Pirate radio

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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. Het REM-eiland, Bestanddeelnr 917-2504.jpg
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 or a pirate radio station is a radio station that broadcasts without a valid license.

Radio broadcasting distribution of audio content to a dispersed audience via any audio mass communications medium

Radio broadcasting is transmission by radio waves intended to reach a wide audience. Stations can be linked in radio networks to broadcast a common radio format, either in broadcast syndication or simulcast or both. The signal types can be either analog audio or digital audio.


In some cases radio stations are considered legal where the signal is transmitted, but illegal where the signals are receivedespecially 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.

Station identification is the practice of radio or television stations or networks identifying themselves on-air, typically by means of a call sign or brand name. This may be to satisfy requirements of licensing authorities, a form of branding or a combination of both. As such, it is closely related to production logos, used in television and cinema alike.

Amateur radio use of designated radio frequency spectra for purposes of non-commercial exchange of messages

Amateur radio, also known as ham radio, is the use of radio frequency spectrum for purposes of non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, private recreation, radiosport, contesting, and emergency communication. The term "amateur" is used to specify "a duly authorised person interested in radioelectric practice with a purely personal aim and without pecuniary interest;" and to differentiate it from commercial broadcasting, public safety, or professional two-way radio services.

Two-way radio A radio that can do both transmit and receive a signal

A two-way radio is a radio that can both transmit and receive a signal, unlike a broadcast receiver which only receives content. It is an audio (sound) transceiver, a transmitter and receiver in one unit, designed for bidirectional person-to-person voice communication with other users with similar radios. Two-way radios are available in mobile, stationary base and hand-held portable configurations. Hand-held two-way radios are often called walkie-talkies, handie-talkies or hand-helds.

Pirate-radio history and examples

Radio "piracy" began with the advent of regulations of the airwaves at the dawn of the age of radio. Initially, radio, or wireless as it was more commonly called at the time, was an open field of hobbyists and early inventors and experimenters. The degree of state control varied by country, for example in the UK, Marconi's work was supported by the post office, but in an era of weak regulation, a music hall magician Nevil Maskelyne delberately hijacked a demonstration. [1]

The early history of radio is the history of technology that produces and uses radio instruments that use radio waves. Within the timeline of radio, many people contributed theory and inventions in what became radio. Radio development began as "wireless telegraphy". Later radio history increasingly involves matters of broadcasting.

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" [2] 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.

United States Navy Naval warfare branch of the United States Armed Forces

The United States Navy (USN) is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. It is the largest and most capable navy in the world and it has been estimated that in terms of tonnage of its active battle fleet alone, it is larger than the next 13 navies combined, which includes 11 U.S. allies or partner nations. It has the highest combined battle fleet tonnage and the world's largest aircraft carrier fleet, with eleven in service, and two new carriers under construction. With 319,421 personnel on active duty and 99,616 in the Ready Reserve, the U.S. Navy is the third largest of the U.S. military service branches in terms of personnel. It has 282 deployable combat vessels and more than 3,700 operational aircraft as of March 2018, making it the third-largest air force in the world, after the United States Air Force and the United States Army.

Vacuum tube Device that controls electric current between electrodes in an evacuated container

In electronics, a vacuum tube, an electron tube, or valve or, colloquially, a tube, is a device that controls electric current flow in a high vacuum between electrodes to which an electric potential difference has been applied.

Spark-gap transmitter

A spark-gap transmitter is an obsolete type of radio transmitter which generates radio waves by means of an electric spark. Spark-gap transmitters were the first type of radio transmitter, and were the main type used during the wireless telegraphy or "spark" era, the first three decades of radio, from 1887 to the end of World War 1. German physicist Heinrich Hertz built the first experimental spark-gap transmitters in 1887, with which he discovered radio waves and studied their properties.

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."

A gentlemen's agreement or gentleman's agreement is an informal and legally non-binding agreement between two or more parties. It is typically oral, though it may be written, or simply understood as part of an unspoken agreement by convention or through mutually beneficial etiquette. The essence of a gentlemen's agreement is that it relies upon the honor of the parties for its fulfillment, rather than being in any way enforceable. It is, therefore, distinct from a legal agreement or contract.

RMS <i>Titanic</i> British transatlantic passenger liner, launched and foundered in 1912

RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912 after the ship struck an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew aboard, more than 1,500 died, making it one of modern history's deadliest peacetime commercial marine disasters. RMS Titanic was the largest ship afloat at the time she entered service and was the second of three Olympic-class ocean liners operated by the White Star Line. She was built by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Thomas Andrews, chief naval architect of the shipyard at the time, died in the disaster.

<i>New York Herald</i> newspaper

The New York Herald was a large-distribution newspaper based in New York City that existed between 1835 and 1924, when it merged with the New-York Tribune to form the New York Herald Tribune.


In the USA 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 open 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.

In broadcasting and radio communications, a call sign is a unique designation for a transmitter station. In the United States of America, they are used for all FCC-licensed transmitters. A call sign can be formally assigned by a government agency, informally adopted by individuals or organizations, or even cryptographically encoded to disguise a station's identity.

Federal Radio Commission

The Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was a government agency that regulated United States radio communication from its creation in 1927 until 1934, when it was succeeded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FRC was established by the Radio Act of 1927, which replaced the Radio Act of 1912, after the earlier law was found to lack sufficient oversight provisions, especially for regulating broadcasting stations. In addition to increased regulatory powers, the FRC introduced the standard that, in order to receive a license, a radio station had to be shown to be "in the public interest, convenience, or necessity".

Federal Communications Commission

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent agency of the United States government created by statute to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. The FCC maintains jurisdiction over the areas of broadband access, fair competition, radio frequency use, media responsibility, public safety, and homeland security.

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. [3]

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.

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". Radio station WJAZ, Chicago, 'wave pirates' publicity photograph (1926).jpg
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".

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 strengthen the government's regulatory authority.

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.


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 broadcasted 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.

Right to Receive information

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."

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 [5]

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) [6] is fairly common and takes several forms.

Examples of pirate radio stations

The films The Boat That Rocked , [13] 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

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The strict definition of a pirate radio station is a station that operates from sovereign territory without a broadcasting license, or just beyond the territorial waters of a sovereign nation from on board a ship or other marine structure with the intention of broadcasting to that nation without obtaining a broadcasting license from that nation.

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Radio Caroline is a British radio station founded in 1964 by Ronan O'Rahilly initially to circumvent the record companies' control of popular music broadcasting in the United Kingdom and the BBC's radio broadcasting monopoly. Unlicensed by any government for most of its early life, it was a pirate radio station that never actually became illegal, although after the Marine Offences Act (1967) it became illegal for a British subject to associate with it.

A border blaster is a broadcast station that, though not licensed as an external service, is, in practice, used to target another country. The term "border blaster" is of North American origin, and usually associated with Mexican AM stations covering large parts of the United States and United States border AM stations covering large parts of Canada. Conceptually similar European broadcasting included some pre-World War II broadcasting towards the United Kingdom, "radio périphérique" around France and the U.S. government-funded propaganda station Radio Free Europe, targeting eastern Europe.


  1. https://sm.asisonline.org/Pages/Hacked.aspx
  2. Electrical world. McGraw-Hill. 1907. pp. 1023–. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  3. "Thomas H. White. "United States Early Radio History"". Earlyradiohistory.us. Retrieved 2011-06-16.
  4. WJAZ "wave pirates" publicity photograph, Popular Radio, May 1926, page 90.
  5. Félix Guattari. "Plan for the Planet". In Molecular Revolution. Psychiatry and Politics. London: Penguin Books, 1984. p. 269.
  6. Stan Gibilisco (1 January 1997). TAB Encyclopedia of Electronics for Technicians and Hobbyists. McGraw-Hill. ISBN   978-0-07-024190-9.
  7. "W5YI Report". W5yi.org. Retrieved 2011-06-16.
  8. "Apologetic Radio Jammer Jack Gerritsen Gets Seven Years, Fines". ARRL Web. Sep 19, 2006. Archived from the original on Apr 2, 2007.
  9. "Les Paul's Pirate Radio Station in Queens". 7 March 2012.
  10. "WRFN Radio Free Naptown". www.wrfn.org.
  11. "North American Pirate Radio Hall Of Fame - KIPM". sites.google.com.
  12. Yoder, Andrew (2002). Pirate Radio Stations: Tuning in to Underground Broadcasts in the Air and Online.
  13. 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).