Last night at about 00:10 UTC, I was pleased to hear the interval signal of one of my favorite pirate radio stations: Radio Casablanca.
“Rick Blaine” fired up his AM transmitter and pumped out some amazing WWII era music on 6,940 kHz for about one hour and a half. Radio Casablanca only pops up a few times a year, so I always feel fortunate to grab the broadcast (click here to listen to previous recordings).
Signal strength varied over the course of the broadcast and the bands were quite noisy–still, the Casablanca signal punched through quite well at times.
Close your eyes and imagine what it must have been like to hear the great bands of the era over the shortwaves…
Consider a New Way to Combat Pirate Radio Stations
Everyone should agree that pirate radio stations – by any definition – are completely illegal. Given other responsibilities and obligations, however, the Commission’s resources are stretched, and it seems that stopping pirate radio is not at the top of the priority list. While this reality is not surprising, we need to consider other ways to remove the scourge that is pirate radio. One approach would be to give broadcasters a new right to use the legal process to go after such stations, letting loose broadcasters’ legal bloodhounds to root out the violators. This isn’t a new idea as it has been done in other circumstances outside of spectrum policy, such as to combat email spam, and we should consider it here, too.
It is important to start by recognizing the truth about pirate radio stations. They are not cute; they are not filling a niche; they are not innovation test beds; and they are not training grounds for future broadcasters. If broadcasting were a garden, pirate radio would be poisonous crabgrass. Put another way, pirate radio participants are similar to outlaws who rob a retail store and then sell the stolen inventory online. In practice, pirate radio causes unacceptable economic harm to legitimate and licensed American broadcasters by stealing listeners. Pirate operators also cause “harmful interference” that inhibits the ability of real broadcasters to transmit their signals and programming, which provide such vital services as emergency alerts, critical weather updates, political information and news. And, pirate radio can disproportionately impact minority-owned stations as they undercut their financials and can cause harmful interference to legitimate stations serving minority populations.
Let’s also dispel another myth: pirate radio does not increase media diversity. From time to time, arguments have been made that we should look the other way because some pirate radio operators may be minorities, or the stations’ content appeals to minority listeners. To be clear, the race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or any characteristic of a pirate radio operator should be completely irrelevant to the discussion. Their operations are illegal – end of story. Just imagine if we allowed this argument to be persuasive in other spectrum enforcement decisions: Commission spectrum and licensing policies would be thrown into complete chaos and wireless systems would cease to operate.
Instead of embracing pirate radio, approaches like the NAB’s Broadcast Leadership Training Program should be encouraged to prepare underrepresented populations for leadership and ownership positions in broadcasting. Alternatively, those truly interested in operating a legal broadcast station can seek to participate in the Commission’s July 2015 auction, in which 131 FM construction permits will be available, many in smaller and less expensive markets.
If there are unmet needs or underserved populations, the solution is not to condone an illegal station, but to convince the applicable existing broadcaster to be more responsive. Collectively, broadcasters are uniquely attuned to the needs of their communities and promoting localism because the success of their stations and ultimately, their livelihoods depend on it. Moreover, there are other technologies available to target broadcasts to a distinct group within a community, such as low power FM stations or Internet radio stations, which are free, easy to establish and not regulated by the Commission.
To combat pirate radio, I am suggesting that we replicate a concept contained in the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. Specifically, section 7(g) authorizes an Internet Service Provider to “bring a civil action in any district of the United States with jurisdiction” against (1) false or misleading header information; (2) aggravated violations relating to commercial electronic mail; (3) failure to place warning labels on commercial electronic mail containing sexually oriented materials; or (4) a pattern or practice involving deceptive subject headings, failure to include return address, or continuing to transmit after a recipient objection. This provision provides a mechanism for ISPs to enjoin further violations and recover actual and aggravated damages and attorney fees. In other words, it authorizes ISPs to seek out the bad actors for a host of illegal activity and recoup their losses. The framework serves as a good model to provide additional options – outside of the FCC process – for eliminating and deterring pirate radio.
There is no doubt that pirate radio stations are often highly mobile, making tracking and finding such stations tedious and sometimes futile. But with the right technology to pinpoint signal strength and a little luck, the origination point of the pirate radio broadcast can be located, often leading to some back office or mobile van. In fact, broadcasters have told me of instances where they were able to accurately detect and locate pirate radio stations, meaning it can be done. And locating mobile pirate operators, while difficult, is no more so than trying to locate the purveyors of unwanted spam who can be stationed anywhere in the world with Internet access and a server. If it can help in the case of spam, or even if it acts as a further deterrent, why not give it a try here? Who do you think would cause more concern to a pirate station: the busy FCC or a broadcaster seeking to protect its station’s rights and revenues?
