TCS History

Shortwave Radio Pirate 'The Crystal Ship' - Early History

By John Poet
(September 2010)

The partnership which would become The Crystal Ship was formed in June 1982. Three nineteen-year-olds were finishing up a term of college when John 'The Poet' (that's me) came up with the bright idea of creating a pirate radio station. Of course my compatriots were all for the idea. My partners, "The Radical" and "The Unknown Soldier" and I shared an affinity for the music of The Doors, The Who, Blue Oyster Cult and The Rolling Stones, among other things. The station was eventually named 'The Crystal Ship' after the tune of the same name from the first Doors album, which we would use to open each broadcast. Later, our shows would close with 'We want the Airwaves' by The Ramones (and still do).

I had been an SWL in the late 70s as a young teen, and was exposed to pirate radio through articles about the 'Voice of the Voyageur' station which were published in NASWA's FRENDX club bulletin. As such I had a good general idea of how it could be done, but without any knowledge of the specific problems which could crop up.

Locating an amateur shortwave transmitter was much more difficult in those days, particularly to purchase one without having to answer a lot of silly questions. I eventually located an aging Knight T-150 through a weekly ad paper, and purchased it with a story about how 'It's a gift for my father who collects older equipment.' We also managed to throw together a motley collection of consumer audio equipment for the 'studio.' along with a very crude homemade mixer.

Knight T-150 transmitter
We first attempted to operate in a 'fixed mobile' mode out of a van, but were unable to meet the power requirements of the equipment. We eventually settled on operations out of two alternating fixed locations about fifty miles apart, to help evade any authorities. Interestingly, not yet being aware of the 'standard pirate frequency' which was 7425 kHz at that time, but knowing enough to stay out of the amateur bands, we initially operated around 6965 kHz, which is within the frequency range most often used now by North American pirate stations.

About this time I became aware of the new Association of Clandestine Enthusiasts pirate SWL club with their ACE bulletin. I formed a friendship with the club founder, Darren Leno, and arranged to use them as a maildrop at Box 452, Moorhead Minnesota.

Leno became the first listener to log the station in August 1982. He convinced us to switch to the "pirate frequency" of 7425 kHz. Numerous listeners began logging the station through the Fall of 1982.

Being totally inexperienced with how our signal should sound through a monitor, I mistakenly attributed distortion to receiver overload from the proximity of the transmitter. It turned out that the transmitter had severe problems, including but not limited to wiring mistakes by the original builder, aging components, and severe RF feedback from our studio. At times it was reported to be transmitting in the FM mode, which is a problem for an AM transmitter. Through the use of loop phone lines, we became aquainted with the operator of the AM /shortwave pirate WART, in New York. (He called our loop line announced during a show. Shortly after, I heard WART on shortwave, called his announced loop line and recognized his voice as our previous caller... gave him quite a scare at first.) He convinced us to suspend operations, and send our transmitter to him for an overhaul... and explained how to modify our other equipment to kill the RF feedback moter-boat.

We spent the downtime creating our format, writing a poetic call to arms, recording various station promo spots and an interval signal (a 'crowd' of five yelling "We want the world and we want it now" recorded inside the natural echo chamber of a parking ramp stairway). We hit the airwaves again in April 1983, and were well-received with our now-clean signal and more organized programming. Political content consisted of much criticism of the Reagan administration, particularly their policies in Central America and their prosecutions of draft registration resisters. Soon we became characterized as a 'socialist station,' probably because of 'The Radical's repetitive use of the phrase "Socialism forever, Socialism for everyone" in our editorial program 'On Deck'. Relishing the reputation, we did what we could to feed it.... although we were actually liberal Democratic Party activists.

Regular operations continued for a number of months, until it became clear by August 1983, through various grapevine sources who had actual contacts with various F.C.C. employees, that the agency was hot on our trail. "They are #1 on our 'hit list'!" an agent at the Fort Lauderdale monitoring station reportedly told one listener. Often operating every weekend, often two days in a row, its a wonder that we were not caught. I attribute their failure to our use of multiple locations confusing their long-range triangulation. They were close enough to each other to appear to be coming from the same general area, but would have temporarily prevented a definitive "fix" on our locales which would have allowed the mobile enforcement units to go to work on the 'problem'... but informed sources soon told me that they were ready to spring the trap on The Crystal Ship.

