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.

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The Battlefield That’s 5 KHz Wide

The airwaves are full of news from the battle in Ukraine, with TV and radio journalists providing coverage at all hours. But for those with a bit of patience there’s something else from the conflict that can be found with a radio receiver, the battle over 5 kHz of spectrum starting at 4625 kHz. This has for many years been the location on the dial for “the Buzzer“, a Russian military transmitter whose nickname describes its monotonous on/off buzzing transmission perfectly. As the current Ukrainian situation has taken shape it has become a minor battleground, and the Buzzer now shares its frequency with a variety of other stations broadcasting music, spectrograms, and other radio junk intended to disrupt it.

A spectrogram showing the wavy line of an air raid siren
The air raid siren produces a particularly distinctive spectrogram.

For the curious this can be watched unfolding on a spectrogram or through headphones by anyone within range who has an HF receiver, or for everyone else, with a WebSDR. In Western Europe it’s best listened to in hours of darkness, we suggest you consult the list to see which has the best signal. We’ve heard it on receivers in Poland, Russia, and the ever-reliable uTwente WebSDR in the Netherlands. Over the time we’ve been monitoring it we’ve heard overlaying speech, and music varying from the Soviet and American anthems through dance music and K-pop to 1960s British rock and of course Boney M’s Rasputin, with a few slightly macabre choices such as Final Countdown and an air raid siren. We’ve even heard TV intros from the Benny Hill Show, the A-Team and Mission Impossible, so whoever is doing this has a wide taste.

Alongside the music at about 4628kHz meanwhile we’ve watched a series of spectrogram messages scroll past in Ukrainian, Russian, and English, ranging from “Stop war” to lewd suggestions about the Russian President. It’s fair to say that none of these transmissions have obscured the Buzzer, but they have had the effect of significantly increasing the noise on the channel.

To have a listen yourself, point a receiver within range at the appropriate time of day towards 4625 kHz and select USB demodulation and a 5 kHz bandwidth. Meanwhile, for some background on the Cold War HF relics, have a read about numbers stations.

Radio Piracy On The High Seas: Commercial Demand For Taboo Music

The true story of pirate radio is a complicated fight over the airwaves. Maybe you have a picture in your mind of some kid in his mom’s basement playing records, but the pirate stations we are thinking about — Radio Caroline and Radio Northsea International — were major business operations. They were perfectly ordinary radio stations except they operated from ships at sea to avoid falling under the jurisdiction of a particular government.

Back then many governments were not particularly fond of rock music. People wanted it though, and because people did, advertisers wanted to capitalize on it. When people want to spend money but can’t, entrepreneurs will find a way to deliver what is desired. That’s exactly what happened.

Of course, if that’s all there was to it, this wouldn’t be interesting. But the story is one of intrigue with armed boardings, distress calls interrupting music programs, and fire bombings. Most radio stations don’t have to deal with those events. Surprisingly, at least one of these iconic stations is still around — in a manner of speaking, anyway.

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Filter Your Pi And Be A Responsible Pirate

At this point it’s pretty well-known that you can tack a long wire to the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO, install some software, and you’ve got yourself the worlds easiest pirate FM radio station. We say that it’s a “pirate” station because, despite being ridiculously easy to do, broadcasting on these frequencies without a license is illegal. Even if you had a license, the Raspberry Pi with a dangling bit of wire will be spewing out all kinds of unintentional noise, making it a no-go for any legitimate purposes.

Unfiltered output of Pi broadcasting on 107.3 MHz

In an effort to address that issue, [Naich] has written up a couple posts on his blog which not only discuss why the Pi is such a poor transmitter, but shows how you can build a filter to help improve the situation. You’ll still be a lawless pirate if you’re transmitting on FM stations with your Pi, but you won’t be a filthy lawless pirate.

In the first post, [Naich] shows us exactly what’s coming out of the wire antenna when the Pi is broadcasting some tunes on the default 107.3 MHz, and it ain’t pretty. The Pi is blasting out signals up and down the spectrum from 50 MHz to 800 MHz, and incredibly, these harmonics are in some cases stronger than the intentional broadcast. Definitely not an ideal transmitter.

[Naich] then goes on to show how you can build a DIY filter “hat” for the Pi that not only cuts down a lot of the undesirable chatter, but even boosts the intended signal a bit. The design is surprisingly simple, only costs a few bucks in components, and conveniently is powered directly from the Pi’s GPIO. It even gives you a proper antenna jack instead of a bare wire wound around a header pin.

We’ve seen plenty of projects utilizing the Raspberry Pi FM transmission hack, and while this mod still doesn’t make it perfect, it’s always nice to see an awesome hack made even better.