Pirate Media

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Pirate media refers to media outlets that operate without official license. This is different from alternative media—those outlets that provide in their content and operation a challenge to the dominant media and social systems. In the United States, for example, legally authorized and operated radio stations may be alternative in their programming— for example, Pacifica stations KPFA in Berkeley, California, and WBAI in New York City—but they are not pirate. Likewise, because print media are not licensed in the United States, alternative newspapers abound. Thus, "pirate" typically refers to media otherwise requiring official authority to operate (i.e., radio and television) and to the illegality of their operation rather than to the nature of their content. This does not mean that pirate media are not alternative in their content, because many, if not most, are alternative in content. Despite the fact that they do have illegal operation in common, pirate stations in different countries and different media systems do serve different functions for those countries and systems.

The term "pirate" came into use in Great Britain in the 1960s, when it was applied to illegally operated radio stations broadcasting to English audiences from off-shore facilities. Pirate, then, had a dual connotation—these broadcasters were, like pirates, rogues and law-breakers, and again like pirates, they operated on the high seas.

These pirates, however, were well funded and powerful, richly supported by commercial advertisers and record companies, and operated twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Among the most notable were Radio Caroline, broadcasting from the M. V. Frederika three and a half miles off the coast of the Isle of Man and drawing a million listeners a day; Radio London, broadcasting from a retired U.S. minesweeper; and Radio Veronica, broadcasting from a ship anchored off the coast of The Netherlands. At the time of their greatest popularity, they offered an alternative to the more controlled and sedate fare of the noncommercial stations of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Advertisers wanted to reach British consumers, but there were no commercials allowed on the BBC, and record companies wanted to introduce their artists to rock-n-roll hungry kids, a growing audience largely ignored by the government-controlled BBC.

It was the popularity and success of the pirates, in fact, that eventually helped persuade the British government to begin the licensing of commercial radio stations and to create its own popular music service, BBC Radio 1. Nonetheless, pirate stations flourish in England and throughout Europe, but now they are more like pirate stations in the United States—they operate on shoestring budgets, broadcast irregularly, are not-for-profit stations, air content that is politically and community oriented, and like the early British pirates, they are constantly under siege by governmental broadcasting authorities.

Pirate Radio

The early pirate stations in Europe operated in defiance of the continent's noncommercial broadcasting systems, trying to sound as much as possible like American commercial stations—employing witty disc jockeys to play snappy slogans and jingles while spinning contemporary rock and pop music discs. The experience of pirate radio in the United States, however, is just the opposite; it began and continues to operate in opposition to the dominant commercial broadcasting system.

Pirate radio in the United States goes by several names: microbroadcasting, free radio, low-power broadcasting, rebel radio, and, of course, pirate radio. Yet many people involved in this unlicensed broadcasting reject the term "pirate," arguing that it is the government, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and giant, moneyed corporations that are the real thieves, having "stolen" the people's airwaves. For example, as recently as the 1980s, the most radio stations one entity could own in the United States was seven nationally and two in any one city (one AM and one FM). The FCC imposed these limits in an effort to ensure a diversity of sound and opinion on the air. However, through deregulation and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, virtually all ownership limits have been removed. A single company, Clear Channel, for example, owned 830 stations in 1999, and it and a score of others own as many as eight in a single city. It is this "corporatization" of the radio dial that has breathed new vigor into pirate radio.

The philosophy of the movement is encapsulated in the manifesto of pirate station Radio4All:

Radio for whom ? The airwaves nominally belong to the people, but the reality is most of the media outlets worldwide are owned by a steadily smaller number of large corporations who use them to expand their wealth and power. Even so-called "public stations" increasingly take corporate money or emulate corporate paradigms. This means communities and individuals are increasingly shut out of the process of determining what information they receive. A right of "Free Speech" that only the rich can exercise is no right at all!

This belief is embodied in the type of programming found on the low-power pirates. Beginning operation in Springfield, Illinois, in 1986 as Black Liberation Radio, Human Rights Radio broadcasts African-American music and literature, political and social commentary, and addresses by local community residents. WTBS (The Pirate Station) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, began operation in 1983 as an outlet for music that local commercial and college stations would not play. Free Radio Gainesville in Florida plays an eclectic mix of music emphasizing local artists, community news, and poets and writers reading their works. Radio Clandestino in Los Angeles programs bilingual, leftist Latin American fare. There are pirate stations serving the Hasidic Jewish community in Miami, Florida; family farmers in North Dakota; and small merchants who are unable to afford the cost of advertising in the major media in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Pirates typically transmit at a power of from 1 to 100 watts (as compared to the 50,000 to 100,000 watts of licensed stations) and reach an area from 2 to 15 miles. The necessary audio and transmitting hardware is inexpensive (often less than a few hundred dollars), can fit comfortably in a backpack, and can be legally purchased from scores of outlets. Websites such as Pirate Radio Central and Radio4All provide instructions on how to get started, operate, avoid detection, and deal with the authorities if caught.

