Archive for June, 2009

The Cosmic Pirates Next Door

Monday, June 8th, 2009

As much as I love DXing, I still have a place in my heart for the local AM stations. The low power and low budget radio operations that don’t have the transmitter muscle to be heard much further than the county line. And when I travel I always hope to find that unique truly local station, that has that low power community magic. And it’s an extra bonus if you happen to like the music they play, but it’s almost always interesting to hear how local folks program radio for each other.

In the past, I’ve mentioned a couple of low watt gems (like WHVW and WCXI), but I never think to look into some of the lesser AM stations here in New York City. And if you don’t live here, it’s easy to think of America’s biggest city as a monolithic unified whole. But it’s not like that at all on the ground. It’s a whole bunch of communities all stuffed into five boroughs (as well as a few surrounding counties). And a number of them have staked their claim on the AM dial.

And the medium wave territory in New York here has got to be as crowded as anywhere in the world. Besides the big "blowtorch" clear channel AM stations everyone knows (WABC, WCBS, WFAN…), there are a lot of little "sparklers" across the dial. And it seems that most of them are on the right side of the band. While WLIB is a gospel station these days, I don’t think any AM’ers in the city have a real music format. (Okay, a few stations play oldies and "music of your life" fodder out past the perimeter.) What most of the little AM stations in NYC offer is either religious or "ethnic" programming. Most are "brokered" They sell time on their transmitter. And in New York City, it’s not cheap. It’s much less expensive to just have your own radio station. Until you get busted…

However, the bottom line for me is that they’re all speaking another language on most of those little AM stations crowded around the top half of the AM dial. And I have to admit that Spanish or Chinese or Russian talk shows don’t do much for a poor unilingual American bastard like myself. Then again, like listening to the world via shortwave, music is compelling beyond language or ethnicity (at least to me). And over the years, almost by accident, I have run into sublime gospel and quirky 60′s Asian rock and all sorts of Carribean things when I was turning the dial to find something else. And when I do try to go back to that same area of the dial I often find the programming is totally different than what I had enjoyed the last time around. But brokered radio stations are especially like that– very different animals by the day and by the hour. I suppose I need to prowl the schedules online more often.

Thus, the point of this post. Sometime you miss some really interesting that’s always been right there– in your own backyard. Like this oddball pirate radio station that up until a just recently was broadcasting at 1710kHz here in Brooklyn.

Radio Moshiach & Redemption is a rarity here in the states, a illegal religious broadcasting operation and just another tentacle of the massive Lubavitcher media machine. The Lubavitchers (or Chabadniks) are one of the oldest and most well-known tribes of the ultra-orthodox and mystical Jewish Hasidim. And why do they have a radio station? Let’s just say they do a lot of outreach. In other words, they actually proselytize like the kooky born-again Christians. Sort of…

Actually, the Lubavitchers are only looking for Jews who have strayed from their faith. They’re a little infamous here in the city for going out on the streets (and into the subways) and approaching people who look like they might be Jewish (and might not be practicing enough…). A little annoying, but it’s gotta be less pathetic than those glassy-eyed Jehovah’s Witnesses holding that dopey magazine in front of their faces.

From what I understand, most of the Brooklyn Lubavitchers are clustered around the Crown Heights neighborhood here in Brooklyn. And most assume that’s where their broadcasts originate. The "programming" I’ve heard has alternately been in English or Yiddish (and perhaps Hebrew, I’m not sure…). More significantly, the actual audio product of Radio Moshiach is outrageously awful– distorted and noisy. Yet, the raw and unprofessional urgency on Radio Moshiach was often kind of intriguing. I recall one particular time I heard them in the car (where I usually listened to them) and, like usual, I was struggling to understand what was being discussed (Even when speaking English they use so many Hebraic words that outsiders like me are left constantly trying to decipher the topic at hand). But what kept me glued to 1710 was the chronic coughing fit the old fellah on mic couldn’t get under control. At a real radio station, there would usually be a "cough button" to work around a situation like that, and a real hacking fit would be usurped by commercials or music But this elderly Hasidic gentlemen was determined to finish his lecture. And he just kept going– endlessly forward though so much choking and gagging and wheezing. It was quite a display of some strange fortitude. And no, I have no recordings of that. But I do have this little piece of history.

Radio Moshiach & Redemption (Brooklyn, NY) 1710kHz – 11-15-06

(download)

From what I little I’ve heard of this station over the years, the "lecture" on the recording is rather typical. Lots of talk on how to live a more sacred life, and extended discourse on the ruminations of their holy men. But like their Christian cousins, they have a fascination with a coming "end times" and are a little obsessed with the coming of the Moshiach (their messiah). And that what you get in this aircheck, some messiah anticipation and a little music.

And you might not believe it to hear it, but I actually performed a bit of digital hoodoo on this tape to up the fidelity. Yes it was worse, knee deep in a thick rich hiss before I did some tweaking and filtering. It’s still crappy, but believe the clip here is certainly better than the actual reception at the time. (You still here some nasty distortion during the musical interludes on this tape that I couldn’t fix.)

I’m not going to pretend that I really know much about the Lubavitchers or the Hasidim in general. Although I do live in Brooklyn, and run into quite a few Hasidic folks in my travels, the local tribe here in the Williamsburg area are the Satmars, who differ in many beliefs and practices from the Lubavitchers and their obsessions with the end times, and the messiah, and converting wayward jews. And I wouldn’t be the first to say that most of the public interactions I’ve had with the Satmars are rarely warm or friendly. And apparently I’m not quite Jewish looking enough to get the attention of the roving Lubavitcher missionaries.

