The influence of pirate radio has endured despite government crackdowns and the rise of legitimate alternatives – today, it continues to thrive, both legally and otherwise
Drive around some parts of London today and you’re still liable to hear mainstream radio broadcasts drowned out by fleeting bursts of unfamiliar music. Pirate radio stations have been illegally hijacking the FM dial since the 1990s, but while the pirate scene is far smaller than it was in its heyday, the movement is still thriving on a local scale, while a vibrant array of online-only stations are inspired by the energy and spirit of the pirates. To put it simply, pirate radio never left London.
The UK’s pirate radio story starts with Ronan O’Rahilly’s Radio Caroline back in the 1960s, famously avoiding the authorities by broadcasting from international waters, but it was really the 1990s that paved the way for pirate radio in this country. Its evolution loosely follows that of the underground rave scene, which mainstream radio wouldn’t touch in its early days. “It’s the closest thing to mass organised zombie-dom,” BBC Radio 1 DJ Peter Powell said of acid house. “I really don’t think it should go any further.” Needless to say, it wasn’t going anywhere, and between 1988 and 89, pirate radio stations rapidly started to appear to serve a youth hungry for new sounds that weren’t being catered to by mainstream radio. By 1989, there were over 60 pirate radio stations operating in London alone.
While the first pirates – from Sunrise to Centreforce to Fantasy – mostly played music from America and European countries like Belgium, it didn’t take long for the British youth to start doing their own thing. “The UK kids realised people were making music in their bedrooms and they thought ‘I can fucking do that!’” exclaims Uncle Dugs, one of the UK’s leading authorities on pirate radio. Having been involved in radio (both legal and otherwise) for over 20 years, Dugs’ new book Rave Diaries and Tower Block Tales documents life as a young raver turned award-winning DJ after years on the pirate scene. As he explains, by 1991, London’s underground music landscape had become “99% UK producers and DJs,” transforming from acid house to hardcore and then to jungle. As London’s underground grew, so did its pirate presence, with legendary stations like Weekend Rush, Kool FM, Pulse FM, Innocence, and Defection springing up by the end of 1991. “You could flick through the radio and at every .2 on the dial there was a pirate station,” Dugs laughs. “There wasn’t even space on the radio for a new one.”[…]
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Aaron Kuhn, who shares the following in-depth article from Tedium.com:
The story of FMX, the wannabe radio standard that was taken out in a very public way
Attempts at standard-building in the radio industry have come up repeatedly over the years, and few of them have stuck, not even in the nobody-knows-about-it way that AM stereo has made its mark.
Perhaps the most fascinating of these attempts to improve the radio signal, however, is that of FMX. Formulated in the late 1980s as a more pristine version of the FM dial, it intended to solve a major problem with FM that had been lingering since stereo had been added in the early 1960s: When you move to the edges of the coverage area, the sound quality gets really low.
As you can probably tell by the fact that it’s generally still a problem in many vehicles today, FMX failed to solve that problem.
But the reason why it failed to solve that problem is more complicated than saying it didn’t work. There were both technical and political issues at play.
The technology, for what it’s worth, did have the right folks supporting it: The brainchild of Tom Keller, an engineer with the National Association of Broadcasters, and Emil Torick, who worked in the same role for the CBS Technology Center, FMX was intended to fix stereo’s weaknesses in low-quality areas. The best part? It was backwards compatible. It would reduce noise and improve the fidelity of FM stations for stereos with upgraded equipment, but those with cheap beater radios would still have the same staticky-in-outlying-areas experience that they did before.
Paul Riismandel, a radio industry observer who co-founded the industry news outlet Radio Survivor, notes that the FMX technology wasn’t the first of its kind. For example, Dolby attempted to bring its noise-reduction technology, common in cassette tapes, to radio stations in the 1970s, but its offering was generally ignored due to the fact that proprietary equipment was needed. (Over at the Internet Archive is a sample of what Dolby FM sounded like during a 1978 Minnesota Public Radio broadcast.)