There are more than 1,000 unlicensed low-power radio stations operating in the United States at any given time, despite the efforts of government officials to stifle their growth and operation. In 1998, for example, the FCC shut down 270 pirates nationwide, 19 in a single December day in Miami, Florida. These closures are frequently accomplished with the aid of armed SWAT teams, but just as the early British pirates forced change in the BBC's radio landscape, the pirates in the United States have been successful in moving the FCC to consider altering that of the United States. Citing "the most dramatic increase in consolidation in the broadcast industry in our history" and the hundreds of microbroadcasters willing to face fines and even jail to meet the needs of their listeners, FCC chairman William Kennard announced in 1999 that the commission intended to create a new type of radio: legal microbroadcasting. The aim, according to Kennard as reported by Bill McConnell (1999, p. 100), is to "maximize the use of the spectrum for the American public" and to "give voice to the voiceless," goals so close to the hearts of the pirates that the FCC received 13,000 inquiries for low-power licenses in the first few months after Kennard's announcement.

Still, some pirates either will not wait for (or simply reject) legal microbroadcasting, arguing that because U.S. law requires that all new frequencies be auctioned off to the highest bidder, the same corporate commercial giants who dominate high-power radio will inevitably dominate low-power radio. There have been several challenges, therefore, mounted against the FCC's rules that limit unlicensed microbroadcasting. These efforts have two similar themes: (1) the FCC ban on licensing stations of under 100 watts is a violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech and press, and (2) the federal government should have no say in the regulation of low-power radio stations whose signals do not cross state lines.

Clandestine Broadcasting

There is another type of pirate broadcaster, the ones whose primary intention is the overthrow of an entrenched political power; these are clandestine broadcasters. According to Lawrence C. Soley and John S. Nichols (1987, p. vii), "Clandestine stations generally emerge from the darkest shadows of political conflict. They frequently are operated by revolutionary groups or intelligence agencies." There have been antigovernment or antiregime clandestine broadcasters as long as there has been officially authorized broadcasting. In the 1930s, radio pirates aired the grievances of communist sympathizers in Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Hungary, while the Irish Republican Army broadcast in Belfast and anti-Nazi dissidents broadcast in Germany and Austria. During World War II, clandestine stations encouraged German submarine sailors to sabotage their U-boats in harbor to avoid near-certain death at sea at the hands of the Allies. False reports were intentionally broadcast for a variety of reasons. For example, Atlantic Station and Soldiers' Radio Calais, posing as two of the many official stations run by the German military for the enjoyment of its personnel, broadcast false reports of the invasion of Normandy. In addition, by making false reports of such verifiable facts as the death of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the clandestine broadcasters forced the official German media to counter with accurate reports, thereby providing the Allies with just the information they wished to know.

It was during the Cold War, however, that clandestine broadcasting truly flowered. In the years between the end of World War II and the fall of European Communism in 1989, thousands of radio, and sometimes television, pirates took up the cause of either revolutionary (pro-Communist) or counterrevolutionary (anti-Communist) movements. In addition, other movements tangentially related to this global struggle—especially the anti-Colonial movements in South America, Central America, and Africa—made use of clandestine broadcasting.

The Cold War pirates typically operated outside the nations or regions to which they broadcast, because to have operated within those borders guaranteed discovery, capture, and imprisonment or death. Those relatively few pirates who operate inside the areas to which they transmit are indigenous stations, and those pirates who broadcast from outside the areas to which they transmit are exogenous stations. Indigenous Radio Solidarity, the underground voice of the successful Polish anti-Communist, antigovernment movement, began operating a network of transmitters inside the borders of Poland in 1982, four months after embattled pro-Soviet dictator General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law. Leipzig-based Kanal X transmitted pirate television from inside East Germany, in opposition to that regime's adherence to Soviet-style Communism until the Berlin Wall—and the Communist regime—fell. Exogenous Voice of Free Africa, the pirate station of the Mozambique National Resistance Movement, broadcast its antigovernment message into Mozambique from South Africa during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

These illegal operations can be further classified as "black stations" (i.e., those that disguise both their purpose and source of support) and "gray stations" (i.e., those that are open in their aim to subvert the existing government while disguising the source of their support). During the war in Vietnam, for example, the U.S. military operated a black station, Liberation Radio, which was a duplicate of a North Vietnamese gray station by the same name. This black station broadcast false reports of South Vietnamese military victories in an effort to demoralize North Vietnamese soldiers and to boost morale among the South Vietnamese army. The gray Liberation Radio, broadcasting into South Vietnam from and with the support of the government of North Vietnam, had just the opposite goals. Implicit in this example is another characteristic of the large majority of clandestine stations that operated during the Cold War—they drew their support from foreign powers who were also hostile to the targeted nation.

