Three miles off Long Island’s shore, pirates sailed aboard a boat to infiltrate the New York City radio waves. They hijacked the frequencies in the name of free speech and better music, they said.
In the realm of crimes happening in 1980s New York City, this might seem like a minor infraction, but their actions were highly illegal.
This is Radio Clash
New York City radio was an influential medium in the 1980s. The power of the radio DJs was not only for the broadcasters, but also for the artists who played on the airwaves.
“If you got played on the radio, you had a hit. Even though there was less freedom in those days, commercial music radio was still the core of the music culture in the US,”Marty Brooks from the New York Radio Archives spoke to Inside Edition Digital.
While the mainstream radio was playing the hits from records of that year like U2’s “The Joshua Tree,” Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet,”Some of the most prominent stars of the year felt the music selection was insufficient. However, those who made the decision about what or who to play had motives beyond creativity.
“One of the things that happened in that era is that there had already been a lot of sales of radio stations to bigger companies. And each time a radio station was sold, the debt service went up. And when the debt surface went up, they had to increase advertising revenue,” Brooks said. “In order to increase advertising revenue, you had to appeal to the widest common denominator.”
Radio play means more albums are bought in stores.
“Any of the radio stations that were in the top 10 or top 15 could break a record. And it certainly made a significant difference because if you got played, people went out and bought that record,”Brooks added. “While there were different formatted radio stations, we were all pretty much listening to the same thing. So people like Madonna or Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson, these were big acts for everybody, or almost everybody. And so radio had a tremendous impact.”
But some consumers wanted something more, including those behind Radio Newyork (sic) International, or RNI. RNI was a pirate radio station that wanted to put an end to corporate radio.
“A group of us that wanted to bring free speech radio to the New York City metropolitan area, because remember, at that time, back in the 1980s, getting into the New York City market, you would have needed 30, 40, 50, $60 million to buy an existing AM or FM radio station,” Allan Weiner, who orchestrated RNI, told Inside Edition Digital. “So we decided to go another legal route, which was to outfit a ship as a broadcasting ship and put it in international territory, which is about three miles off the coast of Long Island, New York.”
Weiner, a self-described “geek,”Loved building radios, and I had experience fitting ships with transmitters.
He and RNI members pooled their funds and purchased a ship. They spent the entire year outfitting the ship in Boston Harbor.
Weiner claimed that he had a crew in the area. “crazy old hippies and wild guys” in Boston that helped “build everything, and put the towers up, and all that. It was a very cost-effective thing that we did, because it can cost millions of dollars to outfit a proper ship, but it didn’t cost us that. It cost us thousands of dollars to do it.”
Brooks said that Weiner and his team provided shortwave transmitters for broadcasting from the ship. “not difficult at all”To broadcast from.
“Shortwave radio is a radio that operates on a different set of frequencies aside from AM and FM. And it’s used basically to pick up international radio stations that operate on short wave,” Brooks said.
RNI needed another thing, and that was a radio licensing license. They acquired it from Honduras.
“The ship was registered to Honduras, it had a radio license from Honduras and we were completely legal,” Weiner said.
Weiner stated that once the ship was ready for sail, they unhooked their anchors and set sail towards New York, where many of the DJs are from. Once there, they began broadcasting three miles off the coast of Long Island in what he says was international territory.
“Three miles out, that’s it. [The FCC] don’t have any jurisdiction. Just like they don’t have jurisdiction in Canada. They don’t have jurisdiction in Mexico. And that’s what we did to keep it legal,”He stated.
The ship was nicknamed “The Sarah,”Weiner reported that the pirate radio reached its location off New York’s Long Island in July 1987. There, it sent transmissions to 103.7FM. The pirate radio was active.
It didn’t take too long for listeners and others to grasp what they were doing.
“We didn’t have cell phones back then. So we really didn’t know what was going on,” Weiner said. “We start listening to the radio, to the news stations in New York, and all of a sudden all these news stories, ‘Well, there’s a pirate ship off the coast of New York.’ And all this and stuff. And I go, ‘Oh, good. People are listening to us. Great.’”
However, things would change.
In 1987, aside from top 40, the punk sounds of The Ramones, Talking Heads and The Clash, as well as the new wave hits from Depeche Mode, New Order and Erasure were consistently gaining a following. However, other new forms of music were emerging that mainstream radio was not paying attention to, including New York Hardcore and hip-hop.
New York City was the birthplace of hip-hop in 1973, but by the ’80s, it was still considered “new”Many listeners and radio executives were impressed. RNI was willing to give any band or emcee an outlet that they didn’t have.
“We did it to get bands and groups on the air,” Weiner argued. “We were an international territory, and we went on the air. And we were using frequencies that caused no interference, or no harm, and we did it for freedom of speech.”
Angela, Angela’s spouse, did not participate in the actions of the pirate radio boat. However, Angela said her husband’s and his crew were guilty. “the protest of corporate and corporate saying what the public will and won’t hear.”
Despite their stance on playing music no one else was putting on the airwaves, the pirates also broadcast the tunes of popular artists like John Lennon, Bob Dylan and even Bon Jovi.
Nearly every New York City-area news station covered the actions of the ship in less than a week. They were also headlined in New England, the home of the ship’s crew.
The FCC intervened and declared it illegal to broadcast on unassigned frequencies without a license, no matter how far out at sea the ship was.
“We were on for about four or five days, and then as the old saying goes, the ship hit the fan,” Weiner said.
He stated that the Coast Guard had boarded the vessel one morning with FBI agents. “stopped the station.”He stated that every person on board was handcuffed, despite the protests of crew members that they were in international waters.
Weiner and DJ Ivan Rothstein were taken to Brooklyn and charged in a U.S. District Court on grounds of conspiring to defraud the United States by impeding the functions of the FCC. They were charged with misdemeanors, which carry a maximum sentence up to five years imprisonment and $250,000 in fines. UPI reported that the pair were released on no bail and they agreed to not resume broadcasting until their case was resolved.
The charges against Weiner & Rothstein were dropped just over a month after they were arrested.
“No further governmental purpose would be served by pursuing the criminal charges,”Andrew Maloney, U.S. attorney, told The New York Times in that instance. “By shutting down the illegal station, the FCC achieved what it set out to accomplish. It affirmed that the F.C.C.’s authority to regulate the airwaves extends to offshore broadcasts.”
Weiner said he and his band of radio rebels tried to fight the FCC and U.S. Government in court but ultimately lost the battle.
“We tried to fight it,”He stated. “We actually got the American Civil Liberties Union on our side, and we tried to fight it.”
Although the pirates only lasted five days at sea the ship was able to continue a significant chapter in the 1990s.
Weiner put “The Sarah” in storage in Boston and later sold the ship to MGM pictures, which used it as a prop that they blew up in 1994’s “Blown Away,” starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones.
After years of fighting, Weiner eventually got his legal radio license and began taking to the shortwave airways again by founding the station WBCQ in Maine with his wife, Angela.
Angela is proud of what her husband has done, saying, “the fact that someone put passion for other people’s ideas, and rights, rarely do you see it put to the task of actually getting a radio ship, building it, putting it on air, believing you’ve done everything right.”
Today, WBCQ is still live. The Weiners run WBCQ using the same philosophies of the pirate radio. The station even features one of the DJs who was aboard the ship.
“Radio Newyork International is still alive in what we do with WBCQ radio,” Weiner said. “We went to shortwave and we transmit all over the world.”