I Was A Radio Pirate

skullBack when I was a young radio artisan I would eagerly await my monthly copy of Popular Communications to arrive.  My favorite column was Pirates Den which covered the latest happenings in pirate radio such as new stations, signal reports, programming, and stations shutting down, either voluntarily or involuntarily at the hands of FCC enforcement.  The often grainy black and white images of stations with masked DJs seemed like a glamorous and exciting thing at the time.  Back then you couldn’t just setup your own audio stream on the Internet and broadcast to the world.  As a pirate you could say whatever you wanted, play whatever music you liked, and all the while stick it to the “man”, the brutal, authoritarian FCC.  Fines at the time were only a few hundred dollars, paltry by today’s standards.

There were basically two pirate “worlds”, local broadcast and shortwave.  Shortwave stations would operate just above the 40m amateur band.  In later years the pirate band moved to below 40m.  Other frequencies on other international shortwave bands were used, but the neighborhood around 40m seemed to have the most action.  Local broadcast would be done mainly on FM radio.  I actually can’t recall a report of an AM broadcast pirate, but I assume there were a few out there.  But considering the effort and equipment one had to put into an AM broadcast band operation, those people with the skills and inclination to go to that effort probably did shortwave pirating.

I had dreams of becoming a real DJ and perhaps owning my own commercial FM station one day, but luckily I realized that the broadcast industry had a rather low pay to frustration ratio and steered clear of it professionally.  In college I finally got the gumption to attempt to become a radio pirate.  I didn’t have two nickels to rub together at the time, so any purchase was a big decision.  I sent away for a mail order FM radio kit.  It was mono, not stereo, but it boasted a phase-locked loop (PLL) and a clean 1 watt output.  Paradoxically, being a licensed radio amateur I wanted a very clean and professional pirate FM signal.  I assembled the kit, however, much to my dismay after weeks of trying to get the PLL to lock up, I gave up and tossed the unit in the closet.

Two years later I was working professionally in the RF world, working on TV transmitters around the globe.  I learned a lot in this new world.  Being a field engineer in the middle of nowhere like South America or the Middle East with a minimal assortment of parts and people staring over your shoulder expecting you to fix their only transmitter in the village makes you learn quickly and think on your feet.  This is something they don’t teach in college or outline in an ARRL Handbook.  It was a rough job that no one wanted but I came into the company bright eyed and bushy-tailed and commanded more pay than some of the travel-adverse bench techs with years of experience under their belts.

One day I got bit by the pirate bug again and snuck a spectrum analyzer out of work to my bachelor pad.  I got the bright idea of bypassing the PLL and just driving the voltage controlled oscillator with a multi-turn pot, also borrowed from work.  The unit would drift but after a few hours warmup it didn’t require much adjustment to stay on frequency.  Later I found an old low band VHF TV amplifier rated for 25 watts at work.  It was a design that apparently was a bit unstable, but we had several of them lying around at work, destined for the dumpster.  I took one home and tweaked it up and found I could get 40 watts cleanly out of the unit.  Now I was in business.

I assembled a station, acquiring an audio mixing board and other components.  I built a ground plane antenna and got four 5′ Radio Shack masts to elevate it.  My third floor apartment was in a great location, in the middle of a nine mile long heavily populated valley in northeastern PA.

A college friend would come over Friday night and stay over for a pirate broadcast weekend.  We would do a few two hour shows and identify as WMRX, “the station jamming the nation.”  Though a bit kooky now, it sounded pretty cool back then.  We spun mostly records and a few CDs, and we augmented our programming with supermixes or song medleys recorded from a commercial station in Philadelphia.  We even did a ten minute fake news report with some comedy thrown in.  For a phone line we announced the phone number of the pay telephone across the street.  One of us would stand at the phone while the other announced the number on the air.   We never did have anyone call in.

One show ended early when my co-host got intoxicated and fell over.  Another show had to be cut short when a guest DJ announced my name over the air.  After each broadcast we disassembled everything, including the antenna and mast and hid it, naively assuming this would minimize our chances of getting caught.  Eventually work and life got too busy and complicated and the pirate operation stopped.  Every few years I fired up the transmitter, put a CD on, and just drove around to hear the signal and admire the coverage.  Although it wasn’t stereo and it didn’t fill every nook and cranny in the valley with RF, it was my signal, my station, built with my own hands, and to me it sounded wonderful.

Today FM pirate broadcasting lives on, as regular reports of FCC enforcement would attest with fines in the neighborhood of $10K to $20K.  It’s hard to tell if shortwave pirating is still alive.  It’s certainly not at the level it was in the 80s.  I get the feeling anyone with a desire to get a message out rather than just spin records or taunt the FCC has moved to Internet broadcasting or perhaps uses a blog to get their message out, though it lacks the mystique and excitement that pirate radio once had.


