PIRATE RADIO

Pirate-radio history

Radio “piracy” began with the advent of regulations of the public airwaves in the United States at the dawn of the Age of Radio. Initially, radio, or wireless as it was more commonly called, was an open field of hobbyists and early inventors and experimenters, including Nikola Tesla, Lee De Forest, and Thomas Edison. The United States Navy began using radio for time signals and weather reports on the east coast of the United States in the 1890s.
Before the advent of valve (vacuum tube) technology, early radio enthusiasts used noisy spark-gap transmitters, such as the first spark-gap modulation technology pioneered by the first real audio (rather than telegraph code) radio broadcaster, Charles D. Herrold, in San Jose, California, or the infamous Ruhmkorff coil used by almost all early experimenters. The Navy soon began complaining to a sympathetic press that amateurs were disrupting naval transmissions. The May 25, 1907, edition of Electrical World in an article called “Wireless and Lawless” reported authorities were unable to prevent an amateur from interfering with the operation of a government station at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard using legal means.
In the run-up to the London Radiotelegraph Convention in 1912 (essentially an international gentlemen’s agreement on use of the radio band, non-binding and, on the high seas, completely null), and amid concerns about the safety of marine radio following the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15 of that year (although there were never allegations of radio interference in that event), the New York Herald of April 17, 1912, headlined President William Howard Taft’s initiative to regulate the public airwaves in an article titled “President Moves to Stop Mob Rule of Wireless.”
When the “Act to Regulate Radio Communication” was passed on August 13, 1912, amateurs and experimenters were not banned from broadcasting; rather, amateurs were assigned their own frequency spectrum and licensing and call-signs were introduced. By regulating the public airwaves, President Taft thus created the legal space for illicit broadcasts to take place. An entire federal agency, the Federal Radio Commission was formed in 1927 and succeeded in 1934 by the Federal Communications Commission. These agencies would enforce rules on call-signs, assigned frequencies, licensing and acceptable content for broadcast.
The Radio Act of 1912 gave the president legal permission to shut down radio stations “in time of war”, and during the first two and a half years of World War One, before US entry, President Wilson tasked the US Navy with monitoring US radio stations, nominally to ensure “neutrality.” The Navy used this authority to shut down amateur radio in the western part of the US (the US was divided into two civilian radio “districts” with corresponding call-signs, beginning with K in the west and W in the east, in the regulatory measures; the Navy was assigned call-signs beginning with N). When Wilson declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, he also issued an executive order closing most radio stations not needed by the US government. The Navy took it a step further and declared it was illegal to listen to radio or possess a receiver or transmitter in the US, but there were doubts they had the authority to issue such an order even in war time. The ban on radio was lifted in the US in late 1919.
In 1924, New York City station WHN was accused of being an “outlaw” station by AT&T (then American Telephone and Telegraph Company) for violating trade licenses which permitted only AT&T stations to sell airtime on their transmitters. As a result of the AT&T interpretation a landmark case was heard in court, which even prompted comments from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover when he took a public stand in the station’s defense. Although AT&T won its case, the furor created was such that those restrictive provisions of the transmitter license were never enforced.
In 1948, the United Nations brought into being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Article 19 states
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” …

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