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Feature: Shortwave Spike

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7/17/01

It's been years since the shortwave pirate scene has been this active.

Normally, the best times to catch pirate broadcasts on shortwave frequencies has been weekend nights. While the spring and summer months tend to see a slowdown in activity due to increased solar and thunderstorm-induced interference, this trend has all but disappeared.

Pirates are popping up at all hours during the week, with some broadcasting marathon shows on multiple frequencies.

In the United States, the FCC has spent the last few years devoting most of its enforcement resources to tracking down and busting FM microradio stations; this has left little effort directed toward monitoring the shortwave band.

The FCC does have a nationwide monitoring network that can triangulate a shortwave pirate's general location, but the effort needed to actually shut shortwave broadcasters down is much more labor-intensive. For one thing, even if the FCC's monitoring network finds a pirate, agents on the ground must still pinpoint the station's location and travel to the broadcast site itself. Sometimes this just can't be done during the window when the station's on the air.

Additionally, shortwave pirates tend to set up their stations in remote areas and run them using crude "automation" - it's not surprising to hear one pirate broadcaster relay tapes of another pirate's shows. Sometimes, shortwave pirates tape original shows in advance, then broadcast them once the operator has left the transmit site. The FCC may find the station and confiscate the gear, but the pirate gets away to broadcast another day.

Because of this, it's probably more difficult to find and silence a shortwave pirate than an FM microbroadcaster. The FCC is obviously aware of all the activity but seems to be willing to overlook it so long as it doesn't become a political hot potato like FM piracy has become.

There has been so much pirate activity on the shortwave bands recently that some stations have accidentally broadcast on top of one another, to the frustration of dedicated listeners around the world.

Such activity constitutes bad etiquette, but with so many stations doing so many shows it's bound to happen once in a while. In order to better coordinate the activity, the Free Radio Network - indisputably the major Web site of interest to the hardcore North American shortwave pirate community - has set up a new forum for broadcasters to pre-announce their show times and frequencies.

The most prolific shortwave pirate of summer 2001, by far, has been WHYP. Run by "James Brownyard," the station not only features an eclectic mix of music and comedy, but it also relays old shows from past pirates. It's a great place to hear some of the history behind the shortwave scene.

During the first weekend of July 2001, in celebration of WHYP's third anniversary on the air, Brownyard attempted a broadcast on multiple frequencies using as many as five different transmitters.

Shortwave pirates have often pulled out all the stops to create and perform original material in the past, but the current crop of stations seems to focus almost exclusively on music. One major exception to this has been Radio Bingo, whose broadcasts include a contrived "live" bingo game involving various "personalities" in the shortwave scene - something one must hear to truly understand.

Other active pirates of late include the high-flying Radio Bong, comedy and parody by Radio Three, and the legendary WKND, who's come back from a long hiatus (and FCC hassles) to claim a spot on the shortwave band.

Most of the current activity in the United States has been centered around 6950 kHz, with most pirates popping up within five kHz of this target frequency (tune between 6945-6955). European shortwave pirates have also been busy, using other parts of the shortwave band to try and "shoot the Atlantic" to reach listeners Stateside. Notables who've been active include the Dutch pirate stations Mike Radio (appearing around 9290 kHz) and Alfa Lima International (making regular broadcasts on 15070 kHz).

As always, nights and weekends are the best times to listen, when solar and weather activity is lower and the shortwave bands become clearer. However, there's a better than even chance of catching a pirate on the air almost any day of the week.

All good things must come to an end, and eventually the FCC will clamp down on shortwave pirate activity. But this bona-fide boom in the shortwave scene is shaping up to be one for the books, and if you haven't tried tuning it in yet, you're missing out on some history in the making.