Pirate radio stations

Coffeekitten told me about a radio station with great music (IHHO) and mentioned that it’s a pirate station–unlicensed. I assumed this was a marketing gimmick–“We’re so bad, we’re illegal!”–and checked the web to find, much to my surprise, it’s not. Isn’t secretly emitting kWs of RF energy like hiding a giant squid in the middle of your kitchen, or putting up an illegal skyscraper in the center of downtown Boston? Has the FCC decided that their job is no longer allocating the RF spectrum, but making sure babies aren’t scarred for life by seeing a woman’s boobs? How do stations get away with this?

They are most likely only emitting Watts of power. This means that they can only be received within a few mile (or even a few block) radius. So, if nobody is complaining, the FCC is never going to find them.

Concur. My college radio station broadcast at 25 watts, IIRC. I don’t recall what our effective radiative power was (looking now, I see they’ve upgraded considerably). You could barely hear us two miles down the road.

Maybe some on that list, not all of them. The “station with great music,” by the way, is that “huge 101.3” one. Boston to Andover is 25 miles.

Well, I think your link has the answer - It takes a concerted effort by people complaining to get the FCC to sit up and take notice.

Wow. That long list of pirate stations in the Boston area alone is grounds for allowing legal low-power broadcasting, something the FCC severely limited a few years ago.

(bolding mine)

I don’t know the answer to the OP, but I wish LP would be made more legal. A radio station can be set up cheaply and serve the public in many valuable ways, especially during disasters like Katrina.

Right. FCC investigations are mainly reactive…somebody complains (usually the licensed station getting interference, in this case), and the FCC responds.

And respond, they probably and eventually will.

Here is a link to recent enforcement actions by the FCC: http://www.fcc.gov/eb/FieldNotices/

There are a handful of NOUO (Notice Of Unlicensed Operation) on there, several of which pertain to the FM and AM bands.

When I was at my college radio station, one of the DJ’s claim to fame was that he ran a pirate station two blocks from the FCC headquarters in Washington.

He left out the part about how the FCC tracked him down and shut him off within hours.

I was thinking about running a 1 watt station out in a very small town and now I see that even that is restricted, evidently you need to be under 1 watt (some are even saying .01 which has a range of about 200ft) in order to avoid fcc hassles. all I gotta say is what the hell. I read a bunch of the links and pages on the issue, looks like big radio is serious about keeping small stations out of business.

I don’t know if it’s the same in America as it is in Britain but we usually have a lot of dance music (usually drum & bass, garage, dubstep type stuff) pirate radio stations in our major cities that have been around for ages, some of them even becoming legit after a while, KISS FM being a well known example.

A good school friend of mine ran a pirate station for a while and told me some pretty hair raising stories of having to re-locate the transmitter from the top of one dodgy council estate tower block roof to another often having to climb up the outside of the building from a top floor window! I am under the impression that pirate radio stations are usually left alone unless they are broadcasting inappropriate material (swearing, promoting illegal activity etc) or have specifically had a complaint against them (often from rival stations) but when they are targeted to be shut down it’s hard work staying one step ahead of Ofcom (the people who shut down pirate radio stations in Britain apparently) and pretty much spells the beginning of the end or the beginning of haven’t to relocate every week.

To summarise I’d say that without a specific complaint they probably don’t give a toss and would be unlikely to even know they existed unless they were really cranking up the watts…

Isn’t the problem that sometimes they can interfere with emergency services or even legitimate broadcasters?

Radio Luxembourg was the innovator of semi-legal broadcasting in the UK back in the 1930s. They had a licence to broadcast low power medium wave signals for Luxembourg but chose instead to use long wave and which they at targeted the UK.

Then when the pirate ships started up in the 60s it changed the whole radio scene.

I think that if it interferes with a legitimate broadcaster you are more likely to get complaints about it but there is plenty of ‘dead’ air out there so as long as you avoid doing that your pretty safe. I don’t know much about the emergency services side of things but can’t see how pirate radio would interefere with this any more than legitimate radio?

One of the issues with disaster communications is that physical infrastructure fails, forcing disaster agencies to find alternative means of disseminating information.

A lot of states and municipalities (including Massachusetts, according to the OP’s link) operate AM stations for public information, such as road conditions along turnpikes and other major highways, as well as parking for airports and other high-traffic places. These stations are also used for Amber Alert broadcasts when those occur. Presumably, they can be used in other emergency situations, such as evacuation information in the event of mass disasters. It is debatable how effective such stations can be; they may be centrally-operated and thus unable to accurately gauge local conditions on a timely basis. I’ve heard Amber Alerts broadcast on the PA Turnpike stations long after the child was recovered, so that is a definite concern.

I know that in Pennsylvania, where I live, broadcast stations are encouraged to develop and implement plans to broadcast information and work out agreements with each other to so at least a few stations, both radio and TV, can stay on the air, and I think that’s true in other states. For example, during the 2007 San Diego wildfires, KPBS-FM lost its transmitter and KBZT-FM allowed them to use theirs. KPBS also made extensive use of Google Maps, Flickr and Twitter to disseminate availability of shelter space, fire boundaries, and road closure information, so the Internet is finding a place in disaster communication. And, of course, some colleges and universities are experimenting with text messaging as a means of immediate campus-wide emergency notification.

Amateur radio operators often step in and assist with disaster communications, particularly when terrestrial systems fail. They may coordinate with local disaster officials to carry information directly to the public, or work through FEMA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and/or local disaster agencies. There are a number of organizations such as ARES, and USRACES which organize and work as an auxiliary of the aforementioned agencies with memoranda of understanding in place to facilitate things in the field.

LPFM is an awesome tool, don’t get me wrong. I (and a lot of other people) would love to see the FCC allocate more to such stations to broadcast information of local interest. But when it comes to disaster communications, radio is just one small piece of the overall picture. While its role is significant and could be expanded further, there are and should be other ways to get the information out.

Sadly, it takes disaster to improve disaster relief. But at least it’s being thought out.


Occasionally, well-organized and well-funded religious organizations fight less-organized and less-funded community groups for non-commercial frequencies. This is the bane of my college station’s existence because such an organization is preventing us from expanding our signal to the south. The university has offered to deal on numerous occasions, but has been turned down. Grr.


I knew a guy in Dublin who ran a pirate station. His anecdote (no idea as to its accuracy) was that the antenna would be a copper wire wrapped several times round the top of an apartment block, which act was performed from the roof. It was not obvious as an antenna as there was so much other wiring and piping around. After a few months they got a tipoff that they were going to be busted, so moved the whole “studio” to another friendly apartment building, but left the old wiring on the first building. They wrapped new wire round that one too. Eventually there were three buildings across the city with these makeshift antennae in situ, that they could move around to if they got spooked or tipped off that the authorities were getting too close.

My college FM radio station (fondly known as the Mighty Ten Watts) had a signal that didn’t quite make it to the edge of our small town.

Radio reception is a weird phenomenon. An AM station I worked for in Iowa was 1000 watts, but with a highly directional signal, such that there were parts of the county in which the station couldn’t be received at night, but we once got a postcard from someone who heard us in Greenland. He must have been desperate for entertainment.

Lorenzo Milam (author of Sex and Broadcasting, which despite its title was about community radio operations) had a fantasy about setting up a mobile transmitter to fit inside an unmanned hot air balloon, which would drift across America with the prevailing winds, sending provocative/seditious messages on a repeating tape loop free from interference by the F.C.C. (unless they had fighter aircraft capable of shooting it down). I don’t know of anyone who tried this, but it sounds like fun, assuming that you didn’t pose a hazard to commercial aviation.