Shortwave radio enthusiasts gathered in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania earlier this month for the 26th annual Shortwave Listening Fest. The Fest is the longest-running conference of its kind in the United States, and several pirates actually broadcast from the event; the granddaddy of them all is the Voice of Pancho Villa, which has closed out the Fest every year with a special midnight broadcast.
Each Fest also features a pirate radio forum, where shortwave scenesters provide an overview of the state of the band. This year’s forum was moderated by George Zeller, a long-time pirate radio enthusiast who’s written several columns on the subject for a variety of radio publications.
Zeller got the 40-minute discussion going by calling the FCC a "malicious organization" (boos and hisses abounded), and ran through some of the most popular shortwave frequencies on which to find pirates. He categorized the scene as quite vibrant: "If I wanted to list all the pirates that were active last year, I would’ve had to bring a book!"
Greg Majewski, the editor of the shortwave-centric Free Radio Weekly, told attendees that there’s been a "reduction of activity" in the number of listener reception reports to his publication, but he thinks the downturn is a function of migration to the Internet for reception reports and acknowledgements.
The online environment, said Majewski, has "revolutionized" the audience for shortwave pirate radio: listeners can share reception conditions and reports in real-time, and with streaming shortwave receivers positioned around the world, it’s possible for listeners to hear broadcasts that they can’t pull out of the ionospheric muck at their physical locations.
Majewski characterizes shortwave piracy as "a steady stream of activity," where most pirates "stay on for about an hour," limiting their time on air in hopes of complicating the FCC’s impressive capabilities to triangulate shortwave transmissions.
Since the Fest, Chris Smolinski, the founder of HFUnderground.com, has conducted his own impressive analysis of shortwave piracy. Also based on listener reports, Smolinski found that dozens of stations were active over the course of 2012, making more than 130 transmissions every month.
The weekends are the most active time to find shortwave pirates on the air, though every day of the week there’s something to listen to. The "busiest" month for shortwave piracy in 2012 was December, and the "slowest" month was May.
Ultimately, Smolinski believes there is "a very high level of activity" today, "as compared to what I remember from the 1980s and even the 1990s." Considering the FCC’s relative lack of interest in shortwave pirate enforcement, it would seem that there’s no better time than the present to scope the band and perhaps hike a mast.