Modern Pirates Of The Airwaves

In the age of digital information, Mike Johnston discovers that low-fi pirate radio stations still have a place.

Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio remembers a time when pirate radio was the only way outlaw stations could reach an audience hungry for new music. Since that period in the 60s, much has changed with broadcasting standards, internet communications and radio technology.  We wanted to know, however, does pirate radio still exist, and what makes it necessary. Mike Johnston reports.

You don’t have to break out your eye patch or learn to preface every statement with “Aarrrrr” to be a modern radio pirate. All you really need is a computer and the desire to be heard. There is a potential audience of 1.6 billion internet users worldwide and, as the technology that enables digital broadcasting continues to evolve, its ability to compete with traditional analog radio also increases. For example, both Shoutcast and Ustream now have iPhone apps that allow listeners to receive digital broadcasts wherever they go.

These developments are important because the web-enabled cell phone is now seen by social wonks as the technology that will bridge the Digital Divide and bring broadband service within the reach of everyone in the world. But until the day of global mind meld arrives there exists a very real gap in the ability of computer-based broadcasts to reach the true world audience of 6.7 billion people. Into that gap has sailed a small but growing armada of community-based, low-power radio stations who have kept the pirate radio philosophy of broadcast freedom alive.

These low-power stations have spread like crabgrass across the carefully groomed lawn of commercial broadcasting. They broadcast under, around or in between the powerful signals of the big stations in their area. Their programming ranges from the exuberant rock-and-roll format of stations like AM 1330 The Blaze at Arizona State University to Edge Radio 106.7, that combines modern music with progressive programming from sources like Pacifica Radio and Democracy Now, all the way out to the oldies format of WRPO 93.5 FM which is based in a room at the municipal building in Russell’s Point, OH.

Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco, broadcasting on FM 87.9 and TV channel 13,  is a good example of what the possibilities are today for small, pirate radio stations to exist in both the digital and analog worlds simultaneously. Pirate Cat is “technically” an unlicensed station. In their defense they say that; “We believe that Title 47 Section 73.3542 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations currently allows Pirate Cat Radio 87.9fm to legally broadcast without a formal license from the FCC.” Title 47 gives unlicensed stations the right to operate when there is an emergency or the country is at war and since we are now supposedly in a state of “never ending war” they remain unchallenged by the government.

“We are run by a team of 80 volunteers and are dedicated to a community-focused broadcast that gives a voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise be heard,” comments DJ YuriG, one of Pirate Cat’s on-air personalities as well as their self-described “Minister of Marketing.” “So there that element [of Pirate Cat radio] being in the face of corporate controlled media. Overall there is a sort of counterculture flavor to it. We are taking advantage of the digital world while preserving the immediacy of analog broadcasting. I mean, [analog] is a 150 year old technology and we don’t want to let it die.”

In addition to tuning into its on-air programming, you can visit Pirate Cat as well. “The Café offers community space, and we have bands all the time,” YuriG adds. “We sell some specialty stuff like our bacon/maple latte, which is bacon fat, maple syrup and latte. The broadcast is pretty much line of sight from our transmitter, and that can translate to three miles at the low end to as far as 80 miles, It just depends on what kind of objects come between you and the signal. We are essentially self-policing in regard to what we consider to be acceptable for broadcast. We don’t broadcast over-the-top, on air shenanigans for the sake of ratings because that just isn’t who we are.”

If you want to listen to “real” (think illegal) pirate radio stations these days the place to do it is on shortwave around the 6295 kHz wavelength (+/-). These guys are totally old school both with their equipment as well as their under-the-radar broadcast methods. Their programs tend to have the same kind of offbeat material, irreverent humor and general spontaneity as the classic pirate broadcasts. An example of these shortwave pirates is “Commander Bunny,” who runs the World Monkey Domination Network (WMDN) allegedly out of Usak, Turkey. Commander Bunny is on Facebook and has a web page with samples of his broadcasts.

But while the authorities don’t seem too worked up over some of these latte-serving pirates, pirate radio still has the potential to incite actual rebellion — and not just the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll kind. As I am writing this story the Zimbabwe Times has reported that their President, Robert Mugabe, is complaining that pirate radio stations have “declared war” on his administration. In 2000 the Mugabe government shut down the country’s first independent radio station, Capital FM Radio, at gunpoint, despite a Supreme Court ruling affirming the legality of private broadcasting. The Mugabe government drafted new laws targeting private radio, and broadcasters critical of the government began to beam their broadcasts into Zimbabwe from Europe and even the U.S. In response, as this article in Africa Now notes, the Mugabe government has hired Chinese and Iranian expat technicians to devise ways of jamming pirate radio signals. As the row over Zimbabwe “private radio” ripples onto the international stage, it demonstrates in a media world dominated by screens, whether on televisions, laptops or phones, the continued power of the voice, tuned into by a listening public eager for talk, music, culture, rebellion and, sometimes, a call to action.

Mike Johnston started his career writing op-ed pieces for several newspapers in the mid 1990s. He most commonly writes on the environment, alternative energy and the arts. In the early part of the new century, he had a climate change/alt energy blog which saw a half million hits. At that time, he was asked to be an energy advisor to the Gephardt for President campaign. More recently, he has been writing on the site and was called T. Boone Pickens’ favorite blogger on the Pickens Plan website.