pirate radio WCPR WFAT WHOT RFNY Radio New York International oldies top-40 rock and roll
1987 was a strange year for Brooklyn pirate radio station WHOT. The FCC had paid us a visit in November of 1985 (we didn't let them in), and we never heard another peep from them. The threat seemed like a distant memory due to the lack of any further noise from our friends at the Commission. At the same time, WHOT was exploding. Listenership kept growing in leaps and bounds, and each show seemed like it was more fun than the last one. We had really honed the "WHOT Sound" - a little bit of everything for everyone. Music, talk, comedy, jingles, reverb and punchy, killer audio. It was infectious to everyone involved - both for us AND the listeners.
Spring was around the corner when we were first approached by Allan Weiner with a proposal. Allan had operated several New England-based pirates in the 70s and 80s, and Hank and Jim had known him for many years. He was about to embark on a project of epic proportions called Radio NewYork International - "RNI" for short, as a tribute to the old Radio Northsea International.
"RNI" would be the first U.S. attempt to broadcast in the same manner as the legendary European pirates: on a ship, off the coast, in international waters - out of the reach of the FCC. Allan felt that the heart of RNI's staff should be made up of current pirate operators, and he wanted us to be a big part of it. After giving the project much thought, we decided to do it - if for no other reason, for the adventure. Allan worked towards smoothing over the "pirate disagreements" of the previous year and managed to get most of the New York area pirates on board.
The idea sounded crazy, but it also sounded like it could be great. Allan secured an old Japanese fishing trawler to house RNI and turned it into "The Radioship Sarah", installing transmitters on AM, FM, short wave and even long wave. I wondered if he could actually pull it off...he certainly seemed serious about it.
RNI's eventual goal was to broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a variety of programming. The core of the staff would be "the WHOT Good Guys" along with other pirates - Randi Steele (who had been running Stereo Nine FM as "Ed Armstrong") was named Operations Manager and eventually others like Johnny Lightning of WJPL, along with a non-defined cadre of spurious pirate folk that came and went throughout the project.
Also along for the project was Ivan Jefferies, a WHOT listener who had recently started doing some guest appearances on the air with us, bringing his twisted syntax and genuine good humor to the shows, as well as lending his classic radio expertise to various "special segments".
As RNI neared completion, Hank and I put our lives on hold and traveled up to Boston to help, where The Sarah was being readied for its journey. The studio and transmitters were now in working order, but the ship itself needed a LOT of readying and sprucing up. We spent a large chunk of the early summer sanding, stripping, sweeping and painting. Meanwhile, Jim was in Brooklyn keeping WHOT on the air. Coming into June, the air was thick with anticipation as we closed on the target day to set sail for the waters off Long Island (where RNI would make its home). At night, Hank and I would lay out on the deck and wonder...how will people react? Will the news media cover it? Will people even listen to it?
I had never worked so hard on something that wasn't an actual "job" in my life. As the sail date neared, Hank went back to Brooklyn to take care of some of his personal stuff AND help Jim give WHOT a proper "sign off". I had already decided to take the summer off and be a bum, so I stayed in Boston to work on the ship with Allan. Those days were rough. I remember hauling two-ton anchor chain in the hot July sun and thinking, "boy, I'm dying...I hope this is gonna be worth it...".
Hank returned to Boston on July 18th with Jim, Ivan and a few other friends that were expected to participate in RNI once it was on the air. That weekend, The Sarah played host to a who's-who of the New York and New England pirate radio scene, and a party atmosphere permeated the ship's studio and transmitter room as everyone looked around in amazement...sitting behind the board, fiddling with the knobs and getting themselves familiar with the setup. It was really gonna happen, and everyone was excited! We even shot some video to record the historic moment.
On the overcast morning of July 20, 1987, Allan, Hank, Ivan and I left the 'dirty water' of Boston's Charles River and set sail for the waters off the coast of New York City. It was time for RNI to turn the world (and all our lives) upside down. The Sarah had no working engines to sail on it's own power, so it had to be towed out by this huge towing ship called The Munzer. When we reached the desired destination, we dropped the world's biggest (10,000 pound) anchor and that ridiculously big anchor chain, and the Munzer was gone, headed back to Boston. We had reached the point of no return!
Allan had secured a small Liberty Launch boat to be used as a shuttle / supply boat for going back and forth from The Sarah to shore. Hank and I jumped on it and returned to Brooklyn to prepare for whatever sort of press reaction RNI would get once the broadcasts started. At the start, each broadcast would be six hours - from 6PM to Midnight - carried simultaneously on FOUR frequencies: 1620 AM, 103.1 FM, 6240 SW as well as an experimental transmission on Long Wave. Allan fired up all the transmitters on the night of July 23rd and played some announcer-free music, just to see if everything was still in working order. RNI's first ACTUAL test transmission took place the night of July 24th, featuring Allan and Ivan. Hank and I sat on the stoop of his house with a GE Superadio and our hearts skipped a beat when the dead carrier was broken at 6PM ET by an RNI promo followed by "Come Sail Away" by Styx. RNI was actually on the air! The media reaction was immediate and tremendous - WAY more than I had expected from just the first night of broadcasting!
The following days were spent entertaining members of the press, who came out in droves. The nights were spent broadcasting. Randi and Ivan did a special midday show for the benefit of the assembled media on the 25th, and Allan and Ivan did another six-hour "test" program that evening. On the third day (July 26th) the FCC finally decided to show up. It was mid-afternoon when the Coast Guard pulled up next to The Sarah with several FCC agents in tow. They boarded the ship, looked around, handed some legal papers to Allan and left - but not before promising they'd be back. Since the ship WAS in international waters, we truly felt we were not breaking any laws. To make this point, RNI kept on broadcasting that very evening, with another 6PM test show from Randi Steele and a post-midnight show from Ivan.
While this was all going on, WHOT was still broadcasting (around RNI's shows) so we could say a proper "farewell" to the HOT listeners. We assumed the launch of RNI would mean the end for all land-based pirates for an unforeseen amount of time, so we wanted to say goodbye in a way fitting of The HOT One - loudly, over three nights. We told the listeners to "watch the news, read the papers - we'll be back". Both the print and broadcast media were already covering RNI at saturation level, so we knew the listeners would connect the dots and make the connection eventually.
Hank and Jim hit the RNI airwaves with another six-hour test show the evening of July 27th (the plan was to continue with the 6PM to Midnight schedule until launching full 24-hour broadcasts on August 1). As luck would have it, this was at the moment that the press coverage was reaching it's height. Everyone was running around trying to take it all in, while at the same time worrying about what the FCC's next move would be. I was busy working the phones like a madman and preparing to do MY first show, which was scheduled for the next evening on the 28th.
Instead, July 28, 1987 would become a day that would live in underground radio infamy...
Check out the COOL STUFF below for lots print and video, then click on the Next Page link at the bottom to continue with the RNI story - and hear RNI airchecks!
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