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Pirate radio is as old as government regulation of radio broadcasts. It gets its name from the fact that many early unlicensed radio stations, especially in Europe, were based on boats, such as the famous Radio Caroline off the coast of Britain in The '60s. Since then, the term has been applied to any radio station that operates without a government license. This usually annoys government regulators, licensed radio stations and radio listeners alike, as pirate radio stations operating on a close enough frequency to licensed ones can cause interference that screws with radio reception (this is basically how radio jamming works).

Pirate radio often captures people's imaginations because it symbolizes resistance to the powers that control popular music or access to information. To use the Radio Caroline example again, it shot to popularity in the swinging '60s (as did Radio Luxembourg) because British listeners were fed up with the BBC's control of what music was played on the radio,note  leading to the establishment of commercial radio in The '70s. Pirate radio is often portrayed as the Voice of the Resistance, if not against the government, then against the conformity of mainstream popular culture.

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A New Media example of pirate radio occurs with internet radio stations that, while not requiring a license to broadcast, play copyrighted music without paying license fees to the record companies. Unlike pirate radio stations, so-called "studio pirates" generally (although not always) fly under the radar of the authorities and the record companies, since an internet broadcast doesn't interfere with over-the-air radio or television signals.


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Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • A small-scale, single-program operation in the original anime of Sailor Moon happens to be another front for the Dark Kingdom's energy theft schemes.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • This Bites!: A bit of a Late-Arrival Spoiler; with his Transponder Snail Soundbite on hand, the Self-Insert Jeremiah Cross gets his hands on a device that allows him to call every other Transponder Snail on the planet at once, which he uses to create a radio show called the Strawhat Broadcast Station (SBS).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Pump Up the Volume is about a teenage boy who uses a pirate radio station to take on the injustices at his high school.
  • The Boat That Rocked (known as Pirate Radio in the USnote ) is extremely loosely based on the experience of Radio Caroline (some studio props used in the movie were actually loaned from Caroline's last ship Ross Revenge).
  • In Born In Flames, two different radical feminist groups voice their concerns to the public with pirate radio stations. One group, led by an outspoken white lesbian, operates "Radio Ragazza". The other group, led by a soft-spoken African-American, operates "Phoenix Radio".
  • The German movie "Piratensender Power Play" (Pirate Radio Power Play) follows a Buccaneer Broadcaster duo as they outwit their "official" competition at every turn. At the movie's end, the two protagonists are hired as official anchors - which was partly Truth in Television.
  • The film She Shall Have Music had the owner of a cruise hiring Jack Hylton and his band to do a broadcast from the ship. Note that the movie was made in 1935.

