Confessions of a Radio Pirate

I am a habitual radio pirate. I broadcast radio on the public airwaves illegally, without a broadcasting license. I break the law. I am a criminal.

Or, as I prefer to view myself, a patriot:

"A very few-- as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men-- serve the state with their consciences, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it."   
~Henry David Thoreau

Why do I do it? Why risk huge fines, possible imprisonment, the confiscation of my equipment, just to enunciate a particular point of view, or maybe entertain my small handful of radio listeners on shortwave radio?   Well, its a long story...

The modern state of radio in America, like almost all media, is that of a corporate mouthpiece, intent on profits and little else. It is the playground of the very-well-heeled. There is no room for the mom-and-pop operations anymore. Large radio conglomerates, freed of the ownership limits by the Communications Act of 1996, are rapidly buying out the small local radio stations. Those of us of more modest means are shut out of the licensing process, through means-testing which requires one to have a million dollars or more to tie up for years in order to procure a license. It is truly an anti-competitve environment, where licensed stations as a matter of routine post 'objections' to the licensing of any new station with the FCC, with no more reason than that a new station 'may hurt their revenue'. The National Association of Broadcasters throws their weight around with congress to prevent lenient Low Power FM rules which would allow a decent number of new local stations on the air, all for the same reason: such competition would drive down the profits of the already-established stations. Large radio groups (like Clear Channel) broadcast programming which is more and more homogonized, more and more all the same-- with less and less local programming, less and less creativity, less and less independent opinion, or hell, let's face it-- less and less independent opinion at all, unless its the vile opinions of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity et all from the Rightwingers-Up-Your-Ass Network...

The local group-owner radio stations' playlist is focus-grouped and computerized to the point that they often play the exact same selection at the same time on multiple stations. Regional conglomerations of corporate-owned stations lead to less local news coverage, and the Federal Communications Commission, working in behalf of their corporate masters, suppressed the study which showed these ill-effects of mass-ownership.

After 9-11, Clear Channel sent out a list to its member stations of 'songs we recommend against playing right now' including 'Imagine' by John Lennon (apparantly they believed that being pro-peace was unpatriotic at a time like that). In effect, all this shit works together to stifle independent opinions and independent voices, kills anything that might be considered 'controversial,' muffles any voice that could be labeled 'unpatriotic'. (Just like the MSM in the Iraq war runup, right?) Theoretically, we have free speech in this country... but in radio-land, there is only free speech for the rich. The rest of you, just keep your damn mouths shut if you can't afford a license, ok? In short, IT SUCKS.

What is one to do? What is the answer?

Well, despite the licensing requirements of the Federal (read 'corporate-tool') Communications Commission, it does not take a million bucks or more in the bank in order to put a viable low-power radio station on the airwaves. All it takes is $1000 or less: a transmitter, an antenna, a pc, a little know-how, and the will to buck the powers-that-be.

Enter the radio pirate.

We are the Robin Hoods of the airwaves.... only we don't rob from the rich (unless you believe it actually IS the rich who own the public airwaves). No, we take what already belongs to the people, and use it for what it ought to be used: free expression, independent opinion, music that hasn't been "focus-grouped"... (and in my particular case, the almost non-stop demonification, through words and music, of the Fuhrer-In-Chief, "King George Bush the second").

I primarily run a shortwave radio pirate called 'The Crystal Ship,' whose history dates back to the early 1980s, and whose title is indeed taken from The Doors song of the same name. We had a reputation as being socialist; one of the principles was called 'The Radical'. I was known as 'The Poet.' and now often as 'John Poet'. Our programming consisted of leftward opinions, criticisms of the Reagan administration, free-verse poetry, and hard-rock which often contained leftist political opinions. After a two-year run of latenight broadcasts and playing cat-and-mouse with the FCC, the station was dissolved through equipment failure and 'moving on' to marriage and more serious jobs...

The years passed, and I lost touch with the pirate radio movement (and it is now actually a 'movement,' I'll be damned) other than being peripherally aware of the burgeoning FM free radio movement of the late 1990s... In 2004, I was extremely frustrated by the propoganda of the presidential campaign, and furious with George W. Bush, and seriously in need of an acceptable outlet for my rage. Things were 'touch and go' there for awhile, I was having serious daydreams and inner calculations about--well, never mind, but--- during that time, I just happened to Google our old station. Mind you, we'd been off the air for twenty years, and our career predated the internet-- but I was rather shocked and intrigued to find brief references to our dead station on the internet!

At that point, the planets came into alignment. I had to do it again... and my prime motivation, as well as my prime target for the reincarnation of 'The Crystal Ship' was the imperial presidency of George W. Bush. We lampoon him shamelessly with our unique combination of Bush quotes, political rock, antiwar folk music, and whatever we feel-- completely unfettered by rules, conventions, playlists, corporate politics or commerical considerations. (Possibly all this could fall under some provision of the "Unpatriotic Act" or Military Commissions law, you know, 'aid and comfort to the enemy'...) This is Free Radio. Some folks find it entertaining. I find it now to be a great release, like a voice crying in the radio wilderness... and a small way to serve several causes at the same time: fighting for the principles of free speech, free airwaves, and for a more progressive government at the same time.

Shortwave radio now has relatively few listeners, what with the internet and satellite radio taking away much of the charm and wonder of 'long distance radio reception'. However, shortwave pirates still get the bulk of the nationwide 'publicity,' most of that being in the radio hobby press. But there are many more of us on the FM radio band, literally hundreds spread across the country: low-power unlicensed "pirate" FM radio stations that may have a range of only a few miles, all doing their own thing-- whether that may be their own brand of music, ethnic music or foreign language broadcasts which no local licensed stations provide, local news, independent opinions, rock music from local bands-- perhaps even a station or two which have taken it upon themselves to nail Bush and the Republicans with their numerous crimes, or that broadcast the internet webstream from the Air America because all the local stations only play all those stupid rightwing nutjob screamers (that's a future ambition of mine-- Air America!).

Many of us would like to do what we do legally, if there was any viable way to proceed: small low-power stations with a small budget, entertaining and covering news locally, and licensed to do so. There has never been a way for the small voice to do this since the earliest days of radio. Licensed low-power-FM came the closest to filling this need, although its practicality was killed off by legislation demanded by NPR and the National Association of Broadcasters which made the rules and technical requirements so tight that it effectively closed off most of the usable spectrum and FM channels... and that is what they wanted: to eliminate the prospect of additional voices, and to eliminate the choices available to the radio listener which could hurt their advertising profits. So that's the way it is, the independent voice has two choices: either shut up and be a good sheep, or venture into the realm of civil disobedience. 'Live on your knees or die on your feet' so to speak. I choose the latter.

(OK, that's a tad over-dramatized, but I got into pirate radio in the first place because I'm such a romantic, sometimes over-dramatic fellow...)

Anyone with a shortwave radio interested in hearing shortwave pirates should tune to 6925 kHz, particularly on the weekends; that frequency has the most activity, much of it in USB /upper sideband.  Most shortwave pirate transmissions in North America occur between 6800-6955 kHz.

As for FM pirate listening, well, you're on your own there-- most of the stations are very short-range and shun publicity, so its anyone's guess. However, there may be more chance of a station showing up in the educational band segment from 88-92 MHz, as there are usually more clear channels in that range in any given locale.

So 'until next time, 73s and FIGHT for FREE RADIO!'

The Poet, aka John Poet
The Crystal Ship