An Epic Tale Of Pirate Radio In Its Golden Age

With music consumption having long ago moved to a streaming model in many parts of the world, it sometimes feels as though, just like the rotary telephone dial, kids might not even know what a radio was, let alone own one. But there was a time when broadcasting pop music over the airwaves was a deeply subversive activity for Europeans at least, as the lumbering state monopoly broadcasters were challenged by illegal pirate stations carrying the cutting edge music they had failed to provide. [Ringway Manchester] has the story of one such pirate station which broadcast across the city for a few years in the 1970s, and it’s a fascinating tale indeed.

It takes the form of a series of six videos, the first of which we’ve embedded below the break. The next installment is placed as an embedded link at the end of each video, and it’s worth sitting down for the full set.

The action starts in early 1973 when a group of young radio enthusiast friends, left without access to a station of their taste by Government crackdowns on ship-based pirate stations, decided to try their hand with a land-based alternative. Called Radio Aquarius, it would broadcast on and off both the medium wave (or AM) and the FM broadcast bands over the next couple of years. Its story is one of improvised transmitters powered by car batteries broadcasting from hilltops, woodland, derelict houses, and even a Cold War nuclear bunker, and develops into a cat-and-mouse game between the youths and the local post office agency tasked with policing the spectrum. Finally having been caught once too many times, they disband Radio Aquarius and go on to careers in the radio business.

The tale has some tech, some social history, and plenty of excitement, but the surprise is in how innocent it all seems compared to the much more aggressively commercial pirate stations that would be a feature of later decades. We’d have listened, had we been there!

Not only pirate radio has made it to these pages, we’ve also brought you pirate TV!

29 thoughts on “An Epic Tale Of Pirate Radio In Its Golden Age

    1. Of course they had listeners; the off-shore pirates around the UK angered the UK government because at the time the only legal radio was the BBC. Abie Nathan’s Voice of Peace angered Israelis although he himself was an Israeli. Proof of listenership was the QSL card, and they were avidly collected.

      1. Yes I agree. Many very popular land pirates on am and FM in the 70’s ,80’s and 90’s. It was the only way to discover non mainstream music along with all the popular stuff. But most operated an erratic schedule hounded by the authorities which for the average radio listener at the time proved to be a turn off. Your favourite station wasn’t always on air and if they were reception could be iffy depending on where the transmitters were located each day/week.

    2. An friend of a friend was a pirate back in 1970s London. tbh, I didn’t even listen once to his station. This wasn’t because of his music taste, which was similar to mine, but because he was a really annoying t**t whose company I couldn’t stand.

    3. Back in the day when I was doing shortwave pirate radio on the 43 meter shortwave area at around 6950 khz or 6955 khz I had a great deal of listeners. In fact I would pop up a broadcast once a week or so usually one to two hours in length on a Friday night or Saturday evening since 43 meters propagates best in the late afternoon and early to late evenings here in North America as it does across the world. Anyway I was heard and confirmed QSL cards from as far away as Hawaii, Alaska, Central America, Western Europe, Canada and most of the 50 states back then. One listener about 100 miles away from me heard my signal at S9+40 using a delta loop I threw up in my back yard cut to 6.950 Mhz.

      My station at the time was in the Ohio Valley region back in those days and I broadcast a lot of 60s and 70s music that wasn’t all that much played in the late 1990s and I was doing it on shortwave. Local FM was considered but it was also too easy for some local snoops to find and I was in the countryside so it would have been easier than if I lived in the city somewhere in an apartment with a concealed antenna.

      Of course, I also had a pretty good transmitter setup with SSB and AM and sometimes used both modes for my broadcasts though for 100 watts SSB would give me almost coverage to most parts of North America. I later found this out as well with my ham radio interests that I would get at some times worldwide coverage on the HF bands especially 20 through 10 meters at varying times.

      Back then most of the time I went mobile in my car and either parked at a state park or some out of the way area and threw up a small antenna and used the internal tuner or external antenna tuner to get the signal on the air along with a small tape recorder to have the broadcast and then change tapes, etc. Later I added a CD player as my means of putting the broadcast on the air. I also used to do some live shows but it was also easier to find a static location at my residence at that time so I generally opted to do it mobile or from a wide variety of parks and areas within an hour of my residence at that time.

      Later on I also found out that two mutual friends of mine and they were very close friends also had procured an FM transmitter and was broadcasting for a while at various intervals from the same area in which we lived. Though I hardly listened to local FM those days because it was mostly country music so I never got the chance to hear them though I was very fond of the fact that they at least took the chance and stuck their necks out there.

      Uncle Charlie was a constant concern and would cause one to look over their shoulder at times if one was too close to home if one considers that. I stopped doing pirate radio by about 2000 as other life things came along like marriage, work, kids etc but it was fun in the years from 1995 to 2000 anyway.