    Literature 
  • The last Harry Potter book has one of these for the Resistance, which is not only on a random frequency each time it broadcasts, but is also password protected.
  • In the Kate Shugak novels by Dana Stabenow, Bobby Clark runs an illegal radio station called Park Air that broadcasts on an irregular schedule and keeps changing frequencies to stay ahead of the authorities.
  • In the Year 2050: America's Religious Civil War gives us EIBLAZE, a pirate radio/TV station set up by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck to resist censorship by the evil Liberal government. After all existing networks are folded into Al-Jazeera (it's that kind of book) EIBLAZE moves to Israel and runs an internet show.
  • In Broken Homes, Peter initially thinks Sky's remarks about "music" coming from the top of Skygarden is a reference to the pirate radio station that had intermittently broadcast from the council estate's tower.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, it is learned that Hal used to run a pirate radio station when he was in college. He finds his old radio equipment and decides to restart his station. He ends up getting shut down by the FCC.
  • Radio Free Roscoe, about four teenagers who set up a pirate station in order to provide an alternative to their high school's radio station.
  • On The Rocks was an obscure British kids' show from the 70s about a pirate TV station operating from a remote lighthouse.
  • Inspired by the pirates broadcasting to Britain in the 60s, the Thunderbirds episode "Ricochet" features a pirate station operating from a small satellite - which naturally gets into trouble. (Why the owners didn't think to use an unmanned satellite is never explained.) The guy's on-air shtick is so incredibly irritating that the Tracey brothers are clearly giving serious thought to leaving him to die. It's also inspired by Radio Caroline.
  • Rock N America was an 80s Music Video show starring Rick Ducommun as a TV pirate.
  • The Goodies start a pirate radio station in "Radio Goodies". Inspired, Graeme starts a pirate post office, then goes Drunk with Power and tries to start a pirate nation by dragging England out of its own five-mile limit. It is highly amusing.
  • Boy Meets World had an episode where Cory and Shawn form their own pirate radio station after Mr. Feeny kicks them off the school's station for turning their show from a dull Q&A session into the much more inappropriate "Lunchtime Lust." They only get to enjoy their success for a few minutes before Shawn accidentally gives away their location on air and Feeny busts them.
  • The premise of Feral TV.
  • Space Pirates was about a pirate radio station based on a space ship.
  • One episode of The Young Ones featured a pirate radio station - run by a genuine 17th century pirate.
  • In the "Muppet TV" segments of The Jim Henson Hour, the Muppets' broadcasts were sometimes disrupted by Gorilla Television (a play on guerrilla television) who hated commercial media such as the Muppets.
  • The Danger Man episode "Radio Jolly Roger" featured a pirate radio station that was secretly sending messages to the Dirty Communists from its base on an abandoned World War II anti-aircraft fort in the Thames Estuary. This strange-looking structure was quite genuine, and was in fact being used by a station called Radio 390, which gets a mention in the credits. Some exterior scenes were filmed on and around the real fort, including a shot of Patrick McGoohan being winched up into the fort. Other "exterior" scenes were shot in the studio using photographic backdrops and convincing replicas of sections of the fort.

    Music 
  • The Who's album The Who Sell Out is intended to be a pirate radio broadcast, complete with fake commercials (but real jingles).
  • The remix album of Cowboy Bebop's soundtrack was "broadcast" by Radio Free Mars, a pirate station operated from a satellite of the red planet.
  • The My Chemical Romance concept album Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys features a DJ called Doctor Death Defying (played by MSI guitarist Steve, Righ?) who transmits pirated radio broadcasts about the Killjoy's deeds.
  • The Runrug song "Hearthammer", about growing up in The '60s, refers to "Lying under the covers, radio on/Settle down with Caroline as she sailed all summer long".
  • "Mexican Radio" by Wall of Voodoo is a tribute to the powerful AM radio stations located near the U.S.-Mexico border known as "border blasters."
  • "What a World" by Benny Hill, recorded in 1965 at the height of the British pirate radio boom, contains the lyrics:
    Now Annie's a shorthand typist
    Working for The BBC .
    Her brother Jack is in prison
    Doing three years for forgery.
    Her sister Josie's in Holloway,
    In Dartmoor is her Uncle Jim,
    And her dad runs a pirate radio ship,
  • "Radio" by Rammstein is about growing up in East Germany and covertly listening to western radio stations to get around the government's censorship.
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic would take over MTV on occasion in the 80s and 90s (as "Al TV") by using a pirate satellite transmitter (later installments dropped this gimmick). When he took over MuchMusic, he would instead sabotage or injure one of their VJs instead.

    Radio 
  • In The Space Gypsy Adventures, Rekki G's father is said to have once been a DJ at one of these, broadcasting from a ship orbiting the planet Zenophon.

    Video Games 

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons's episode "Wild Barts Can't Be Broken" has Bart, Lisa and Milhouse setting up a pirate radio station, using it to spread gossip about Springfield's adults while speaking in the Queen's English.
  • An entire episode of Sealab 2021 was centered entirely on Captain Murphy's efforts to launch a pirate radio station out of Sealab, leading to the FCC eventually destroying Sealab.
  • An episode of King of the Hill has Dale set up his own pirate radio station, where he spouts out the various conspiracy theories he believes in to the neighbourhood. After a few days of non-stop broadcasting, he gives up after his only sponsor (read: his own business) pull their ads off, so he sells his station to Mexican interests (read: his Mexican friend Octavio).
  • Grojband: Grojband set up a pirate radio station in "On the Air and Out to Sea" and end up getting shanghaied on to an actual pirate ship.
  • On The Fairly OddParents, Timmy wishes for a radio station with a magical voice-changing microphone, broadcast out of his treehouse. As "Double-T in the Morning," he encourages the parents of Dimmesdale to spend time with their kids at the beach, and disses Vicky.
    The Double-T in the Morning show is brought to you by "Vicky Stinks"! Remember, Vicky stinks!
    • When the FCC comes to close the station, it is because an "inappropriate" word was broadcast, not because the station did not have a license.
  • Danny Phantom episode "Pirate Radio" has a literal version as a group of Ghost Pirates teamed up with Ember to hypnotize all the adults in town to make them slaves of their galley.
  • In one episode of Pelswick, after his favorite station is yanked, the titular friend decides to start a pirate radio show with his friends. Unfortunately, it's not long before the FEDs are on their tails.
  • In an episode of Jem, a villain tries to ruin a college station's special event by overpowering their signal. To avoid the FCC, he broadcasts out of a cargo plane.

