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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 were based on boats, such as the famous Radio Caroline off the coast of Britain in The Sixties. 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.
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 record companies' control of what music was played on the radio. Pirate radio is often portrayed as the Voice of the Resistance, if not against the government, then against the conformity of mainstream popular culture.
A related concept is the "border blaster"; a station which supposedly is licensed in its nominal country of origin, but operated solely to target an audience directly across an international boundary. These were historically used to circumvent BBC-style broadcast monopolies in many European countries in the 1950s and 1960s. They also appeared on Mexico's northern border, blaring into Texas at night at power levels which would never be given to US AM stations.
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.
- 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 US) 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".
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- In the Jet Set Radio games, the player receives instructions from a pirate radio station.
- Wildstyle in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City purports to be a pirate radio station.
- 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.
- The UK and much of Europe were known for government or public broadcasters like the BBC exercising near-monopoly status at home until the 1960s. These broadcasters had cultural pretentions, and were not prone to put a station on the air that merely blares Rock and Roll all day and night. Unfortunately, there is a popular demand for a station with nothing but popular music, so the gap had to be filled somehow –– and that meant broadcasting either from another country or from a ship at sea.
- 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.
- Also many others from the 1950s to the 1980s, notably Radio Mercur (broadcasting to Denmark and part of Sweden), 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.
- The English-language Radio Luxembourg is a borderline case. While it was most definitely licensed to its country of origin (it was run by that country's government), its transmissions were also of dubious legality in Britain (the country its transmitters were pointed towards), where The BBC enjoyed a near-monopoly on radio and listening to unauthorised radio broadcasts was illegal. Before World War II Luxembourg was just one of many European cross-border commercial stations. During the war some of them, including Luxembourg, were taken over and used to broadcast Nazi propaganda; after the war Luxembourg was the only one that resumed commercial operations. In The Fifties 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 Fifties and The Sixties, 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.
- The use of Western stations, lawful in their countries of origin but widely-jammed by Soviet-bloc régimes, to get news and entertainment behind the Iron Curtain was common in the Cold War. The running joke was that West Germany's public broadcaster ARD stood for "All but Rugen and Dresden" – the two furthest corners of the former East Germany, which were on low ground and kept in a "valley of ignorance" without access to broadcasts from West Berlin or West Germany.
- Mexican "border blasters" (or "X stations", after the fact that the call letters of Mexican stations all start with X) are another borderline example. They're radio stations along the US-Mexico 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. FM border blasters were banned by mutual consent in 1972 (Mexican stations must broadcast at the same wattage as American stations), although AM blasters are still around.
- Wolfman Jack, an announcer who's been up and down the dial in multiple cities in multiple radio content formats on both sides of the Rio Grande, became famous as the voice "howling into your headphones" from quarter-megawatt XERF-AM in Ciudad Acuña on the border in Mexico. His distinctive voice is immortalised in The Guess Who's hit single "Clap for the Wolfman".
- 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.
- 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.
- In Canada, a small UHF community broadcaster (Star Ray TV) applied for (and briefly held) Toronto experimental licence VX9AMK as there was no established low-power TV service in place for purely local programming. A few widely-despised large media corporations together own almost everything (landline phone, mobile phone, cable, dish, multiple radio and conventional TV stations, speciality TV channels...) in that market; they didn't want the upstart competitor in Canada's largest media market and pressured the CRTC to shut the station down. It has been seen sporadically in one Toronto neighbourhood as an unlicensed station, and maintains an Internet presence, but the station is "barely there" as a Struggling Broadcaster at best.
- Kenny Everett got his start on the pirate station Radio London, where advice to change his name to avoid legal problems resulted in him taking the name under which he became famous.
- which is the reason why this trope is called Buccaneer Broadcaster instead of that