and go and you never knew what you would hear. Things became really interesting after we became old enough to go to college. Some of us managed to get our own cars, or borrow our parent’s. Our first move would be installing FM converters (typically the Audiovox variety) that would opening up factory-installed AM pushbutton car radios to the new world of FM.


Having FM in the car was the beginning of a new sport: FM pirate hunting. For excitement and adventure, it could not be beat! The first step would be listening carefully to your target. Chances are they would make references to local high schools, colleges or other landmarks. Find a friend or two, hop into a car with FM radio and start driving! Armed with a good street map book of New York City, you could localize the pirate in quick stead.


The real fun was locating the exact location and obtaining verification. I had an Antenna Specialists FM antenna booster wired to my car’s FM converter. This device served dual purpose. I could really pull in DX, like Channel 6 audio on 87.75 MHz, when it was on. Turned off, the amplifier module acted as a useful attenuator pad for traveling in Manhattan where field strength was enormous. It also helped greatly when locating pirates.


My friends and I did not have anything that would qualify as authentic radio location equipment. Along with my souped-up FM car converter, we would use a very simple hand-held FM transistor radio to continue to localize when you were close to the target station. We would ride around making circle after circle around blocks in a neighborhood until we had a really good idea of where the signal was unstoppable. It took a little time, but we always had results.


Hot on the trail, we would park our car and set out on foot. Every roof top and garage would be viewed and studied during a slow walk around the neighborhood. Most often, a very new-looking omni-directional crossed dipole or two would be seen as the signal became powerful. Discovery was always sweet. Our method of verification was clever. We would drive our car to the front of the suspect house and wait for the homebrew DJ to open his microphone. If we could hear our car horn beep over the air, we knew we had found our catch! QSL!


Time and time again we would hunt down pirates for our own amusement. Finally, I decided to take it to the next step! I had a summer job in a public library’s reference room. I learned how to research nearly anything, including telephone numbers! In the days before the Internet, a huge volume was published in the New York City area called Cole’s Directory. This was a meticulous cross-reference of the standard telephone directory by phone number and address. What a wonderful reference material!


One particular pirate really snagged my interest. An inventive guy named Tony had built a great sounding station in his home in Springfield Gardens, a modest neighborhood of small one-family houses in southeastern Queens. He had a great sounding station and a lot of equipment and he was in stereo. This was a big deal back in 1970. Some of the ‘real’ stations did not have stereo!


We triangulated Tony and found he was using a five-element Yagi antenna. The car horn test verified our catch. He must have been using a reasonable amount of power because he could be heard over a huge area for miles and miles around. We wondered why he decided on a directional antenna and then it occurred to us that he was aiming towards Manhattan to maximize his audience. We had his address and he gave a phone number over-the-air for requests. Cole’s Directory? Here I come!


I now had his full name and verified his address. Even better, we had a second telephone number for his house. Friday night came and we waited for him to go back on the air and there he was. It was time for fun! His broadcast got going and he finally called out for requests and listener comments. I called his other house telephone number and I could hear the phone ring over the air. He answered immediately putting a record on the air. Tony’s request line did not ring over the air, but his house phone did. I had entered the belly of the beast!


“Hi, Tony? Jeez, I love your station. What kind of a transmitter and stereo generator do you have? Man, it sounds great!” Response: “WHO IS THIS? HOW DID YOU GET THIS NUMBER?” Check and checkmate! The station immediately went off the air and we laughed until we cried. Oh, did we make this poor soul paranoid! We might as well have been formal FCC inspectors. It was weeks before we heard him on the air again. By then, we suspect, he thought the heat was off!


The FCC were celebrities on their own. Inspectors Judah Mansbach and Al Zimny were very well known within the New York City pirate community. These were the men in the bad suits who would knock on your door when you were about to be busted. They were the personification of all evil and authority seizing your equipment and delivering your summons. These were people you did not want to meet in person.


Adding to their notoriety, many pirates also worked in legitimate broadcasting and would encounter Mr. Zimny and Mr. Mansbach as they inspected licensed facilities. This would be a double heart-stopper for those engineers that led double lives! They were tough inspectors. Every wire needed to be in place and every FCC commandment had to be met. Those who did not comply received citations hard to explain to upper management.


Some people grew to know the FCC more than others. Most notable was the dynamic duo: Al Weiner and J.P. Ferraro. Prolific broadcasters, Al and J.P. pushed the limit many times and actually found themselves locked up briefly. Later, this team (along with a pack of followers) became legendary by building a radio station aboard the good ship Sarah and broadcasting from the open seas off Long Island’s south shore. Their adventures even made the front page of The New York Times!


Much later, in the 1990s, Al and J.P. eventually went legitimate. J.P Ferraro now manages a delightful and eccentric AM station in the mid-Hudson valley: WHVW 950 AM. Al built an impressive international shortwave station, WBCQ in Monticello, Maine, broadcasting on several frequencies daily. Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it’s been!


To this day, a pirate broadcaster pops up from time to time and the urge to hunt grabs me again. You never forget how much fun it can be, but now I am armed with tight-pattern long Yagi antennas, radios with signal meters and useful attenuator switch boxes all packed into a mini-van with lots of room for gear. Unlike an amateur radio fox hunt with short transmission lengths, FM pirates just stay on and on. An easier catch you’ll never find! My only request: Put on some good tunes while I am hunting you down! My advice to casual listeners: Just keep tuning! You don’t know what you might hear! Radio Free Peekskill might be on right now!



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