A Pirate Radio Story

A Pirate Story

Sunshine Radio (Take 1)

Sunshine Radio 539
Sunshine 539 (531 doesn't rhyme with 'Sunshine'!)
As someone who ended up having their hand on the tiller of a (rather crap) pirate radio station, it's ironic that my interest in such activities began in the early 80's with a completely accidental discovery. Tuning around the medium wave band (the prime band for broadcasting at the time), I stumbled across a station called 'Sunshine Radio' on, if memory serves, 531 kHz. It became clear that Sunshine was based in Ireland. Its programmes were very professional and rather more fun and furious than the dozy local radio stations in the UK. Delving into the only source of information on stations I had at the time, the 'World Radio and TV Handbook' (WRTH), I could find no reference to Sunshine, and wondered how this could be as the station clearly had a large transmitter, a studio in Dublin and all the rest. Perhaps it was a new station, not yet registered? Soon after discovering Sunshine, I also found Radio Nova on 738 kHz, also from Dublin, also infinitely more upbeat than Radio Local in England and also not in the WRTH!.

All Europe Radio Laser 558
Communicator Club Post Card
Sunshine soon became a fixture on one of the 'presets' on our car radio (at a time when car radios had those clunky buttons that physically forced the dial around to a specific frequency) such that if I was a passenger (being too young to drive at the time), I could get my fix of the sunny sound of the emerald isle. My family, however, remained unimpressed by Sunshine, not least as the signal could get rather patchy in built up areas.

Not long after discovering these stations, I stumbled across an american sounding station on 558 kHz. At first I thought this might be another frequency for the American Forces Network (AFN) Europe which could be heard most evenings across Europe (and still can today) from its transmitter in Germany on 873 kHz. But it couldn't be AFN as the station identified itself as 'Laser 558'. The music and presentation style were even more upfront than the Irish stations and I was hooked. 'All Europe Radio, Laser 558' displaced Sunshine on the car radio immediately and was a much better signal. I even sent to the US address for Laser (odd for a British station I thought) and became a member of the 'Communicator Club'. Even the fact that the studio was on a boat didn't arouse my suspicion that anything untoward was afoot. Ah, the naïvity of youth!

Hook, Line and Sinker

I remained unaware that Laser was a pirate station until a friend at the local amateur radio club mentioned it in passing. I was taken aback - could this (and the Irish stations I'd so enjoyed) really be the illegal, subversive, deviant stations that pirates must surely be? One of the more 'interesting' members of the radio club suggested I posted a stamped addressed envelope in an envelope and send off for a copy of 'Anoraks UK'. This was a magazine dedicated to reporting pirate radio activity in the UK and Ireland and listed hundreds of such stations who were supposedly on the air. A bit more tuning around yielded Radio Caroline, difficult to see how I could have missed that one in the past.

Britain Radio International Sticker
Britain Radio International Sticker
Short Wave Listening (SWLing) is a hobby where you attempt to hear radio stations that are rare or difficult to receive. I remember the thrill of hearing ABC Radio Australia for the first time, and then Radio New Zealand International - both relatively rare catches in the UK. But imagine being able to listen to stations that shouldn't even be there in the first place. For me this was the pinacle of SWLing and rather than sending off for more QSL cards from Swiss Radio International or Radio Nederland, I focussed my efforts on finding more pirate stations.

According to my source down at the radio club, there were also some UK based short wave pirates, who apparently hung around 6200 to 6300 kHz on a Sunday morning. Getting up at 8am on a Sunday is no mean feat for a teenager, but I did and was greeted with the pleasure of hearing Radio Krypton on 6265 kHz, and Radio Apollo on 7330 kHz. Over the next few years my tally of QSL cards from short wave stations grew significantly (Britain Radio International, Spectrum World Radio, Radio Del Mare and Radio Dublin 'The Sound of Ireland' on 6910 kHz), though I was never able to hear any of the other Irish medium wave stations. Laser 558 remained on the car radio and even my family began to enjoy it.

Sunshine Radio (Take 2)

Sunshine Radio Antibes
Sunshine Radio Car Sticker
My first experience of visiting a pirate radio station was whilst on an exchange trip to Cagnes-Sur-Mer in the South of France. I had heard that there were a couple of English speaking pirates on the French Riviera and was keen to meet one of the operators to find out how they ticked. I could hear Riviera 104 bit this operated from over the border in Italy which was too far for me to travel. I could also just about hear Sunshine Radio (nothing to do with the Irish station) on 97.1 and 107.1 FM and whose studios were a couple of stops down the railway line in Antibes. A bit of listening and a quick phonecall and I had myself an invite to visit the station's HQ.

Radio Cagnes Sur Mer
Radio Cagnes-Sur-Mer Car Sticker
The Sunshine Radio studios were nothing like I expected. Unlike the professional set-ups I had seen at stations in the UK, the studio was a ramshackle mish-mosh of record decks, mixers, and other broadcasting paraphenalia. No sound proof booths for Sunshine, the DJ's layed back in an office chair and took it easy - a posture which was clearly reflected in the on-air sound of the station. The transmitters were all fairly low power and, according to the station staff, not that reliable either in terms of coverage of in their ability to remain on air for long periods. Frequencies changed from time-to-time and new sites were added and subtracted as time, transmitters and money allowed. The station made some money from advertising, though I got the distinct impression that the presenters did it more for the opportunity to bum around the Côte D'Azur than for anything else.

According to the Sunshine staff, they weren't really a pirate station, but were operating courtesy of a loophole in the French broadasting laws (a stance which I believe the Irish stations, and Radio Jackie in the UK took too). It was after this visit that I discovered that the local station in the town I was visiting Radio Cagnes-Sur-Mer on 89.1 FM, was dangling its transmitters through the same loophole and was effectively a pirate too!

Pirate Radio Today and Tomorrow?

The 80's were probably the hay-day for such round-the-clock, all-week-long pirate operations. The Irish and French authorities (and later the British too) soon closed any loopholes in the laws that existed, forcing most of the more commercial stations off air. Some 24/7 operations do persist, driven mainly by a belief that their local broadcasting market doesn't deliver a service to the specific niche they cater for. Medium wave pirates are now all but extinct, not least because it has lost its popularity as a broadcast medium but also because FM transmitters are now much cheaper than they used to be. Short-wave stations continue unabated with the same blend of excentricity and amateurism that have always made them such fun to listen to. Oh, and Riviera 104 (now Riviera Radio) is still going, from a new base in Monte Carlo.

What about the next 20 years? There have already been attempts at pirating digital radio (DRM as opposed to DAB). Many claim that the internet will put paid to the need for such tiny stations to flout the law and risk money and prosecution to launch their programmes to the masses. But I think that's missing the point. Pirate radio is not just about broadcasting, for many it is also about the satisfaction they get from jilting the system, and the electricity they stimulate in their listeners who are turned on by the added thrill of doing something a little bit naughty. Want to cure pirate radio? Legalise it! It's what killed CB radio off...

Disclaimer: The information contained on this web-site is presented for your enlightenment, education and entertainment only. We do not condone unlicensed broadcasting or any illegal use of the radio spectrum, nor is there any intention on our part to incite or glamorise such activities.

[ This page last updated Mon 30 Jan, 2017. Viewed 254 times. Last viewed Wed 26 Jul, 2017 at 17:26 ]