Who’s Listening to Pirate Radio?

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in CAUSTIC TRUTHS! Magazine.

Listening to pirate or “free” radio is as legal as listening to your favorite morning radio show. But unlike the pre-packaged, homogenous “rebellion” of commercial broadcasting’s rock jocks, pirate broadcasters are real criminals committing a real crime. Commandeering bandwidth in any part of the radio frequency spectrum without a license is against the law, so pirates operate at odd times, with brief programs, on the shortwave frequencies. Why shortwave? Well, there are low power FM pirates, and even some AM pirates, but their signals only travel short distances. International swashbuckling syndication requires the shortwave frequencies, and a little help from the cosmos.

How does it work? There is a layer of charged particles around the earth called the ionosphere; certain types of solar particles activate the ionosphere. In this state, radio waves below the maximum usable frequency are refracted and dive back to earth, often ending up thousands of miles away where an ugly length of wire is waiting to catch them.

Listening to shortwave pirate radio is an odd hobby, I know. When I explain it to my friends, I’m met with sympathetic nods and patronizing grins; they don’t understand it, but Ragnar Daneskjold does. He is an ex-pirate operator-turned-listener who now produces a weekly podcast about pirate radio. He also maintains www.shortwavepirate.info where mp3s of studio quality pirate radio programs, his own “off-air” recordings of pirates and his podcast can be downloaded.

“Listening has two appealing aspects,” he says in an email interview. “First is the programming. Some of the most interesting, creative material in media can be found on pirate radio. The second appeal of pirate DXing is the hunt aspect. Pirate stations are typically low power, sporadic operations. Listening for pirates, tuning in these faint signals, requires skill.”

He’s right about the content which is usually colorful, clever, and well produced. And while you do have to hunt for pirates, there was a bounty of them operating in summer. Tuning them in was easy since most evenings at least one would broadcast; if it wasn’t the classic rock radio styling of Johnny Guitarman, Paul Starr, and Dr. Who on MAC shortwave then it was Commander Bunny leading the rodent revolution and issuing his call-to-arms on WBNY: Radio Bunny. Other nights, unidentified hosts kept a non-stop dance party going on WMPR, and on Labor Day Take It Easy Radio hosted by Desperado, encouraged its listeners to, well, take it easy with a “Libation, little drink, little smoke.”

One of the first stations to ever offer mutinous modulations was Voice of the Voyager. Based in Minnesota, Voyager started broadcasting in 1978 and is credited with developing many of the techniques still used in free radio today. Voyager’s operators suffered through technical difficulties and interference by broadcast regulators but they persisted and continued to broadcast sporadically for several years. Voice of the Voyager’s exploits and troubles were chronicled in the radio hobbyist media; their story served as inspiration for many pirates that would follow.

In June 1982, three friends who had followed the rise and fall of Voice of the Voyager, pooled their resources and put together a rag-tag assortment of electronic gear. They adopted pseudonyms for themselves and that fall The Poet, The Radical, and The Unknown Soldier went on the air. Calling their station The Crystal Ship after the Doors tune, they adopted a format of hard rock and leftist politics. They opened each program with their title song and closed each program with The Ramones “We Want the Airwaves.” The Poet and the two other nineteen-year-olds running The Crystal Ship were motivated by the music they loved and the politics of the time. “Political content consisted of much criticism of the Reagan administration, particularly their policies in Central America and their prosecutions of draft registration resisters,” their press release says. The Crystal Ship suffered several transmitter failures and finally in early 1984 they closed down.

By the time I started listening for pirates, in late June of 2006, The Crystal Ship was one of the most prominent on the shortwave bands. They had returned to the air in 2004, almost twenty years after their last transmission, for many of the same reasons. “I was intensely frustrated with the machinations of the Bush administration, the GOP Congress and the war in Iraq,” The Poet says in the press release. “I felt the need to strike back in some way. The stars were in perfect alignment for The Crystal Ship to arise from its ashes.”

The Crystal Ship was the first pirate station I ever heard. It happened on June 25th, 2006.  Shortly after 8:30 P.M. local time I was tuning through the usual frequencies, 6850, 6950, 6925 and 6875 kilohertz. On the last frequency, I strained my ears against the static and as the signal strengthened, the Gilligan’s Island theme song bubbled up like it was escaping Davy Jones’s locker. I waited and listened, making my usual vague notes on the programming. I didn’t recognize many of the songs, so I tried my best to note each time they changed. After fifteen tense minutes of listening and recognizing only The Foundation’s “Baby Now That I’ve Found You”, The Poet gave a station ID. “You are tuned to The Crystal Ship,” he said in a slow, deep voice. “The official radio voice of the blue states republic.” Gotcha!

Keeping track of a pirate program or “logging” goes beyond a mere journalistic interest in documenting facts. Pirate radio is an interactive activity; operators need to know to where their signal is reaching, how it sounds when it gets there, and what listeners think of the programming. In return for an accurate report, pirates send listeners a QSL card. QSLs are like limited edition collector cards. Post card sized, the front often features some form of artwork, a logo, a saying, or a picture that serves as an extension of the pirate station’s identity and political perspective. The back contains statistical information like the date, time, and frequency of the broadcast. Since a QSL card will outlast the existence of a station, the hunt for shortwave radio pirates is really a hunt for their QSL cards; but to get one, you’ve got to catch the mail drop address.

It took an hour of listening before The Poet finally gave out his address. The signal was weak, as it usually is, so I only caught his email. The next day I sent him a detailed report and begged that he look past my unfamiliarity with his play list and send me a QSL. He did.

The Poet is quite willing to discuss his illegal activities with me, behind the anonymity provided by our YAHOO! email accounts. He says that in recent years shortwave pirate radio has been able to flourish because the FCC has been kept busy dealing with the delinquency of free radio’s bastard sons: the low power FM pirates.

For The Poet, being a pirate operator is a political statement that goes beyond his frustrations with the current regime in Washington; he’s fighting for free radio. “Greater democratization of the airwaves is the direction things should move,” he says, “with less regulations and monetary requirements for small start-up broadcasters, greater allowances for small low-powered stations, and more prohibitions against multiple station ownership.” To that end, he hopes his actions will serve as inspiration for others. “We do hope our broadcasts contribute something to the movement as a whole. To encourage, or seduce others to take to the airwaves, be it shortwave or FM or AM,” he says.

But what about inspiring more listeners? Is anyone listening? Ragnar Daneskjold estimates the typical listening community to be quite small. “By examining the amount of downloads of my podcast, active members of the Free Radio Network-A leading web site for the hobby-and QSL cards I sent when I ran a pirate radio station, I estimate the typical listening audience is between one to three hundred.” He’s not sure more listeners would be good for pirate radio either. “I would view a larger number of people involved a good thing only until the point that it would be considered a movement and drew a greater level of enforcement by the authorities,” he says.

The Poet also thinks his audience is small. “It probably does not exceed more than about a dozen listeners,” he says. But he welcomes new members. “Anyone bored with the status-quo of commercial radio ought to give pirate listening a try,” he says.

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  1. Undercover Radio and the Pirate Spirit | Radio Frequency International Report

    […] Who’s Listening to Pirate Radio? […]

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