Pirate radio

Pirate radio or a pirate radio station is a radio station that broadcasts without a valid license.

In some cases radio stations are considered legal where the signal is transmitted, but illegal where the signals are received—especially when the signals cross a national boundary. In other cases, a broadcast may be considered "pirate" due to the nature of its content, its transmission format (especially a failure to transmit a station identification according to regulations), or the transmit power (wattage) of the station, even if the transmission is not technically illegal (such as an amateur radio transmission). Pirate radio is sometimes called bootleg radio (a term especially associated with two-way radio), clandestine radio (associated with heavily politically motivated operations) or free radio.

Het REM-eiland, Bestanddeelnr 917-2504
REM Island was a platform off the Dutch coast used as a pirate radio station in 1964 before being dismantled by the Netherlands Marine Corps.

Pirate-radio history and examples

Radio "piracy" began with the advent of regulations of the public airwaves in the United States at the dawn of the age of radio. Initially, radio, or wireless as it was more commonly called, was an open field of hobbyists and early inventors and experimenters. The United States Navy began using radio for time signals and weather reports on the east coast of the United States in the 1890s. Before the advent of valve (vacuum tube) technology, early radio enthusiasts used noisy spark-gap transmitters, such as the first spark-gap modulation technology pioneered by the first real audio (rather than telegraph code) radio broadcaster, Charles D. Herrold, in San Jose, California, or the Ruhmkorff coil used by almost all early experimenters. The navy soon began complaining to a sympathetic press that amateurs were disrupting naval transmissions. The May 25, 1907, edition of Electrical World in an article called "Wireless and Lawless"[1] reported authorities were unable to prevent an amateur from interfering with the operation of a government station at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard using legal means.

In the run-up to the London Radiotelegraph Convention in 1912 (essentially an international gentlemen's agreement on use of the radio band, non-binding and, on the high seas, completely null), and amid concerns about the safety of marine radio following the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15 of that year (although there were never allegations of radio interference in that event), the New York Herald of April 17, 1912, headlined President William Howard Taft's initiative to regulate the public airwaves in an article titled "President Moves to Stop Mob Rule of Wireless."

When the "Act to Regulate Radio Communication" was passed on August 13, 1912, amateurs and experimenters were not banned from broadcasting; rather, amateurs were assigned their own frequency spectrum, and licensing and call-signs were introduced. By regulating the public airwaves, President Taft thus created the legal space for illicit broadcasts to take place. An entire federal agency, the Federal Radio Commission, was formed in 1927 and succeeded in 1934 by the Federal Communications Commission. These agencies would enforce rules on call-signs, assigned frequencies, licensing and acceptable content for broadcast.

The Radio Act of 1912 gave the president legal permission to shut down radio stations "in time of war", and during the first two and a half years of World War I, before US entry, President Wilson tasked the US Navy with monitoring US radio stations, nominally to "ensure neutrality." The navy used this authority to shut down amateur radio in the western part of the US (the US was divided into two civilian radio "districts" with corresponding call-signs, beginning with "K" in the west and "W" in the east, in the regulatory measures; the navy was assigned call-signs beginning with "N"). When Wilson declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, he also issued an executive order closing most radio stations not needed by the US government. The navy took it a step further and declared it was illegal to listen to radio or possess a receiver or transmitter in the US, but there were doubts they had the authority to issue such an order even in war time. The ban on radio was lifted in the US in late 1919.[2]

In 1924, New York City station WHN was accused by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) of being an "outlaw station" for violating trade licenses which permitted only AT&T stations to sell airtime on their transmitters. As a result of the AT&T interpretation a landmark case was heard in court, which even prompted comments from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover when he took a public stand in the station's defense. Although AT&T won its case, the furor created was such that those restrictive provisions of the transmitter license were never enforced.

