If you've been binge-watching movies lately, you may have come across "Pirate Radio." Director Richard Curtis' 2009 comedy-drama stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Count, a disc jockey for an unlicensed rock radio station that broadcast from a rusty, decrepit ship off the British coast in the mid-1960s, defying government authorities to spin the rock records that weren't allowed on the BBC at the time. The plot is based loosely on the saga of an actual former pirate station, Radio Caroline, that was founded by an offbeat Irish entrepreneur named Ronan O'Rahilly, the inspiration for the character portrayed by Bill Nighy.
"Pirate Radio" is a period piece, set in a time when the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" and the Who's "My Generation" were still scandalous and controversial rather than nostalgic anthems for today's aging baby boomers. So you couldn't be blamed for assuming that it depicts a long-vanished phenomenon, like Nehru jackets with iridescent scarves and psychedelic-patterned paper mini dresses.
To the contrary, though, more than a half-century later, pirate radio is still a thing. In fact, it's possibly more widespread than it was in the 1960s, even in an age when streaming internet services such as Spotify and Pandora put the equivalent of a jukebox in the pocket of everyone with a smartphone. And as a bonus, Radio Caroline still exists — though, ironically, it's gone legal.
In the U.S., pirate stations have popped up in recent years all over the country, from West Virginia to Washington state, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which plays a continual game of whack-a-mole in an effort to keep them off the airwaves used by licensed broadcasters. Unauthorized stations are particularly prolific in the New York City area, where a 2016 study by the New York State Broadcasters Association (NYSBA) found that there actually were more pirates then on the FM band than legal licensed stations.
"Pirate radio continues to exist in the internet age for a variety of reasons," John Nathan Anderson, a broadcasting scholar and author who is working on a book about pirate radio, explains via email. "One is cost. It's eminently cheaper to purchase or build an unlicensed radio station than it is to set up a robust streaming channel online, especially if you're looking to cover a local area. All you need is a location to host the antenna and access to electricity — unless you've got batteries, then just the location."
Additionally, pirate broadcasters don't have to deal with all the legal complexities of setting up and running a streaming internet service, such as writing terms of service or meeting contractual obligations, he notes. And audiences can get the station on inexpensive radio receivers — there's no need to have a computer or a smartphone with 5G, or to pay a monthly subscription fee or worry about blowing through their data limits. They just twist the dial. Very old school, and cheap enough for anyone's budget.
Thanks to e-commerce, it's also easier than ever for a would-be pirate to find the necessary equipment and have it delivered to his or her door, as FCC enforcement official David Dombrowski described in this 2019 podcast. Powerful, uncertified transmitters manufactured in foreign countries easily slip through customs at U.S. ports.
Pirate Radio's Quirky History
Unlicensed radio broadcasters have been around practically since governments started trying to control and regulate the airwaves. That was particularly true on the other side of the Atlantic, where the U.K. allowed only state-controlled radio from the 1920s through the mid-1960s. "The government decided that radio was too influential as a means of mass communication to be in private hands," Peter Moore explains in an email. He's the station manager for today's legal, land-based version of Radio Caroline, which obtained a license to broadcast at 648 Khz on the AM band in 2017, but still strives to preserve the rebellious spirit of the original operation.
"Private radio was prohibited and only the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was part of the political establishment, sent radio to the British people with the remit to be morally uplifting, informative and educational," Moore says.
But by the 1960s, the postwar baby boom filled the U.K. with millions of teenagers who were eager to hear the rock 'n' roll records that the BBC declined to play. Enter Ronan O'Rahilly, who learned that the U.K. government's jurisdiction ended 3 miles (5 kilometers) off the coast, and that stations from other countries already were exploiting that loophole by putting transmitters on offshore ships, according to Moore.
"He created Radio Caroline operating in that way and the station was at once called a 'pirate,'" Moore says.
As this 2009 article from the Independent, a British newspaper, details, O'Rahilly obtained a 63-ton (57-metric ton), Danish passenger ferry, the MV Frederica, and renamed it Caroline, after the daughter of the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy. He anchored the ship in international waters in the North Sea, just off Frinton, Essex, and hired a crew of DJs to play music around the clock — at the time, a revolutionary concept. On Easter Sunday in 1964, the station went on the air, playing the Rolling Stones' single "It's All Over Now" as its first song.
"By playing nonstop current pop music in a situation where this had never before been available, Caroline had within months a larger audience than all the BBC stations combined," Moore explains.
Here's a 12-minute recording of Radio Caroline DJ Tony Blackburn's show in 1965, which includes both a breakfast cereal commercial and the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" and "For Your Love" by the Yardbirds:
Because the station had to fill so much airtime — DJs had to come up with 2,500 tracks to play each week — Radio Caroline helped foster what Moore calls "an explosion of new artists and bands who may have started recording conventional pop music, but who then expanded their musical abilities. The Moody Blues are one example of this." Having that exposure helped boost the careers of scores of British bands whose music eventually made it to America.
