The Last Remaining Radio Pirates Broadcasting for Freedom

The web has mostly killed off pirate radio. But the few remaining holdouts broadcast for the same reason as before: to fuck the government.

For nearly a decade, the FCC spent considerable time and resources tracking down a man who goes only by “Monk,” a Colorado native in his mid-50s and a pirate radio legend

Monk started his broadcasting career (such as it were) in a friend’s basement, but he eventually moved his entire operation into a van hidden in various areas of the mountains, thus allowing him to stay one step ahead of the feds. Had he been caught (he’s since retired), he would have faced a hefty fine — $11,000 a day for every day he operated the station — as well as prison time. 

Not that it fazed him. Monk believes radio waves are a naturally occurring resource, and that the government doesn’t have the right to “chop them up and sell them to corporations.” “It was about freedom of speech, the reclaiming of community property and the fact that the crap that was on the radio was unlistenable,” he continues. His Boulder Free Radio — a “pirate radio” station that keyed into, and broadcasted across, Boulder’s airwaves without proper licensing from the FCC — was meant to remedy all of that. 

Independent broadcasters have used low-power FM transmitters to plug into local airwaves since radio was invented. But since 2000, the FCC has made it nearly impossible for independent broadcasters to legally operate. That’s why Monk chose to do so illegally — and successfully continued that way for 10 years, much to the chagrin of the federal government. According to AboutBoulder.com, Monk’s station grew immensely popular, too, holding benefit concerts, and at one point, reportedly involving up to 50 DJs. It was only when the FCC started coming after Monk’s friends and family that he called it quits

“These days, for some reason, the FCC has really gotten into shutting down FM pirates — far more than when I was doing it,” Monk tells me. To be clear, at the moment, it’s just an FCC regulation that radio pirates are violating — i.e., “cops can’t arrest you for being a pirate in 47 states, but it is a misdemeanor in New York, and a felony in New Jersey and Florida.” “But the FCC is trying to get a federal law passed to make it a ‘real’ crime,” Monk adds. 

With that in mind, Monk no longer sees the value in pirate radio. “There are so many other venues for media right now, so analog FM pirate radio’s time has passed,” he says. “It’s still important to people who can’t afford unlimited data plans and Spotify, but less than it was 20, or even 10 years ago.” 

That said, there remain a few such pirates — e.g., Jeff, a pseudonymous 33-year-old in Ohio who runs a station from his home. He doesn’t necessarily count himself among the anarcho-broadcasters — “though certainly with all of the recent events and issues happening at the federal level, hitting that ‘on’ button has been absolutely more satisfying as a tool to stick your thumb in the eye of the government,” he tells me — but more of a tech-head who enjoys the challenge of “putting out a solid presentation with good audio quality that’s largely indistinguishable, minus commercials of course, from legitimate radio stations.”

It’s also something he keeps to himself. “I thought about setting up a Facebook account for it, but the more exposure you have, the greater the risk, so I tend to lay low,” he explains. “Only a few people in my inner circle know, so it plays no role in my social life, nor is it really a source of new music for me, at least directly.” 

As a result, Jeff’s experience with pirate radio “has been distinctly unsexy.” “I’ve never seen black vans trolling around my neighborhood, and I’ve never had to grab my gear and run from the cops,” he says. 

Another current pirate radio host, who was adamant about preserving total anonymity, is more true-to-form. “Pirate radio is a part of who I am,” he tells me. “When I was a kid, there was only the state-run radio channel, so when I discovered pirate radio, I couldn’t resist the thrill of doing something outside of the law (despite it being a ‘crime’ without victims or monetary loss for anybody except me), creating something of cultural value and the constant technical challenge of running the station.” 

Because he helped set up a small station in another country — “Using my contacts at the embassy, I was able to import some equipment from Free Radio Berkeley” — there wasn’t the FCC to worry about. But the station did have to “tailor its content so as not to piss off the local military police.” “They made a lot of programs with raunchy humor and lousy acting, and they quickly got a following,” he tells me. “By the time I was leaving, they were planning to upgrade to a larger transmitter and reach even more people. It’s been a while since I checked back in on them, but I like to think I did some good.”

In the meantime, he’s launched yet another pirate radio station that’s become popular enough that he’s had to hire employees. “I’ve made an effort to keep my crew as tiny as possible,” he says. “I’ve also hired some assistance from the local anarchist community to set up some web services for me.”

So far, he hasn’t been caught. But he knows that just might be a matter of time. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I don’t know if the authorities are looking for my gear — I’d hope looking for pirate transmitters wouldn’t be a priority during the pandemic. Either way, I’m well aware that I’m not out of reach of the long arm of the law.”