Pirate Radio documentary

Matt "Pirate's Dilemma" Mason teamed up with VICE/Palladium to shoot a short documentary on the current state of pirate radio in London (with an excursion to an old sea fort). Lots of climbing on roofs, setting up bootleg electronics in parking garages, loud music, and running away from radio cops. Nice work.

Exploration #6 - London Pirate Radio (Thanks, Matt!)


  1. That’s a well-done film. I don’t know if the internet has killed pirate radio; it seems to have suffered much more from the iPod.

    On the other hand, we have a new free radio station in town, so I’m happily listening to underground music on FM again.

    1. Eutychus – The original shows from Thameside Radio 90.2 are still around. Some amazing, some OK, a real time capsule though from the late 70s and early 80s.

      Look at fmthen.com or search for “Thameside Radio” in iTunes.

  2. Wow, fascinating documentary. It’s a shame that it’s so one-side; it would be have been interesting to get the ‘official’ perspective from OFCOM as well.

  3. I suppose the “official” perspective is pretty straightforward – there’s a limited amount of frequency available for radio, and if everyone just threw up an aerial and started transmitting, then no-one would receive anything.

    I’m a bit torn. I love the pirate radio scene – it’s ballsy, produces great music, and displays a sort of fuck-you passion I really enjoy. On the other hand, the radios in my car and home (East London) pick up pretty much nothing but pirate stations – they drown out almost everything else, especially of a Friday night and the weekend. I’d listen to them instead, but, ironically, the DJs talk too much for my taste. They just won’t shut up: it’s like listening to a grime version of Heart FM. So I got a digital radio.

    I wonder – is pirate radio even possible on the digital frequencies?

  4. I wonder – is pirate radio even possible on the digital frequencies?

    Why wouldn’t it be? Anything one group of humans can do (digital radio), another group of humans could also do.

  5. While I <3 Pirate Radio, it's infeasible where I live, Dallas, the most crowded radio market in the US. iPod FM adapters simply don't work because *every frequency is already taken*. Broadcasting on the FM band in Dallas means you're actively taking away from someone else's paid licence to broadcast on that frequency, which they actively are.

  6. Thanks Cory. I’ve read Matt’s book, Pirate Dilemma. At the time I didn’t think much of it. It felt like someone’s Bachelor of Arts work that got published.

    This vid shows him out and actually further exploring what he has established in his book. I like that.

  7. Interesting film!
    We had a pirate FM station in my town a few years ago broadcasting right-wing hate radio. He was on for quite a while before Bush’s FCC finally got around to shutting him down because the neighbors complained.
    Unfortunately, about all you hear on shortwave these days in English is the same kind of crap, financed by “Christian” end-of-the-world types.

  8. this was great. may the spirit of pirate radio live on. it will always be the opposite of market driven entertainment. in fact it leads the way.

    came across this interesting hypothesis about what if the internet was gone? covert radio would take it’s place in any community. http://www.rfblissville.com


  9. I think it’s time I bought a radio, and perhaps some binoculars to take a look at the top of the building I live in. I’m on the top floor, and sometimes hear people climbing onto the roof after midnight. I’m right on top of a hill…

  10. @HairySammoth & bkad

    I’m no authority on the subject and I can’t speak for the UK or anywhere else, but in the US, the digital radio standard is “HD Radio” (ie. IBOC).

    Last week I was wondering (for purely academic reasons of course,) if a kid could build a kit digital radio, similar to the kits people have been building for AM/FM/Shortwave for generations. Seems you can’t; well at least not without $300 license and a chip from iBiquity. So no, you can’t even build a receiver let alone a transmitter.

    Of course we all know there is no such thing as impossible and if it were absolutely necessary someone will be industrious enough to find a solution, but I can’t help but find it depressing that as things stand, the next generation of kids won’t have the option of soldering together a bunch of components as they have in the past. Then again I may be completely wrong as I’ve only spent a lazy afternoon on the subject.

  11. as i suspected, allowed systems would use a kind of encryption or similar that would basically limit what transmissions it could listen to (beyond the basic issues of codecs).

    still, if the interest is high enough, and there is money to be made, i suspect one could dig up some chinese knockoffs. Still, unlike the crystal and transistors of the day, these chips would probably be considered highly illegal to sell. Kinda like what one see around smartcard writers thanks to sat tv.

    the basic diff is that transistors can be used for many things, so banning them would be impractical. But these chips are highly specialized, and cant be made on in some bedroom (unless fpga drops steeply in price, tho i think there are some thats working on that).

    heck, could be that one can implement the chip in software and run it on a beagleboard or arduino.

  12. btw, the end of the video reminds me of the concept of slumming.

    basically, the kids wanting to rebel against their parent generation using the pirate radios as their own thing, then the corporations come along and package the theme of the radios as a safe thing, along with the fashions and such thats seen as part of it.

    then the next generation of kids rebel against that, and the cycle goes on and on.