    Real Life 
  • The Ur-Example for offshore pirates was the yacht Ceto, which was acquired by the British Daily Mail newspaper in 1928 in order to broadcast advertising, prohibited by the BBC. However the transmitting equipment of the time was unable to provide a decent signal at sea, so the only way they could be heard was using loudspeakers.
  • The Ur-Example for American pirate radio was WUMS ("We're Unknown Mysterious Station") in the tiny town of Proctorville, Ohio. It operated sporadically from 1925 to 1970. Its operator, David Thomas, was by all accounts a Cloudcuckoolander of the highest order, but he managed to elude the FCC for decades. He was even put on trial twice for operating the station, but was acquitted both times by successfully nitpicking legal technicalities in the charges.
    • There have been three major attempts at offshore pirate broadcasting in the United States, all of which lasted only a matter of days. RXKR, based on a ship anchored off the coast of Los Angeles, broadcast for a few weeks in 1933, with the Loophole Abuse excuse that they were actually licensed in Panama rather than the US. In 1973, right-wing preacher Carl McIntire bought an old World War II minesweeper and started a station called Radio Free America off the coast of New Jersey, which only lasted a week or so before a fire on the ship and FCC enforcement shut it down. RNI (Radio Newyork [sic] International) tried it in 1987 and 1988 in a fully-outfitted fishing vessel anchored off Long Island. The FCC rejected their claim that they weren't subject to federal jurisdiction because they were technically in international waters, and enlisted the Coast Guard to raid the ship and arrest the staffers.
  • A land-based variation of this is the "border blaster", with high-powered transmitters carrying signals at a far greater distance than most radio stations. Border blasting stations in Amsterdam were used to blast anti-fascist content that was slowly becoming illegal into Germany, and could reach almost the entire country.
    • The border blaster phenomenon in North America involves stations in Mexico located near the US border that take advantage of looser broadcasting restrictions and lower costs in Mexico to broadcast over very large swaths of the southwestern US. This is often to the great irritation of American stations, whose signals frequently get overwhelmed. The "X stations" (after the Mexican broadcast callsign prefix) began in the 1930s and specialized in English language programming, including preachers, hucksters and music that was often overlooked by American stations, like Rock & Roll and R&B. Radio legend Wolfman Jack first gained wide notice with a show on 250,000-watt XERF in the Rio Grande Valley, before moving on to XERB in Tijuana. FM border blasters were banned by mutual consent in 1972 (Mexican stations must broadcast at the same wattage as American stations). AM blasters are still around, but largely broadcast in Spanish these days.
    • An African example is LM Radio, based in Mozambique but aimed at neighboring South Africa, starting in 1933. As with Radio Luxembourg mentioned below, LM purveyed pop music that was ignored by the South African state broadcasters and became a must-hear for young South Africans. The station closed in 1975 when a Marxist group seized control of Mozambique. The station's staff moved to South Africa where they began the government-sanctioned music channel Radio 5 (now 5FM).
  • Before World War II, many cross-border commercial stations operated in small European countries, generally aimed at Britain, where the BBC enjoyed a monopoly on radio and listening to unauthorised radio broadcasts was illegal. Radio Luxembourg became the most popular of these (it was run by that country's government). During the war, some of them, including Luxembourg, were taken over and used to broadcast Nazi propaganda; after the war, Luxy was the only one that resumed commercial operations. In The '50s, Luxembourg broadcast lots of Game Shows, most of which defected to television as soon as ITV went on the air, leaving Luxembourg as solely a music station. The BBC developed a rivalry with Radio Luxembourg for much of The '50s and The '60s, especially in the arena of pop music. In fact, many BBC DJs also broadcast on Luxembourg—clearly, contracts were more lenient in those days. In 1989, a partnership between Luxembourg and RTE resulted in Atlantic 252, which broadcast to the British Isles from Ireland until 2002.