Radio station WJAZ, Chicago, 'wave pirates' publicity photograph (1926)
In 1926 WJAZ in Chicago, Illinois challenged the U.S. government's authority to specify operating frequencies and was charged with being a "wave pirate". The station responded with this February 1926 publicity photograph of its engineering staff dressed as "wave pirates".[3]

In 1926, WJAZ in Chicago changed its frequency to one previously reserved for Canadian stations without getting permission to make the change, and was charged by the federal government with "wave piracy". The resulting legal battle found that the Radio Act of 1912 did not allow the U.S. government to require stations to operate on specific frequencies, and the result was the passage of the Radio Act of 1927 to strengthened the government's regulatory authority.

In 1948, the United Nations brought into being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Article 19 states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

In Europe, Denmark had the first known radio station in the world to broadcast commercial radio from a vessel in international waters without permission from the authorities in the country that it broadcast to (Denmark in this case). The station was named Radio Mercur and began transmission on August 2, 1958. In the Danish newspapers it was soon called a "pirate radio".

In the 1960s in the UK, the term referred to not only a perceived unauthorized use of the state-run spectrum by the unlicensed broadcasters but also the risk-taking nature of offshore radio stations that actually operated on anchored ships or marine platforms. The term had been used previously in Britain and the US to describe unlicensed land-based broadcasters and even border blasters (for example, a 1940 British comedy about an unauthorized TV broadcaster, Band Waggon, uses the phrase "pirate station" several times). A good example of this kind of activity was Radio Luxembourg located in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The English language evening broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg were beamed by Luxembourg-licensed transmitters. The audience in the United Kingdom originally listened to their radio sets by permission of a wireless license issued by the British General Post Office (GPO). However, under terms of that wireless licence, it was an offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act to listen to unauthorised broadcasts, which possibly included those transmitted by Radio Luxembourg. Therefore, as far as the British authorities were concerned, Radio Luxembourg was a "pirate radio station" and British listeners to the station were breaking the law (although as the term 'unauthorised' was never properly defined it was somewhat of a legal grey area). This did not stop British newspapers from printing programme schedules for the station, or a British weekly magazine aimed at teenage girls, Fab 208, from promoting the DJs and their lifestyle (Radio Luxembourg's wavelength was 208 metres (1439, then 1440 kHz)).

Radio Luxembourg was later joined by other well-known pirate stations received in the UK in violation of UK licensing, including Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta (subsequently Radio Carolines North and South respectively, following their merger and the original ship's relocation) and Radio London, all of which broadcast from vessels anchored outside of territorial limits and were therefore legitimate. Radio Jackie, for instance (although transmitting illegally), was registered for VAT and even had its address and telephone number in local telephone directories.

Where actual seafaring vessels are not involved, the term pirate radio is a political term of convenience as the word "pirate" suggests an illegal venture, regardless of the broadcast's actual legal status. The radio station XERF located at Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, US, is an example.

While Mexico issued radio station XERF with a license to broadcast, the power of its 250 kW transmitter was far greater than the maximum of 50 kW authorized for commercial use by the government of the United States of America. Consequently, XERF and many other radio stations in Mexico, which sold their broadcasting time to sponsors of English-language commercial and religious programs, were labelled as "border blasters", but not "pirate radio stations", even though the content of many of their programs could not have been aired by a US-regulated broadcaster. Predecessors to XERF, for instance, had originally broadcast in Kansas, advocating "goat-gland surgery" for improved masculinity, but moved to Mexico to evade US laws about advertising medical treatments, particularly unproven ones.

Free radio

Another variation on the term pirate radio came about during the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco during the 1960s. These were "Free radio", which usually referred to secret and unlicensed land-based transmissions. These were also tagged as being pirate radio transmissions. Free Radio was used only to refer to radio transmissions that were beyond government control, as was offshore radio in the UK and Europe.

The term free radio was adopted by the Free Radio Association of listeners who defended the rights of the offshore "radio stations" broadcasting from ships and marine structures off the coastline of the United Kingdom.

Félix Guattari points out:

Technological development, and in particular the miniaturization of transmitters and the fact that they can be put together by amateurs, 'encounters' a collective aspiration for some new means of expression.

