The Ship That Came In (On Four Radio Bands)

If you wanted to pick a date when music radio in America began to really suck, it would probably be the mid-1980’s. Popular music was getting worse. All those god awful keyboards (think..Lionel Richie), with music was all sequencer riffs, boomy emulated drums and shiny boring guitar solos. At least that’s how I heard it. And if the music wasn’t bad enough, almost all of the personality and unpredictability that made commercial radio so much fun had been quashed.

Back in the sixties, the corporate consultants turbo-charged the top 40 format by amping up the energy and trimming the fat. But after a couple decades a lot had changed, and with the audience moving to FM it brought a different mentality to radio formatics and programming in general. The seventies brought in the "less talk" school of radio, and as that philosophy gained ground you heard much less persona and patter between songs, and more perky robot announcers reading positioning statements and liner cards. And instead of "breaking hits" radio stations were broken by the tired and worn-out "hits" their corporate masters made them play incessantly.

By the mid-80’s, the model of radio as a music delivery system was finally broken. And in the wake of its failure listeners adapted. It was the golden age of the "mix tape," where put down chunks of their own programming on cassette tapes. And at the same time "talk radio" was where you could still find some spontaneity on the dial, and it became a viable and popular radio format for the first time (and filled the void on medium wave as top 40 format had moved to the FM band).

And it was around this time that I became the radio freak of nature I am today. This is when I started scanning the AM band looking for fossil music stations playing big band, old country or r&b and blues. And it’s when I started actually paying attention to talk radio. And shortwave. And so, my adventures in amplitude modulation really began…

As a relatively young curmudgeon at that time, I still had some enthusiasm for changing the world. Or at least try to change radio, from the inside. And in the summer of 1987 I enrolled in a broadcasting school, where I learned how to splice tape, how to read news copy, and how to browse an Arbitron book. And while I’ve had my ups and downs in the radio business, I have had a lotta fun over the years. The trouble is, at heart I’m a programmer, not a tech guy or a salesman or an incredibly talented announcer (I’m not bad, but…). My original dream was to program a real R&B radio station. And I did that at a little AM outlet in Alabama for a couple years. I had a blast, but it didn’t pan out into the earth-shaking career I had imagined. Somehow or other I ended up volunteering on a freeform station presenting answering machine tapes and audio letters. But that’s another story…

However, I have another story for you. A better one. A tale of brave young souls on the high seas who took on the FCC and corporate radio in a big and beautiful way. That same summer, while I was sitting in classrooms learning the technical ramifications of commercial stop sets and how to say the letter “W” correctly, a cadre of real radio activists were skipping all the technicalities. They’d pooled together thousands of dollars to build a radio station and transmitter on an old fishing vessel, and parked the thing off the coast of Long Island. Yes, it was exactly twenty-two years ago this week that Radio New York International briefly made rock and roll history. And although they were only in business for a few days, the legend of RNI lives on. And rightly so.

Here’s a choppy and murky video tour of the docked “Radio Ship Sarah,” ready for its maiden voyage as America’s most infamous offshore radio station. It’s still worth watching, just to get a feel of the excitement and anticipation onboard.

They dropped anchor just four and a half miles from Jones Beach on Long Island and started broadcasting July 23, 1987 on FM (103.1MHz), AM (1620kHz), shortwave (6250kHz), and even longwave! (150kHz). Amazing. And what did they play? Free-form rock and roll. Which from what I gather was kind of a mix of college radio, album rock radio, oldies and lots of banter. Kind of like what FM rock stations might have sounded like around 1987 if DJ’s still had a hand in selecting the music (mixed with some “pirate” shenanigans). The reaction in the New York City market was immediate, and RNI made headlines around the world. And by the next day the local TV news operations  were sending reporters out on boats to get the story. Here’s a big fat montage of the coverage…

They Sarah crew even made an appearance on that 80’s tabloid TV mess, “A Current Affair, starring the craggy-faced 80’s icon, Maury Povich.

But, you know how this story ends. After three days of broadcasting (and lots and lots of exposure on local and national news) the FCC paid the ship a visit. They weren’t friendly and they had a cease and desist order in their hands.

For a day, RNI was silent. Then the next day the leader of the operation, Allan Weiner gave the go-ahead to crank the transmitters up again, and New York City’s newest radio station was back on the air.

Busted. With Alan Weiner, his partner Ivan Jeffries, and Village Voice reporter sitting in the summer sun in handcuffs as the Coast Guard ransacked all the equipment. Or most of it. And Jeffries and Weiner were charged with conspiring to impede the Federal Communications Commission. A felony. 

However, the FCC didn’t have much of a case and they dropped all charges on the crew. They got what they wanted. The station was off the air and all the investment of time and money on all that equipment lay in runs. But Weiner swore that RNI would return.