    • Luxembourg wasn't fussy about who or what it broadcast as long as they paid up (in other words, the radio equivalent of the Swiss Bank Account). Prior to the pop shows starting in the early evenings, 208 was the home of an American televangelist (British broadcasting law refused any sort of airtime for these people in Britain). Despite hating pop and rock music as being a tainted and ungodly thing of Satan, Garner Ted Armstrong and his church had no choice but to rent airspace from the Satan-worshippers in Luxembourg to get their message into Britain.
      • In fact, in the '60s, Armstrong's show was broadcast daily by almost all of the ship-based pirates off Britain as well. In 1965 Radio London DJ Kenny Everett was fired after Armstrong heard him Lampooning the show.
    • Luxy also cheerfully advertised businesses banned from advertising in Britain, or in extreme cases banned altogether, such as get-rich-quick-through-beating-the-bookies scams based in Keynsham. It still advertised cigarettes long after all TV advertising for cigarettes had been banned in Britain in 1965.
  • Radio Caroline, described in the opening section, originally broadcast from 1964–8, but made less-publicized comebacks from 1972–80 and 1983–90. In the '90s, it began broadcasting legally from a land-based studio via satellite and later the internet. As of 2016, it's hoping to get a DAB digital radio license. They're also doing some rather limited over-the-air broadcasting, having managed to acquire an AM license for absolute peanuts because it's considered largely obsolete in the UK and nobody else was interested.
    • Also many others from the 1950s to the 1980s, notably Radio Mercur (broadcasting to Denmark and part of Sweden), Radio Nord (broadcasting to Stockholm area in Sweden, Turku area in Finland and Åland archipelago), Radio Veronica (Netherlands), Radio London (Britain), Radio North Sea International (Netherlands and Britain), and Laser 558 (Britain and Northern Europe). And let's not forget Radio Hauraki (New Zealand), which was actually granted a licence by the New Zealand Government after three and a half years as a pirate (from a wooden ship, no less), during which time it ran aground twice and tragically lost a DJ overboard.
      • North Sea International had one of the more colourful histories. In its early days it was jammed by a British Government that was paranoid about possible interference in an upcoming election. They also ended up nearly being the victims of piracy on one occasion when a nightclub owner who had some business dealings with the owners turned up with a boatload of heavies claiming that he'd bought the ship. The crew prepared to repel boarders with Molotov Cocktails while presenter "Spangles Muldoon" (you could get away with a name like that in The '60s) kept up an acerbic running commentary until the Dutch Navy sent a frigate to intercede. Finally, a boat-owner working for a rival radio station set fire to the ship, causing the late-night DJ to put out a frantic distress call over the main antenna. (The plan had been to simply cut the ship's anchor chain so it would drift inshore and be impounded for illegal broadcasting, but the boatman came up with a "better" idea.)
      • In the '60s, some stations also took over old World War II anti-aircraft forts off the British coast, a couple of which were big enough to support large antennas.
      • Radio & TV Noordzee was probably the only successful offshore TV pirate. Operating from a customized offshore exploration platform off the Dutch coast in 1964, it broadcast English-language series on film with burned-in Dutch subtitles, as well as a top 40 radio station. Both operations were closed by a government raid after only four months. Some of those responsible set up a new company and acquired a licence to broadcast legitimately.
  • Gustav Siegfried Eins could well qualify.
  • Sometimes, legitimate radio stations will call themselves "pirate radio" in order to emphasize that they're "edgier" than the competition. An example is WSOU in northern New Jersey, which goes by "Seton Hall's Pirate Radio" but is actually just a normal College Radio station (albeit a very large and popular one).
    • In Seton Hall's case, of course, it's also a non-sexual Double Entendre—the Pirates are the school's mascot.
  • During the Cold War, people in Estonia (which was under Soviet rule) could easily pick up radio waves from Finland. Since Finland allowed commercial TV broadcasting, Soviet officials tried to prevent Estonians from watching capitalistic TV with interference and intimidation.
