Pirate Radio: A Natural Part of the Airwaves Since 1912

There’s a running debate taking place between the collaborative blog Radio Survivor and the industry trade newspaper Radio World about the “merits” of pirate radio. You’d think, after 20+ years of organized unlicensed broadcasting (and the resultant creation of an LPFM service), that this argument would have been settled long ago.
It all began in July with a tongue-in-cheek piece penned by Matthew Lasar. In mockery of a National Association of Broadcasters “analysis” which attempted to (inflatedly) quantify the importance of the radio industry to the national economy, Lasar conducted a “guesstimate study” which suggested that pirate radio generates some $576 million annually in jobs and services.
Radio World editor Paul McLane took Lasar’s piece a bit too seriously and filed commentary asserting the premise that any positive implication of pirate radio – economic or otherwise – was simply illegitimate.
Some see pirate radio as a form of civil disobedience and convince themselves they’re “sticking it to the corporate fat cats” by flipping that transmitter switch. But doing so ultimately is a selfish act. It says, “I know better than the larger community, including those who create our laws, how best to use this resource.”…
If you want to “participate” in this community, respect its rules. If you don’t like that system, work to change it, just as LPFM advocates have done.
Radio Survivor’s Paul Riismandel responded to the editorial by reminding McLane of the history from which LPFM evolved.
We would not have LPFM if it were not for the pirates and microbroadcasters who forced the FCC’s hand. They demonstrated that there was room on the dial for low-powered community stations not through lobbying and engineering studies, but simply by showing their communities that it could be done, and without interference or harm. This could only have been done without a license, the FCC would have endorsed no exception or trial.
Today, McLane closed out Round Two by invoking some tired arguments – spectrum scarcity and the specter of anarchy – to belabor his point.
The [FCC] was not forced into change by illegal broadcasts, any more than it is forced into change now by the many continuing illegal broadcasts that intrude on licensed operations in New York, Florida and elsewhere….Micro stations may have added some external pressure, but those illegal broadcasts felt mostly like an annoyance rather than a significant factor in the political equation….
Our broadcast spectrum is a resource that must be managed if it is to be useful. The system created to manage it may be flawed but it remains the only one we have.
When any individual is free to decide that he or she can ignore rules managing the system – even for well-intended reasons – the system will break down.
I respect all parties involved in this discourse, but McLane’s perspective is surprisingly unsophisticated for someone so involved in several facets of broadcasting for so many years.
It is a fact that pirate radio has been recognized by the FCC one of the factors which precipitated the creation of LPFM. Such direct action inspired the authors of the original LPFM proposal, and it’s why the notion of amnesty for microbroadcasters was even entertained (an FCC olive branch that Congress revoked when it passed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act).
Chairman William Kennard settled the matter in an LPFM documentary produced by the United Church of Christ in the very early 00’s.
Many, many people around the country helped to inspire the idea of low-power FM radio. Churches, community groups, and even some organizations that were broadcasting illegally – so-called “pirate radio” operators. Clearly there’s a need out there for people who want to use the airwaves for democracy, to speak to their communities, to provide information and entertainment to their communities that are not being met by the commercial broadcast industry.
It should come as little surprise that many of those pirates who took to the airwaves in the 1980s and 1990s as an explicitly political act shifted their efforts to growing the LPFM service. This is a natural evolution that takes place anytime revolutionary sentiments are channeled into an effective reformist campaign.
But there are pirate stations that pre-date LPFM and remain on the air today because they never opted into the appeasement of LPFM as the practical end-state of community radio expansion in the United States. They continue to demonstrate the real art of the possible.
Furthermore, many of the pirate stations on the air today are located in places where the FCC has failed to create any room for an LPFM station. They often serve marginalized communities and are commercial because there’s an unmet market need for such voices on the air. Put simply, today’s microbroadcasters developed after the initial opportunity of LPFM had been exhausted.
The very fact that Florida, New Jersey, and New York now have their own state-level laws against unlicensed broadcasting – passed post-LPFM – speaks volumes for the FCC’s ability to effectively police the airwaves against interlopers.
This historical inefficacy also blows holes in the argument that unlicensed broadcasting opens up the potential for chaos on the airwaves. Given the documented growth of pirate broadcasting in the United States over the last decade and a half, by McLane’s logic the FM dial should be awash with noise.
This is obviously not the case. Both McLane and I were in San Francisco in 2000 during a media democracy protest targeting the National Association of Broadcasters. Microbroadcasters and LPFM advocates were but two of many constituencies that came together to make the case that people in their own communities do “know better than the larger community, including those who create our laws, how best to use this resource.”
I was also in Seattle in 2002, when dozens of microradio activists from around the country descended on that year’s NAB Radio Show and built pirate stations on 11 FM frequencies in the metro area. One of the goals of the “Mosquito Fleet” was to demonstrate just how much open space there is on the FM dial beyond LPFM; the Fleet’s very existence belies the assertion that radio piracy equals chaos.
Throughout the history of U.S. broadcast regulation, precepts of localism have been reduced to lip service. This has led to “extreme circumstances – when severe societal wrongs are not resolved by legal means.” Nobody can honestly argue that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has been good for fostering democracy on the radio dial.
Situations like these are exactly when “civil disobedience is appropriate,” and the modern microradio movement is nothing more than one of many forms of media activism that exist today.
The bottom line is that the manifestation of resistance to the broadcast status quo has its roots in the construction of the status quo itself. Radio pirates predate the era of broadcasting. Their inspirations may have shifted over time, but their significance cannot be denied.