A Brief History Of Pirate Radio
What types of counseling do you and your neighbors receive on a daily basis through the airways? Is it propaganda, or perhaps censored? Perhaps how the daily news is presented is partially determined by the interests of large advertisers, or the playlist drawn almost exclusively from the three big music labels?
These and related issues have cropped up numerous times since the 1920’s and the dawn of publicly broadcast radio. However, when all that’s needed to circumvent arbitrary, restrictive laws is a soldering iron and a couple of vacuum tubes, it’s basically a given that someone will. When governments tried to regulate how and for what the radio spectrum could be used, a few rebels took up arms and gramophone needles against the system and played that which some people wanted to hear, even if a few laws and a border or two happened to be in the way.
Early Days (1890’s to 1950’s)
Initially, legislation surrounding radio had nothing to do with the content of broadcasts, but were motivated by the practical need to stop anyone with a spark gap transmitter from interfering with maritime signals, which could obviously become a matter of life and death. Radio hams were told to stay off certain bands, allocated their own frequency range and otherwise mostly left to their own devices.
One notable exception, in the United States, was that the president could shut down radio stations by fiat in time of war, which was done during WWI. It was hoped that this would put a crimp on both espionage and propaganda.This was perhaps not unreasonable: the German language, at the time the second most widely spoken tongue in the United States, was also banned in almost any public setting, leading to the arrest of over 18,000 people.
The principle had been set: freedom of speech was not above political necessity. Even in democratic nations, and certainly in Fascist and Communist countries, content ranging from news to music would now be controlled in times of both peace and war. In terms of propaganda, each side tried to demoralize its enemies while keeping its own population productive and loyal. In countries ranging from East Germany to Great Britain, it was actually illegal to listen to “unauthorized” transmissions originating from outside the country’s borders.
Rock ‘n’ Roll (1960’s to 2000’s)
As societal norms began to change at an increasing rate and transistors replaced vacuum tubes, an increasing number of disaffected youth got their hands on radio receivers. In Europe, iconoclastic broadcasters began to broadcast from boats anchored in international waters, leading to the term “pirate radio” becoming popular. In the U.S, “free radio” stations began popping up around the San Francisco area, broadcasting from secret locations on land.
While some of these stations specialized in playing banned content or promoting controversial views, a number of them were simply middle-of-the-road commercial ventures that didn’t feel the need to subject themselves to formal licensing requirements. What eventually killed them off was not any kind of massive government crackdown, but that mainstream, licensed programming increasingly began to resemble that of pirate stations as it proved the existence of untapped markets. In a few cases, particularly along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, some radio stations still obtain legal licenses in one country with the intention of broadcasting across the border, thereby evading restrictions such as those on output power.
Streaming and Podcasting (2000’s and Onward)
Just like compact transmitters made pirate radio possible, the UDP protocol and broadband internet reduced the barriers to entry in the radio market still further. Today, anyone with a microphone, a PC and an internet connection can theoretically set up his very own radio channel.
As these are completely unregulated and unlicensed, the quality and focus of these stations vary widely, from conventional, commercial radio stations providing simultaneous webcasts of their normal transmissions to the downright nutty. As with pirate stations in days gone by, the difficulty of forcing them off the air is completely out of proportion to the actual damage they can cause. Censorship is therefore dead unless a country is willing to cripple their internet access at the same time, and since the broadcast range extends to most of the planet, everyone can now have their say. Whether your interest is in Bornean folk music or chasing UFOs, there is probably a web radio station just right for you.