Late on a recent Wednesday night, Jim Nazium of the Hank and Jim Radio Networktook to the Internet to play classic rock and requests for about 100 online listeners. To the backdrop of a long-ago hit by Bachman Turner Overdrive, Nazium played air guitar and lip-synched the line “Any love is good love, so I took what I could get.”
Meanwhile, Nazium’s partner Hank Hayes joined the broadcast by clicking one of the webcam icons next to Nazium’s feed, allowing his own video feed to appear right next to the DJ’s. So did five other online listeners.
The show represents the evolution of “pirate radio” – for Nazium and Hayes, as well as the underground broadcasting movement in general. The two DJs started putting out shows illegally on AM frequencies from a Brooklyn studio in 1975. Recently, however, they have moved onto an Internet site hosted by Stickam.com.
The shift of underground radio online has reduced the risk of running afoul of the Federal Communications Commission, but it also has taken away the thrill of piracy for Nazium and Hayes.
“There’s such nostalgia for the way it was way back when,” said Hayes, who currently works for ABC News Radio. “That feeling of danger, that the (FCC) could come at any minute, that really was a part of it. But I didn’t know that until we did it for the first time. So it was kind of like once that first kicked in, when the signal was on the air and we knew people could get it, that people were tuning in, then it was so exciting for that reason alone.”
Hayes and Nazium, who started broadcasting exclusively on the Internet in 2007, were pursued several times by the FCC for operating a radio show without a license. The FCC is a regulatory agency that issues licenses to a select number of AM and FM radio stations and monitors the airwaves to locate and apprehend those who defy the licensing requirement.
The potential legal consequence of pirate broadcasting is just one factor that has sparked a transition from AM/FM radio to an online format by many pirate DJs like Hayes, 51, and Nazium, 54.
“It’s the most logical thing to do,” said Pete Sayek, who first heard Hayes’ and Nazium’s pirate radio show in his parents’ Midwood home in 1976 and is now a DJ for the Hank and Jim Radio Network. “You have all the freedom that you had being an underground station without having to worry about that infamous knock on the door.”
While their broadcasting medium has changed, Hayes and Nazium’s show remains popular. Since they started the Hank and Jim Radio Network, the pair of DJs have drawn more than 12.5 million viewers around the world, according to the viewer count on their page at Stickam.com. This number demonstrates an exponential change from the DJs’ early pirate days, when listeners in distant boroughs couldn’t hear Hayes’ and Nazium’s broadcasts because they were outside the reach of the station’s antenna in Brooklyn.
Approximately 80 million Americans listen to Internet radio each week, according to SoundExchange, a company that collects royalties from webcasters and satellite radio providers. SoundExchange, which recently met the $1 billion benchmark in royalties paid to artists, has collected fees from 1,867 digital broadcasters this year.
The Copyright Royalty Board, an agency of the U.S. Library of Congress, requires webcasters to pay digital performance royalties at a monthly or per-listener rate. Despite these policies, thousands of DJs use the Web as a broadcasting medium in violation of the regulations. Some believe that the singers and musicians whose music is played on a digital radio show should be paid accordingly.
“Webcasters are able to offer a range of music to consumers in a form that can compete with traditional broadcast radio and satellite radio,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy in the congressional record of the Senate’s discussion of the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2009, which was signed by President Obama in June 2009 and allowed webcasters the opportunity to settle any previous royalties owed to SoundExchange within 30 days. “As webcasting and webcasters flourish, the performers whose music is attracting listeners deserve compensation.”
But many pirates have long risked their livelihoods to provide a service for listeners in what they consider the least invasive way.
“The goal was to never be a pest, but to enhance what was going on in radio,” said Sayek, who remembers meeting individuals who said they would listen to dead air for hours in the hopes that he, Hayes, and Nazium would sign on.
A quintessential example of pirates who aim to offer listeners a unique perspective through their broadcasts, Datz Hits Radio DJs Robert Brown and Lloyd Morris said they provide a “cultural listening experience” for Boston’s Caribbean population.
