Airwave Anarchy Logo

STIM: Well, first off, what exactly is meant by "pirate radio?"

WFAT: Free Speech Radio
STIM: Andrew Yoder:
Well, first off, what exactly is meant by "pirate radio?" The definition is somewhat subjective. In general, it just means unlicensed hobby broadcasting. Some people stretch it into the arena of unlicensed amateur and commercial two-way talk, stations that jam others, etc, but that stuff is usually called "bootlegging."
What are the laws against pirating?

There aren't any set "laws against pirating." The FCC would disagree, but their rulebook actually only covers commercial operations. The fine for unlicensed broadcasting is the same as if a major commercial broadcaster were to be caught without a license. It's like if the laws for littering were the same regardless of whether you tossed a can out of your car window or were a corporation dumping industrial waste. So, the maximum fine for unlicensed broadcasting is $100,000 and 1 year in prison, whether you're running a 10-watt hobby transmitter on a clear frequency or a 100-kilowatt powerhouse on AM that's stepping on other stations' signals.
Is the law enforced? The FCC never goes for the maximum fines against hobby pirates. But over the past few years, they've levied a few fines in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. They seem to believe that fines in this range are reasonable, in light of the maximum. However, considering that virtually no damage is caused by broadcasting on clear frequency (and it's certainly less harmful than running a red light, driving while intoxicated, etc.), these fines are ridiculous.
Has anyone fought these fines? Some of the recipients have fought the FCC. They fight them by ignoring them or they've fought the Commission in court. Plenty of controversey has brewed over the past few years about the balance between violent criminals being let out of prison too soon and prison overcrowding/expenses. Most judges would probably laugh off a massive fine or a jail term for a radio pirate, when felons are back on the streets in six months. The result is that, to date, the FCC's high fines against pirates have all fallen through. Lately, the FCC has been completely inactive against pirates. Their last actions were over a year ago. Rather than issue a fine or go to court, they "arrested" (confiscated) the shortwave receiver and amateur radio transceiver of an accused operator.
So they just confiscate the gear? Yeah, that seems to be the trend right now, but considering the recent FCC inactivity, it's anybody's guess as to what will happen next.

"How did you get involved in pirate radio?"

Hope Radio International Manifesto

STIM: Andrew Yoder:
How did you get involved in pirate radio? In 1981 I found a copy of S9 (a now-defunct CB radio magazine) that had a pirate radio column. That same year, I found a book called How To Tune the Secret Shortwave Spectrum by Harry Helms. That book really set me off hunting for pirates because everything seemed so interesting, secretive, and exciting! I saved up money and begged my parents for a radio. Finally I got a shortwave radio in 1982 (through a combination of allowance money and a Christmas gift). I listened to a bunch of stuff that I was clueless about and after getting pretty bummed out about not logging any pirates, I finally started hearing some stuff the next year. I found pirate radio to be as exciting as what I had read about, so I've stuck with it since then.
What's the nature of your involvement now? Lots of listening. Because I've been such a big fan of pirates, I've gotten to know some of them. In the late '80s, the scene really croaked. Most stations faded away and as a result, most listeners split. The publicity was gone. I was one of the few people who stuck around. I've gotten very into pirate radio history, and it seemed a shame that this history might be lost forever. So, after the Radio New York International incident in 1987, I started working on my first pirate book, which was published in 1990. Because of that one, I've written several others, including my current book "Pirate Radio: The Amazing Saga of America's Underground, Illegal Broadcasters." I also write magazine articles, newsletter columns, etc. about pirates and other aspects of radio.
How do the pirates regard you? Well, because of my writing and research over the years, more and more of seem to trust my opinions on different topics. I guess I've become kind of a cross between an analyst, a consultant, and a drooling fan-club president.
What sorts of people are involved in radio piracy?

A really wide variety. There are a number of very bright, creative people involved in the scene. I've known of professional broadcasters and engineers, doctors, lawyers, physicists, and biochemists who do illegal broadcasting. And there are a number of talented people who avoid the professional world altogether and are unemployed or hold menial jobs while pirating.
Can you describe a "typical" broadcast? That's tough. Pirate broadcasts run the gamut from being as professionally-produced, funny and creative as any licensed station to to the worst stinking karaoke/free drink night at a redneck bar that you can imagine. You never know what you'll hear. That's one of the things that makes it so exciting.

"What sorts of equipment does one need to be a pirate?"