In all fairness, the CAN-SPAM’s private right of action for ISPs hasn’t been used all that often and hasn’t magically eliminated spam. No one who worked on the law ever expected it to do so. Instead, the private right of action was meant to be one more tool in the toolbox. In practice, the provision has been used by a select number of companies determined to be ISPs by the courts, including Yahoo!, Facebook, and My Space. Facebook has been of the more frequent users of the provision, using it to obtain judgments in no fewer than three cases leading to statutory damages and injunctive relief.
On a side note, pirate radio has been mentioned recently in conjunction with the Commission’s proposal to reorganize and close certain FCC field offices. To be clear, I am not taking a stance on that matter at this time, and my proposal should not be seen in any way related. Few details have been made available to me regarding the field offices, and I was not a party to the plan’s development. The field office discussion should remain completely separate because the problem with pirate radio and lack of attention exists today under the current enforcement structure. Whether altering the field offices would further denigrate our enforcement efforts against pirate radio is a debate for another time.
Private enforcement of spectrum license rights in court should remain limited in any event. I am in no way suggesting that the Commission transfer its spectrum enforcement authority to the court system, and any private right here would be in addition to, not supplanting, the Commission’s responsibilities, nor undermining any common law rights of broadcasters. And to allow for some private action in this specific case should not be interpreted as my support for more lawsuits and certainly not more class-action suits. As in the case of spam, I would not recommend allowing consumers (e.g., a station’s listeners) to file lawsuits. But if we can narrowly permit a limited and targeted private right of action here to be used only by broadcasters, it could provide a valuable tool to tackle a persistent problem in some radio markets. To the extent that this idea garners consideration, it may require a change in current law, which is solely within the purview of Congress. At such a point, I would leave the discussion in the capable hands of our elected representatives.
Though I know commissioner O’Rielly is mostly focusing on local FM and AM pirates, I can say that I’ve never heard shortwave pirates interfere with commercial stations; they occupy rather unoccupied parts of the bands.
Even as many legacy international broadcasters are abandoning the shortwave bands, shortwave remains active and vibrant in another quadrant: namely, on shortwave pirate radio. Over the past few years, I’ve found that one of my favorite listening activities has become searching for unique pirate radio stations, and readers of my blog appear to have followed suit. Among the most popular queries made by readers is, “How can I find and hear pirate radio stations?” To help answer this question, I’m writing this primer.
Who are pirate radio stations?
Many are confused by the term “pirate radio,” otherwise known as “free radio.” Either term is sufficient, and some stations prefer one designation or the other. For consistency’s sake, I will use the term “pirate radio” in this article.
So what is pirate radio? Andrew Yoder, author and publisher of the 2012 Pirate Radio Annual, defines pirate radio as:
“[A]ny unlicensed hobby broadcast operation that is using more power than the legal limit.”
As Yoder goes on to explain in his introduction of the 2012 Pirate Radio Annual, pirates are often confused with radio bootleggers (who conduct unlicensed two-way conversations), clandestine stations (usually political stations), and jammers (who intentionally try to block broadcasts).
While debunking myths about pirates, I can say that in my years of pirate radio listening I’ve never heard a pirate intentionally jam a legal broadcaster. Pirates tend to occupy swatches of the shortwave spectrum that are relatively quiet, avoid intentionally broadcasting on top of one another, and typically operate at fairly low power. I believe this is why authorities like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) place shortwave pirates comparatively lower on their enforcement priority list.
And while pirate radio stations can be found across the radio spectrum, especially on AM and FM in urban areas, in this primer I’ll be focusing on those that inhabit the shortwaves.
What do pirates broadcast?
Pirates broadcast a wide variety of content, but are usually motivated by sharing their message–or favorite music–on the air. Some pirates simply key down their mike and begin talking, sharing their political or social views; others offer near-professional music productions, complete with listener feedback, and often acknowledge listener reports with QSLs (radio postcards).
I received this QSL from the amazing Radio Ronin Shortwave shortly before he received “the knock” from the FCC and stopped transmitting. (Listen to one of Ronin’s broadcasts below.)
As a self-proclaimed “content DXer,” what interests me in pirate radio is that the listener never knows what to expect, but you can guarantee that the content will be different from that of the major broadcasters.