— Félix Guattari[4]

In Europe, in addition to adopting the term free radio, supportive listeners of what had been called pirate radio adopted the term offshore radio, which was usually the term used by the owners of the marine broadcasting stations.

More recently the term "free radio" implied that the broadcasts were commercial-free and the station was there only for the output, be it a type of music or spoken opinion. In this context, 'pirate' radio thus refers to stations that do advertise and plug various gigs and raves.

Pirate radio by geographical area

Since this subject covers national territories, international waters and international airspace, the only effective way to treat this subject is on a country by country, international waters and international airspace basis. Because the laws vary, the interpretation of the term pirate radio also varies considerably.

Propaganda broadcasting

Propaganda broadcasting may be authorized by the government at the transmitting site, but may be considered unwanted or illegal by the government of the intended reception area. Propaganda broadcasting conducted by national governments against the interests of other national governments has created radio jamming stations transmitting noises on the same frequency to prevent reception of the incoming signal. While the United States transmitted its programs towards the Soviet Union, which attempted to jam them, in 1970 the government of the United Kingdom decided to employ a jamming transmitter to drown out the incoming transmissions from the commercial station Radio North Sea International, which was based aboard the motor vessel (MV) Mebo II anchored off southeast England in the North Sea. Other examples of this type of unusual broadcasting include the USCGC Courier (WAGR-410), a United States Coast Guard cutter which both originated and relayed broadcasts of the Voice of America from an anchorage at the Greek island of Rhodes to Soviet bloc countries. Balloons have been flown above Key West, Florida, to support the TV transmissions of TV Martí, which are directed at Cuba (the Cuban government jams the signals). Military broadcasting aircraft have been flown over Vietnam, Iraq, and many other nations by the United States Air Force.

Piracy in amateur and two-way radio

Illegal use of licensed radio spectrum (also known as bootlegging in CB circles)[5] is fairly common and takes several forms.

  • Unlicensed operation—Particularly associated with amateur radio and licensed personal communication services such as GMRS, this refers to use of radio equipment on a section of spectrum for which the equipment is designed but on which the user is not licensed to operate (most such operators are informally known as "bubble pack pirates" from the sealed plastic retail packaging common to such walkie-talkies). While piracy on the US GMRS band, for example, is widespread (some estimates have the number of total GMRS users outstripping the number of licensed users by several orders of magnitude), such use is generally disciplined only in cases where the pirate's activity interferes with a licensee. A notable case is that of former United States amateur operator Jack Gerritsen operating under the revoked call sign KG6IRO[6] who was successfully prosecuted by the FCC for unlicensed operation and malicious interference.[7] A subcategory of this is free banding, the use of allocations nearby a legal allocation, most typically the 27 MHz Citizen's Band using modified or purpose-built gear.
  • Inadvertent interference—Common when personal communications gear is brought into countries where it is not certified to operate. Such interference results from clashing frequency allocations, and occasionally requires wholesale reallocation of an existing band due to an insurmountable interference problem; for example, the 2004 approval in Canada of the unlicensed use of the United States General Mobile Radio Service frequencies due to interference from users of FRS/GMRS radios from the United States, where Industry Canada had to transfer a number of licensed users on the GMRS frequencies to unoccupied channels to accommodate the expanded service.
  • Deliberate or malicious interference—refers to the use of two-way radio to harass or jam other users of a channel. Such behaviour is widely prosecuted, especially when it interferes with mission-critical services such as aviation radio or marine VHF radio.
  • Illegal equipment—This refers to the use of illegally modified equipment or equipment not certified for a particular band. Such equipment includes illegal linear amplifiers for CB radio, antenna or circuit modifications on walkie-talkies, the use of "export" radios for free banding, or the use of amateur radios on unlicensed bands that amateur gear is not certified for. The use of marine VHF radio gear for inland mobile radio operations is common in some countries, with enforcement difficult since marine VHF is generally the province of maritime authorities.

