If you’re driving through the greater Ravenswood area and tune your radio dial to 87.9 FM, you might just enter a sort of radio twilight zone. On tap? Old timey, crime-thriller radio dramas, complete with sleuthy melodramatic music, damsels in distress and classic radio sound effects – footsteps, doors slamming, the gun going off.
There are no call letters or DJs, just “audio noir” floating out over a two-square-mile sweet spot on Chicago’s North Side.
It’s all broadcast illegally out of a nondescript two-flat on a residential block. There’s a spindly antenna on the roof, visible mainly from the alley, and a 50-watt transmitter in the upstairs apartment. And there’s Bill, a retired computer and audio engineer who’s been operating this illegal station for some 15 years. He asked us not to use his last name for fear of “FCC prison.”
“People on the lakefront up in the high rises can hear it,” said Bill. “And they used to listen at Lane Tech somewhere on an upper floor. So it gets out a little ways, but not that far.”
Bill got into noir not because it’s gripping radio, but rather because it’s not. He has insomnia, and the plot lines from Dragnet and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar help him fall asleep.
He decided if listening to this stuff could help him, maybe it could help others. In 2006, he started an internet station, audionoir.com, which streams a 2,119-track playlist on repeat; 761 hours in all, about a month of 24-hour-a-day audio drama. Listenership on the online station peaks around 3 a.m., which confirms for Bill he’s not the only one using this to get to sleep.
Why take the extra step of illegally broadcasting the same content out to the immediate neighborhood? We’re talking about an audio engineer here, folks.
“I already had equipment,” said Bill, 68. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing else to do with this stuff— I’ll transmit this.’
“I guess I do enjoy the bad-boy nerd, broadcasting illegally,” he admitted.
Bill said his station is “halfway between a hobby and a side hustle”; listeners send donations to pay for the servers and keep the audio drama coming. The enclosed porch where he has his workshop looks like a mini Radio Shack. He builds speakers and amplifiers on the side; wire and transistors are sorted into neatly labeled plastic drawers.
Crackdowns on pirate radio
This is not Bill’s first experience broadcasting illegally. He had an AM pirate station in high school in Milwaukee during “the Vietnam anti-war days. The military recruiters wanted to come to my high school, and there were a number of protests that were not covered by any media, but we talked about them,” said Bill.
That pirate station attracted the Federal Communications Commission to his parents’ home. Later, in college at Madison, Bill helped found WORT. He’s helped artists use radio in their work — he once broadcast from the roof of the Hyde Park Art Center.
“[The artist] had a series of instructions on cassette tape that I played into this transmitter,” he remembers. Visitors were given headphone radios.
“They started out in one spot, and then they were told, ‘OK, walk 40 feet ahead, turn left. Now walk 20 feet.’ And after a while they actually ended up dispersing, so it was a kind of social experiment. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Bill is a little shocked the FCC hasn’t shut down Audio Noir. The feds consider illegal radio transmissions a serious crime – they say pirate radio can interfere with public safety frequencies and legit stations — and they recently upped the fine for illegally broadcasting to $2 million. Bill said he picked a spot on the dial where there’s room; 87.9 FM is licensed to Olivet Nazarene College in Kankakee, and Chicago’s North Side is out of the college’s guaranteed range.
It’s been a long time since the FCC shut anyone down in Illinois. In the last decade, the feds have sent just one cease-and-desist letter in the state, to a pirate station broadcasting in suburban Lisle.
You have to go back more than 20 years to get to a really big pirate radio case here. That’s when police and the FCC raided the home of activist-turned-broadcaster Mbanna Kantako in Springfield. They seized Kantako’s antenna and transmitters, which he used to broadcast in the John Jay Homes housing complex where he lived. His call letters were WTRA, for the Tenants’ Rights Association he was a part of.
Kantako used radio as social protest, blasting the housing authority police on air and promoting Black liberation and human rights. His 1-watt signal traveled just a few blocks, but could be heard by thousands of his neighbors. It was a way to speak to people directly without going through the mainstream press, Kantako said. Later, at a talk on a college campus, Kantako addressed why he used radio.
“It’s a perfect meeting room, if you will,” Kantako said. “One of the aspects of the Black Panther Party was they had political education classes. So when we started talking about the radio – that’s what we were going to use the radio station for – political education classes.”
Kantako’s brand of radio is an important part of the history of pirate stations —hyperlocal, often serving communities neglected by mainstream media, often political.
There are currently vibrant pirate radio scenes in Miami, Boston and New York City.
Radio producer David Goren has been researching, mapping and archiving audio from pirate stations for his Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map project. He said stations exist in West Indian, Latino and some Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. And despite lots of FCC enforcement in the area, “activity is stable. In Brooklyn there are 25-30 stations on every day,” Goren said.
During the pandemic, underground stations moved even closer to their immigrant audiences, he noted. They spent more hours on air and targeted programming to the demographically vulnerable.
Take La Voix du Peuple, for instance. During the height of the pandemic, the station aired English news stories about the pandemic with hosts simultaneously translating the news into Haitian Creole.
In addition to health information, pirate stations offered “interviews with local officials, shoutouts to essential workers, prayers for the sick and remembrances of those who died, along with COVID Calypsos and Quarantine Mixes,” Goren wrote in a recent essay.
“These unlicensed stations act as a bridge, bringing sounds from ancestral homes to a new home, transforming time, space and culture.”
In Chicago, Bill isn’t aware of any other pirate stations operating right now. And he said Audio Noir only exists for enjoyment; there’s no broader political message.
While he admitted he likes “the clandestine aspect of it,” he said he’s actually not trying to snub his nose at the FCC. If the airwaves weren’t regulated, it would be “chaos,” he said, and if the FCC asks him to stop, he will.
But Bill thinks Chicago would benefit from a little more pirate radio, something to break up the DJ-centric format that dominates both commercial stations and community radio.
“I think it would be exciting….You would have a lot of different content, from religious to political to old time radio to music.”
There could be artistic and experimental radio — all hyperlocal, of course.
But even Bill said the odds of that happening seem slim. For one, there’s the internet, which is where most of this sort of thing has moved. And young people haven’t grown up with radio; that means there are fewer and fewer people exploring the far ends of the radio dial.
Then again, “what’s old is new when it hasn’t been around for a while,” said Bill. Someday, maybe Chicago’s artists or activists will figure out those airwaves are still right there — and pirate away.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow @lindalutton.