  13. Amnesty for the pirates! In the Local Community Radio Act, the US House of Representatives has spitefully set up a provision in new Low Power FM regulations which would lead to cancellation of the (perfectly legal) LPFM station licenses:

    “(2) prohibit any applicant from obtaining a low-power FM license if the applicant has engaged in any manner in the unlicensed operation of any station in violation of section 301 of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 301).

    “(b) Any license that was issued by the Commission to a low-power FM station prior to the date on which the Commission modifies its rules as required by subsection (a) and that does not comply with such modifications shall be invalid.”

    Previous attempts to do this were struck down by a federal appeals court.

    However, I can tell you as an ex-pirate that few broadcasters match the creativity, passion and love for broadcasting of the pirates. Not only that, a number of my pirate brothers are quite respectable, having obtained high level jobs with the likes of Clear Channel and CBS.

    There will be further action on this in the Senate. If you care, let ’em know!

  14. I love the spirit of pirate radio and that in today’s world things like that can still exist but I don’t quite understand why they do. Pirate radio, back when people first started broadcasting them, was something that was done out of necessity. There was no other way to get the the music or your message out there, you’d think that the people who operate the pirate radio stations would have welcomed the rise of the internet because instead of going though all the trouble of radio station, you can just put it online. It’s bad ass and all, but it just seems to be a relic.

  15. The whole point of having a Ministry of Communications or a Federal Communications Commission is so that people can setup commercial broadcast operations without the fear of other wannabees treading upon their space in the spectrum.

    The problem with such an arrangement goes back to the stupidity perpetrated by narrow-minded owners and program directors. They’re aiming for the biggest markets they can find, without regard to building a bigger or better music market. So the play the same damned crap they’re always playing. I’ve even seen a program director write that he’d play recordings of chainsaws all day long if there was money in it.

    They don’t care. That’s the crime. And that’s why there is pirate radio in the first place. Today, the internet is there. If you haven’t found gems such as somafm.com, I highly recommend you find them and play them instead.

    As for the wasteland that is Short-Wave radio, it has always been a place where reality had very little presence. During the cold war, it was Radio Moscow and VOA all over the place with a few civilized operations such as the BBC. Incidentally, not all Christian radio is ugly. I have enjoyed listening to radio HCJB (Ecuador) over the years. I’m no evangelist, mind you. I’m not even Christian. But if I were, I’d probably try to run an operation much like what they do.

    I’ll also second those memories of the Voice of Peace. It was a ship usually anchored 11 km off the coast of Tel Aviv. They had some great programming. A surprising number of Israelis tuned it in rather than the government run radio (which, as I recall, was pretty dull).

    These days, pirate radio has no reason for being. There are LPFM licenses available out there. I recommend anyone with a passion to make their own fun programming happen try it out.

  16. HairySammoth said:

    I suppose the “official” perspective is pretty straightforward – there’s a limited amount of frequency available for radio, and if everyone just threw up an aerial and started transmitting, then no-one would receive anything.

    ab3a said:

    The whole point of having a Ministry of Communications or a Federal Communications Commission is so that people can setup commercial broadcast operations without the fear of other wannabees treading upon their space in the spectrum.

    This popularly held belief is as wrong as the Ether Drift Theory.

    The Myth of Interference by David Weinberger

    Mar 12, 2003 | There’s a reason our television sets so outgun us, spraying us with trillions of bits while we respond only with the laughable trickles from our remotes. To enable signals to get through intact, the government has to divide the spectrum of frequencies into bands, which it then licenses to particular broadcasters. NBC has a license and you don’t.

    Thus, NBC gets to bathe you in “Friends,” followed by a very special “Scrubs,” and you get to sit passively on your couch. It’s an asymmetric bargain that dominates our cultural, economic and political lives — only the rich and famous can deliver their messages — and it’s all based on the fact that radio waves in their untamed habitat interfere with one another.

    Except they don’t.

    “Interference is a metaphor that paints an old limitation of technology as a fact of nature.” So says David P. Reed, electrical engineer, computer scientist, and one of the architects of the Internet. If he’s right, then spectrum isn’t a resource to be divvied up like gold or parceled out like land. It’s not even a set of pipes with their capacity limited by how wide they are or an aerial highway with white lines to maintain order.

    Spectrum is more like the colors of the rainbow, including the ones our eyes can’t discern. Says Reed: “There’s no scarcity of spectrum any more than there’s a scarcity of the color green. We could instantly hook up to the Internet everyone who can pick up a radio signal, and they could pump through as many bits as they could ever want. We’d go from an economy of digital scarcity to an economy of digital abundance.”

    So throw out the rulebook on what should be regulated and what shouldn’t. Rethink completely the role of the Federal Communications Commission in deciding who gets allocated what. If Reed is right, nearly a century of government policy on how to best administer the airwaves needs to be reconfigured, from the bottom up.

    * Cognitive radio
    * Software-defined radio (e.g. GNUradio)
    * Open spectrum

    p.s. Thanks to everyone who’s been missing me. I’ve been very busy with a new job and new projects.

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