Friday, December 24, 2004

Radio pirates

Thanks to Weezil at S'truth? STREWTH! for this article on a new guerrilla radio station operating in Washington DC.

Pirate radio is a fascinating political phenomenon. On the one hand, it's a challenge to the dominance of the state. Every country has its own system of licencing and apportioning different sections of the spectrum. In Australia the ABA manages the licences for all different kinds of radio. In the US it's the FCC while in Britain, one of the more interesting places for pirate radio history, the Radio Authority has morphed into Ofcom.

One of the historical high points for pirate radio was the emergence of British challengers to the BBC in the 1960s. A couple--please mind my dodgy anecdotal history here--operated from ships stationed outside British territorial waters in the North Sea. Most interestingly for the British system was that some of these pirate radio stations eventually managed to secure legitimate broadcasting licences. Now, you can interpret this either as an example of market competition activism or as an example of the State co-opting a challenging institution.

A side note for Australians: it's a little known fact that the first genuine 'ethnic' radio stations in Australia were set up by the Whitlam Government in 1974, without real radio trasmission licences. For several years 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne operated on the same legal basis as radio taxi drivers and ham operators. It's a long story.

On the other hand, unless there's a specific and immediate political agenda, pirate radio is a bit of a futile exercise. As weezil points out, and as I learned even while bludging through year 8 electronics, it's the easiest thing in the world to direction-find and locate radio transmitters. At some point pirates must trade between popularity and official sanction.

Anthony Smith, legend of broadcasting political history, wrote (in highly gendered language) of the pirate stations in Britain:

No matter how popular his programmes, the broadcaster has to obtain and retain official approval and protection if he wishes to carry on the business of broadcasting. The central dialogue in the life of broadcasting is a dialogue with the State...

I shall be following the Washington DC pirates with interest, and look forward to finding out which option they choose: co-option or abandonment.

Smith, Anthony. The Shadow In The Cave. A Study Of The Relationship Between The Broadcaster, His Audience, And The State. London, George Allen & Unwin, 1973.


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