The legacy of those few days rebellious days ran strong for a year or two. And the radio pirates who challenged the FCC in front of the nation continued to attract national attention. They had a little stint on MTV, and were offered free air time on a little AM station out on Long Island on a weekly basis, which they fooled around with for a short time. There was even a short-lived rebirth of RNI in 1988, but only on shortwave. And again the heavy hand of the FCC put a stop to it.

However, the “Radio New York International” brand wouldn’t die, and Weiner and his sundry radio cohorts continued to dream the dream in more practical ways. They rented out a weekly chunk on shortwave’s WWCR, and Weiner himself began to pursue a legitimate shortwave station license for himself. And as many of you know, in the late 1990’s that license was granted and WBCQ was born in Monticello, Maine.

Since that time, John P. Lightning (formerly of pirate station WJPL and one of the RNI gang) began a program on WBCQ bearing the name– “Radio New York International.” (Which I wrote about a while back.) A broadcast originating from right here in Brooklyn, for years Lightning (as well as Big Steve and others) have held court with a rowdy few hours of talk, noises, music and silliness. However, last week Lightning and Weiner parted ways. And Lightning, who has threatened to give up show recently anyway, is currently doing a show he still calls “Radio New York International” on the internet. But WBCQ also has a show with the same name at the same time. Kinda strange.

It was all a surprise to me, but I don’t listen to WBCQ enough to know the details. Someone archived Weiner’s open letter to Lightning, and the response, here. Allen took his "open letter" down after a week or so, but Lightning’s responses remain on his site.  Lightning’s modus operandi is slash and burn clowning, which is occasionally monstrous in the mode of Neil Rogers (who also just retired by the way…). It’s all about verbal abuse, especially of the BOSS. Apparently what was once considered good fun became something else, at least as far as Weiner was concerned. And if you read Lightning’s response, he sounds almost sorry. Even recalcitrant. However, he thinks Weiner was being thin-skinned and says in his blog that you can listen to the archives of his show and judge for yourself.

The approach the 22 year anniversary of RNI coinciding with this rift between Weiner and Lightning that struck a chord with me. Not that I know either of them beyond the on-air persona and what I read in the blogophere. But I identify with these guys because we’re members of the same tribe. And although I was never really a radio pirate, we’re fellow travelers who have been cutting our own paths around the fringes of the radio business for the last few decades. And some of my best friends have been creative and dedicated radio disciples who inspired me, and lent me a helping hand when I needed help on a project. Or needed a job. And I don’t know if it’s something about the radio business, or something about the kind of people who fall into it, but I’ve lost more than my far share of radio friends over the last few years as well.

Of course, Allan Weiner’s illustrious pirate radio career started long before RNI. He was just a kid back in 1970 when with the help of another wunderkind named J.P. Ferraro  (a.k.a. "Pirate Joe") they established their own radio "network" in suburban New York City. After being shut down by the FCC a few times, Allan and J.P submitted a rather articulate and impassioned letter to the FCC explaining and defending their criminal acts of broadcasting. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s the last paragraph:

We started this whole thing because we love radio as an artistic and creative medium, and to bring freedom to the airwaves. Not because we want fat bank accounts and chaffeur-driven cars. We have chosen our operating frequencies especially so as not to cause interference with any other stations. However, as human beings and citizens of the United States and the world, we have a right to use the airwaves put there by whoever or whatever created the universe, and use them as we will. This is our freedom, this is our right.

Amen to that.

And over many years Weiner’s friendship with Ferraro was also a partnership, and involved many radio collaborations. Some legal, some not. And while he wasn’t onboard the Radio Ship Sarah for the maiden voyage, I believe he was involved in some of the fun. I do know that he participated in later incarnations of “Radio New York International,” and was involved in another offshore radio project with Allan (which the FCC stomped out before the station set sail). And you can actually hear some of the radio these guys created together over the years. Weiner has run a program on WBCQ called “The Pirate’s Cove” where he plays old airchecks from his pirate days, and you can find some archives of the Pirate’s Cove here.) Worth checking out.

Then in 1992, Pirate Joe came upon a radio station for sale in upstate that was selling for so cheap that he could actually muster the funds to buy the whole thing. And that station was WHVW in Poughkeepsie (which I’ve written about a few times here), a little class D AM station that Joe turned into a wonder of the world by programming a unique blend of American roots music around the clock. And just like so many times before, Allan and Joe worked together on getting the station off the ground, technically. And I certainly don’t know enough to tell you what happened, or why it happened, but somewhere in the process of setting up the new incarnation of WHVW these longtime collaborators experienced something the Stylistics used to call a "heavy falling out."

I only know this because Allan’s mentioned it a few times on his WBCQ program, and he also alluded to the fact that he didn’t just lose a friendship at the time but also lost a bunch of money. And although I finally met Pirate Joe a while back, but I wasn’t prepared to ask him his side of the story. I do have a feeling they probably have differing accounts of how their friendship ended. That’s usually how those things work.

