Pirate Radio New Listener Guide and FAQ
What Are Pirate Radio Stations?
Why Listen to Pirate Radio Stations
One of the major complaints about modern corporate radio is that it is bland and boring. It seems as though half a dozen companies own all the stations, and every one sounds the same. How many Morning Zoo shows can you listen to, anyway?
With pirate radio, you often never know what you're going to hear next. There's a huge variety of station formats.
Some just play music, but often it is obscure or unique music. Rave on Radio is known for focusing on one artist. Wolverine Radio strings together a series of songs, all with a common theme. Radio Appalachia plays bluegrass music. And so on.
Other stations are known for producing their own original creative programming. Such as KIPM, which featured science fiction radio drama. WHYP is a parody of a former genuine small town radio station with the same call letters, from back in the 1980s, infamous for their poor production standards.
There have even been political stations, such as United Patriot Radio.
Finally, there are stations that are are essentially inside jokes in the pirate radio community. They splice together recordings of other stations and pirate listeners, create song parodies, and so on. You truly never know what you will hear next.
Brief History of Pirate Radio Stations
Some Examples of Pirate Radio Stations
List of Pirate radio stations
How to Listen To Pirate Radio Stations
Frequencies Pirate Radio Stations Use
In general pirate radio stations try to transmit on unused frequencies. This is for two reasons. First, they don't want to cause interference, as this tends to result in the radio authorities taking an interest in them, and shutting them down, otherwise known as a bust. Second, they often use relatively low power levels, and would not be heard over a licensed station that most likely is using more power.
AM/MW Band Pirates
While AM band pirates can turn up anywhere, they are most commonly heard in the extended band, which runs from 1610 to 1700 kHz, as this part of the AM band is much less crowded. They are also often heard outside of the AM band, with 1710 kHz being most popular, as this frequency is otherwise unused.
Many AM pirates have ethnic programming, in languages other than English.
AM pirates used to be more common in the 1970s and 1980s, with several high power stations operating in the New York City area. High power / long distance AM pirates are not as often heard today. Most AM pirates today tend to be relatively low power, with a range of tens of miles at the most. There are some exceptions, such as Radio Celestial from New York City, which is often heard on 1710 khz.
FM Band Pirates
FM band pirates can be heard throughout the FM band, wherever there are unused channels in a city. They can also be heard outside of the band, with 87.9 MHz being most common.
In large urban areas, there are often numerous FM pirates that can be heard. As power levels are often low, the range of a given station can be only a few miles, if that. Many FM pirates have ethnic programming, in languages other than English.
FM pirates will not otherwise be discussed on this page, which focuses on shortwave and AM pirates.
Shortwave pirates use numerous frequency bands, depending to a large extent on their location in the world.
United States and Canada
Because they are usually low powered and use simple antennas, pirate radio stations are more difficult to hear than most other shortwave broadcasters. This is especially true if you are located in western North America, since most pirates are found east of the Rockies. The answer to this question shifts frequently, but these are good bets.
- 4000-4200 khz
- 5100-5200 khz
- 6200-6300 khz for many Europirates
- 6700-7000 khz
The most popular bands are the 48 meter band (roughly 6200 to 6450 kHz) and the 75 meter band (roughly 3900-4000 kHz, which is part of the 80 meter ham band in the US). Europirates (as European pirate stations are often referred to in the US) also make use of other parts of the HF spectrum. Other commonly used bands include:
- 19 meters, generally 15000-15100 kHz, but also 15700-15900 kHz
- 13 meters, 21000-25000 kHz
When to Listen
When to listen depends on radio propagation conditions for the particular band, and where you and the station are located. Some generalized examples:
4, 5 and 6 Mhz in the US/Canada
During the daytime, these bands operates in NVIS mode, where signals go up to the ionosphere and are reflected roughly straight down. That means that stations generally only reach a distance of a few hundred miles.
During the nighttime, the band "goes long" and more distant stations can be received, at the expense of not being able to receive local stations.
The 48 meter band works about the same way within Europe.
48 meters from Europe to the US/Canada
During the daytime, reception from Europe is generally impossible. Once the path between Europe and North America is dark, reception becomes possible. The actual quality of reception conditions can vary dramatically from day to day, due to changes in the ionosphere caused by general solar activity, solar flares, etc.
