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The 1990s and Pirate Radio

Colin Dale
Creative Commons

Screaming Lord Sutch broadcast on 194 metres from the south tower of Shivering Sands. According to Bob LeRoi, the transmitter, from a Handley Page Halifax bomber, was powered with a cascade of car batteries, a scaffold pole with a skull-and-crossbones flag as an antenna The transmitter, from a Handley Page Halifax bomber, was powered with a cascade of car batteries, a scaffold pole with a skull-and-crossbones flag as an antenna
Credit Colin Dale / Creative Commons

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This is Leslie VonHolten of Strong City, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte. 

Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford is a rollicking, knock-along journey through the early days of radio when innovators, hucksters, scam artists, hillbilly musicians, businessmen, and anyone with gumption could throw their voices onto the airwaves and land in any kitchen and garage in the land. While reading it I found myself laughing out loud, sometimes holding my breath. It’s a super fun read.  

The “sure, whatever, let’s try it” nature of Border Radio also gave me a pang of nostalgia for the early 1990s and pirate radio stations. Remember those? I say that as if they don’t exist anymore—the probably do—but there was a pre-internet, DIY heyday back then.  

Pirate radio stations were vagabond outfits defined by their static scratchiness as much as their full-punk ethos. I remember hearing bands I’d never heard before, noisy dissonant music full of rage against the complacent state of the world, youthful energy-channeled amps turned all the way up. Music was usually accompanied by the righteous droning of the radio pirates themselves, disaffected idealists, self-appointed philosopher-kings, usually young men who would go on and on and on about the angst and disappointments of their day, reaching for an unspecified conclusion. And then, up next, a bootleg Dead Kennedys track.  

A couple weeks would go by, music would be spotty, and then our radio pirate captain would either lose interest or have a visit from the FCC. But man, when it worked, it was just right. I remember shock and disgust after the Rodney King verdict and finding my go-to deejay also feeling without words. So, he played Public Enemy records in their entirety, the profanity full-tilt and unapologetic, signifying what we knew but didn’t have the patience for a media newscaster to explain to us. A shift was upon us. Culture was blowing up. We were waiting, waiting. 

Gen Xers like myself remember the movie Pump Up the Volume, with Christian Slater as the blow-dried high school saint of pirate radio. I wanted to be like that, but less commercial and corny, wanted to have my perch on the airwaves, broadcasting from my small Kansas town. I never did. There was equipment to buy, technical stuff I didn’t have the patience for. The closest I ever made it was mowing the lawn for KOFO 1220 AM in Ottawa, Kansas. They paid me in donated amusement park tickets, which I then sold at discount to my fellow co-workers at Wal-Mart. The playlist didn’t have any Dead Kennedys on it. Those KOFO summers were all about George Strait, Dwight Yoakum, and the words of wisdom from local ministers. Decidedly not punk, but also rag-tag in its way. Making do, getting voices on the air, connecting. I love radio.