As a fan of both WBCQ and WHVW, I can see how these two stations compliment each other. And in my mind’s eye it’s not hard for me to squint at these two unique radio operations and combine them into one fantastic station, with Ferraro’s musical automation and his D.J.s taking the place of all the preachers and daily dead air you hear on BCQ’s frequency. But that surely will never happen. And in a way it already did. Years ago.

Again, I don’t know the nitty-gritty details of the relationships between these guys. It’s almost not important, and not the type of gossip I like to deal in. Yet, even though I have cleaved away from a few of my closest creative co-conspirators myself, I still find it sad when I hear it about it happening to others. Especially between people I admire, like Allan, and John and J.P. But middle-age is an odd phase I’m still coming to grips with. You don’t have that same wild desire to change the world, but you still do have the drive to do something meaningful or profitable, and you’re so much more aware of the limited time you really do have left. And hopefully you’ve accumulated enough wisdom to guide you in making those important decisions you may not be able to reverse or make again.

But most of all, in the youth of old age you begin to find that you really are yourself now– all the warts, all the habits and a unique collection of memories. And you have a story you tell. It’s you. And you come to a point you have to stand up for that story. And represent it, right or wrong. And then some event or series of events makes your story and your old friend’s story irreconcilable. Mutually exclusive. And it’s been getting that way for a long time, but something happens that makes it impossible for either of you to pretend you accept the other’s narrative any longer.

At least that’s how it’s happened with me. Or how I’ve crafted my drafts of these recent sad chapters. And perhaps that’s how it was with some middle-aged former pirates I almost know. And I guess it’s just not easy to be a person. Even if you’re a white guy…

I guess in the pop psychology books they’d call it “growing apart.” And after all, you can only have so many operational friendships at one time. If you try to keep too many friends close, the relationships themselves can’t be all that meaningful. And even though I occasionally grieve for that handful of lost friendships, like a couple of intimate relationships I never wanted to end, maybe me and some of my middle-aged male cohorts tried to stay close too long instead of drifting apart in a more natural fashion. I don’t know. But I do know that once the smoke clears, the grieving is often eclipsed by the relief of never having to pretend one more time.

And I wouldn’t feel too sorry for Allan Weiner. He seems to have plenty of friends. And while WBCQ is a much more low-profile operation that RNI, it seems to stumble along and somehow prove every day that shortwave is not dead in America. And I shouldn’t forget to again mention the Area 51 programming on WBCQ’s 5110kHz transmitter every night. Cosmik Debris is in charge of that operation, and it’s really where a lot of WBCQ’s creative energy is focused lately. Mr. Cosmic incorporates pirate radio shows, old and new, with other new WBCQ shows, and WBCQ airchecks and probably any other compelling audio morsels that land in his lap. The website for this commendable circus is here.

Speaking of that, Cosmik has helped set up a couple of online webcams, so he can do his show from Maryland as live web TV, and Allan can stream WBCQ programming in main as internet video. And so far there’s some archives which you can find here or here.

And lastly, I should mention that the offshore radio fever dreams of Allan Weiner didn’t just go away when he switched the power on over at WBCQ. He’s currently getting another ship together to do it all again. I’m not sure where he’s gonna park this boat, but I don’t think it’s going to be four miles off the American coast this time. He has a website for it here (not much there yet as of this writing…).

And I’d like to thank Hank, and Pete and this guy, for archiving these historic videos of RNI, which I borrowed for this post. And I’m really glad we can all see these strapping young radio pirates in action on the high seas. Thanks.

And when you’re not doing something solitary like reading a blog or scanning the bands for some exotic DX, remember to take advantage of the friends you still do have, and hang out. Do something interesting, or daring. Why the hell not? A good friendship is a good thing. As luck would have it, some you do get to keep for a long time.

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3 Responses to “The Ship That Came In (On Four Radio Bands)”

  1. Ragnar Says:

    As always, your posts are informative, entertaining and a hell of a lot better written than what I imagine I could come up with. I won’t comment on the recent removal of JPL from WBCQ, nor will I reminisce on the days of the Sarah. I have little insight or knowledge of these matters. Though I will join you in sauteing WBCQ’s Area 51. One of the last redoubts of true radio creativity on the dial.

  2. Dale Says:

    Great post. I have to read this a couple of more times to absorb how the history and characters all branch out. I’ve always heard Allan talk about the Sarah but I’ve never seen the whole story encapsulated so well. Thanks!

    I don’t listen to BCQ as much as I used to, mainly because of reception problems when I decide to check them out. But Marion’s Attic, Tasha Takes Control, Pocket Calculator, and Fred Flintstone’s radio program were gems. I have to force myself to listen again.

  3. Karl Zuk Says:

    Hippies!

    Al and J.P. are creative and gifted engineers and good friends.
    Enjoy their work on WBCQ shortwave and WHVW 950 Hyde Park, NY.

    A great article. Great times!

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