Examples of pirate radio stations

Popular culture

The films The Boat That Rocked,[12] Pump Up the Volume, and On the Air Live with Captain Midnight, as well as the TV series People Just Do Nothing are set in the world of pirate radio, while Born in Flames features pirate radio stations as being part of an underground political movement.

See also


  1. ^ Electrical world. McGraw-Hill. 1907. pp. 1023–. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  2. ^ "Thomas H. White. "United States Early Radio History"". Earlyradiohistory.us. Retrieved 2011-06-16.
  3. ^ WJAZ "wave pirates" publicity photograph, Popular Radio, May 1926, page 90.
  4. ^ Félix Guattari. "Plan for the Planet". In Molecular Revolution. Psychiatry and Politics. London: Penguin Books, 1984. p. 269.
  5. ^ Stan Gibilisco (1 January 1997). TAB Encyclopedia of Electronics for Technicians and Hobbyists. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-024190-9.
  6. ^ "W5YI Report". W5yi.org. Retrieved 2011-06-16.
  7. ^ "Apologetic Radio Jammer Jack Gerritsen Gets Seven Years, Fines". ARRL Web. Sep 19, 2006. Archived from the original on Apr 2, 2007.
  8. ^ "Les Paul's Pirate Radio Station in Queens". 7 March 2012.
  9. ^ "WRFN Radio Free Naptown". www.wrfn.org.
  10. ^ "North American Pirate Radio Hall Of Fame - KIPM". sites.google.com.
  11. ^ Yoder, Andrew (2002). Pirate Radio Stations: Tuning in to Underground Broadcasts in the Air and Online.
  12. ^ Overseas re-titles included Pirate Radio (US), Good Morning England (France), Radio Rock Revolution (Germany), The Rock Wave (Russia), and I Love Radio Rock (Italy).

External links

Abdullah Sungkar

Abdullah Sungkar (1937 – November 1999) founded and led Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamist terrorist and separatist organization. He was of Hadhrami Arab descent.

Dave Lee Travis

David Patrick Griffin (born 25 May 1945), known professionally as Dave Lee Travis, is an English disc jockey, radio presenter and television presenter.Travis began his broadcasting career on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline in 1965. He moved to BBC Radio 1 where he became one of the station's leading presenters during the 1970s and 1980s, and a regular presenter of Top of the Pops. Following his resignation from the BBC in 1993, he worked for several British commercial radio stations.

In November 2012, Travis was arrested by officers from Operation Yewtree on suspicion of historic sexual offences, which he denied. In February 2014, he was found not guilty on twelve of the counts, with the jury unable to reach a decision on a further two counts. Travis faced a retrial on the two outstanding counts; with an additional alleged offence from 1995. The retrial began on 5 September 2014. On 23 September he was found guilty by a majority verdict of one count of indecent assault and on 26 September given a three-month prison sentence suspended for two years.

Dead Air (Doctor Who)

Dead Air is an exclusive-to-audio Doctor Who story, produced as part of BBC Books' New Series Adventures line, and the seventh entry in the series to be produced. Written by author James Goss and read by David Tennant, it features the Tenth Doctor travelling alone. It is the Tenth Doctor's final story and was released on 4 March 2010.

Fab 40

The "Fab 40" (i.e. "Fabulous Forty") was a weekly playlist of popular records used by the British "pirate" radio station "Wonderful" Radio London (also known as "Big L") which broadcast off the Essex coast from 1964 to 1967.

KQLZ (defunct)

KQLZ (100.3 FM, "Pirate Radio") was an FM radio station in Los Angeles, California, United States that broadcast from March 17, 1989 to April 2, 1993. The station was launched with much attention from both radio and music industry trade publications.