The same is true for reception of 43 meter band signals from the US/Canada by listeners in Europe.
19 meters and higher frequencies
Generally, these are long distance DX bands, and are not suitable for relatively local reception. That is, the distance between the station and listener should be many hundreds of miles at a minimum, often thousands of miles. During periods of low and moderate solar activity, these bands are usually open during the late morning and early afternoon. During periods of high solar activity, they can be open 24 hours a day.
Factors That Effect Reception
Keep in mind that lots of atmospherics come into play when you're listening on HF bands, storms in between your location and the operators factor greatly.
Also, for the non-technical listener - there is an atmospheric condition known as Gray Line Propagation: http://www.w8mrc.com/dx/propagation/ which is especially helpful in understanding as it relates to optimal reception of pirate radio broadcasts, especially due to the broadcast power constraints pirate ops must deal with. For listeners, understanding grayline propagation will help greatly in improving what you hear, even at great distances from the op's transmitting region.
Radios come in two main categories: portables and communications receivers. A possible third category, or sub-category of communications receivers, are SDRs or the Software Defined Radio.
- Lists of receivers: Technical_Topics#Receivers
As the name implies, portable radios are small radios that can easily be moved around. They are often the size of a hardbound book. They can be quite inexpensive, starting at around $50 or so, up to several hundred dollars. The advantages of portable radios include the low price, small size, and built in whip antenna. The major disadvantage is that they do not perform as well as more expensive communications receivers. That said, many of them are a good way to get started with pirate radio, without having to spend a lot of money.
Communications receivers are larger, more expensive radios. They start at several hundred dollars, and run up to several thousand dollars. They offer substantially better performance than portable radios. They generally are more sensitive, so they can pick up weaker signals. They are more selective, so they will better reject interference from other stations. Many communications receivers have Digital Signal Processing (DSP) features that provide better filtering than otherwise possible with physical filters.
Software Defined Radios (SDR)
Software Defined Radios have much of the functionality that previously existed in electronic components instead performed by software, running either inside the SDR itself or in the computer connected to it. They can perform Digital Signal Processing (DSP) operations not possible with actual electronic circuitry, allowing them to offer better rejection of interfering signals. Unlike communications receivers, the DSP parameters can usually be controlled to a greater degree. Entire new functions can be added to the radio by just downloading new software to it. Finally, SDRs often allow entire bands to be recorded to disk. Then, at a later time, one can go back and search for / listen to transmissions that were recorded. Many consider SDRs to be the future of radio. Much of the required computing power already exists in the computer that you own, that must be connected to the SDR to operate, as SDRs do not work "stand alone" without a computer. They generally start at several hundred dollars, and go up to several thousand dollars. You can find an extensive list of models, reviews, software and more here.
Along with a radio, you'll need an antenna. They fall into two major categories, inside and outside antennas. Inside antennas are convenient, they could be built into the radio, or be some wire strung around the room. The downside is that they don't do a good job of picking up radio stations, as the building often blocks radio waves. And unfortunately they do a good job of picking up interference from inside, such as computers, and TV sets. Outside antennas perform much better, but take some effort to install, and sometimes are not allowed in some neighborhoods.
Whip antenna built into the radio
Most portable radios include a small built in whip antenna. While this is often satisfactory for listening to high powered shortwave broadcast stations, it is usually insufficient for listening to lower powered pirate stations, except under the best of conditions.
Random wire (longwire) antennas
As the term implies, a random wire is a wire antenna of random length. A random wire generally works well for signal reception, and is an improvement over the built-in whip antenna that is included with many portable radios. An antenna tuner can be used with a random wire to make it resonant at a particular frequency.
A dipole is perhaps the most basic radio antenna. The most commonly used dipole is the half-wave, so named because the total length is approximately one half of a wavelength long at the desired center frequency. The antenna is made up of two wire elements, each about a quarter of a wavelength long. Coaxial cable or balanced line is used to connect the wire elements to a radio or antenna tuner. For listening purposes, building the largest (longest) half wave dipole that you can practically fit makes for a very affordable and useful listening antenna.
Loop antennas come in many varieties. They can be a small desktop loop with an internal amplifier, or a large outside antenna. Examples:
You can find an extensive list of many different types of loops here.