“I don’t see what we’re doing wrong,” said Brown after he was hit with a $15,000 fine for broadcasting the Datz Hits Radio show without a license. “We’re here for the people. We are the people’s voice.”
Brown and Morris, who is also required to pay a $15,000 fine for his involvement with Datz Hits, now broadcast solely on the Web. The chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, P. Michele Ellison, signed the opinion memos that dismissed Brown’s and Lloyd’s petitions for reconsideration of their fines. The memos concluded that, even though Datz Hits now broadcasts only on the Internet, “it does not serve to excuse the fact that (they) operated a radio station without an FCC license.” The Boston DJs, whose Internet broadcasting format aligns them with a growing community of “studio pirates” the world over, broadcast live for listeners who access the station by computer or mobile device.
Many radio executives and DJs believe that the mobile medium is the next frontier for independent and commercial radio broadcasts. Paul Campbell, director of business and marketing for My Vybz Radio, says that the Internet-based station’s growth has been tremendous since it started offering a mobile format.
“We have been using the technology to our advantage,” said Campbell, 35, who added that My Vybz regularly receives anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 hits worldwide for its live video and audio broadcasts. “A lot of our fan base is not necessarily on the computer. Cell-phone streaming is where the growth has been.”
Listeners of pirate stations might feel the same rush when tuning in to an illegal radio show that the DJs experience when they broadcast. But most of the attraction lies in the music and the message.
In the movie “The Boat That Rocked,” writer and director Richard Curtis illustrated the story of a group of pirate DJs who lived on a boat in the North Sea and broadcast rock ‘n’ roll 24 hours a day to millions of avid listeners in 1966. This plot, which is based on the true account of the the real-life Radio Caroline show’s years of broadcasting over the airwaves of Great Britain, exemplifies what many pirate DJs believe they offer: entertainment that inspires listeners and gives them an alternative outlet for knowledge.
Another model of idealistic piracy, the Voice of Peace radio show started as a pop music station that broadcast from a ship in the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel in the 1970s. Voice of Peace, which is now archived online, played rock ‘n’ roll and soul music that most terrestrial radio stations in the Middle East refused to air. The station, run by an Israeli peace activist named Abie Nathan, allowed for dialogue about a two-state solution with the Palestinians at a time when neither side even gave diplomatic recognition to the other.
Across the U.S., the FCC continues to crack down on pirate DJs. John Anderson’s database of FCC enforcement action against pirate stations, found on DIYmedia.net, lists 28 points of contact with pirate DJs in New York out of 96 nationwide this year. Anderson reported that 19 of last year’s 202 instances took place in New York.
Pirate DJs who broadcast on the FM band are limited in the number of frequencies they can access; there are only so many that aren’t claimed by stations with licenses. In many cases, these DJs compete for a chance to broadcast on the most popular frequencies. Kenny Ragoo, who said he was part of the first Internet radio crew to host a live video feed of their studio, said he knows of cases of DJs taking extreme measures to block their competitors’ broadcasts.
“People would kick the door open and steal a DJ’s equipment so then they will know that frequency is available,” explained Ragoo, 40, who said he has worked in radio for eight years. “It’s not a battle, it’s a war.”
This war, though, could phase out if more pirate DJs take advantage of the Internet’s worldwide broadcasting capability. But many current and former pirates, some of whom traveled on boats like the Mi Amigo, home to Radio Caroline, and the MV Lucky Star, to international waters to escape their government’s reach, find a cathartic pleasure in pirate radio.
While their pirate days are over, or paused at the very least, Hayes and Nazium are two classic embodiments of pirate radio’s golden era in Brooklyn. These DJs broadcast almost continually over the years, occasionally taking some time off to thwart FCC agents, on AM stations they named WCPR, WFAT, and WHOT. Their involvement with “The Radioship Sarah” was the theme of an article in Rolling Stone and led to a guest VJ spot on MTV.
“As long as there’s radio, there will be pirates,” Hayes reflected in an interview with CBS-TV several years ago.
And perhaps now, as long as there’s Internet, there will be studio pirates.