STIM: Andrew Yoder:
What sorts of equipment does one need to be a pirate?

The only equipment that a pirate really must have is a transmitter, an antenna, and a microphone. For the FM band, most pirates get a simple FM transmitter kit from an ad in an electronics magazine. These transmitters put out a miniscule amount of power, so they then have to build an illegal amplifier or modify an amateur radio amplifier to work in the FM band. For shortwave pirating, the stations typically use old ham radio gear without modification, although a few people are building some miniature battery-powered transmitters now. Amateur radio equipment is great because it's dirt cheap. I know a few pirates that have picked up transmitters for $15 to $30 and were soon heard as far as 1,500 miles away. The AM broadcast band is fairly accessible because it's adjacent to the shortwave bands; some amateur radio equipment will operate fine without modification at the top of the AM broadcast band (1600 to 1710 kHz) The rest of the equipment depends on the type of sound that the station wants to have. Some stations now are doing everything on computer.
What equipment do you need for that? Just a fast computer, a huge hard drive, and some audio editing software and the radio waves are yours to manipulate. One guy on the Internet was recently writing about using some .wav file station IDs, songs, and a jukebox program to run a non-stop automated pirate station. That kind of dehumanizes what should be a very personal medium, but still the different possibilities are exciting.
And then you need audio sources for music and such, right? Yeah, all the traditional studio equipment can be used: cassette decks, microphones, CD players, turntables (for oldies and indy records), and (of course!) a Radio Shack audio mixer. More specialized equipment might include sound effects boxes (such as guitar pedals), radio station cart machines, patch bays, DAT decks, compressor/limiters, you name it. The cost of a typical pirate studio usually ranges anywhere from fifty dollars to several thousands of dollars. Part of that cost also depends on how well the station staff can scrounge and repair audio equipment.
And what equipment does a person need to listen to pirates? How does one go about finding them on the dial? Just a radio and an external antenna, in some cases. For example, RFM in Massachussetts and WJTS in Florida have been on 1630 kHz in the expanded AM band lately. If you live near Berkeley and San Francisco, you can hear Free Radio Berkeley and San Francisco Liberation Radio; in Minneapolis, 2000 Flushes Radio; in New York, WJQR or WHOT, etc. on the FM broadcast band. For most of the population, the best bet is with shortwave radio—especially near 6955 kHz. You can pick up a new shortwave radio that's capable of hearing pirates for as little as $150. Used radios can cost even less. You can pick up a new radio from Radio Shack, but it is worth your while to shop around. One of the best new/used dealers is Universal Radio, which offers catalogs, used price sheets, and good advice.
What's a QSL card and how do pirates issue them?

QSL cards fit in with the whole hobby aspect of radio listening. They are station logo cards that verify that you heard a particular broadcast. To write a reception report for a QSL, you listen to a broadcast, copy down details from the broadcast, mention the date, time, and frequency, and hopefully throw in some program comments or personal details. If the report is correct, the station will send back a QSL that verifies that you heard the station on that date, time, and frequency. To me, QSLs are really great because they are one of the tangible elements of the station. They encapsulate the whole persona of the station. Because many pirates are die-hard radio enthusiasts, there are some really cool QSLs. For example, CSIC sends out a rubber chicken for every 50th QSL, The Car Show verified on antique car parts, WORK QSLed on an actual, punched-out time card, Radio USA verifies on station t-shirts for every 500th report, Radio Repulso verified on really tacky yard sale items. I think this stuff is really cool. It's neat to show a friend a few albums of these cards so they can get an idea of what pirate radio is all about.

"Can you entertain our attention-impaired STIM audience with some cool pirate radio stories?"