However, in the cursory research I did do before writing this post I came across a couple points that caught my interest. There’s no fire and brimstone in the Hassidic world. They don’t go for all the eternal damnation business that makes Christians so scary and ridiculous. But I gotta admit, that a few things I came across on the web regarding the Lubavitchers that made a lot of sense to me– specifically the wisdom of one of their big thinkers: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. For example, he believes that God is too great to be understood by any one religion, and he really believes in science. Besides his Rabbinical studies he also took in big education doses of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and sociology. In 1988, Time magazine praised him as an "once-in-a-millennium scholar.

Of course, I suppose it’s not really all that unusual that so much intellectual thought and so much religious thought can do so much good together in the brain of one person. It’s a habit from all the exposure to the pseudo-holy hucksters and parasites I run across on shortwave radio, I suppose. And it’s important to remember that the religious goofballs you hear on the radio (or see on TV) are not necessarily representative of the faith they might espouse. Yet, all that said, there’s plenty of things Steinsaltz and other Hasidim believe that I find a completely wacky and wrong-headed, but the point is there’s a lot of real thinking going on in Lubavitchers-land. And then there’s all that mystical Kabbalah business. That’s a deep topic I’m not going to address (but Madonna may cover some points on her last album). And did I mention that old lead-larynx himself, Bob Dylan, is a practicing Lubavitcher these days. (Although I’ve never heard his music on Radio Moshiach.)

I guess what impressed me, is how much more thoughtful the religious discussion was on 1710kHz than ninety percent of the Christian broadcasters I come across on the radio. I’m not saying I was ever impressed by the eloquence or narrative power of anything I heard on this odd pirate station (It’s some esoteric stuff), at least they never claim to talk to any supernatural beings. And don’t seem to feel a need to point out how evil other people or other religions might be. And while they may have their agents out on the streets to looking for wayward Jews to bring back to the faith, they don’t get on the radio to convert anyone. And they don’t ask for money so they can pray for you either. None of that crap. And, they’re outlaws!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s nothing really wrong with "religious radio."In fact, wouldn’t it be interesting if all sorts of believers and thinkers and religious types were on the radio having intelligent conversations about spirituality and wisdom and the human condition. Instead, almost all the thousands of religious broadcasters on radio and TV are malignant Christians preaching intolerance and ignorance and damnation. Although I have to admit that some of the Catholic broadcasting I come across on AM and shortwave is a little more thoughtful. At least they talk about real some human topics, and don’t talk about hell and blood all the time.

There’s a meanness to so much of the Protestant preaching and teaching I hear on the radio, and a very willful ignorance– and enough dogma to clog up a weak-will thinker’s brain for life. Of course, there’s a long tradition of colorful and ridiculous bible bangers on the radio (like Gene Scott), but most are neither interesting or humorous. And the worst of it– it’s always been about trolling the countryside with a transmitter and a line of bullshit looking for weak and downtrodden listeners who might have a few bucks they can filch in the name of Jesus.

While I can no longer pick up Radio Moshiach in Northern Brooklyn, David Goren lives much deeper into the borough and he’s still picking up some Lubavitcher broadcasting, but not at 1710kHz. He says they seem to capable of running a few little transmitters in the x-band (the new USA upper extension to medium wave beyond 1600kHz), sometimes several at once and different programs on each "station." And are currently still broadcasting at 1640kHz., and perhaps on FM as well. But it’s the 1710 signal that was the heartiest of them all. And it’s the one most DXers run into. And I’ll bet it sounds REALLY bad from far away. But all that hackin’ and coughin’ I heard probably cut through the North Atlantic skynoise for some DXer out there…

Speaking of that, what led me to post this aircheck in the first place was just to share Radio Moshiach with as much clarity as I could muster from my New York City outpost. I’m sure a lot of DXers have never heard what the station actually sounded like (with some degree of clarity), other than a shaggy little heterodyne or maybe some lo-fi Yiddish accented words wedged sideways into a noise floor. I have another tape I recorded around here somewhere, which featured a lot of old and interesting Yiddish music. If I find it one day I might attach it to the this post as well.

And just to be clear, I’m not looking to pick a fight with Christians or Protestants any believer really. Actually, most of the time when I come across the way these religious are being expressed on the radio, it’s the sound of fighting words to my ears. That’s why I rag on radio evangelism. Most of these (supposedly) "Christian" broadcasters I come across on my radio are vile examples of humanity. And I stand by that. Yet, the truth is, all in all, I find Christianity rather interesting– even if it’s not my belief system. And if you wanna make me mad– just waste my time by going to great lengths to convince me of something unbelievable that you can’t prove. What could be more annoying?

And when I dig into a shortwave band, I get annoyed that way quite often. Or worse. And while Radio Moshiach could be quite boring and occasionally unintelligible. It never was never annoying. And never stupid or mean. Unlike Harold Camping, who is always boring and always annoying. And although he doesn’t look so healthy, he is still alive.

And wouldn’t that be awful– when he does give up the ghost, if they give his tapes the Gene Scott "immortality treatment, and Family Radio kept playing those awful and dim-witted "Open Forum" shows for all of eternity?

Or wait a minute. That can’t happen.

When you make it your career to predict the end of time over and over again, any show mentioning all those missed apocalypses wouldn’t be good candidates for future encore presentations, if you know what I mean. Meanwhile, Camping’s latest prediction is that it’s all over by 2011. Then again, most of us survived 1994. But perhaps, for Camping himself 2011 might really be the last dance. (But then again, there’s all that bad news…)

Of course the Lubavitchers have their own obsession with a coming apocalypse too. But they’re smart enough not to pick a date. When you’re predicting the end of human existence, it’s probably not a bad idea to keep your options open.