Anthony, K3NG, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com.

10 Responses to “I Was A Radio Pirate”

  • Bill - WA8MEA:

    OK. Confession is good for the soul.

    I, too, was a radio pirate. But illegal (slightly….) in a strange way.

    I lived in a town of about 13,000. In fact, we lived on the highest point in town.

    One day, as a Junior High student in the late 60’s, I decided to make a transmitter console out of a 100 mw CB walkie-talkie. It was fixed to channel 14. However, I bought a transmit crystal for Channel 9. BUT….back then….Channel 9 was NOT YET designated as an emergency only channel. In fact, it was the national calling channel. Therefore, we had an enormous “potential” audience.

    I used an abbreviated method for my callsign….using WKKW….short for my WPE (Popular Electronics) “callsign” of WPE8KKW.

    I had a mic, turntable and cassette recorder feeding into the audio section of the little transmitter. We were amazed at how far 100 mw would travel. We were also amazed at how upset the CB community was about our lil’ operation. We really didn’t know we had an audience around the whole town!

    You see, even though I was legal at 100 mw….I later learned that my antenna was not legal. I was feeding a HUGE Super Maggy CB antenna I bought used….and mounted it on the roof of our house located on the highest hill in the ‘ville! (Part 15 said my antenna had to be much shorter, including the coax.)

    Anyway, it was just a passing fad. My friend and I finally got bored at spinning records and decided to huddle in the basement of another friend’s house and spun Beatle’s records backwards….to see if the “Paul is dead” conspiracy was true.

    73, Bill

  • Jon - N8GXZ:

    Ahhhh fond memories ! Back in 1973 had a 100 Mw Base CB on ch.14 and ,myself amd 2 friends “Quezy Quagmaire” – “Kat K” had a small pirate station in McDonald, Ohio Lots of fun. Then in 1974 I met a fellow who had a ton of Sparta broadcast quality equipment an 8 channel board a couple of 4 track cart machines a 5 watt am transmitter with a 910Khz xtal, audio limiter a couple of direct drive turntables basicly a broadcast quality setup. I remember the winter of 1974 in the middle of a snow storm stringing up a 600′ longwire antenna om a farm in North Jackson, Ohio. Had a blast ! finally got a part time job at a 500W datimer did that gig for a couple of years and when 3 bucks an hour was’nt enough money to live on I got a job on the railroad . I still think I should have stayed in radio, Thats where my heart is to this day

  • Fred Bernquist AE2DX:

    O’boy talk about memories, back in the late 50s I was just a young eager lad of about 15, my cousin gave me the plans for a broadcast band transmitter using a 5u4 power supply to supply the plate and filiment voltages to a 6L6 metal type power amp output tube a coil wound on a wooden dowel and a few other parts which I just happened to have laying around as I was really into the electronic building of anything I could from the likes of Popular electronics and other mags. anyway myself and 2 other friends from the neighborhood built the sets and wow did they ever work infact if you touched the ant lead you would get a RF burn we found a spot between two radio stations and our stations were on the air broadcasting between us anything we wanted, we played records (those big plastic things with the small hole in the middle) tell jokes whatever, but like all good things It came to an end when one day (lucky I wasnt home had gone fishing) an nice gentelman from the FCC came to our house to which my mother spoke to and assured to him that we would never again broadcast again.(seems a noisy neighbor down the street from us had heard our broadcasts and figured it had to be me as I was to her the trouble maker of the neighborhood,(this time she was right) lucky but no further trouble and our cigar box radios were put aside for good. Ah yes the good old days. hi hi.

  • john kd5srw:

    Ah yes…pirate radio on the SW bands, I know it well. Started like so many in the hobby as a avid SWL. Still love SW though…qsl’ed many many pirates…the best one was WSKY and Radio Garbanzo with the cool slogan, “we’re not nuts, we’re beans!

    Great times and yes, many are still out there and some have gone legit like WBCQ_SW in Maine…free range radio…and fun, check it out week nights or go its web page.

    73…

  • Richard KW0U:

    Still there indeed, 6925 seems to be the most common, but there are other frequencies too, and several websites discussing the stations. Most activity is weekends/holidays when the FCC is likely not to be around and skip works pretty well. Or not. Have several nice pirate QSLs, and one even sent a fine CD of a complete Halloween broadcast. You may have to search to figure out where to email/send reports (audio isn’t always that clear, if they give the address at all). Anyway, glad you weren’t caught.

