Somewhere in the Southwest at this very moment, Biggie Smalls’ stylistic rap is flying overhead, broken into invisible particles that funnel down on radio antennas. Junior M.A.F.I.A. tracks are blasting on car stereos, and Lil’ Kim is luridly whispering into the ears of a jogger. No, it isn’t 1991—pirates are boarding the radio dials.
As old as radio broadcasting itself, pirate radio refers to any radio frequency that operates without a license issued by the Federal Communications Commission. Although the FCC has been issuing licenses to tiny noncommercial educational broadcasters since January 2000, not everyone who wants to use the airwaves chooses to go the legitimate route.
Like a lot of things that make people uncomfortable, the first major example of pirate radio comes out of California. In 1933 casino ship the City of Panama would broadcast radio signals off the coast of San Francisco as RXKR. The signals were so powerful they could be heard up in Canada. The ship was licensed for both radio and seafaring in the country of Panama, leaving the United States politically unable to react for several months. Another striking use of pirate radio came out of Springfield, Ill. in 1987 when residents used the airwaves to report on police brutality and misconduct.
Nowadays, running a pirate radio station is easier than ever. When a computer logs into turntable.fm, an online social media application for sharing music, it’s hooked up to a transmitter. Others using their own computer or smartphone can add music to a playlist. That playlist cycles to the radio tower and then out over the airwaves. Many types of transmitters are available to buy or build. Using sites like turntable.fm allows DJs to queue their programming at great distances from the stations themselves, granting them a good deal of anonymity.
In Northern New Mexico right now, there's at least one station operating without a license. The station's location and those who operate it remain a deliberate secret. DJs on the secret station mostly play music provided by turntable.fm’s SoundCloud, but some choose to upload original songs, homemade commercials and occasionally poetry or other offbeat programming.
“I can invite friends from around the States to join me and exchange the music that is popular where they are. They all know that what they play goes up on the station,” says Bottle Street Brakes, a DJ out of Santa Fe who plays music through the station. “What that means is that New Mexico gets an earful from cities that have a different taste, a different style or whatever.”
Bee Raven, a former Albuquerque-area resident who now transmits tunes out of Los Angeles, is a frequent guest user of the station. “I get to share music with my friends, the people I miss,” the DJ explains. “It’s kind of like that scene in The Virgin Suicides where the boys and girls are calling one another up and sharing records through the telephone. I play a song, they play a song.”
Most pirate radio stations that are shut down or raided by the FCC interfere with licensed radio stations or other communications. For instance, a pirate radio station broadcasting Haitian music in Boston was interfering with a local air traffic control tower. In early March 2013, the station was disabled and its equipment seized, but its practitioner has yet to be charged.
Maybe it’s time to queue some NOFX up on the phone and blast it out over the skate parks of New Mexico. DJs from around the nation can join in with our local pirate DJs to host dance parties and gallery openings in Las Cruces, Española and Albuquerque. The options are endless and intriguingly dangerous.