Shortwave Pirate Broadcasting

And now, something completely different. It seems there is quite a kerfuffle going on in Shortwave (AKA HF) pirate land.  It seems there has been some FCC enforcement action of late, leading to at least one HF pirate being closed down, while some others are pointing fingers at another saying he is a rat, or a rabbit.  Or something.  I dunno, it gets a little hard to follow.


I have written about this in the past; Pirate Shortwave broadcasting. It is a very interesting phenomenon that compels a person to gather together all the parts necessary, usually at some expense, and assemble a station.  Further, keying the transmitter and broadcasting without the benefit of a license is a violation of federal law, which can bring heavy sanctions.  While most pirate broadcasters seem to get a slap on the wrist, this lax FCC attitude can change.  There have been several steep fines lately for repeat offenders in the FM band.  At least on the FM band and somewhat the AM band too, an unlawful broadcaster is assured of some public audience.  On the shortwave bands, a pirate broadcaster’s audience is limited to only those that are looking for them, which is a very narrow segment of the population.

What are they trying to accomplish?  Most of the shortwave pirate broadcasts that I have listened to are limited to a couple of songs from one particular genre, send an ID and then are off.  Some will send a QSL card via slow-scan TV.   What compels these operators to go through all the trouble for a few minutes of irregular operation?  Some of them have well-equipped studios to go along with the transmitting equipment.  Then there is the clandestine nature of the undertaking, often with mail drops and spoofed e-mail addresses.

Some seem to exult in sticking it to the man, that man is the FCC, big media corporations, or any authority that tells them they are doing wrong.  Acts of civil disobedience against authority are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as oppressive or evil.  Others seem to have some need to perform, no matter how small the audience may be.  Some are just fooling around and do it simply because they can. Finally, others like the challenge of building a low-power shortwave transmitter from scratch and seeing it through to its end.

If the so said station is broadcasting with any appreciable power, it will get noticed quickly, and sooner or later, the FCC will pay a visit.  That is a foregone conclusion.  The FCC has quite a few new tricks up its sleeve when it comes to direction finding and RF fingerprinting.  That’s right, RF fingerprinting, is exactly what it sounds like.  Super-resolution HFDF eliminates the need for triangulation, multiple vehicles, and wasting a lot of time driving around neighborhoods trying to figure out which residence an illegal broadcaster is using.

While I understand the compulsion to broadcast free radio; the need to inform under-served communities, the fact that what we used to rely on for information and news is gone, a once vibrant and exciting art form has been reduced to a hollow shell of its former self, however, we have not yet reached a Magna Carta moment. There are still some legal methods of getting the word out on the radio, both conventional and shortwave.  International Broadcasting stations WBCQ and WRMI offer time-brokered programming and are pretty liberal in the types of programs they accept.  Not all US shortwave broadcasters are thus, many allowing only religious programming.  Those shortwave stations have large coverage areas and existing audiences.  There are also many AM radio stations that will do block programming over the weekend, for a price, of course.  Then there is the possibility of setting up an internet station.  Eventually, the new Low Power FM (LPFM) rules will go into effect and interested groups will be able to apply for licenses in that service.

The point is, while the deck is stacked against the local or community radio broadcaster, it is still possible to get the word out in a legal way.  The cost of buying block programming will likely be the same or less than buying all the equipment to set up a pirate station.  Further, if the programming is compelling, you may get noticed and be able to flip the equation and actually get paid to do it.

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12 thoughts on “Shortwave Pirate Broadcasting”

  1. Great article . Pirate radio on shortwave is no doubt a strange group of people and concepts. But where else can you have the fun of reaching out to the world,playing with radios ,play music and not have the man tell you what you can and cannot play ? LPFM just doesn’t cut it with me. For one the fact that everyone within your immediate area of residence would know who you are thus limiting your FREE speech to zero,given the north american mind set about such things . Especially in the USA. One would likely have their house burnt and their family harassed just for saying they didn’t agree with the most mundane of issues. That’s why the Feds allow LPFM because they know that in the end the ignorant sheeple herd themselves.
    Legal shortwave options are a super way to go ,but only for people who are interested in production and the message in general. If you like to watch the tubes glow ,play with antennas , audio, etc then it lacks some. But otherwise stations like WBCQ are a good way to go . The simple fact though still remains that it was an incredible struggle to even get WBCQ up and running given the red tape involved. Given the incredibly free HF spectrum available this in its self is a crime against free speech. There are reasons that the vast majority of HF stations that ARE licensed are Christian , the main one being that they are further herding devices for the sheeple ,and as far as the man is concerned that is less money they have to spend doing it themselves.
    The internet “radio” option once again is just for the person who is interested in the message ,not the means. Lets face it the means in that case is about as mundane as it gets. It lacks any and all challenges ,and can be turned off at the governments whim in an instant. The only thing turning off the ionosphere is the sun and the occasional HAARP broadcast.
    I think there is a whole article in the super resolution HFDF technique . It is new to me as well ,and I would love to hear some more on it. Sounds expensive and likely only something that the military has as it would likely involve satellites,and would probably require good old triangulation to get a general area to start the search.

    Keep up the great work .