Regardless of their specific nature—black or gray, indigenous or exogenous—there is not a major Cold War or anti-Colonial conflict that has not seen the involvement, if not the success, of broadcast pirates. Unauthorized, illegal broadcasts have been enlisted to further the cause of all sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland, both sides in the push for and against Apartheid in South Africa, both the pro-and anti-Castro Cuban partisans, and the leaders of the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution against Communist rule in 1956.

Modern Pirates

Modern pirate broadcasters, rather than being truly politically motivated clandestine stations, are more likely to be free-broadcasting advocates; that is, they object to either excessive corporate or government control of radio and television. Political clandestine stations do exist, however. Inside Israel, for example, ultra-Orthodox Jewish pirate stations broadcast from Jerusalem in opposition to what their operators believe is the secular drift of the elected government. Exogenous, black Radio Caiman, transmitting from Guatemala and rumored to be funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, has been broadcasting rock-n-roll, Latin music, and anti-Castro matter into Cuba since 1994. Indigenous Radio Patria Libra, urging the overthrow of the Colombian government, transmits from that country's Medellin region. In the United States, neo-Nazi Voice of Tomorrow illegally broadcasts from Virginia its racist propaganda designed to "raise the consciousness" of supposedly "threatened White Americans."

Still, the large majority of pirates operating in the United States and around the world has the somewhat less overtly political goal of subverting or at least challenging what it sees as officially sanctioned information monopolies. In the United States, as discussed above, this activity exists in the form of low-power radio pirates broadcasting to local audiences the music and commentary that is otherwise ignored by the commercial media. In Europe, also discussed above, these low-power stations exist to challenge the noncommercial as well as commercial media. Another difference between the U.S. and European pirates is that the European pirates are more likely than U.S. pirates to employ television. Radio is the medium of choice for most pirates, regardless of location, because of its low cost, the portability of the necessary equipment, and the ease with which pirates can avoid detection and seizure. The technology for pirate television, while not as cheap and not as small as that for radio, is becoming increasingly so. Still, in the United States, there has been no significant pirate television movement, in large part because local commercial television, licensed low-power independent stations, and the public access channels of cable television provide numerous outlets for independent video producers and activists.

This has not been the case in Europe. Beginning with the 1977 free-broadcasting movement in France, illegal television stations went on the air with the stated intent of breaking the government broadcasting monopoly. They did so by flagrantly and openly defying the law, going so far as to announce the date, time, and place of broadcast, and televising live the inevitable police raids. Television pirates have forced the French and Italian governments to open their television systems to large numbers of independent stations, resulting in greater diversity and citizen involvement. As the number of these stations has grown, pirate television has become as rare in these countries as it is in the United States. This is the reason that most discussions of pirate broadcasting have come to deal almost exclusively with pirate radio.

See also:Broadcasting, Government Regulation of; Cable Television, Regulation of; Federal Communications Commission; First Amendment and the Media; Radio Broadcasting; Telecommunications Act of 1996; Television Broadcasting.


Hind, John. (1985). Rebel Radio: The Full Story of British Pirate Radio. London: Pluto Press.

McConnell, Bill. (1999). "FCC Tunes Microradio." Broadcasting & Cable, January 25, p. 100.

Messinger, Evelyn. (1990). "Pirate TV in Eastern Europe." Whole Earth Review, Fall, pp. 119-124.

Pirate Radio Central. (2000). "Pirate Radio Central." <http://www.blackcatsystems.com/radio/pirate.html>.

Radio4All. (2000). "Welcome to Radio4All." <http://www.radio4all.org>.

Schechter, Danny. (1999). "(Low) Power to the People." The Nation, May 24, p. 10.

Smith, Jeremy, and Rosenfeld, Howard. (1999). "Radio for People, Not Profit." Dollars & Sense, May-June, pp. 8-10.

Soley, Lawrence C., and Nichols, John S. (1987). Clandestine Radio Broadcasting: A Study of Revolutionary and Counterrevolutionary Electronic Communication. New York: Praeger.

Stanley J. Baran