Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.
To start the series, Ian Coss gave a finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station in Cap Haïtien that follows the programming rhythm of days and nights. Then, Jennifer Garcon recounted one of the pivotal points in the relationship—its near breakdown and ultimate survival—also a turning point for a 19-year-old Jean Claude Duvalier, newly proclaimed President for life. Last week, Laura Wagner, who listened to each recording Radio Haïti-Inter and its archive (now at Duke University) and wrote its archival descriptors, writes of the work itself, the emotional, financial and intellectual challenges involved, and the reason this archive is essential to anyone interested in Haiti, or radio, or racial justice.
We continue the series in Brooklyn this week, where amidst gentrification and millennials seeking upscale vegan quesadillas, the ‘culture of the transistor’ is alive and well. Pirate radio stations broadcasting music and news in Haitian Creole have loyal followings, mostly of an older generation for whom radio was the primary medium during their youth. Listening brings back memories of a prosperous 1940s and 50s Haiti that recent narratives centered on catastrophe tend to bury. David Goren, who has not just written about but also mapped Brooklyn’s pirate stations, reminds us that these aural communities connect past and present, and perhaps future as well.
Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman
Click here for the full series!
‘A lot of these stations, especially the Haitian stations, they have such an extensive music library that a song will come on the radio and all of a sudden my mom is like, ‘Oh my God! Your grandma used to have this record and she played it every Saturday!’ says Joan Martinez, a young Haitian-American born in the US and a former program host on some of the unlicensed Kreyol language stations. “Now she’s transported back to being on the island, with the big radio that’s a piece of furniture in the living room. People are chatting, little drinks are flowing about, my grandmother milling about in a gorgeous dress. It’s kind of like that whole nostalgia era that unfortunately was probably lost because of the political turmoil in Haiti. So it’s harkening back to a good time, to a simpler time, a better time, a more carefree era.”
Every day, the skies of New York City fill up with unseen clouds of radio signals spreading over immigrant neighborhoods. These culturally charged clouds of radio energy burst with a flow of content that continually shifts and transforms, following the lifecycle and rhythm of the streets.
From clandestine studios tucked behind store fronts, DJs transform time and physical space with Konpa, Reggae and Soca music, mixing the sounds of ancestral homes with the thump and challenge of adapting to a new life in the United States. Jolted by electrified fingers of Signal, the old radio poetry of hiss and hum leaps from a scattered forest of antennas connected to transmitters hidden away inside rooftop sheds. In Brooklyn, the signals alight on Flatbush Avenue, blasting from radios in dollar vans, bakeries, churches and on street corners and kitchen tables. By accessing an analog technology that (outside of the radio itself) is essentially free for the listener, economically marginalized communities avoid the subscription and data fees built in to the conveniences of the digital life. Listeners, often the elders of the community, extend metal antennas and position the radios just so, trying to catch the elusive vibrations of crucial music, news and information that are seldom felt in New York City’s legal and mostly corporate owned media soundscape.
“These underground, unlicensed or pirate stations have been around for as long as there has been radio,” Martinez says. The legality of radio stations stems from The Communications Act of 1934, legislation that created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency tasked with penalizing unlicensed stations and shutting them down. “The focus really was on the listeners.” says Rosemary Harold, chief of FCC Enforcement ‘because what had happened before licensing became what we know as today, was that listeners weren’t able to consistently hear radio broadcasts. And now we’re kind of in a modern iteration of that.”
Others, like pirate radio historian John Anderson, see the Act as unfairly slanted towards commercial interests, awarding “the highest powers and clearest channels” to stations that sold advertising, tilting the medium away from serving specific communities. “By privileging commercial speech over non-commercial speech and by basically saying if you are a special interest, we will not award you a license.” Anderson says. “You create the conditions for there to be dissension over the media policy, which will lead people into radical actions, like putting stations on the air without permission.” In Flatbush, stations broadcast primarily to Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Grenadians and Orthodox Jews. The Haitian stations are particularly active in East Flatbush with just under a dozen broadcasting daily in Kreyol to the large Haitian community.