  2. Doc John, Thanks for the reply. There is currently a debate about pirate radio (in general) and it’s influence on the FCC in forming LPFM and or community radio. There is also some talk of “good pirate operators” vs “bad pirate operators,” the former being more conscientious in regards to harmful interference, spectral purity, etc. It is an interesting debate, and as with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. While the FCC (and thus the government) has sought to keep the free exchange of information via broadcasting under control, with the help of the major media consolidators, some regulation and oversight of the RF spectrum is needed, otherwise there would be chaos.

    So, it becomes a double edged sword. The only real issue I have with pirate broadcasting is the illegitimate aspect of the information broadcast. Not that some of what is broadcast is not true, or relevant or needed, clearly it is. The fact that one has to break the law to do that makes it tainted in the view of most people, e.g. those sheeple that need to be snapped out of their stupor. In the view of most people, what is the difference between Robin Hood and Al Capone? Answer: Robin Hood is a myth.

    Regarding super resolution HFDF, information is sparse, but I will give you this tidbit from the National Parks Service Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) regarding the Navy’s AN FRD-10 in Hawaii:

    In the early 1990s a tactical HFDF, the AN/TSQ-164 (Code named DRAGONFIX) was being experimented with. This system was field-transportable and operated within a frequency of 1.6 to 30 MHz. It was able to determine the angle at which signals bounced off the ionosphere to arrive at the receiver. This enabled a single TSQ-164 receiver to not only get a bearing, but to
    also calculate the position of the transmitter without any triangulation (Proc 2006, [16]).

    That was twenty years ago. There have been several refinements to HFDF since then, you can google super resolution HFDF and find out more.

    Regarding RF fingerprinting, there are two separate methods that this term is used for. In the WIFI world, it is referring to a method of RF mapping of a certain area, showing all the various transmitters in a geographical area. Can be used for things other than WIFI.

    The second area is something that the ARRL experimented with in the early 1990’s as well. It involves high resolution spectrum analyzer scans, which are then analyzed via fourier transform. The idea being that every transmitter or RF source has a unique signature that differentiates it from all others. This can be discovered and stored as the output file from the fourier transform.

  3. Is there really such a thing as illegitimate information ? For me in the end pirate radio exists and always will because we(ie society) always need reminders that we are always one step away from living in a police state. Spectrum management is needed there is no doubt in my mind. Frequency is limited . But in an age when children can surf porn and neo nazi sites on line at will, to say the content that pirates broadcast is at issue is non-sense. The truth of the matter is the radio spectrum was the first internet ,and at its birth scared the hell out of governments. We get spoiled by today’s technology and seem to forget that it could all disappear in an instant. If that were to happen governments have done such a good job at limiting access to radio spectrum and shut down so many libraries that we(the people) would be up the creek without a paddle or the knowledge of what a paddle is.
    In a way the last 80 years or so have been about (for the governments of the world) getting back control of the information that we get. Lets face it they had it pretty good before radio and the printing press for that matter came along. As far as I am concerned they are awfully close to regaining mass ignorance and convincing people that they are somehow empowered . One of the greatest magic tricks ever.

    Thanks for the info on hfdf and fingerprinting . Tech changes so fast one has a hard time keeping up with it. Wonders never cease !

  4. Any truthful information is not illegitimate in my eyes, but others see it differently. Those that are not aware that the sheep dogs also need to be kept in check and buy into the narrative currently espoused, which should be the target audience, if I am not mistaken. Many (most)people still have a binary view of the world; right/wrong, black/white, etc. It is not really their fault, more like the sad state of our educations system and the simple fact that critical analysis skills are not taught, the students are only given the knowledge needed to pass the next test. People need to realize this and start opening their eyes. Without that type of awakening, we (society) will continue to drift into mass ignorance as you say.

  5. Mr. Thurst, you forgot that the average SW pirate is using (slightly) modified ham radio gear because a few of them are bored or former ham operators who get a kick using the Drake or Icom to play AOR rock. BTW there is a pirate operator who builds 5-watt “Grenade” transmitters for sale, and he runs these rigs 14 hours straight to burn them in. The average broadcast used to be 45 minutes long (i.e. the “Kirk Trummel rule”); I think paranoia has cut it down to 15-20 minutes, which is a shame. Meanwhile, the average FM pirate tries to copy the commercial stations and remain on the air 12-24 hours a day, which is why they get nailed; the SW guy can change freqencies for every broadcast. (Radio Paranoia)

  6. mr. mike, those are good points. The boredom aspect had crossed my mind, but my research on the subject seemed to indicate that there was more to it than that.

    Your point about FM (or AM) pirate vs. shortwave pirate operator is correct.

  7. Hi I have been recieving annoying noise from ham radios for over three years now. I had this confirmed as a radio frequency through an electronic counter measures company who measured the frequency at .040 khz’s , steady over a period of days. I know its a radio broadcast because I can actually hear people talking because it is an audible frequency and also through RF interference in my electronic appliances. Any idea how to get the FCC to shut these guys down, I know it is illegal to broadcast at this low of a frequency and no I do not live anywhere near power lines.

  8. I don’t know of any unmodified amateur rig that will go down that far, not to mention the size of an antenna needed to radiate a signal of that long a wave length with efficiency. As far as getting the FCC to “shut these guys down”..The FCC can’t even do anything to the dozens of pirate FM broadcasters that clutter the NYC area airwaves on any given day…often on first adjacent frequencies to licensed stations.

  9. Pirate Radio is alive and well on Shortwave using Stretchyman transmitters. Look for him, he’s out there…

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