If you want to get started listening to pirate radio stations, but don't want to invest in a shortwave radio and antenna, one free solution is to listen via the many radios that individuals have put online. There are many ways to find these radios; GlobalTuners is a popular site that consolidates access to tuners all around the world.
A QSL is a verification from a radio station that you, the listener, actually heard the station. The listener sends a reception report to the station, which contains details sufficient to prove reception. This can include things like songs played, quotes of things said, etc. Information concerning the quality of reception is also generally given, this feedback lets the station know how well it was received. It is also customary to indicate what type of radio and antenna was used, as this can help qualify the reception quality information.
In return, the station sends the listener a QSL card, either as a physical card or letter by mail, or, more common today, as an eQSL card, which is typically a JPG or other image sent by email.
The SIO Code is a 3 digit number used to indicate how well the station was received. Each number is from 1 to 5, with 1 representing the worst possible reception, and 5 the best.
- Strength - how strong the signal was
- Interference - how much of a problem interference was
- Overall - the overall quality of the reception
An SIO code of 555 is the best possible. Likewise, and SIO of 111 is the worst, and means the station was barely audible. SIO codes are inherently highly subjective.
The SIO code replaces the older SINPO code, which included two additional parameters:
- Propagation (fading)
Examples of QSL Cards
Tips for QSL'ing Pirates
Things to keep in mind
- QSL'ing preferences vary from op to op, and some ops QSL later rather than sooner (sometimes after many years...), as time, safety and costs allow.
- Be patient and open-minded. Some OPs choose to remain a mystery or QSL within the broadcast via SSTV, digital mode that can be decoded by numourous free and low-cost applications:
Snailmail QSL etiquette
Traditionally, the pirate radio operator would announce a maildrop address for reception reports. This is a PO Box, and a third party collects the reports for various stations, sends them to each station, gets the QSL cards back, and sends them to the listeners. This provides a level of anonymity for the pirate operator.
It is customary to send $1 US or 3 first class postage stamps with a reception report, to help cover postage costs for the letters that have to go back and forth between the station and maildrop.
eQSLs have mostly replaced traditional paper QSL cards for pirates. The listener can directly contact the station via email with the reception report. The QSL can be immediately sent back to the listener, there are no postage costs. And if the operator uses gmail or another secure email system, he does not run the risk of his identity being revealed by the drop operator.
Email or "eQSL" ettiquette
In your request, offer as much technical feedback as your experience allows, include where possible:
- What content you heard, music, dialogue, distinctive ID's or properties of the broadcast that will help the op know that you uniquely heard his broadcast, as many ops use same frequencies
- Signal Strength, as best you can describe it. For new listeners and non-HAMs SINPO is explained here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SINPO
- Congeniality: Live Radio is full of surprises, even for the operator, technical glitches 'happen' -- the QSL report you send should be respectful, and if any audio deficiencies are noted, be gentle and descriptive i.e. "Slight audio drift and slight distortion noted at <insert time during broadcast>" , if known. If the op was making technical adjustments during the broadcast, mentioning what you heard may help them understand how their adjustments affected a broadcast.
Remember, Pirate Ops do this for fun and challenge, at their own expense, for the entertainment of others, and face a number of risks to do so. Let them know that you enjoyed their broadcasts, for many ops, this is the sole payback they get for their efforts.
A few VITAL points
- Try NOT to publicly speculate on the location of an operator, even if well-meaning or you suspect the operator is somewhere near your region. This has a chilling effect for operators, and past controversies, (available for reading on the HFU wiki) will dicourage ops from coming on the air for fear of FCC intimidation or 'outing'.
- Personal Privacy and Safety: As with all things on the internet, your privacy is important, consider using a non-personal webmail account for corresponding with HF Pirates, both for your safety and their anonymity.
Webmail accounts vary: Gmail  currently offers the best file storage capacity and doesn't share your sending IP's in the headers, Hotmail  and Yahoo  do currently still appear to embed the sender's IP address, and might be considered accounts to be avoided. Your level of vigilance/paranoia may vary, but consider a mail account that discloses the least amount of personal information possible.
Getting Up To Date Information About Pirate Radio
Pirate radio listeners often keep in touch with each other using real time chats. This allows them to immediately find out when stations are being heard, and what frequency to tune to.
IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, is one online chat system. Full details are available here: []
Iann's Chat is a web based chat, which is very popular with European listeners and pirate station operators: 
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