Back 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.