      The problem with a lot of pirates back then was that they would station themselves at their home base and then wonder why they got busted. Well a lot of it was that FCC Monitoring improved a lot over the years. Plus it usually took someone to get local to know where the signal was coming from and now all that has changed in that they can triangulate a signal within a very short period now. Of course very rarely do I see Uncle Charlie doing Shortwave pirate busts these days. They can’t even keep the ham bands cleaned up from their own licensed operators playing tapes or music or cussing excessively or jamming. They’re mostly interested in FM pirates for the most part because that is where the big bucks are and we can’t have small time pirates playing music people might want instead of the commercially produced crap that is on most FM behemoths and corporate stations. They might lose money.

    4. My brother don told me of a la based pirate radio station. A plastic trash can was placed over the antenna when FCC copters were trying to zero in on it up in one of the canyons.

        1. I got the impression from “up in one of the canyons” that it likely was erected on the canyon rim…however…FM or HF RF wouldn’t have any trouble propagating out of a canyon by bouncing off a layer of the atmosphere. That’s the feature which makes DXing fun.

  1. Great article and linked documentary. It takes me back to my teen years when, inspired by the offshore priate stations, I built a small ransmitter to see how far I could cover. Just about a mile in the end – enough for a few schoolfriends to tune in. After a few weeks I ended up “retiring” the project when I found my fathers lump hammer stood up next to my transmitter. On enquiry he said leakage had been my undoing as he “heard” the broadcasts on the family TV when tuning between channels. He proceeded to gave me rundown on the repercussions of being caught, but on a brighter note smiled and offered that he’d found the right tool to make the transmitter legal. I got the message, and still have that lump hammer on my bench to this day.

  2. I was looking forward to reading this, then “It takes the form of a series of six videos” and my heart sank. Not HaD’s fault I know – they are only reporting what’s out there.

  3. I may or may not have knowledge about a pirate radio station in Baltimore, MD in the late ’90s. What “they say” is that just as it was ramping up, the FCC created the LPFM license and the communal board running it fell apart.

    There *may* have been some broadcasts before all that though ;)

      1. They’re faking. Nobody is afraid of uncle Charlie.
        FCC won’t even react unless you step on commercial bandwidth. Then, maybe, if the station owners have kept up their bribes and a politician can light a fire under them.

        You can get linears on Alibaba for amazingly cheap prices. I’ve got a kW hooked to my cellphone…why are my balls so warm?

    1. Meh

      Don’t do that in the US please. LPFM licenses just get bought up by Texan evangelical grifters who use it to spread their propoganda and indoctrination and convince your grandma to send them all her savings.

      I think an amateur broadcast band would be much more interesting than more LPFM.

      1. It could be done easily of the Feces FCC would actually allow it and get out of the 1940s to 1970s mindset they have. Instead they are beholdened to big money interests and broadcasters that basically pay huge amounts to get the FM licenses. I remember about 20 years ago knowing a college professor that was also a lawyer talking about having to pay about a million dollars to set up a station in the Indianapolis market which means the little guy doesn’t have a chance and everything is corporatized to the max. There’s your so called Free Speech for you. The guy I knew doesn’t own the station anymore and died a few weeks ago but he later sold out about 2010 and it became a right wing outfit. I’m sure he made bank though before he passed

        1. Colonel, what we have now that we didn’t have in the 1940s is the Part 15 exception which initially was permission to utilize remote RF control of gizmos such as garage openers, but also permits broadcasting by things like talking houses for the real estate industry–therefore freedom of speech on the airwaves is still legally done without FCC license as long as you’re compliant with Part 15 specs.

    1. Radio Free Naptown was before my time since I was born in the mid 1970s but family grew up in the Indianapolis Metro area and they often would listen to it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact my whole family lived in Indianapolis or various areas around the city back then and most of them still live there now. RFN has a pretty cool website on the WWW that talks about their existence and has sound clips and pictures from their time broadcasting.

  4. Been there, done that, got busted! (didn’t get a T-shirt)
    Got into ham radio, talked to all of the locals, atleast 5 of them had also been pirates.
    Talked a lot about our shitty kit transmitters of that time, one of the guys turned out to have a high power FM Stereo transmitter with RDS encoder, also turns out he had a Spotify playlist running on Shortwave as we talked.

    So i went home, started a local FM transmission, took the car and drove around to map the coverage.

    There might be a FM transmitter in my house at the moment just waiting on the right moment.
    I have a site, I have the transmitter, I have the music… But nah, it hasn’t been appealing to restart.

    Maybe, I will do it when I retire and have the time to kill, the “no f*cks given” attitude and equipment I already have

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