You’ve probably heard of the term “pirate radio” before, but how much do you actually know about this iconic part of radio history? We’re here to give you a quick history lesson about the beginning of pirate radio, and how it impacted the UK and USA.

What is pirate radio?

A pirate radio station (also known as free radio, bootleg radio and clandestine radio), is essentially a radio station that broadcasts without a valid license.

Pirate radio in the UK

The popularity of free radio in the UK rose in the early 1960s, with pop music stations broadcasting from offshore ships or disused sea forts. As these pirate stations where broadcasting from international waters, they were not technically illegal.

Fun Fact: In 1964, Radio Caroline began broadcasting from a ship off the Essex coast. It was probably the best-known free radio in the UK. The British authorities were unable to reach them, as they stuck to off-coast locations.

DJs from Radio Caroline in 1966 / The ship from which Radio Caroline was broadcast (Getty images)

Radio for the people, by the people

There was a growing demand for rock and pop music at the time, which was not being fulfilled by BBC Radio services. As a result, music enthusiasts and entrepreneurs decided to create their own pirate radios in order to satisfy the needs of the people. This led to a wave of land-based pirate radio during the 1970s and 80s, which were mostly broadcast from flats and tower blocks in large towns or cities. Among them were many local stations, but also radios dedicated to a particular music genre.

Many authorities, such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), were opposed to pirate radio. They claimed that interference towards licensed broadcasters and frequencies used by emergency services occurred due to these free stations. Regardless, the rapid growth of this medium during the 80s meant that pirate radios operators outranked legal broadcasters in numbers and popularity.

Government intervention

Towards the late 1980s, the UK Government intended to tackle pirate radio by offering new licenses. However, this resulted in the apparition of a new wave of pirate radios as the “acid house” scene came to light.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 encouraged diversity in radio and launched the development of commercial radio. At the same time, tougher penalties were implemented for those caught in unlicensed broadcasting, which ultimately led to a decline of pirate radio in the UK. However, the general belief was that The Broadcasting Act 1990 was undermining small scale broadcasters and community radios. As a result, an increase in the number of unlicensed broadcasters soon appeared.

In 2007, UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom researched the continued popularity of pirate radio and estimated that “there are currently around 150 illegal radio stations in the UK.” Ofcom have promoted the creation of Community Radio since 2010, especially in areas like London with a high concentration of free radio stations. As a result, multiple former pirate radios have moved onto legal broadcasting via community radio licenses. Nevertheless, not all are confident in the ability of local community and pirate broadcasters to obtain a legal status.

Pirate radio in the United States

In August 1912, the “Act to Regulate Radio Communication” was passed in the United States. Instead of banning amateurs from broadcasting, they were assigned their own frequency spectrum. A legal space for open broadcasts was created as a result of this regulation of public airwaves. In 1927 the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was created, which was then transformed into the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934. Their role was to enforce rules on assigned frequencies, licensing and acceptable content for broadcast.

Clandestine radio and anarchism

In the United States, any unlicensed broadcasting use of part of the radio spectrum that is reserved for use by governmental, public or commercial licensees by the FCC is considered to be pirate radio. (Including FM, AM and shortwave radio bands.) US airways are generally pretty free from direct government censorship compared to authoritarian government systems. That being said, it’s understandable that the term pirate radio doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning in countries that have limited access to communications.

In the US, pirate radio is often associated with anarchism. This political philosophy regards governmental spectrum regulatory schemes as favouring the interests of large corporations. As a result, this type of radio is viewed as a challenge to that authority by some anarchists.

Fighting for their right to broadcast

An organization of pirate radio monitoring enthusiasts was created in 1982. To this day, the Association of Clandestine Radio Enthusiasts (ACE) remains a reliable source for sharing information about free radios and other unusual radio transmissions in the US.

Many pirate radio operators petitioned the FCC for a new Low-Power FM service, and where successful by the year 2000. However, it blocked former clandestine operators from obtaining the necessary licenses. Logically, this should have meant a heavy decrease in the number of clandestine radio stations in the US. The FCC requires licensees to be a non-profit organisation, meaning that many of them were churches, colleges, local government transportation etc…

However pirate radio continues to live on, even today! Since the 1979 ruling, legal open spots on the FM dial have been filled by full-power and translator stations. Furthermore, the FCC has difficulties finding offenders who transmit without a license as basic radio transmission equipment is quite easy to obtain and hide in the US.


The boat that rocked: If you found this article interesting, we highly recommend that you watch The boat that rocked (titled Pirate Radio in North America).

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