But FMX likely got further than most due to two factors that became apparent in the 1980s: The fuzziness of radio stations in fringe parts of the broadcast areas, and the pristine sounds of the compact disc, which was becoming popular at the time.
“FMX was a way for radio to compete with this new digital technology and adapt to listener expectations,” Riismandel noted.
But the FMX technology proved controversial within the radio industry due to two separate incidents that cost the technology its momentum.[…]
Many thanks SWLing Post contributor, Aaron Kuhn, who writes:
[While passing by the TV at just the right time] I heard an interesting little 16 seconds of exchange in the Senate Russian Hacking hearings.
The exchange take place between Lindsey Graham and James Clapper from 1:57:40 to 1:58:24:
In this short exchange, which starts by Graham asking, “Would you agree with me that Radio Free Europe is outdated?” We learn that Clapper isn’t “familiar” with Radio Free Europe and both of them admit that they don’t listen to the radio (though Clapper believes it’s popular in some parts of the world).
Graham: “Is radio big in your world?”
Clapper: “Not in my world.”
Graham: “Yeah, I don’t listen to the radio so much either.”
Well…glad we sorted that out, gentlemen.
UPDATE — Kim Andrew Elliott comments:
That exchange might explain why the RFE/RL Press Room sent out this email on January 5…
Facts about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
(WASHINGTON – January 5, 2017) RFE/RL serves a measured audience of 27 million people a week in 23 nations and territories by video, social networks, mobile apps, websites, podcasts and radio – whatever media they use most. From its Prague headquarters and 18 news bureaus, it provides local news and information in 26 languages to the nations of the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, including a round-the-clock Russian-language television channel.
Through last September, RFE/RL recorded one billion page views on its websites, 300 million views on YouTube and 225 million engaged users on Facebook, plus many more visits and views on other social networks and apps.
“RFE/RL’s audience is highly loyal, making their way to us despite efforts by some governments to jam us on the internet and over the air, and even to directly intimidate viewers and listeners,” said Thomas Kent, president and CEO of RFE/RL. “They find us an indispensable source of news and investigative journalism, constantly adapting to the most modern platforms to reach them.”
RFE/RL is a private, independent international news organization whose programs — radio, internet, television, and mobile — reach 27 million people in 26 languages and 23 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the Baltic states. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Aaron Kuhn, who writes:
The HFCC is now collecting “pre-orders” (really expressions of interest in purchasing/demand) for the PantronX Titus II Android Radio at http://hfcc.org/delivery/receivers.phtml
“The purpose of this form is to collect the information on the demand for pre-production samples of the Titus II receiver.
It is NOT BINDING and it does not establish any contract. The ordering party is not obliged to buy the indicated quantity and the supplier is not obliged to deliver it.
Availability: Pre-production batch – 4Q/2016, regular production – 1Q/2017.
Price: Under 100USD plus shipping and local duty/taxes not included.
Payment methods: Wire transfer for larger quantities, PayPal works too, but the buyers would need to add PayPal bank fees.
You will be contacted on the specified e-mail address and asked for a binding order when the exact price and available delivery method is known.”
As Aaron also noted, though the HFCC posted this, the pre-order request form appears to be published by the manufacturer. I’m sure this is a way PantronX can gauge market interest and also decide what first-run production numbers should look like.
Thanks again for the tip, Aaron!
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Aaron Kuhn, who writes:
[T]he newest v3 http://RTL-SDR.com RTL2832U USB receivers now have HF reception via Direct sampling over the SMA antenna connector directly out of the box with no hardware modding required.
I think this might make it the cheapest, out-of-the-box HF SDR possible at this point.
9:1 balun for longwire puts the whole thing under $50 still http://www.rtl-sdr.com/new-rtl-sdr-blog-units-now-available-in-store-hf-via-direct-sampling-software-switchable-bias-tee-less-noisespurs/ …
Wow! Now you’re making me wish I would’ve waited a few more months before finally purchasing an RTL-SDR. I like the folks over at the RTL-SDR blog, so I purchased their model.