The act of broadcasting without a license is a very public thing; it is going on the air that makes it a crime, not what a pirate station does once it’s on. Because of this, a delicate game of balance has to be played by pirate radio station operators. As a pirate garners more notice from a community, the risk of having the powers-that-be notice also rises. But if nobody knows about the station, then what good can it do?
To try and prevent (or at least partially blunt) the eventual enforcement action, pirates have experimented with unique ways of “protecting” their studios. After all, transmitters are replaceable; dedicated people are not.
The easiest way to protect a studio is to separate it physically from the transmitter. Radio authorities find pirates by the signals they produce, and the place where those signals are coming from is the first place they’ll visit. If that place is not the studio, it forces enforcement agents to at least take one extra step to catch a pirate.
Separating the transmitter from the studio may also provide a bit of early warning to the people behind the station that a visit or raid is imminent, especially if an overzealous agent unplugs the transmitter before the studio location can be discovered.
There are three major ways pirates can spread out their operation and run the transmitting apparatus remotely. Telephone lines and studio-to-transmitter (STL) links have already seen widespread use; streaming audio is a new technology that still needs to be fully explored.
Link Development – Phone First
Back in the pre-digital days, all it took to send a signal from a studio to a remote transmitter was a decent-quality phone line (or two if the station wanted to broadcast in stereo).
While the price factor for access to broadcast-quality phone lines proved cost-prohibitive to most pirates, those with a good knowledge of how the telephone system worked could “phreak” it into doing all sorts of illicit things – like making free long distance phone calls and eavesdropping on other lines. In short, it was possible to hack the telephone system with the right tools (usually specialized touch-tone generators) and skills.
Some savvy pirates used phone phreaking to rig up temporary “dedicated lines” for their stations. They phreaked the phone system to patch two phone lines together, making a connection with the studio at one end and the transmitter at another.
While this was a great way to get free access to a nearly-limitless possibility of remote locations (anywhere there’s a phone), it did take a level of skill outside the realm of your average Joe. And since phreaking is illegal, using this technique opened up another chance of being noticed, either by the phone company and/or the FCC.
Nowadays, the use of phone lines as remote links for free radio stations is almost unheard of. Much of this is due to the fact that most phone systems are now based on a digital infrastructure, making them much harder to manipulate without corporate consent.
STLs – A Second Signal
Wireless studio-to-transmitter links (STLs) are probably the optimal technique for most pirates who want to operate the studio and transmitter in different locations. An STL is, usually, another radio signal beamed to a special receiver which then feeds the broadcast transmitter.
STL frequencies are located high above the FM broadcast band. Most are migrating to frequencies located at 800 MHz and above (while FM radio stops in the low 100s).
STLs generally operate on a “line of sight” basis: unlike broadcast radio signals, which usually radiate in all directions, the signal of an STL is highly focused in one direction only, pointing directly at the receiving antenna. This makes them more challenging to detect and trace – but they are still traceable.
Since an STL signal is highly focused it doesn’t take a large amount of power to cover big distances. Five watts or less can provide an STL signal strong enough to travel for miles.
The major problems hindering STL usage has been price and the availability of equipment. The potential for STL also varies widely by country, as different countries use different frequencies. There are no schematics publicly available, either, for people who want to try and build an STL from scratch – and those that do possess the knowledge are hampered by the trouble of finding the parts to build with.
This does not mean that STLs aren’t widely used by pirates: in London, for example, just about every station (and there are dozens, if not hundreds of pirates in London alone) uses an STL. In contrast, the only pirate stations in the United States who’ve used an STL have been ones that could afford commercially-built (and very expensive) setups.
STLs also do not guarantee that a studio will escape the wrath of a bust: in America, the FCC has been known to trace pirate STL signals before shutting the main transmitter down. And those that have been caught using STLs have faced stiffer penalties because they were broadcasting two pirate signals instead of just one.
Still, STLs have a lot of potential, provided the know-how and raw materials become more accessible to the free radio community. Some have been experimenting with “alternative” STLs, like spread-spectrum cordless phones and even infrared beams. These are mostly theories, though, and have a long way to go before they could be proven for practical use.
Netcasting – The Next Frontier
Some have said netcasting will replace broadcasting because of its unlimited potential for access. However, it’s still cheaper to buy a radio than it is to get online, and the sound quality is better on real radio than on the Internet’s version, unless you can afford a broadband connection.
Ironically enough, free radio broadcasters are eagerly testing the waters of netcasting as a means of separating studio from transmitter.
Some of this experimentation has been done in the U.S., where stations like Black Ball Radio in Seattle and 2000 Flushes in Minneapolis/St. Paul used the ‘net as a way to solicit programming from listeners, making it possible for almost anyone to become a DJ. 2000 Flushes took the concept the furthest, pretty much doing away with a studio completely and running the station off an automated playlist of contributed MP3 files.
Pirate FM broadcasters in the Netherlands are also experimenting with netcasting as a remote link. Using a computer at each end of the link, the box in the studio encodes and streams the programming to its dialed-in counterpart at the broadcast site, where it is fed directly to the air.
There are still some technical and audio quality issues to deal with, but the legal question it raises is intriguing. Technically, the people in the studio aren’t violating any laws because they’re netcasting. If someone is rebroadcasting their internet feed, they could conceivably claim ignorance of that operation.
If anything, using streaming audio makes enforcement folks jump through a lot more hoops. After all, ‘net connections can be traced. But the more work expended, the less efficient the enforcement.
The main drawback to a streaming audio remote setup is the cost, although this can be mitigated. The computers involved can be stripped down or, in some cases, assembled with salvaged parts from old machines, since they’re being dedicated to serve a single use. If the cost of Internet access keeps going down and bandwidth availability improves, this technique, too, should improve.
As the stakes grow higher in the fight to free the airwaves, security is becoming more important for the pirate broadcaster. There is no completely secure method of broadcasting without a license; the act itself makes sure of that.
But any safety net is better than no net at all – and the more struggle one makes before going down, the better off others may be.