  • WD6GRI:

    –AH Where too start ? try too be short here as it was real and fun,receved my novice ticket around 14-15 in jr high built my own radios as heathkit one mine as one 4 the jrhigh school yep i was a troublemaker the vp in j-h was a advanced and hell i smooked him in code as i was above 60 wpm never had to write a thing as sending as fast bit i had bad grades oh i did graduate w/-out any assocation w/ the ham club dammn but the high school i was going too and the one i got basicly kicked out of electronic shops where bolth TIGHT as were the surrounding jr-his and high schools knew i was comming cheez i was flipping hp cb as well as building large rf amps at a wide range of freq. as it wasint a prob TILL??? high school ? me i still live and love it in W L A the real west los angeles not shaw and pico try 405 – 10 ohh my BOOT LEG PIRATE RADIO STATION would hit you w/ in a min rad of FIVE MILES as all the way too sanpedro and catalina !!!!!!!!!!!!! as we had a good repore w/ two of the largest stations in your back yard as alot of real big peoples kids went too school here what exactaly happened i cant say ? but the other students started too aqire items from these local radio stations hey i didnt know i thought it was all about starting another ham radio club in h-s ? well yes i had too teach the elect instructor code but ??? THEY WANTED A PIRATE RADIO STATION as the campus was wired for sound not sissy system im talking a 1100 watt 16 teen double hannel board thats like 3×6 feet w/ all the bands as such it starts too get crazy here we got dual turntables a pair as 8 cart systems w/ carts that are new and hundi or two of oldies butttttttt too put this together and the campus has live dj at nutretun as lunch the school board is loving these things were putting together NOW THE ONE that killed us its real nobody go hurt or thrown in jail [closefcc] AS HIGH SCHOOL-ERS DO we came across a arc-5 as well as a few chips for a 2-meter xmtr well we took abt 3k worth oh 16 gauge wire and errected a 45 plus mast with a hellicial as tweeked a doudle yagi for 2-meters and burried your station in K-UNI 108-FM 1610 AM AND its a crazy story from there thats the 70-80s TNX for reeading 73s

  • Don Pritchard W6ZPC:

    Back in the mid 60s my dad (the original W6ZPC) upgraded his station from a Central 20A and National NC 183 to a Swan 350 (I know some will chafe a bit at the word upgrade in this sentence, but read on). The Central was traded in (Dow Radio in Pasadena, I think), but the National came to me. I am sure Dad hoped it would inspire me to get my ham ticket. Well it did inspire me to get on the air, but not quite the way he planned. I had met a fellow in high school, about four years old than me, who had a pirate AM station at 1620 just above the AM broadcast band (as it existed then). I immediately caught the broadcasting bug. One day as I was tuning around the AM band on the National, I noticed that if I tuned one frequency, my other radio in the same room would go silent. The National’s local oscillator was radiating. I don’t remember how I did it, but I figured out a way to modulate the grid of the 6J5 local oscillator tube and connect an antenna and was soon broadcasting around my neighborhood. Never heard any complaints, but my neighbors fed my broadcasting appetite by telling me how great my voice sounded on the air. They even supplied me with 45s to play. Today nearly 50 years later I am still in radio, as news director for small midwest station on the Mississippi River. The bug never left me despite the low pay and long hours. I have supplemented by income by DJing at restaurants, movie projectionist at the local theater back when carbon rods were in vogue, working at two stations at the same time, one station even hired my kids to clean the place and mow around the towers. My wife had to work to make ends meet when she wasn’t needed at home raising our seven children. (None of whom have any interest in broadcasting, though my son engineered Cubs games at one station and one of my daughters had a brief stint at a station in a mall. (She never spoke, just played music.) I finally got my ham ticket, unfortunately after my Dad passed away, and took his calls, the ones I remember hearing from my toddler days. It’s been a great ride, and with the non-existent retirement package I will keep working as long as I am physically able to, enjoying every minute of it. Well maybe not EVERY minute, but enough to keep me going. There are many other stories to tell of my pirate radio days, but for now I will sign. 73.

  • Chris N3JLY:

    Nice article. Regarding activity levels, I would say that shortwave pirate activity is at least as high as it was in the 80s, if not higher, by a look at recent logs: http://www.hfunderground.com/board/index.php/board,3.0.html

  • Landru N6SOB:

    Hi, I started out on CB in the 70s, played J Hendrix, Joplin and peace songs in my old town of Wenatchee, WA. It was easy then, and I got a ham rig and 200W and moved to Tacoma. I had a great audience too…I played best music on earth and exposed the corrupt Gov. and like. I still do it, but more hop around and only for a few mins…cant get busted!!! 73

  • Emily Taylor:

    I do AM radio pirate but your are right. Its only short lived before going to shortwave because the AM band kinda sucks. Recently though after moving i went back to AM becuase of to many signal blocking mountains in my area so I use it for NVIS style broadcast.

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