Years ago, I was bemoaning the difficulties of starting an Internet radio station: the royalty fees for broadcasting music online make it a difficult proposition for all but the most well-funded media organizations. My father, an old-school engineer, came up with an ingenious solution: use the Internet to distribute an online pirate radio station, broadcast over the airwaves by a distributed network of computers that would stream the radio through to low-powered radio transmitters. According to my Dad, the intricacies of the FCC laws concerning low-power broadcasting would shield me from any Pump Up The Volume-esque raids of my apartment.

Photo by Mediageek on Flickr.

Even though it was an ingeniously clever solution, I never acted upon it. The logistics seemed too difficult, and the onset of podcasting and mp3 blogs soon made the idea of pirate radio stations seem antiquated. Yet despite these new tools, pirate radio persists, one of the earliest examples of true broadcasting for the people, a grass-roots technology that is accessible to anyone with a low-powered transmitter and a few materials from Radio Shack.

This post over at Media Geek got me thinking about Pirate Radio once again. My home town of Santa Cruz is home to one of the most persistent pirate radio stations in the country, Free Radio Santa Cruz, which has broadcast out of dorm rooms and co-ops for decades, giving the town’s diverse (and admittedly eccentric) population a platform FCC-approved stations would never offer. While I never worked for Free Radio Santa Cruz, I was a long-time admirer, and jumped at an opportunity for my band to play in the station’s interim studio, located in the basement of a giant three-story Victorian house downtown. Though our band played acoustic, the station was busted by the FCC mere hours later–far from the first, or the last, time this happened. (Free Radio Santa Cruz and the FCC have been engaged in a long-running cat-and-mouse game.)

So what will you hear on Pirate Radio in 2010? A lot of stuff you won’t hear anywhere else. The voices of people who have found themselves on the ass-end of the digital divide. Activist shows such as Democracy Now, which are not broadcast in many media markets due to their strong progressive slant. Experimental and avant-garde music too jarring for even the tastes of college radio DJ’s. And, to be fair, a lot of hopelessly unprofessional broadcasters, with some rather eccentric things to say. Which is, of course, the key to the form’s charm.

Despite the plethora of media outlets enabled by the Internet–podcasts, streaming video, Internet radio, and aggregation services like the Hype Machine–there are plenty of Pirate Radio stations around the country. Media Geek points to the efforts of Jose Fritz of Arcane Radio Trivia to document the various stations across the country, recently surveying the scene in the Seattle area.

Perhaps the most legendary of the pirate radio stations is Berkeley’s Free Radio Berkeley, which has remained on the air for decades. The station was embroiled in a long-running legal fight with the FCC in the ‘90s, and was ultimately acquitted of all charges, a result seen as a major win for microbroadcasting at the time, though the benefits remained confined to the particulars of the case.

How To Make a Radio Station from Free Radio on Vimeo.

So why start a Pirate Radio station in this era, considering the various other online broadcast technologies available to us? After all, the fines and sentences can be steep–while it’s more likely the FCC will just try to shut you down with fines, some practitioners have faced criminal sentencing. Despite the downsides, the form has some benefits. Most notably, it bridges the digital divide–starting a Pirate Radio station is improbably easy and cheap, and though radio is a deprecated technology, people of almost all economic means have access to it.

In the end, I didn’t have the guts–or scofflaw attitude–necessary to realize my Dad’s clever idea. But Pirate Radio remains a democratic institution in a country where the broadcast channels are too often lobbied away from the people. And while I’m not endorsing willfully flouting the law, Pirate Radio remains a venerable tradition woven into the fabric of America’s media history. Despite its questionable legality, the Pirate form has served an important role for the communities it has served over the years.

Paul M. Davis


Paul M. Davis

Paul M. Davis tells stories online and off, exploring the spaces where data, art, and civics intersect. I currently work with a number of organizations including Pivotal and

Things I share: Knowledge, technology, reusable resources, goodwill.