KQLZ was owned by Westwood One, one of the largest producers and distributors of radio programming in the U.S. KQLZ was one of three radio stations the company purchased in 1989 in an attempt to expand its business to include radio station ownership. Westwood One paid $56 million in early 1989 for what was then KIQQ in Los Angeles, a soft adult contemporary station branded "K-Lite". In addition, the company hired noted New York City-based radio programmer and on-air personality Scott Shannon as the new station's program director and morning drive host. The station paid Shannon a then-industry-high yearly salary of $2.3 million.

After briefly registering successful ratings during its first six months, KQLZ soon garnered ratings too low to bill advertising rates high enough to sustain operating costs. Shannon was fired on February 13, 1991 and the station tried various format adjustments to help raise advertising revenue. In 1993, Westwood One sold KQLZ at a loss for only $40 million, $16 million less than what the company paid four years earlier. For these reasons, KQLZ is often cited by many in the radio industry as one of the most high-profile failures in the history of commercial radio in the United States.

Contrary to its brand management based moniker, the original KQLZ at 100.3 FM was not an actual pirate radio station. The station was licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, a regulatory agency that oversees telecommunications and radio frequency communications in the United States.


KUCI (88.9 FM) is a college radio station broadcasting a Variety format. Licensed to Irvine, California, United States, the station serves the Orange County area. The station is currently owned by Regents of the University of California.

Kiss (UK radio station)

Kiss is a UK radio station which broadcasts nationally on DAB Digital Radio, as well as on FM in London, Bristol and the Severn Estuary, and East Anglia. Kiss plays contemporary hits with an urban and dance music lean during the day, with more specialist shows in the evening. It is notable for having originally started out as Kiss FM - a 1980s pirate radio station that was to become the UKs first legal radio station specialising in black and dance music.

La Tremenda 106.5

La Tremenda (branded as La Tremenda de los Dos Laredos) was an international contemporary music FM radio station that served the Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas and Laredo, Texas area of the Mexico – United States border. From May 2006 through June 2008, the radio station broadcast as a pirate FM radio station since it did not have a permit or license to broadcast. In June 2008, the station was shut down and a month later the station was back on air for a few days later, only to go silent again. Today, 106.5 FM occupied by another pirate radio station known as Radio Voz 106.5. This new pirate station is likely related, as it has the same logo.

London Greek Radio

London Greek Radio (LGR) is an Independent Local Radio station established by London's sizeable Greek community, most of which forms part of the ethnically diverse Cypriot community. It broadcasts in both Greek and English and includes news from the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation (CyBC).

Mars Ill

Mars Ill is an emcee/DJ hip-hop duo from Atlanta, Georgia. The duo consists of Gregory Owens (Manchild) and Nathan Corrona (DJ Dust). They are also part of the hip-hop collective and supergroup Deepspace5.

Coming together in 1998, Mars Ill has released several albums and EPs through independent record labels and two albums on Gotee Records. Their success in the underground hip-hop movement in the early 2000s led to their performing at Scribble Jam in 2003 and 2004 and, ultimately, their signing to Gotee.

Pirate radio in the United Kingdom

UK pirate radio (free radio), unlicensed illegal broadcasting , was popular in the 1960s and experienced another surge of interest in the 1980s. There are currently an estimated 150 pirate radio stations in the UK. A large proportion of these pirate radio stations operate in London, with significant clusters in Harlesden and the wider London Borough of Brent, Crystal Palace, Stoke Newington, the London Borough of Southwark, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and London Borough of Lambeth

Rinse FM

Rinse FM is a London-based community radio station, licensed for "young people living and/or working within the central, east and south London areas.". The station plays garage, grime, dubstep, house, jungle and funky and other UK-centric dance music.

The station was founded in 1994 and operated as pirate radio station until it was awarded a community FM broadcast licence in June 2010. Rinse FM was described as London's biggest pirate radio station and provided first exposure to grime artists Dizzee Rascal and Wiley and later provided a home for dubstep DJs like Skream, Kode9, and Oneman. DJ Geeneus is the station's head.