    • Much the same happened in East Germany, only the East Germans couldn't block ARD and ZDF without causing a major diplomatic incident note , and so much of East Germany, if they chose to risk the wrath of The Stasi, could watch and listen to uninterrupted West German radio and TV. Deutscher Fernsehfunk (the East German broadcaster) knew this, and so tried to ram a show, Der Schwarze Kanal, down the throats of the East German public, playing it as a lead-in or lead-out to more popular fare such as movies. The show tried to "contextualize" the ARD and ZDF news that the viewers had possibly already seen by adding a Communist spin to the pieces. The only places this couldn't happen due to West German broadcasts not reaching that far were the extreme northeast and southeast of the country, leading to them being nicknamed "the valley of the clueless" by the rest of East Germany. In actual fact, they tried to make this impossible with East Germany adopting a different color and broadcast system from the ones West Germany was using, in practice this was usually bypassed using modifications to the TV or illegal set top boxes which will act as a tuner and converter.
  • In the Midwest during the late '70s and early '80s, it was Bruce Quinn's Jolly Roger Radio. They played the pirate trope to the hilt. Avast, matey, here be some Pentangle and Steeleye Span fer ye! They also had a number of promos joking about how they knew they were going to get busted. They did. Quinn later owned WKLU Indianapolis and sold it for something like six million dollars. With his wife Mitzi, he now owns and operates WHUM, a noncommercial freeform station in Columbus, Indiana.
  • Since the late 1970s, there's been a vast underground movement of unlicensed broadcasting on shortwave radio frequencies in the US and Canada. Programming tends to be heavy on classic rock songs and homemade comedy skits (with lots of toilet and drug humor), but there have been a wide array of stations over the decades. Because shortwave listening isn't very widespread, the audience is limited to radio hobbyists and other pirate operators, resulting in a huge chunk of inside jokes, particularly about certain people in the community. FCC enforcement has waxed and waned over the years, especially after their threats of heavy fines and jail time ran into legal roadblocks.
  • Unbelievably enough, Radio Vaticana (Vatican City official radio station) does it:
    • During World War II, it broadcast anti-Nazi propaganda, even giving to the world advance warning of the Nazis' rounding up Poles and Jews and forcing them into ghettos.
    • More recently, Radio Vaticana's non-Italian language broadcasts, transmitted from incredibly powerful repeaters, overrode normal broadcasts on Italian radios on the same frequency and even invaded door phones too close to the repeaters, leading to multiple lawsuits and Anonymous shutting down their website.
  • CFR AM & FM in Watkins Glen, New York, which only lasted a week but had one of the largest audiences ever for a pirate station. A bunch of pirate operators from Hartford, Connecticut decided to set up a station in a trailer at the Summer Jam rock festival in 1973, posing as a Canadian radio station (the station's call letters began with C like a legitimate Canadian station's would, but the letters stood for "Concert Free Radio"). As the crowd to see The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and The Band swelled to 600,000 people, the station suddenly became an important source of traffic and public safety announcements, and the festival's organizers and the state police both embraced the station and helped them out. They even managed to broadcast part of the concert over the air.
  • Because television broadcasting requires more expensive equipment, pirate TV examples are much rarer and generally fall under Do Not Adjust Your Set. However, a true pirate station called Lucky Seven famously aired on an April weekend in 1978 on Channel 7 (otherwise an empty channel) in Syracuse, New York. Programming was mostly movies, some mainstream (including Rocky and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), some pornographic (like Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat), and episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series and The Twilight Zone. There were interstitials with an onscreen announcer wearing a gas mask, condemning the FCC. It also had professional quality bumpers, with jingles and animation depicting a hand rolling a seven with two dice. The perpetrators have never been caught, but it's widely suspected that it was a group of students at Syracuse University who hijacked equipment from the school's broadcasting department.

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