The Who actually paid homage to Radio Caroline and other offshore broadcasters by parodying them on their 1967 concept album "The Who Sell Out," as music historian John Atkins has written.
Radio Caroline because so influential that, pretty soon, other ships were broadcasting rock off the coast as well. The Offshore Radio Museum website commemorates many of those pirates.
Offshore Broadcasts Become Illegal
The British government, though, didn't appreciate what Radio Caroline and other pirate broadcasters were doing. In 1967, Parliament enacted the Marine Broadcasting Offenses Act, which made offshore broadcasts from ships illegal, on the pretext that their broadcast interfered with marine weather radio and distress signals, as this contemporaneous New York Times account notes. Violators faced two years of imprisonment and fines.
But O'Rahilly was undeterred, even after his ship was seized briefly by Dutch authorities. He got the craft back and kept at pirate radio for nearly another quarter century. Ex-Beatle George Harrison was sufficiently appreciative of Radio Caroline's mission that he even wrote a sizable check in the early 1970s to help keep the ship in operation, according to Ray Clark's book "Radio Caroline: The True Story of the Ship That Rocked."
The original converted ferry sank in 1980, but the five DJs on board — and the ship's canary, Wilson, named after British Prime Minister Harold Wilson — all were rescued, according to O'Rahilly's New York Times obituary. He then obtained another ship, a German trawler called the Ross Revenge, which continued to host the station until it ran aground along the British coast in 1991.
Even then, though, Radio Caroline wouldn't go away. It eventually regrouped and resurfaced as an internet station, which gave it a global reach.
"Caroline now has two stations, one playing album music and one playing the original pop music for which the station is remembered," Moore explains. Meanwhile, the Ross Revenge was repaired and converted into a floating museum for tourists.
"While Radio Caroline is no longer 'illegal' the philosophy is unchanged," Moore says, noting that the station's staff has the motto "New Technology, Same Ideology."
Pirate Radio in America
The U.S. has had its share of pirate broadcasters over the years as well. A few of them broadcast from ships, such as Rev. Carl McIntire, a fundamentalist preacher who briefly broadcast fire-and-brimstone sermons from a converted minesweeper off the coast of New Jersey, as this 2014 NJ.com article details.
In the late 1980s, unlicensed operators tried broadcasting from a Honduran-flag freighter in the waters off Long Island, according to The New York Times.
But most of the current American pirates are based on dry land, broadcasting from clandestine antennas on rooftops in places such as Brooklyn. Unlike the rock 'n' roll hipsters of 1960s British pirate radio, who aimed at a mass audience, most of Brooklyn's unlicensed broadcasters seem to be immigrants and members of ethnic and religious minorities trying to reach their own groups and neighborhoods.
David Goren, a veteran radio producer who's created programming for National Public Radio, has spent years studying pirate broadcasters. In addition to this 2019 BBC documentary, Goren also has created the Pirate Radio Map, which documents pirate radio stations in Brooklyn and even includes brief samples from their broadcasts.
"One reason I've found as to why people are still using pirate radio is that these communities have very strong cultural and historic connections to radio," Goren explains. "In Haiti during the Duvalier regime, people depended on radio to get news from independent sources off the island. To have a radio station here helps to establish the station's operator as an important source of information and influence in the community."
For many of the people in those communities, who may not be able to afford a computer or a smartphone and a broadband connection, pirate radio is an affordable medium.
"I spoke with a pastor of a church in the community which had a station and the antenna was taken down by the FCC," Goren says. "He was waiting several months to come back on the air (and therefore was only willing to speak off the record to me). I asked him why he would still take the risk to go back on air and he said he wanted to reach the homeless, the shut-ins, the elderly who couldn't access the internet."
But the FCC, Congress and the commercial broadcasting industry don't see the pirates as serving such a benign purpose. In January, President Donald Trump signed into law the Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement (PIRATE) Act, which gives regulators the ability to hit pirate stations with fines of up to $2 million, according to this summary from Radio World.
"These transmissions can interfere with licensed radio signals — including broadcasters' sharing of vital public safety information with their communities," FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. "To enforce the law and protect American radio listeners and lawful businesses, the Federal Communications Commission has made a concerted effort in recent years to step up our enforcement efforts against pirate radio stations."
But just as the British government's stiff penalties didn't deter Radio Caroline, at least so far, the U.S. government's crackdown doesn't seem to have deterred the pirates. Goren, who's been monitoring the airwaves since the law was passed, notes that on a typical day, he picks up about 26 pirate stations in Brooklyn alone.
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