Saor Raidió Chonamara

Saor Raidió Chonamara (Free Radio Connemara) was an Irish language pirate radio station that was formed out of frustration over the lack of Irish-language media by the civil rights movement Gluaiseacht Cearta Sibhialta. The station started broadcasting on Easter Sunday 1970 to considerable press coverage, gaining notoriety in the process. It was even featured in the Irish Independent. Because these transmissions throughout the Gaeltacht were illegal (RTÉ had the monopoly at the time), the station continued in total secrecy with the transmitter and studio being transported by Honda 50 to stay one step ahead of the law.

The station's considerable success was enough to force the Irish Government to establish RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta in response, proving that there was a need for a station.

TSF (radio station)

TSF is a Portuguese radio station, founded in 1989 and broadcasting from Lisbon.

TSF is one of the three main Portuguese radio news stations, alongside Antena 1 and Rádio Renascença. Its programs are focused on news. It was legally founded, though its first broadcast on 29 February 1988 was not legal, because at that time private radios were forbidden in Portugal. TSF is part of the Portuguese Global Media Group.


TXFM (formerly Phantom 105.2) was a Dublin based radio station, founded in 1996 as a pirate radio station. TXFM broadcasts under a contract awarded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). The station ceased broadcasting on 26 October 2016.TXFM played mostly alternative rock with an emphasis on local artists, as well as alternative dance and hip-hop from local and international acts. Apart from general programming TXFM also has run many specialist shows dedicated to a specific genre of rock or to premiering new Irish and international acts.

Following the re-advertisement of the 'Alternative Rock' radio licence by the BAI in December 2015, no formal applications had been made by the closing date, and on 30 March 2016 it was announced that the station was to cease broadcasting by October of that year.

The Boat That Rocked

The Boat That Rocked (retitled Pirate Radio in North America, Good Morning England in France, Radio Rock Revolution in Germany and I Love Radio Rock in Italy) is a 2009 British comedy film written and directed by Richard Curtis with pirate radio in the United Kingdom during the 1960s as its setting. The film has an ensemble cast consisting of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost and Kenneth Branagh. Set in 1966, it tells the story of the fictional pirate radio station "Radio Rock" and its crew of eclectic disc jockeys, who broadcast rock and pop music to the United Kingdom from a ship anchored in the North Sea while the British government endeavors to shut them down. It was produced by Working Title Films for Universal Pictures and was filmed on the Isle of Portland and at Shepperton Studios.

After the world premiere in London's Leicester Square on March 29, 2009, the film was released theatrically in the United Kingdom and Ireland on April 1, 2009. It was a commercial failure at the British box office making only US$10.1 million in its first three months, just a fifth of its US$50 million production cost. It received mixed reviews concerning its muddled storyline and 2¼-hour length. For its North American release, the film had its running time cut by 20 minutes and was retitled Pirate Radio. Opening on November 13, 2009, it was still commercially unsuccessful in the US earning only US$8 million. When the worldwide theatrical run was finished in January 2010, the film had grossed US$36.3 million.


WBCQ is a shortwave radio station operating at Monticello, Maine, United States. The station is owned and operated by Allan Weiner, who also owns and operates WXME AM 780 kHz and WBCQ-FM 94.7 MHz at the shortwave site. WBCQ began operation in 1998 with just the WBCQ-1 transmitter on 7.415 MHz. WBCQ's shortwave antennas are all beamed directionally: primarily at 245 degrees, and secondarily at 65 degrees.

The station transmits numerous talk shows and other programs produced by commercial networks as well as former pirate radio broadcasters, such as Weiner himself and his erstwhile collaborators.

Unlike Weiner's former pirate radio stations, now relegated to well-documented history, WBCQ and its AM and FM sister stations are licensed by the FCC under his own name.


WSOU (89.5 FM) is a non-commercial, college radio station. The station broadcasts from the campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. It is a student-run station with university administrator Mark Maben serving as its current General Manager. WSOU currently broadcasts in HD Radio and streams online.

WSOU broadcasts in the HD (hybrid) format.

and funding
Network topology
and switching

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