To prove my point, here are some MP3 recordings of some of my favorite recent pirate radio stations/broadcasts:
Though pirates can be located anywhere on the planet, and therefore can broadcast, hypothetically, anywhere on the radio dial, patterns are actually fairly predictable in order to draw a listening audience. Pirate stations want listeners to discover them, so they broadcast in various “watering holes.”
With that said (and for reasons I don’t fully understand) depending on where you live in the world, you will either find it very easy to locate pirates…or extremely difficult. If you live in North America–particularly on the east coast–or in Europe, you’re in luck: these are the hottest geographic locations for shortwave pirate radio activity. If you live in other parts of the world, pirate hunting can pose serious DX challenges.
Again, I turned to Andrew Yoder for insight about pirate radio activity in the rest of the world; his reply:
“I’m always amazed at how few areas in the world have pirates that are connected to any scene. Back when KIWI was on the air regularly in the ’90s, I assumed that pirate radio would explode in Oceania and Asia. Not just Aussie and NZ pirates, but stations in places like The Phillipines…maybe Japan, South Korea, or Thailand. Nothing. Radio G’Day came on from Australia occasionally, but no one else. And when KIWI went silent, that was it. South America was strong for a while in the ’90s, but that has also fallen silent. I know that lots of pirates operate there, mostly on AM and FM, but no one is on SW…and if they are, they aren’t sending QSLs, [or] operating in places where radio hobbyists would hear them…”
Yoder actually addresses this apparent restriction, to some degree, in the 2013 Pirate Radio Annual, which has only just been released.
Before we talk about where to hunt pirates, however, we need to talk about the necessary equipment–i.e., your radio and antenna.
Unlike trying to locate China Radio International, Radio Australia, or the BBC World Service, hunting pirates requires a decent-quality radio and antenna. Keep in mind that pirates are relatively low-power broadcasters. While the magic of shortwave radio can transport a small signal vast distances, to hear pirates regularly and clearly, some precision is required.
Listening to Channel Z in a parking lot.
If you live in a geographic hotbed of pirate activity (again, eastern/central North America and Europe) you might find a portable radio ample for hearing a number of pirates. Indeed, this past November, I listened to the pirate Channel Z while sitting in my truck; I was only using a Tecsun PL-660 with the antenna extended out of my opened driver’s-side window.
Though Channel Z was broadcasting in AM, as many do, it’s best to hunt pirates with an SSB-capable portable. Why? Unlike major broadcasters, many pirates don’t stick to AM as a preferred mode. Indeed, since pirates are operating at lower power, they get much more bang-for-the-watt out of SSB. To track pirates, you’ll need a radio with both AM and SSB modes. It will also help to have some sort of adjustable bandwidth filter (wide/narrow). I’ve hunted pirates with a range of such radios, among them the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, the Grundig G3, the Grundig G5, the Tecsun PL-600 and PL-660, and even the new Tecsun PL-880.
It’s much better, of course, if you have a table-top receiver, software-defined radio, or ham radio transceiver with a general coverage receiver hooked up to a resonant outdoor antenna–especially if you live outside Europe and North America. I’ve had great results in the past with an old Icom IC-735 and a 40-meter dipole antenna. The important thing here is that you invest in a receiver with a respectable degree of sensitivity and selectivity. You might need that sensitivity and an outdoor antenna to pull these relatively low-powered signals from the ether.
How to hunt pirates
Back in the 1980s, before the Internet and its online bulletin boards, I thought finding pirates was truly a hunt–random and altogether unpredictable. Now I know that finding pirates is reasonably achievable; at least, it is possible to know roughly where, and generally when, to find them. Fortunately for the beginning pirate-hunter, there are now online message boards, free radio logs, and even publications (like Yoder’s excellent treatise on the subject) to help guide your tuning (see resource links below).
Pirate radio operators usually have day jobs–like most of us–thus only transmit while home from work. While you can hear some on weekdays, your best bet is Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, local time. So, for example, if you’re listening for North American pirates from Europe, you’ll need to plan accordingly. Pirates are always active during holidays, too, most especially on Halloween (31st of October), which seems to be pirates’ favorite holiday.
I’ve noticed increased pirate radio activity during the winter months, as well. This is likely due to the early sunsets and cold winter nights of the northern hemisphere that tend to keep people indoors, which in turn encourages pirates to hit the air. Moreover, summer conditions in the North American “43 meter” band are often much noisier, thus pirates know they’ll be fighting static crashes to be heard during the summer months. In the quieter winter months, stations seem to pop out of the ether.