“I came across it at a very young age. There was this really popular station back in the late 80s, Radio Guinee, and it was based in Brooklyn.” Joan Martinez says. “Nobody knows where it was, there are suspicions. But all I know is from Friday night all the way to Sunday night, you would just hear a series of these stations every weekend and it would be the place where you could listen to the latest in Haitian pop music, rap music. It was also the news, my parents and their friends would all sit around the radio and they would just be politicking in the living room getting really loud, you know, dancing, singing along that sort of thing. It was just like a meeting ground and the radio was guiding it.”
This phase of New York City pirate radio rose from the ashes of a previous scene dating to the late sixties: a dozen or so stations sporadically run mostly by white teenagers: a mix of hippies, radicals and electronically inclined misfits. By 1987, this loose collective of friends and rivals devolved into infighting after a short-lived attempt to broadcast from international waters off Jones Beach. This created room for new pirate radio voices from diverse communities that were increasingly being pushed off the legal airwaves by high costs, format consolidation, and “the low power desert”, an FCC-led phaseout of small community broadcasters. The local pirates joined a growing national wave of progressive pirate radio activity taking advantage of a new generation of cheap FM transmitters imported from China or homebrewed in makeshift workshops by free radio activists.
By the early 90’s, immigrant community-focused broadcasters In New York City flipped the unspoken rules of the earlier pirates who broadcast mainly late at night on a few pre-determined “safe” frequencies, instead filling the FM dial from bottom to top, day and night. In 2000, under pressure from a nationwide increase in pirate radio activity, the FCC introduced a new license class: Low Power FM (LPFM) but opposition from National Public Radio and the National Association of Broadcasters shut down the issuing of new licenses. That severely limited LPFM’s availability in major urban markets due to rules requiring LPFM’s to be “three click aways” from existing stations. Local pirates felt they had no alternative but to continue broadcasting and some stations in Flatbush have been on the air for decades. Despite the passage of the Local Community Radio Act in 2011, opening a new licensing window with relaxed spacing requirements, few new frequencies were available in NYC due to an already crowded dial. The continued pirate presence is enabled by a sort of safety in numbers, an FCC enforcement team hampered by a low budget and a bureaucratic process of enforcement.
Though the stations exist to serve their communities with news and culture and maybe make a little money for their owners and dj’s, they can and do cause interference for listeners of licensed stations, particularly low-powered non-commercial broadcasters like WFMU, a beloved freeform music station. Interference near their frequency has inspired the Brooklyn Pirate Watch Twitter group to keep a wary eye on pirate operations.
Interference aside, FCC commissioners and staff publicly fume at the pirates for a range of potential public safety violations, some more theoretical than others and claim they are somehow harming their own communities, and wonder finally, why don’t they just stream on the internet. By viewing radio piracy purely from a legal perspective, critics miss the cultural and historic forces driving the Haitian pirates. During the Duvalier dictatorship (1957-1986) Haitians had access to only two stations broadcasting in Kreyol, rather than French, the language of the elite. One was Radio Lumiere, a religious station and the other Radio Haiti-Inter, a fiercely independent voice whose director Jean Dominque was assassinated in 1999.
“The peasant in Haiti, while he’s working on his farm you know he had a transistor.” Says Dr. Jean Eddy St. Paul, Director of the Haitian Studies Institute at the City University of New York. ‘And many peasants, they don’t have money to buy tobacco to smoke, but they will have money to buy the battery to put in the transistor. The first generation of migration, in the US, was during the 1960s and for many of those people the culture of transistor was part of their everyday life, so they’re still maintaining the culture of transistor. For them, having a radio station is very important.’
In July 2019, on a side street in East Flatbush, I met a man calling himself “Joseph” aka “Haitian” (“because I’m a pure Haitian!”), part of a group that keeps Radio Comedy FM on the air. “There’s no owners and committee. It’s a bunch of young guys”. Joseph says, “We have to do something positive for our community. Right now the Marines are in Haiti and we don’t know what’s next! CNN don’t show you this! BBC don’t show you this! So what we do, we have people in Haiti that call us and tell us what’s going on and will send us pictures. This is how we get our information. And bring it to the people…. I have family over there, my mother’s still there. So I have to know what’s going on.
At this point in the digital age, it’s an open question how long these analog pirate stations will remain relevant, as their audiences age, neighborhoods gentrify and younger listeners gravitate to social media platforms. The answer seems to lie with their elderly and impoverished listeners. “They don’t have enough money to buy the newspapers understand?.” Joseph says.” For him that makes it worth it to keep Radio Comedy on the air despite a crackdown from the FCC backed by the PIRATE Act signed into law in 2020 that increases fines to $100,000 a day up to $2 million. But the legislation lacks funding to enforce the new regulations. With a federal statute still in place reducing fines down to the ability to pay, it’s unclear whether the PIRATE Act will be anything more than another in an escalating series of scare tactics.
“If they don’t want us to do it just make it easy for us. Let’s make a meeting with those guys [the FCC],” Joseph says. ‘We’re going to provide the air for you. A frequency. You’re going to pay for example, $500 a month even $1,000 a month.’ We will be more than happy to do it. “
Though the FCC has recently suggested the possibility of a new round of LPFM licenses in the future, the already crowded nature of NYC’s FM band makes it unlikely that new frequencies will be made available to the current pirate stations. In addition the FCC doesn’t want to be seen as rewarding illegal activity by granting a license to former pirate broadcasters, which was a prohibition in LPFM’s earlier licensing periods. And for the moment, Joseph, who’s been running unlicensed stations since 1991 (‘it’s an addiction’) is equally unlikely to cede the airwaves. He sees Radio Comedy as not just a radio station, but a community lifeline.
“You know many children we save? There was a bunch of guys…Jamaican, Trinidadian, Haitian trying to form a gang. We talked to them, bring them to the station. Most of them have a diploma now. Without the radio, most of them probably get locked up or dead.”
Even with the PIRATE act on the books, the number of stations on the air in Brooklyn has remained steady with an average of about 25 per day and the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic has only sharpened their mission. In March 2020 as the spread of Covid-19 lead to NYC’s lockdown, the unlicensed Haitian broadcasters and the other West Indian stations in Brooklyn took a step closer to their listeners, increasing their air time and enhancing their formats to deliver information about the virus both in New York and in their countries of origin amid the heavy toll it took on the community.
Featured Image: Antenna in Flatbush, courtesy of David Goren
An award-winning radio producer, David Goren has created programming for the BBC, Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio, the Wall Street Journal Magazine, and NPR’s “Lost and Found Sound” series, as well as audio-based installations for Proteus Gowanus Radio Cona and the Ethnographic Terminalia Collective. In 2016, he was an artist-in residence at Wave Farm, a center for the transmission arts.
Since 2014, David has been recording New York City’s prodigious pirate radio activity and researching the evolution of this grassroots community radio movement resulting in the release of “Outlaws of the Airwaves: The Rise of Pirate Radio Station WBAD” (2018) for KCRW’s “Lost Notes” podcast, New York City’s Pirates of the Air for the BBC World Service (2019) and the “Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map 2.0” (2020) which was featured in The New Yorker. He presented “Tracing Neighborhoods in the Sky,” as part of the Fall 2019 Franke Lectures at Yale University. In January 2021, the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map became a partner of the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force.
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Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.
While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place. In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.” Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?
Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. To read the series from the beginning click here. Today, Paola Cossermelli Messina revisits the São Paolo of her youth. —JS
When at home in São Paulo, Brazil, I rarely walk to where I’m going. In a city plagued by mobility issues, a private car is the most efficient way of getting around. Other factors in opting out of public transportation include the limited reach of the subway system, overcrowdedness on buses, sexual harassment of women on public transport going unpunished, and price hikes that lead to no infrastructural improvements. The 2013 protests in Brazil, the largest demonstration in two decades, were initially set off by increased ticket prices for the bus, train, and metro, and later encompassed additional concerns such as corruption and police brutality.
Having spent most of my childhood and all of my high school years (between 1987 and 2005) in São Paulo, I find myself looking back at my sensory experience of the city as one mediated by fear, segregation, and vigilance. I have become interested in Vincent Adrisani’s (2015) idea of sonic citizenship—ordinary, everyday auditory interactions and experiences through which presence in and claim over public spaces is asserted. Consequently, I recorded the following soundwalks on two specific routes to engage with what were once-familiar surroundings as a “sonic citizen.” These soundwalks made me revisit fears and privileges from my life as a queer, white/POC, expatriate/immigrant on the edges of color, as I walked through a microcosm of São Paulo, recording the urban soundscapes that enveloped my day-to-day.
The audio clips included in this essay were sampled from a morning walk between my former high school and home in the Zona Oeste (Western Region), and also from a brief walk on Avenida Paulista. This is a bustling, iconic avenue at the top of one of the steepest hills in the city, located at the crux of the Western, Central and Southern regions of São Paulo. Where one soundwalk ends is merely a ten minute walk from where the other begins. These are physically close, but sonically contrasting, public spaces, both of which are significant to my experiences in the city.
Rua Juquiá is a tree-lined street with walled-off houses and, in my memory, filled to the brim with cars as early as seven in the morning. My school was the only non-residential building on that street. During the day, personal security guards and drivers would find a place to park and nap until the final school bell rang. I recall making a bee line from my mother’s car to the school gate, motivated by word-of-mouth tales of “sequestros relâmpagos” (literally translated to “lightning kidnappings”). Young people going to private schools were said to be the focus of these kidnappings, in which they would be picked off the street by kidnappers and held for ransom. There was one occurrence of this while I was a student at that school.
With these stories in mind (and sometimes also in my dreams), a sensory engagement with my surroundings was often limited in time and scope, as I moved cautiously between interiors – private vehicles, school, thirty-story buildings towering high above the streets, and shopping centers patrolled by armed guards. At night as I laid down to sleep, the sounds of trucks straining to make their way up the steep slope of my street and motorcycle exhaust pipes blasting echoed in lively conversation with each other.
The relationship between my privilege and racial identity were, at that time, quite different from how it would come to be in the United States. Being of mixed Middle Eastern and European descent in Brazil is an identifier of whiteness and, more often than not, an indicator of a comfortable living situation. My school uniform with its red blazer and dark grey skirt, the uncommonly green neighborhood where most of my daily routines took place, and the double-gated apartment building I lived in, were all indicators of my status.
Identifying as queer is the only aspect that overlaps the boundaries between Brazil and the United States, where I currently reside. In both nations, the expression of this identifier is mediated by different levels of fear of violence—not of violence like the one I feared in Brazil, but violence nonetheless. Throughout my youth, it lurked beneath the surface of my consciousness, compounding the fear I already carried in my body. In the U.S., the compounding factors are my mixed racial features and immigration status (or as the USCIS dubs us ‘aliens’). In the eyes of all major institutions of this country, I am a person of color. As such, the soundwalk in São Paulo also became an experiment in juxtaposing these varying experiences at the intersection of privilege, queerness, and race.
In listening to the soundwalk clips below, I find that the absence of people’s voices and sounds, rather than the presence of supposed ‘dangerous people’, per se, is the most disconcerting thing. Though nature sounds predominate in the clips from this walk, they seem to exist in a cement vacuum.
On the morning of December 29th, 2018, there were only a few parked cars and hardly any people on the street. I looked up at the wall obstructing my school from view. These were initially put up at some point during my senior year in 2005, but have been given added height recently, with cameras like bulbous black eyes surveilling the streets from every one of its angles. On Rua Jacupiranga, perpendicular to Rua Juquiá, there is a new addition – a set of ‘city cameras’, curiously placed at eye level. This is hardly what Jane Jacobs meant by “eyes on the street” and their contribution to a feeling of safety in public spaces. In this case, the eyes are cameras and the listening experiences within these spaces are subsequently fractured into the reassured and criminalized. As Robin Sheriff (2000) observed, “silence demands collaboration” and is “both a consequence and an index of an unequal distribution of power.” Although Sheriff was referencing the silence around the discussion of racism in Brazil, I can see a connection with the street level silence.
The silence that this incredibly visible form of surveillance imposes, and the replacement of human bodies with vehicles warrants the question: who and where are the “sonic citizens” of these streets? The only other people outside, besides me, were a few construction workers, shoveling bits of cement into a bin and security guards standing outside walled-off houses. They watched me for a brief moment, concluding soon enough that I was no threat to the houses they were employed to protect. The heightened level of security on the street made me wonder if I was going to be questioned by them, but sure enough, I was deemed unthreatening.
On Rua Juquiá and in the neighborhood of my childhood home, about a seven-minute drive away, the bem-te-vi is heard above everything else. The surrounding neighborhood, known as Jardins (‘gardens’), is one of the greenest in the city, yet only the birds seem to be voicing their presence and delight. The name of this species of bird (which translates to “I see you well”) is an onomatopoeia for what their cries sound like. I can’t help but think of them as true sonic citizens of these streets. That citizenship practices have to do with the less powerful establishing their presence in a public space is an idea echoed by Saskia Sassen (2006) and others quoted by Vincent Adrisani (2015). The bem-te-vi, the construction workers and I, as a listener, were momentarily engaged in this practice, though questions such as, “Why are you here?” and “Do you want to know why I am here?” remained between the human participants.
As I ventured further away from my school, the baseline hum of traffic slowly shifted into the background. Up until this point, I had my recording equipment – a Zoom H6 and Rode NTG 2 shotgun microphone – hidden in my bag in order to draw less attention to myself. This is certainly a decision informed by the same fear that would make me hurry from the car to the school gate. As a consequence of this, in the audio clips there may be a light, rhythmic thudding from the microphone hitting the inside of my tote bag.
I decided to record a second soundwalk roughly twenty minutes from my school to present dichotomous soundscapes and ways of living, in proximity. Avenida Paulista is a nearly two mile long avenue with ample sidewalks, modelled on those in Manhattan. It used to be more of a dividing line between different sides of São Paulo. When I was growing up and even now, I know that if I take Rua Augusta towards Baixo Augusta (‘low’ Augusta), I’ll find LGBTQ friendly bars and clubs. I remember driving by them with my parents when I was a teenager; there was an implied danger there, too, though it was never uttered out loud like the kidnapping stories.
Though during the day it is a hub for office workers, on the night I recorded this soundwalk the air was buzzing with voices, live music, skateboard decks grating on cement, and street vendors announcing their wares. The abundance of human sounds is clearly in stark contrast to Rua Juquiá, but there is an increase in the sheer number and variety of sounds, too. The surveillance that before stood out like a sore thumb – at eye level and identified with signs – is quite inconspicuous on this soundwalk. Generally, police presence is high on Avenida Paulista – in contrast to the privately hired security on Rua Juquiá’s and that of other wealthy, residential streets.
As a walker and listener, it is clear that the second soundwalk presented a wealth of opportunities to engage as a sonic citizen, while the first – as it was in the past – remained complicated by fear, vigilance, and a vacuum of human activity. I contend that when sonic citizenship is articulated it is, in turn, reflected back to the listener. This exchange is what makes it so valuable on both the level of the community and individual. It made me wonder if having walked Avenida Paulista and its offshoots more often in my youth would have lessened fears and brought me closer to embracing certain aspects of my identity sooner.
Instead, I find parts of myself are sonically engaged in one part of the world and others someplace else. If future soundwalks bridge those gaps in the future, I will be able to listen back to these recordings as the first steps I took in that direction.
Paola Cossermelli Messina is a sound designer and audio engineer with research interests that fall in the intersections between music, politics and gender. As Project Manager of Sound Thinking NYC, a program of the CUNY-Creative Arts Team, she has recently gained interest in ties between her work in music and technology to initiatives in education. She holds a B.A. in Music and Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. in Media Studies from The New School, with a specialization in sound. Her Master’s thesis on the oral histories of Iranian women musicians received an award from the Middle East Studies Association and was later presented and published by Yale University. For the past 5 years, she has also worked as a Producer and Editor of the Arab Studies Institute podcast Status Hour.
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