The History of Pirate Radio and its Inescapable Metamorphosis

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For most people, the word “pirate” commonly inspires images of medieval wooden ships with a raised Jolly Roger flag and Jack Sparrow (the infamous character from the hit-series ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’) on deck. And, rather surprisingly, when one examines the history of the pirate radio phenomenon,  it is precisely ships that top the list of its biggest catalysts.

Strictly speaking, since mainstream radio stations must have a license to operate, the term pirate (also known as ‘free’ or ‘offshore’) usually refers to broadcasting that is unlicensed or conducted through an inappropriate transmission format or wattage.

In Europe pirates have been hijacking the airwaves for over 40 years, but what can be described as radio piracy dates back to much earlier times. In the 1900s hobbyists and enthusiast started un-maliciously interfering with various US government transmissions. A response soon followed and in 1912, the US Radio Act was among the first documents to initiate regulation, introduced assigned frequencies, licenses, and so-called “call-ins”, and gave the government special powers to shut down stations in time of war.

Several decades and technological breakthroughs later, radio piracy in Europe saw a rebirth that was accompanied with material cultural shifts, including the growth in popularity of new music genres like rock and roll. As was portrayed  in the movie “The Boat that Rocked“, radio hosts took advantage of their quasi-legal status and shunned any strict rules or formal etiquette.

Many European states saw an unprecedented surge in “mobile” radio stations located on ships cruising in the open seas. In the late 1950s, Denmark became the birthplace of the first fishing boat-turned-radioship that became known as Radio Mercur (the first to turn the operation into a successful commercial venture). In April 1960, a radio station that went by the name of Veronica launched to the public while docked in the waters near Holland. The endeavor quickly proved to be a successful one and the owners had to replace equipment several times to cater to over 5 million listeners. Several other stations followed suit including Radio Nord that operated from a ship in the waters of the Baltic Sea.

Unlike their listeners, the authorities from the aforementioned states weren’t as thrilled about the pirate radio’s existence. Although Radio Veronica defied efforts by Holland to shut it down and continued its broadcasts until the mid 70s, the ships operating in the North weren’t as lucky: Radio Nord and Radio Mercur closed down after a joint agreement and effort by the Scandinavian states.

The UK became another hotspot of radio listeners. The root cause was a hunger for new music among a growing part of the country’s population and an inability by state-run radio stations (the BBC being the chief among them) to fulfill that need. Violating UK licensing rules and headed by a former music talent manger, Radio Caroline commenced its operations in 1964. Although other stations popped up as well, Caroline was among the most listened to, surpassing the BBC in popularity by the end of 1964. Radio London was another prominent station started by an entrepreneur from Texas in the same period and famous for its “Fab 40” playlist consisting of the latest musical hits. The Big L as it was sometimes called became a training ground of sorts for many future radio host and was also among the first to introduce news and weather broadcasts.

In 1967 broadcasting from international waters became illegal after the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act became Law in the UK. In the same year Radio London and most other stations stopped their broadcast (Radio Caroline has live on up to this day, but under its old model it was shut down in 1968 undergoing several “resurrections”, name and wavelength changes in the years that followed).

Pirate Radio Today

In 2007, a reported 150 pirate stations were functioning in the UK alone. But as the example of Rinse FM, a popular “underground” pirate-turned-premier station demonstrates, a path towards legitimization, though fraught with challenges, does exist. Since its founding in 1994, closure by UK’s Ofcom in 2005 and several years of jumping through governmental hoops, Rinse FM received an official broadcast license in 2010.

But another movement is slowly gaining momentum – Internet radio. A worthy alternative to pirate radio, online radio gives the freedom to broadcast to millions of listeners without breaking any laws – and often a minimal cost.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can start your own radio station or start broadcasting from your own website or blog, here a few additional resources to check out:

– A Detailed Look at the “Pros and Cons” of the Two Most Popular Online Radio Platforms – For a Radio Host: http://croice.com/blog/how-to-create-online-radio/

-The Evolution of Content: How a New Format – Live Online Radio – Can Help You Grow Your Audience: http://croice.com/blog/online-radio/

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