North American Pirates
The bulk of the pirate radio broadcasters I log transmit just below the 40-meter amateur radio band: anywhere from 6,850 kHz to 6,970 kHz and typically on a frequency spaced at 5 kHz. The most popular frequency is arguably 6,925 kHz, but I often log pirates on 6,935 and 6,950 kHz.
Borderhunter Radio is one of the strongest Euro Pirates I’ve ever heard. (Click to enlarge)
Euro pirates typically broadcast in the 48 meter band (6,200 – 6,450 kHz), but the HF Underground notes that you will also hear Euro pirates on the 75 meter band between 3,900-4,000 kHz, on the 19 meter band (15,000-15,100 kHz and 15,700-15,900 kHz), and even on the 13 meter band (21,000-25,000 kHz). My most recent logging of a Euro pirate from North America was Radio Borderhunter on 15,500 kHz; his signal was quite amazing.
Outside of the pirate world? Fear not
If you live outside of North America and Europe, that doesn’t mean there aren’t pirate radio stations to be found. Ask your local radio club or search the Internet for local/regional pirate stations. Additionally, you can always tune a remote receiver, via the Internet on the Global Tuners website, or via the University of Twente’s SDR in the Netherlands.
We’ve now covered the who, what, where, when, and how of pirate hunting–but what about why?
Why chase pirates?
Whether you’re a QSL collector, a “content” DXer, or the casual SWLer, I find there’s something in pirate radio listening for everyone. Speaking for myself, I’m passionate about pirate radio listening because it combines my listening/technical skills, my appetite for highly unique content, and for building a collection of quirky QSL cards. Compared to big-gun broadcasters, pirates are much more elusive game as very few announce their broadcasts in advance, and there’s no telling where a pirate’s transmitter is located: it could be in their home, on a boat, or a portable one dropped in a remote location and later retrieved.
I decoded this Wolverine Radio SSTV QSL on the SSTV iOS App
Chasing pirates has also increased my technical know-how. For example, though I’m a ham radio operator, I had never even attempted to decode the SSTV (slow-scan TV) mode until prompted to do so by Wolverine Radio: at the end (and sometimes in the middle) of their broadcasts, Wolverine is known to send electronic QSL cards via SSTV.
I’ve also been encouraged by pirates to hone my weak-signal DXing using exalted carrier reception (ECR)–zero-beating an AM signal in SSB–in an attempt to hear weak AM pirate stations. It’s a simple technique, and although it takes some practice, will work on most any radio with a stable BFO (beat frequency oscillator).
And did I mention the cool QSL cards? Pirate cards are among the most unusual of QSL cards, that often incorporate obscure or vintage imagery–humor, horror, or other graphic oddity–or cast the pirate in a unique character representation. They can be highly entertaining or thought-provoking, and thus are, themselves, a unique art form.
Don’t believe me? Do a little pirate radio hunting yourself. Like me, you might just get hooked!
My favorite pirate radio resources:
The Pirate Radio Annual:
This little book by Andrew Yoder is the equivalent of the WRTH (World Radio TV Handbook) of the pirate radio world. I keep a copy handy as it helps me identify stations and better understand their format. Additionally, you’ll find contact information for QSL requests and mail-drop addresses as well. Each issue also contains a CD of sound clips from various pirates, several articles about the state of pirate radio, and other relevant info.
Note: Even though it is illegal to broadcast on the shortwave bands without a license, and those who do so are subject to hefty fines, it is not illegal to listen or to send and receive QSL cards from such operators.
“Mama, they’re playing your favorite dance music!”
For your listening pleasure: 32 minutes of pirate radio station, WMPR.
I recorded this broadcast of WMPR on 6.925MHz AM on February 17th, 2013 at 10:00 UTC. You’ll note that this recording sounds a little “brighter” than a typical shortwave radio recording. This is due to the fact that I widened the AM filter to match the bandwidth of WMPR’s signal (about 17 kHz!).
Last weekend, I caught a shortwave pirate I’d never heard before: True Classic Rock Radio.
Well, at least I’m pretty confident that’s their name. When I first heard their ID I couldn’t confirm it, but when I passed the clip to my buddy Andrew, he nailed it.
Funny thing is, when I go back and listen to the station ID now (check it out around 17:30, and then again at the end of transmission) it sounds so obvious.
This short broadcast includes some great classic rock and ends with Hendrix. I didn’t note the exact time they began to broadcast, but I heard them on between 3:00-4:00 UTC, on 6,925 kHz AM, December 8, 2012. Click here to download the mp3 directly, or listen through our Archive.org player: