Wireless Waffle - A whole spectrum of radio related rubbish
48 metre Bandanasignal strength
Wednesday 16 May, 2007, 14:14 - Pirate/Clandestine
anorakThere's a term used in the UK which takes its roots from an overgarment worn by many to keep dry on particularly squally days. The aforementioned garment is an 'Anorak', which is a kind of winter jacket which, no matter what you wear it with, will never look fashionable (the possible exception being Paddington Bear who at least looked cute, though it could be argued that Paddington wore a Duffle Coat rather than an Anorak if we're being pernickety). The Anorak is generally rather unpopular, being an ugly but practical kind of a coat; but due to the fact that it is a rather warm item to wear, those who spend a lot of time outdoors but do no exercise and thus are in need of something to stop them freezing whilst standing around have taken the Anorak to heart as their overcoat of choice.

But who, I hear you ask, would want to spend all day standing around doing nothing especially if it was cold or raining? A very good question! The Anorak became (and to some extent still is) the de facto uniform of those with hobbies such as train, bus or plane spotting, collecting number plates, "Oooh, V355LOX, a rare one from the OX series when they misprinted the 5 so that it looks like an S and it reads 'V35 SLOX'", watching grass grow, and so on... In the UK, however, the term 'Anorak' has come to be associated with anyone whose hobby is just a little bit weird, sits in a niche so small that only a handful of people understand it, is a touch excentric or is just very, very dull. And thus, most avid radio listeners, especially short wave listeners, DXers and even radio amateurs are regularly tarred with the Anorak moniker.

48mbtxWhy is this of much (if any) interest? Well the picture on the right (click it to see it in its full glory), which is a rather splendid example of a clandestine pirate radio transmitter, designed to transmit music programmes on short wave, brought me to thinking about why the stalwarts who built and operated such things continued to do so. I can think of 2000 or more salient reasons why it's no longer such a good idea:

1. No one (except Anoraks - see above) listens to short wave any more.
2. In most locations, the amount of background noise from computers, electrical equipment and the like makes short wave reception virtually impossible.
3. That aside, short wave reception does not lend itself to listening to music due to the annoying fading in and out.
4. If you want people to hear your radio presenting skills, there are easier and cheaper way of doing it - just upload a programme onto the internet.
5. There are 15,000 better things to do with your time (like collecting number plates for example).
6. If you get caught, the fines can be large (GBP2,000 plus 6 months in gaol).
7. And so on...

So why do the operators stations such as AlfaLima and WR International continue to spending their hard earnt cash and wasting their weekends building, setting up and operating such equipment. I would venture to suggest that there's still a real buzz associated with doing so. For a start, it's illegal, and flouting the law often gets the adrenalin flowing (not that I'd know of course). Then there's the kudos you get by being received by other short wave anoraks, 'Radio Flump was sounding hot last Sunday morning - SINPO 32232 - Best signal yet - I could almost make out what DJ Bobbisox was saying'. Also there's a little bit of exhibitionism and showing off in it, and that too provides an ego boost all of its own.

I argue, therefore, that the real anoraks are those people who tune into and listen to such short wave pirate broadcasts but make no attempt to join in the real fun and build a transmitter and get on air with the pioneers, pirates and thrillseekers who supply their fun to start with. So instead of tuning around the band, get your soldering iron out and build a Grenade or a Corsair, record a rubbish radio programme full of music that you think is cool but everyone else has forgotten, find a remote location, set up a transmitter early on a Sunday morning instead of lying in bed a couple of hours longer. And in the process... throw away your anorak and replace it with a skull and crossbones headscarf instead.
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Wiki-d Pirate Sitesignal strength
Thursday 21 December, 2006, 15:58 - Pirate/Clandestine
piratewomanWas doing a bit of 'Googling', as you do, and came across an attempt by Anthony Page (of Radio Nemesis fame), to start a pirate radio Wiki.

The page at freeradio.wiki-site.com mostly recounts the history of many of the pirate radio stations who graced the airwaves in the South Yorkshire and Derbyshire areas in the 1980's and 1990's; but it's also not a bad attempt to try and define some of the terms such as 'stereo' and 'link' so it get's an 'A' for effort, though at present probably no more than about a 'C' for achievement. With help from people such as you (yes, you) then maybe it could get a lot better.

There's also a good description of a number of the pirate stations that used to broadcast in that area including:

* Rebel Radio 105.2 (with Scooter Jones)
* Ocean FM 106.3 from Rotherham (which is nowhere near the sea!)
* WLNG 104.9 of Scunthorpe (who get a mention here)
* Radio Britannia from Barnsley with DJ Ken(ny) Crescendo

And no listing would be complete without the infamous ZFM 102.4/105.2/105.5 (mentioned here amongst other places) of Sheffield whose jingles, if I remember rightly, included the classics: 'ZFM - no flies on them' and 'ZFM - it rhymes with phlegm'. Isn't it reassuring to know that radio presentation has moved on...!
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Ahoy There!signal strength
Thursday 9 March, 2006, 15:24 - Pirate/Clandestine
piratemanWith all this talk of pirate radio, a question that often gets asked is, "But I've never heard a pirate station; where do I find one?". Yes, there are those who have yet to stumble across the skull and crossbones of the airwaves!

The best place to look is on the FM dial of your radio. But with so many stations around, how do you know if the station you are listening to is a pirate or a legal station? There are a few clues which even the least experience listener should be able to fathom:

1. The signal is in mono. Most pirate stations broadcast in mono, however, this is not at all conclusive as many RSL stations do this too and further, some pirates broadcast in stereo.

2. There is no RDS. Including RDS can be complicated for some pirates so they choose not to use it. This is still not totally conculsive though, as some RSL stations have no RDS either.

scrollingrds3. The RDS is 'scrolling' (i.e. it is changing to display a message - as shown here on the right). Legal stations in Europe are obliged by the European Commission to use a static name on their RDS display to make sure drivers aren't distracted. Pirates, however, can change the name of the station to display messages on RDS equipped radios. A few legal stations (not in the UK though) do scroll or rotate the message on the RDS display so this too isn't totally conclusive, however reading the message might give a good indication. If it's advertising a party at a local night club then chances are you're listening to a local pirate!

4. The presenter doesn't have a middle-class accent! This is especially true on FM stations in the UK, where legal stations try to recruit presenters with unoffensive voices that won't turn listeners off. As pirate stations are usually there to promote the music or club nights, whether the presenter can pronounce 'Douglas St.John Farquhar' correctly really doesn't matter!

piratewoman5. The phone number being given out to contact the station is a mobile number (all mobile numbers begin with '07' in the UK). How many legal stations do you know who would, or would need to, use a mobile number for calls to the studio? Further, if you're requested to leave 'missed calls', i.e. to phone the number but not let it answer, you're almost certainly onto a pirate. This is a way to show you are listening without having to spend a single penny on phone calls - quite smart really!

Of course there are other clues, such as the frequency being used (if it's in the middle of the band used for national BBC stations but isn't a BBC station then it's most likely a pirate), but the ones above don't require any technical knowledge. You're more likely to find a pirate station on FM if you live in, or near, a major city than if you live out in the countryside, but you might be surprised.

Another place to find pirates is in the radio no man's land just at the edges of the normal short-wave broadcast bands, especially the lower frequency bands. Why the lower frequency bands in particular - they're better for broadcasting to nearby areas and tend to be more reliable throughout the daily propagation cycle. Good places to listen for pirate short-wave stations are:

* 3800-3950 and 4000-4100 kHz, either side of the 75m broadcast band
* 5750-5900 and 6200-6400 kHz, either side of the 49m broadcast band
* 6800-7000 and 7350-7600 kHz, either side of the 41m broadcast band (avoiding the 40m amateur band too)
* 9300-9400 and 9900-10000 kHz, either side of the 31m broadcast band

