Pirate Radio

Original Airdates: October 5, 6, 8 (2010)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.

Pirate radio stations in the U.S. were born when President Taft
initiated federal regulation of the airwaves in 1912. Navy ships had been complaining that unlicensed broadcasters were interfering with their transmissions. Even with the new laws in place, pirate stations continued to pop up all over the country, for radio was still relatively new and full of magic and possibilities, and equipment was easy to build.

Charles Armstrong recalls the influence of his after-school stops by a local radio store in Waco in the thirties:

"There was a little shop down on the corner of Thirteenth and Clay, and I'd just go by there on the way home from school and go and talk to him. I was real interested in it. And when they'd have the boxing matches they had, you know, way back there, well, a lot of people was interested in them, and I despised them. And so I made me an old device I could knock them off. The local people right around here close within a block or two of me, I could put them off the air. It's kind of like (laughs)—kind of like scrambling it, and it worked. And I'd get a kick out of—they'd all be sitting around there getting ready for it, and it'd come on. I'd turn my machine on, and it'd sound like static—like an electrical storm. So that went on for several years. But I finally built me a station, and the kids come up and talk back home, talk to their mama on my radio. And we'd sing songs and stuff like that out in my garage."

He had to sign off when his life of crime caught up with him:

"And it took them about, oh, I guess a year before they caught me. And they come out—the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] come out and Bob [Robert] Van Wie. He was captain of police. And he came out, and they loaded my stuff up in the back of an old touring car. It was about 1929, 1930 model, A Models, and load my stuff up and carry it off. Mama said, ‘What are they—what are they going to do to you?' And I said, ‘I don't know.' And she said, ‘They're going to send you to penitentiary.' (laughter)"

Goodson McKee, longtime announcer on WACO, explains his involvement in pirate radio while at Waco High in the 1940s:

"I was a member of the Radio Club. And a good friend of mine, Mr. [Raymond] Franks, he and I were in the Radio Club together, and he was an electronic whiz. And we put together—I had a record player, played records in the mornings before school. And he was smart enough to put together an electronic transmitter, and we went on the air. It was the first pirate radio station in this area. But anyway, we had the radio station on the air for a while, and he could hear it clear across the river. We decided we'd better not get in trouble, so we shut it down."

Pirate radio stations continue to broadcast, with many streaming over the Internet. For some owners, these stations are a way to rebel against the high costs of proper licenses and to denounce authority. Pirate stations are able to hide from the law because equipment is easy to come by and the space required to transmit, minimal.

Living Stories is heard every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For more information about this program or the Institute for Oral History, visit us at baylor.edu/livingstories.

Search our collection of full transcripts available online.