PIRATE Act: what the law says and how it threatens pirate radio stations

When she was growing up in East Flatbush among the Haitian diaspora, former pirate broadcaster Joan Martinez — no relation to the New York radio legend Angie Martinez, despite what Joan claimed to her friends as a youth — said that the sounds of pirate radio were the backdrop to her childhood. “Starting Friday night, all throughout the weekend, you would just hear all these like crazy DJs just talking and all this music,” Martinez says. Her parents’ apartment was the meeting spot for her whole family, a place where they’d reminisce about being in Haiti. They needed a place that felt like home. Martinez says that, as a kid, she never understood why the stations they listened to only broadcast on the weekends. As she got older, there were fewer of them — and then in 2010, she says, they started to come back online.

Listen to the podcast version of “Who’s afraid of the PIRATE Act?”

Martinez got into the scene as a broadcaster after her mother turned down an offer to be a DJ at a pirate station. “She was like, ‘No, I don’t want to. However, I do have a daughter that did study broadcasting in college,’” — Joan — “and then all of a sudden they were like, ‘We want her. Like, can we bring her in here?’” Martinez went. It was 2010. Her first job was as an anchor, where she talked through the news from the Caribbean and New York City. Then she filled in for a couple of high school girls who had their own show — and eventually took the spot over completely. It was a talk show she did with her friends for a year and a half, until Martinez decided to go back to school. (“It was a pretty live show. Sometimes things get a little raunchy, sometimes things get a little too crazy and it’s like, I don’t want to piss off my supervisor,” she says. Pirates have org charts and standards, too.)

After school, she went back, but not for very long; academia pulled her back in, and today, she’s in grad school, currently at work on her thesis. “I was doing pirate for a good five years and then when I got into grad school, since the coursework was becoming very time consuming, I had to kind of let that go,” Martinez says, adding that she’s mostly involved these days in an administrative, consulting way. “However, you know, I still keep my fingers in their pot.”

Pirate radio, the kind that Martinez does, serves a vital function in communities that more mainstream broadcasters ignore: in some places, they’re the main pipeline that gets the word out about local news and businesses. The first mentor Martinez ever had in pirate radio told her that “the microphone is not just a place to just talk all day. It’s a responsibility, and everything you say on the mic is going to go somewhere and somebody somewhere is listening to you.”

That is the responsibility of news people everywhere; you assume a certain amount of power and credibility every time you broadcast. Martinez’s mentors at her station were guys who had a radio background in Haiti and who decided to use their expertise in the States. “It’s an avenue for them to relay information to their people,” Martinez says. “Getting air time on a regular local station could be astronomically expensive or just hard to do.” And everyone has a radio. That goes double for communities where people aren’t the most tech-literate, either because of access or age.

Enter the PIRATE Act, a piece of legislation produced by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), which aims to crack down on pirate broadcasters by increasing the amount and kinds of fines the government can levy against operators and the people who help them. The bill passed the House of Representatives this year, and although it still has to pass the Senate and then the president’s desk, it feels like a threat to the ecosystem of underserved communities that rely on pirate radio to know what’s going on.

“The original Radio Act of the 1930s says you’re supposed to serve your community,” says Martinez. “Here in New York, there’s probably only one station, besides the pirate stations that actually does do right by that law.” She says WBAI — which nearly went off the air for good — but she barely means it. “It doesn’t really serve the community. It serves the community in one capacity, but it doesn’t relay actual information. It’s just purely advertisement and entertainment.”

The PIRATE Act implicitly argues that this, the current state of things, is fine and perhaps even desirable and that communities should take whatever they get and not see themselves represented in their media. Jim Winston, the president of the National Association of Black Broadcasters, has argued that pirate radio actually harms the communities it purports to serve. Martinez disagrees. “I don’t know how you’re hurting a community when the mainstream entities are not serving them. So I’m not entirely sure what Jim is saying,” Martinez says, laughing.

“Here’s the thing: people use the radio as that warming voice, that sort of hug. It’s nice to know that the person that’s hugging you is somebody that speaks your language,” she says. “It’s somebody that knows your struggle. It’s somebody that’s listening to you.” And it’s not like the people running these stations don’t want to go legit. They would, but it costs huge amounts of money to even get an official license to broadcast in New York City.

That seems to be the thing that Winston and supporters of the PIRATE Act are missing: if you want to crack down on illegal broadcasting, why not make it easier for people to broadcast legally in the first place, as opposed to punishing them for working outside of a rigged system?

“They say that there are no licenses available in New York, supposedly, and the license is like $1 million. Do you really think that a bunch of blue collar guys, they can pull together enough money to get a license, and are you going to help them do that?” The question is obviously rhetorical, but she’s right.

Because, as Martinez asks, “How are you helping out? You just can’t wag your finger at these broadcasters and say, ‘You are doing wrong by your community.’ Are you helping your community though? Are you helping?”

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