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Scanning for Pirates

Radio pirates can be found anywhere on the radio spectrum from AM to shortwave. Your best bet, however, is shortwave. Here, you have an opportunity to catch pirates from around the world (since shortwave signals get trapped in the ionosphere and bounce around the planet).

To nab shortwave pirates, you need a good quality shortwave radio and a decent antenna. This doesn't have to set you back big bucks. A mid-priced model such as The Sangean ATS-803A (a.k.a. the now-discontinued Radio Shack DX-440) comes highly recommended. (That's what I use.) Radios in this price range sell new for under $200. Check ham swaps, want ads, and Usenet newsgroups like for used ones. The shortwave newsgroup ( is a great place to find information on good, low-cost SW sets and advice on the type of radio you'll need.

For good reception—good enough to hear pirates—you'll need to string an external antenna. They don't cost much, they just take some tree and ladder climbing and wire stringing. Some areas of the country don't get good shortwave reception (or require certain "hacks" to make your radio work better), so before you invest, ask around on the Net's radio groups about shortwave experiences in your area.

When buying a shortwave radio, make sure it:

  1. covers the entire shortwave spectrum, from 1.6-30 MHz,
  2. has an external antenna jack and an AC adapter,
  3. has BFO pitch adjustment/Single Sideband (SSB) capability,
  4. has RF Gain control to pull in weak signals,
  5. and is connected to a decent, ideally outdoor, antenna.
  6. An audio output jack is a handy bonus.

— Gareth Branwyn

How to "QSL" a Pirate Station

One of the coolest things about pirate radio listening is the receipt of QSL cards. In all radio hobbies, QSLing is the act of a listener verifying a radio broadcast by sending a "reception report," a letter or postcard describing the broadcast they heard: when, where, on what frequency, etc. The commercial station, ham operator, or pirate sends back a QSL card (or letter) to the listener thanking them for providing the broadcast info and restating the time, location, and frequency that the listener reported. Receiving these reports helps the broadcaster learn how far their broadcasts traveled and other information that listeners provide on signal strength, sound quality, and content. For listeners, QSLing is a way of participating in a given radio community...and the cards are fun to collect.

In the pirate scene, QSL cards vary greatly in quality, from funky hand-drawn doodles to professional-looking pieces with station logos, photos, and other commercial radio trappings. Collecting pirate QSLs is exciting to radio geeks because of how difficult finding a pirate signal can be and because most pirates won't give out a mailing address on the air. The rarity of these QSL cards and the difficulty involved in getting them makes them precious to radio geeks.

The basic proceedure one follows in preparing a reception report and seeking a QSL response goes something like this:

  1. Listen for the station name during the broadcast (which pirates like to announce repeatedly). It's rare, but they might also give a mailing address. Armed with the name of the station, find their mail drop address listed in pirate logs or directories (such as The Black Book, available on the net, or "The Pirate Radio Directory," available in print).

  2. Send a "reception report" (a simple letter will do) containing your location, when you heard the broadcast (in Greenwich Mean Time/Coordinated Universal Time), and the frequency you heard it on.

  3. Also tell them what you thought of the broadcast, both in terms of technical quality and content.

  4. Toss in some return postage, IRC coupons, or a few bucks with your letter. Pirating is a no-budget operation, so they need all the financial support they can get. It's also expensive and time consuming to mail out the cards, so make sure you're nice to them and thank them for their effort.

  5. Also, it doesn't hurt to ask for any other information they may have available. A few stations have periodic newsletters or other stuff to send out.

-- Gareth Branwyn

Radio Resources


Pirate Radio: The Incredible Saga of America's Underground, Illegal Broadcasters
Andrew Yoder
HighText Publications
P.O. Box 1489
Solana Beach, CA 92075
$29.95 + $4.00 shipping
Andrew's latest tome is a book with an accompanying audio CD that provides a primer on pirate radio as well as a casual history of the medium. The attached audio CD is a great idea, since most people don't have the time or interest to catch many pirates in the act. Unfortunately, it only contains 14 broadcast excerpts, small audio blips that go by much too quickly. They should have included at least twice as many examples. The book is also loaded with resource listing and how-to information and illustrated with lots of QSL cards and photos of pirate stations.


Free Radio Berkeley/Free Communications Commission 1442 A Walnut St. #406
Berkeley, CA 94709
(510) 464-3041
Steve Dunifer and Free Radio Berkeley almost always come up in general discussions of pirate radio. FRB puts out a newsletter ("Reclaiming the Airwaves") and a catalog of cool radio kits and accessories. Unfortuantely, I've heard mixed reviews of FRB's service when filling orders for radio kits, so before you send them any money, ask around on for recommendations.

Radio Shack
(at a mall near you)
Pick up a copy of the Shack's catalog and keep it handy. They carry a number of inexpensive shortwave sets, scanners, and parts for making your own radio equipment (for the true gearheads among you). Their in-store magazine "Radio!" also has lots of how-to and educational articles about all aspects of radio.

Universal Radio
6830 Americana Pkwy.
Reynoldsburg, OH 43068 USA
614-866-2329 (fax)
Great source for shortwave radios, VHF/UHF scanners, and ham gear. Ask for their flyer of used equipment.

THE spot on the Net to discuss pirate radio, to announce radio- related events and to report pirate sightings.
Great place for information on everything from shortwave equipment to what you can find on the shortwave dial.
The radio want ads. People selling everything from pirate radio transmitters to shortwave sets to VHF/UHF scanners.