Block Island Pirates; taking the airwaves

Mon, 09/07/2009 - 4:02am
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09/05/09 - Block Island has a long history of pirates plying the waves off its coasts — but are the island’s airwaves now being plundered?

Anchored together in Old Harbor, a slew of misshapen boats rafted together resemble a watery shantytown when compared to the fiberglass mansions moored nearby. Tie-dye curtains tacked over salt-encrusted portals, soft reggae music drifting from wooden berths and, of course, the infamous black pirate flag raised and flapping in the wind, are the only clues as to the owners’ identity.

This is the ramshackle home of the self proclaimed “Old Harbor Pirates,” summer island workers Myles Somerville, Michael Simpson and Ian Larson, and they have not only taken Old Harbor as their home, but are also taking over the airwaves with a low-power “pirate” radio station, 96.9 FM, that reaches nearly all of Block Island.

Currently broadcasting out of Club Soda, the station operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and when the pirates themselves aren’t “on-air” chatting or sending out greetings to friends and co-workers, play lists consisting of thousands of songs permeate the air.

No genre of music is denied and listeners can hear styles ranging from Chilean Salsa to Heavy Metal. Impromptu chat sessions are also the norm; Somerville’s show, “Far Too Casual,” a name derived from being fired from a job earlier in the summer for being, well, “too casual,” can be heard mostly between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m.

Though the station is not officially licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the pirates insist it is not illegal because they are running under 100 watts and not interfering with established stations broadcasting on the same frequency.

The idea of a pirate radio station came to the three in June while driving cross-country to volunteer at the 2009 Bonoroo music festival in Tennessee. A copy of Ron Sakolsky and Stephen Dunifer’s “Seizing the Airwaves: A Free Radio Handbook,” was the only reading material in the car, and served as inspiration to start a radio station on Block Island.

The OHP began broadcasting out of a room in the National Hotel’s employee housing, using only basic equipment including headphones — with two inputs that can accommodate an iPod or computer and microphone — serving as a mixer.

“We bought this very nice and simple unit that anyone could buy and use. It’s called Hilly Headphone, and for 200 bucks you can start a really lethal neighborhood station,” says Simpson.

Originally running on only 10 watts and reaching the immediate “downtown” area of Block Island, the station started small, but they were nevertheless on the air.

“Red Bird [liquor store] was the first person to blast us in their store and we had some of the art galleries on Water Street and it just kind of blew up from there. I think people were thirsty for a radio station on Block Island and once they heard it was going, people were pretty excited, pretty passionate about it,” said Larson.

The station’s first efforts were cut short when lightning struck and destroyed the OHP’s equipment. “We were scrambling to figure out what our needs were,” said Somerville, “was it the antenna, was it the transmitter, the location? And then we got struck by lightning; that’s where the real learning experience began.”

A group of friends and fans, including Sean O’Donnell, Lindsey Schweitzes, “The” Jason, Jonah Gadoury and Ronald Rodriquez joined with the original pirates to raise more than $1,200 to get the radio station up and running again.

“Getting struck by lightning was sort of a blessing in disguise because it brought a lot of us together and it showed us people cared. So many people were coming up to us saying, ‘Dude, I’ve been checking the station every day, waiting to see when you guys are up, and we’re really excited about it.’ We really worked hard to figure out what we needed to do it correctly. We also needed a better location,” says Simpson.

Several island businesses expressed interest in providing safe harbor for the pirates, including Captain Nick’s, but it was Club Soda’s new owners Glenn McKiernan and Max Balmforth, who took the OHP on board. “They took over Club Soda right around the time the radio station was started. There was all this buzz going on about the radio station and they were looking for ways to breath life into Club Soda. So they offered us this spot — the old game room,” says Larson.

The once desolate back yard of Club Soda now boasts a gravel hangout area, with tables and chairs and a grill patrons are encouraged to grill their own fish on. The radio station is right next door.

“They realized the power of the radio and they wanted it up here. It’s a good attraction. It’s a magnet for fun if you think about it. People want to be near the station, they want to be on the station,” says O’Donnell.

At the present time, 96.9FM is non-profit and supported solely by the core eight people running it. “The future is the future,” says Simpson. “Right here and now we are all about it. It’s fun for us to do, it’s fun for everyone to listen to and in the future, if it does become something that can make money then at that moment we’ll address that.”

The station has become a kind of hometown station by Block Island workers for island workers.

Somerville is a bar back at the National Hotel and an assistant manager at the town beach; Simpson works at Harry’s and Larson has plans to open an art gallery in Maine.

“I’ll give shout outs to all the kids down on moped alley giving demonstrations because it’s a tough job to have. It’s a thankless job to have. And we want to give everybody that little moral booster. While you’re sweating in the kitchen and it’s 100 degrees, you’re in the weeds, and you’ve been working all day and then all of a sudden you hear ‘this one’s going out to every kitchen on Block Island. We know what you’re doing, we know how hard you’re working, and we appreciate it.’ That’s what it’s all about,” said O’Donnell.

The OHP also hopes the station will provide a service to those visiting the island.

“People coming out to the island; they don’t know where to eat, they don’t know who’s playing at the bar; ‘Tune in to 96.9 FM to find out great deals for the night, find out who’s playing at Captain Nick’s who’s playing at Kittens, find out what’s going on, the weather,’ all that stuff. I mean it’s something for Block Island.”

The Old Harbor Pirates will continue to be “on-air” through Columbus Day and hope the station will continue to grow. “We’ve taken so much from this island. We’ve all been here for three to five years and we feel like we owe the island something. We have cleaned up the beach, we have helped out in the harbor, but this is the first time where we’ve created something that really benefits the island. I mean, what’s better than a pirate radio station on a pirate island? That’s what it is,” says Larson.