As luck would have it, transmitter problems forced us off the air at that very time in August 1983. At the same time, it was reported to me that a "suspicious van" had been noted parking down the street from our primary location. If the FCC had us tracked down to the very street, we would have been easy to spot-- shortwave antennas were visible from the street. We remained inactive for the remainder of 1983.

In early 1984, a relay was arranged and a number of programs were anonymously broadcast by one of the former operators of the famous 'Voice of the Voyager'. They had been shut down for the second time in 1982 and were paying fines on an installment plan, but one operator was able to make these relays of taped programming from a new location far from Minnesota. One of these programs contained our endorsement of Jesse Jackson for the 1984 presidential nomination, pushing the Democratic Party to do "more than just giving lip service to Black Americans."

In June of 1984, I managed to get our own transmitter back on the air one last time, (or maybe a couple times), doing little more than playing whole album sides. I only recall one report of it-- a taped report of 'Yes' from our furthest reporter ever, located in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada-- a distance of over 1300 miles.

Due to continued transmitter difficulties and other interests, The Crystal Ship then drifted into pirate radio history, having operated sporadically for almost two years, and having issued approximately 30 QSL cards. The problem equipment was sold off and that was that. We all went on with our lives.

The Crystal Ship Revived Twenty Years Later

Twenty years later in 2004, I was doing some business research on Google. Just for yucks, I was inspired to type in the name of the station, not really expecting to find anything. Naturally I was shocked to find several different references to our station on the internet, including a missing QSL graphic, as we had been inactive for twenty years, and our existence pre-dated the internet by a good number of years. This knowledge began to eat at me. To realize that what we had done as teenagers had not been totally forgetten by the world after all this time, gave me a huge feeling of immortality, history and Deja Vu. At the very same time, I was intensely frustrated with the machinizations of the Bush administration, the GOP Congress and the war in Iraq and felt the need to strike back in some way. In other words, the stars were in perfect alignment for The Crystal Ship to arise from its ashes and rise from the dead.

The emergence of the internet and eBay made vintage equipment readily available, and easy anonymous communication and information sharing with other pirates as well as amateur radio operators possible. By late September 2004, The Crystal Ship made its reappearance on the airwaves, the voices of 'The Poet' and 'The Radical' being broadcast through a fresh Knight T-150A aquired off of eBay... (I initially chose to buy another T-150 as I was already familiar with its operation and some of its likely failures from the first time around. As luck would have it, I had managed to keep most of the audio equipment, as well as original recorded spots and QSLs safe for all those years in-between, though other equipment was lost. Thus the QSLs we have been issuing are from the original printing run in 1983; they are just a tad aged.) The re-emergence of the station created quite a stir in the pirate radio listener community, particularly among the few still around who had previously logged us in the early 1980s.

TCS Busted By F.C.C. - May 2011

(Update March 2015)  In May 2011, The Crystal Ship was tracked down by the F.C.C., and issued a "Notice of Unlicensed Operation," which is basically a warning to cease unlicensed operations.  Their notice stated that their enforcement action was due to a filed complaint, to wit: "The Detroit Office received information that an unlicensed broadcast radio station on 6815 kHz was allegedly operating in Lansing, Michigan."

At the time, I believed the complaint to have been initiated by, or caused to be initiated by, a fellow pirate radio operator, because of an ongoing feud we had been having over his use of numerous sockpuppets on the most popular pirate radio forum, which he had been using to bully and intimidate various posters. You may read our initial public reaction here,  There is nothing that has come to light since to cause me to change my belief-- quite the opposite, in fact, since the same fellow was later caught red-handed attempting to do the same sort of thing to a Canadian pirate radio operator  .  If you want to know more about this, I'd suggest browsing the archives of this blog from July 2011 thru July 2012.

About five months after the bust, The Crystal Ship re-emerged as a station/program relayed by other pirate radio operators now known as the TCS Shortwave Relay Network, with a new eQSL and pre-recorded programs.  Our relayed programs are heard regularly on shortwave, usually somewhere between 6850-6950 kHz.