Modern Pirates Of The Airwaves
In the age of digital information, Mike Johnston discovers that low-fi pirate radio stations still have a place.
Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio remembers a time when pirate radio was the only way outlaw stations could reach an audience hungry for new music. Since that period in the 60s, much has changed with broadcasting standards, internet communications and radio technology. We wanted to know, however, does pirate radio still exist, and what makes it necessary. Mike Johnston reports.
You don’t have to break out your eye patch or learn to preface every statement with “Aarrrrr” to be a modern radio pirate. All you really need is a computer and the desire to be heard. There is a potential audience of 1.6 billion internet users worldwide and, as the technology that enables digital broadcasting continues to evolve, its ability to compete with traditional analog radio also increases. For example, both Shoutcast and Ustream now have iPhone apps that allow listeners to receive digital broadcasts wherever they go.
These developments are important because the web-enabled cell phone is now seen by social wonks as the technology that will bridge the Digital Divide and bring broadband service within the reach of everyone in the world. But until the day of global mind meld arrives there exists a very real gap in the ability of computer-based broadcasts to reach the true world audience of 6.7 billion people. Into that gap has sailed a small but growing armada of community-based, low-power radio stations who have kept the pirate radio philosophy of broadcast freedom alive.
These low-power stations have spread like crabgrass across the carefully groomed lawn of commercial broadcasting. They broadcast under, around or in between the powerful signals of the big stations in their area. Their programming ranges from the exuberant rock-and-roll format of stations like AM 1330 The Blaze at Arizona State University to Edge Radio 106.7, that combines modern music with progressive programming from sources like Pacifica Radio and Democracy Now, all the way out to the oldies format of WRPO 93.5 FM which is based in a room at the municipal building in Russell’s Point, OH.
Pirate Cat Radio in San Francisco, broadcasting on FM 87.9 and TV channel 13, is a good example of what the possibilities are today for small, pirate radio stations to exist in both the digital and analog worlds simultaneously. Pirate Cat is “technically” an unlicensed station. In their defense they say that; “We believe that Title 47 Section 73.3542 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations currently allows Pirate Cat Radio 87.9fm to legally broadcast without a formal license from the FCC.” Title 47 gives unlicensed stations the right to operate when there is an emergency or the country is at war and since we are now supposedly in a state of “never ending war” they remain unchallenged by the government.