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A "pirate" radio station is an unlicensed, illegal station broadcasting in violation of the laws of the country it is located in. Unlike clandestine stations, pirate radio stations are seldom political in nature (other than advocating "free radio" or legalization of marijuana). Instead, pirates are usually hobby broadcasters operated just for fun by their owners.

Pirate broadcasting is a relatively new development in North America. Prior to the late 1970s, there had been just a handful of unlicensed broadcasters in the United States and Canada. Most of these operated on the AM and FM bands, and were seldom heard outside their local areas. In the late 1970s, inexpensive used ham radio transmitting gear suitable for pirate broadcasting became widely available. Another factor was a growing inability of the Federal Communications Commission, along with Canada’s Department of Communications, to enforce regulations against unlicensed broadcasting. Soon after cracks started appearing in the "dam" of regulations, it broke; it is not uncommon now to have over a dozen pirate broadcasters active on shortwave from the United States and Canada in a single weekend.

Today, most pirate radio activity takes place in USB on frequencies above or below various ham radio bands. The most popular range for pirate operators is near the 40-meter (7000 to 7300 kHz) ham radio band. Pirates tend to congregate around a frequency that has little interference. For years, 7415 kHz was the de facto "standard" pirate radio frequency, while today most activity centers around 6955 kHz. Pirates coordinate their schedules to avoid causing interference to each other.

Most pirate activity in the United States and Canada takes place on weekend evenings and nights, with holidays like Labor Day, New Year’s Eve/Day, and President’s Day also popular. Historically, however, Halloween produces more pirate radio activity than any other night of the year!

If one station can be considered as the "starting point" for pirate radio today, that would be the Voice of the Voyager. This station took to the air in early 1978 on 5850 kHz from a location near Minneapolis, Minnesota. This station could be easily heard throughout North America, and it operated on a regularly schedule of late Saturday night. The operators were all SWLs themselves, and soon attracted a wide audience with their parodies of the FCC and SWLing clubs/personalities. They also played rock music, and broadcasts sounded very much like a group of young people having a party.

This QSL card from the Voice of the Voyager was sent for their "return broadcast" on November 5, 1978.
Voice of the Voyager QSL

The Voice of the Voyager began a practice that is now standard for almost all pirate stations today—the "mail drop." A mail drop is a third party that agrees to forward mail to a pirate stations. A letter or reception report for a pirate station is sent to a mail drop along with two or three postage stamps, and the mail drop "operator" forwards the mail to the pirate. The Voice of the Voyager used a mail drop in Michigan.

Unfortunately for the Voice of the Voyager operators, the FCC’s St. Paul, Minnesota office raided and closed the station in August, 1978. The FCC officials seemed more amused than angry (they even asked for souvenir QSL cards), and issued no fines nor took any other actions against the operators. However, they were warned not to resume operations.

Enforced silence was too much for the Voice of the Voyager crew, however. They began to discreetly circulate word within the SWL community, especially among their previous listeners, that they planned to return to the air on November 5, 1978 on a new frequency of 6220 kHz. The original intent was to due a "farewell broadcast" and then cease operations forever, but the success of the November 5 broadcast inspired the operators to continue. Their actual final broadcast was not until January 14, 1979. This time, it wasn’t the FCC that took the station off the air; it was the failure of their aging transmitting equipment instead. (A few members of the Voice of the Voyager staff reactivated the station in 1982, but it was quickly located and shut down by the FCC.)

Pirate radio is among the most original you will ever hear. However, the program quality is highly uneven. At its worst, pirate radio is crude, imitative, and "high school" sounding. At its best, pirate radio can let you hear stunning original material, especially social and political satire, that you cannot find anywhere else on the radio dial.

For example, one station that has been active recently is Lounge Lizard Radio, which features music by Al Martino, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mel Torme, and other well known "cocktail music" artists. The station tries to simulate the atmosphere of a cocktail lounge. Another pirate station is KOLD, which programs mostly Big Band and boogie woogie music. A station that has been active for several years is Radio Free Euphoria, operated by "Captain Ganja." Captain Ganja—who genuinely sounds stoned on the air!—advocates the legalization of marijuana.

Because they are usually low powered and use simple antennas, pirate radio stations are more difficult to hear than most other shortwave broadcasters. This is especially true if you are located in western North America, since most pirates are found east of the Rockies. While you can hear some pirates on simple, inexpensive shortwave radios, you will hear far more on better quality desktop shortwave radios and an outside antenna.

Rock music has "one hit wonders." Pirate radio has its "one broadcast wonders," stations that take to the air once and never return. The Voice of the Smooth is an example. This is believed to be the only QSL card ever issued from this station. It broadcast "cocktail music" and was apparently in the San Francisco Bay area. The best way to catch a "one broadcast wonder" is to listen on frequencies used by more active pirates.
Voice of the Smooth QSL card

Since most pirates do not operate on regular schedules, the best way to hear them is to keep an ear on frequencies where other pirates have recently been active. Currently, the most active pirate frequency is around 6955 kHz in USB, and most stations are active on weekend evenings/nights as well as major holidays. There is even a newsletter for those who enjoy listening to pirate stations published by the Association of Clandestine Radio Enthusiasts. Click here to visit their Web page.


For further information on pirate radio we recommend . . .

Pirate Radio!

    Pirate Radio

    The Incredable Saga of America's Underground Illeagal Broadcasters

    By Andrew Yoder.
    A behind the scenes look at the incredible saga of America's underground, illegal broadcasters. From early pirate broadcasting to today's pirates. It's all here. The included audio CD features segments from some of the most famous, infamous and notorious pirate stations. 1995 HighText Publishing. 326 pages.
    Only $29.95 SALE $19.98

    Available from Universal Radio.
    Click here for more information.

    Click here to visit Universal Radio's online catalog.


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