Britain’s Radio Pirates Seen as Free-Market Heroes

Published May 31, 2016

Review of Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age, by Adrian Johns, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, ISBN-10: 0393068609, $26.95, 279 pages.

In last year’s The Master Switch, author Tim Wu extolled Britain’s central-planning model of radio broadcasting over the private, organically developed industry of the United States:

This is radio broadcasting in the 1920s: On one side of the Atlantic , in the geographically vast United States, isolated clusters of local and mostly amateur operators, inspired by the enthusiasm of the hobbyist and a somewhat vague though earnest idea of national betterment. Britain, a private monopoly, with national reach, arguably elitist, but unquestionably and systematically dedicated to ‘bringing the best of everything’ to the general public.

Explicit in Wu’s condescending rendering is that the government-run British Broadcasting Corporation is better than the lowly commercial enterprises begun in the United States. Wu’s English envy is clearly based on a passion for the BBC’s socialist underpinnings where the pursuit of filthy lucre is supplanted by high-toned cultural programming sans commercials.

Adrian Johns’ Death of a Pirate serves as a libertarian antidote to Wu’s fussy, monocle-wearing, “It’s British, so it’s better than American money-grubbing enterprises” disdain for market practices in radio broadcasting. Whereas Wu conveniently avoids discussing developments in Britain after the Fabian socialists wrested control of the AM spectrum in the ’20s, Johns examines the fallout of the Brits’ wrongheaded government takeover of the medium.

Long story short: the BBC broadcast Richard III, but the public demanded equal access to royalty of a different sort. Instead of Shakespeare’s kings, they desired the King—Elvis Presley.

They also wanted the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Who, and the Kinks. The government would not bend to such bourgeois demands for barbaric yawps, so the entrepreneurial spirit intervened on behalf of the great mass of radio consumers.

Enter the Pirates
For those whose familiarity with England’s pirate radio stations is limited to Richard Curtis’ silly film Pirate Radio from a couple years ago, rest assured there was more to it than cool, rebellious, dope-smoking deejays. The film showed how unlicensed radio stations broadcasting into the UK brought listeners programming the government monopoly media disdained.

Although it has a terrific soundtrack, Pirate Radio represents a lost opportunity to depict what happens when government presumes to dictate public tastes and thwart economic enterprise. Reality was more angry young man than Jolly Roger. Johns’ book rectifies the oversights of Curtis’ film.

The radio pirates broadcasting from the high seas beyond UK territorial waters actually knew little about the nascent pop culture of the time. What they did know, however, was market economics.

Smedley’s Pirates
A decorated World War II hero, entrepreneur, and former politician, Oliver Smedley, was invigorated by the economic writings of Friedrich von Hayek—one of the London School of Economics’ leading voices against the views of Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes—to lead the naval assault against the BBC monopoly.

After Smedley launched Radio Atlanta on the high seas, his endeavor inspired competition from at least nine other unlicensed stations, some begun by colorful characters such as Screaming Lord Sutch and Reg Calvert.

The audience for pirate radio stations was boosted unexpectedly by several factors. The advent of transistor radios gave British youth affordable and transportable listening devices. Another big factor was the BBC’s “needle-time” rule, which mandated that a specified mix of live and recorded music be broadcast to appease musicians’ unions. It left very little time to play crowd-pleasing two-and-a-half-minute recordings by the Dave Clark Five.

The pirates made hay off both developments. Record companies complained that the unlicensed stations were violating intellectual property rights by paying little (if anything) in licensing fees, they continued to provide the pirates with radio promotional discs— pirate radio, after all, was a prime advertiser for the 45s and LPs sold by Decca and EMI.

Davey Jones’ Locker
Ultimately, however, the pirate radio boom of the mid-1960s was undone by the heavy hand of government overreaction to the excessive behavior of several key players, including the unfortunate shooting death of Reg Calvert by Smedley (who was eventually acquitted of manslaughter).

British cops cracked down on the unlicensed stations, but the real death knell tolled for the broadcast vessels when the BBC loosened needle-time rules and debuted more youth-oriented programming. The BBC also hired the most popular of the on-air personalities who had cut their teeth on pirate radio, including broadcasting legends John Peel and Kenny Everett. 

The British government’s “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” gambit is hardly ideal, but at least Smedley and his fellow “pirates” helped push the needle a little closer toward economic freedom and away from statism, however briefly.

Death of a Pirate doesn’t include a soundtrack to which readers can dance the mashed potato, but it presents a detailed historical account of how central planning once again overruled the public’s wishes. Perhaps most important is Johns’ point that the pirates’  “assault on the BBC was the same battle as that against the relentless expansion of copyrights and patents, and both were ultimately about the nature of the coming information society.”

Who knew Santayana—who famously said those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it—had so much in common with purveyors of 1960s pirate radio?

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.