Radio Free Euphoria!
STIM: Andrew Yoder:
Can you entertain our attention-impaired STIM audience with some cool pirate radio stories? Wow, I've heard some pretty good ones! One that I like is about a heavy metal pirate from the 1980s. The guy taped all of his own programs and he would broadcast late at night and lie in bed listening to them. One day, work had evidently been rough and he fell asleep during his broadcast. The next morning, one of his friends turned on the radio and the station's dead carrier was still there after six hours! He gave a wake-up call for the station op. The guy was so scared that the FCC was waiting right there for him that he pulled out some of the transmitter parts and hid them around the house. He was terrified, he never pirated again, and some of the parts were lost forever.
One FM pirate from The Netherlands was rumored to be cranking out 10,000 watts from an apartment building. The Dutch Post Office had no problem tracking the station down because the lights were flickering in time with the music. The huge transmitter was drawing so much power that it was affecting the whole apartment building!
There were some great stories from the commercial European offshore stations of the 1960s. Some of those ships broke loose from their moorings and at least one of them sank. At the time, these stations were the only radio sources for rock music in Europe. In addition to the hazards of the oceans, a bunch of these stations were closed by their respective governments. The emotional pleas from the staff and the fan support was simply amazing--these real stories make "Pump Up the Volume" look mundane. I talked with one Radio Caroline fan who was, I believe, a young teen in the late '60s, early '70s. He heard a distress call from Radio Caroline and responded even though it was illegal to do so. He called a phone number on the mainland and helped save the station.
What are some of the weirdest things that you've heard over the airwaves? I've heard a lot of weird stuff, but some of the stations try so hard to be weird that it's becomes predictable.

One genuinely weird station that I heard was WPIG. The station was operated by "Ira," who sang lots of kids' songs a cappella with a speech impediment. The guy gave out his home phone number and address, but still managed to stay on shortwave almost every night. Some people who called in made the mistake of giving Ira their home phone numbers. They were then treated to regular calls from Ira, who had a sort of pirate megalomania--he wanted to broadcast on all frequencies, including cordless phone frequencies! When the FCC finally closed WPIG, it was discovered that Ira was broadcasting from a group home in New Jersey.

One really interesting station is KEND, the Voice of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. They rarely appear on-air, but when they do, it's only on days when a prisoner is executed. The broadcasts are well-produced features about executions and death. I guess it's kind of like a radio version of those "Faces of Death" videos.

"How do you think the Net is affecting pirate radio?"

STIM: Andrew Yoder:
How do you think the Net is affecting pirate radio? The communications are helping tremendously. Computerheads and others can check into the group on Usenet and learn plenty about the hobby. They can ask questions and find out most anything that they need to know about pirate radio. Also, a pirate can send e-mail to a few dozen listeners and amass an audience. A few stations have been producing skits over vast distances by sending different parts as .wav files over the Net. Really cool.
Do you think that amateur, non-commercial "netcasting" (radio over the Internet) will ever get big? Yeah, I do. It appears that the Internet will be a great boost for hobby broadcasting. However, currently only 3.6% of the population is on the Net. And, unless you attend a university, the Internet isn't free. So, the only free hobby broadcasting is still over the airwaves.
Is it likely to replace airwave piracy? I doubt it. If anything, I think netcasting will help augment pirating. Traditional pirates will have their programs broadcast over the Internet and they will continue to pirate on the shortwave. They'll greatly increase their audiences this way. I'm sure that some emerging hobby broadcasters will stick to netcasting, but many of the listeners will probably view them as "not having enough guts to actually pirate the airwaves."
What do you think is the future of pirate radio?

The way that technology is beginning to develop, the possibilities are vast. Now it would be possible to establish inexpensive remote transmitter sites in regions that are far from any FCC field offices. For example, a room with electricity and a telephone could be set up in a remote area. If the room was equipped with a transmitter and a computer, the equipment could be turned on/off and fed with live programming via an offsite computer. That's just one possibility. Broadcasting via car is a lot less technologically sophisticated, but it's still really effective.

As far as the whole pirate scene goes, I think that it'll continue indefinitely. As long as there is radio, there will be radio pirates. The need for piracy grows wherever there's a need for creative audio outlets (such as the European offshore stations of the '60s and the unlicensed community stations in El Salvador right now). We have a huge number of radio stations in North America. It might seem like we've got everything covered, but we don't. And even though more stations keep coming on the air, there is less selection. I live in Pennsylvania, between Harrisburg and Washington, DC. We're out of range of the college stations. Every format is Top 40: Top 40 Country, Album Rock, Pop, Oldies, and Talk. You hear the same hits by the same groups. There's a real need for good standard-format radio stations, not to mention niche and weird formats. For example, there's a real need for community stations, such as Korean (or Cuban, Mexican, etc.) cultural broadcasters. There are so many possibilities for programming. I look forward to seeing how future pirate radio will fill this void. </end>

GARETH BRANWYN is the Senior Editor of bOING bOING and co-author of bOING bOING's Happy Mutant Handbook. He's currently writing a book about do-it-yourself/subversive media.

Images from the collection of Andrew Yoder