And so on either side of the other short wave broadcast bands too... Though the use of frequencies above about 10 MHz is rarer, there are examples such as Alfa Lima on 15070 ( a bit) and 21900 ( a bit) kHz and WR International on 12256 kHz.

piratelistenerOne final place you might come across a pirate station is on the medium wave (MW) band. Most stations prefer FM for local broadcasting as the antennas are smaller and the equipment easier to get hold of, but a few stations do use MW. Radio Free London used to put out a good signal across London on 819 kHz and there are quite a few stations (particularly in continental Europe) who inhabit the no man's land just off the end of the MW band between 1611 and 1640 kHz.

Of course I couldn't possibly condone any activity which would lead you to listen to a pirate and thus break the law in doing so. But at least now you might be able to stop yourself from committing this heinous crime before you get caught!
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Roof Raiderssignal strength
Thursday 1 December, 2005, 09:38 - Pirate/Clandestine
Towards the beginning of November this year, Ofcom conducted a massive series of raids on pirate radio stations in London, and event considered news-worthy even by the BBC.

The operation closed 53 pirate FM stations in London and whilst some of the bigger stations are now back on-air, for some stations, losing a transmitter may mark the end of their broadcasts for some time. One station (On Top FM) also had a studio raid which can be devastating, and is certainly much more difficult to recover from.

What is interesting about this surge of activity by Ofcom is not that it was long overdue, or that it was so widespread, but was some of the 'anti-pirate' propaganda that Ofcom, a supposedly respectable body, spouted in their press release.

"Illegal broadcasting causes interference to the radios used by critical safety of life services such as the London Fire Brigade and National Air Traffic Services (NATS)."

firemanLet's examine this statement. The London Fire Brigade uses frequencies of 70.5 - 71.5 MHz paired with 80.0 - 82.5 MHz, 148.825 MHz (for pagers), various frequencies between 450 and 453 MHz paired with 464.9 - 467.9 and 457 - 457.5 paired with 462.5 - 463 MHz. Now unless I am mistaken, none of these frequencies are directly affected by transmissions in the FM band (87.5 - 108 MHz) otherwise they would receive interference every day from the legal stations. Indeed other than for the fourth harmonics of transmitters on 90-90.6, 93-93.5 (actually BBC Radio 4 in London), 91.4-91.5 and 92.5-92.6 MHz, it's difficult to see where their problem arises. So if the Fire Service are suffering interference from pirate transmissions it is probably from one of two sources:

(1) The FM transmitters used by the pirates are of such low quality that they emit spurious signals on lots of frequencies. This is certainly possible, especially given the low-cost nature of the transmitters that pirates use, however the chances are that any transmitters prone to spurious emissions will be tracked down immediately as they will be causing interference to potentially hundreds of users.

(2) It is not the FM transmitters that cause the problem but is, instead, the link transmitters which are used to connect the pirates' studios to the transmitter site. Such links normally operate either in Band I (47 - 68 MHz) or at microwave frequencies. Microwave links are hardly likely to cause interference but it is feasible that the Band I links might if their frequencies co-incided with those used by the Fire Service. However, I doubt that any pirate would use a frequency knowing that it might interfere with the emergency services, even though they are operating illegally, they are not stupid enough to intentionally cause interference and risk the wrath of Ofcom.

radiomoldovalogoThere is one other possibility. The frequencies used by the Fire Service in the UK are used in some Eastern European countries for FM broadcasting! The 'OIRT' band covers 66 - 74 MHz and high-power transmitters still provide service in countries such as Russia, Moldova and Hungary. During certain propagation conditions, such stations are often heard in the UK (they do use high powers after all) and whilst I suspect that most firemen would know the difference between Russian and English, if they just hear music over their radio system they are going to assume it's a pirate.

So do the pirates cause interference to the Fire Service or not? Well I have no reason to doubt John Anthony, London Fire Brigade Assistant Commissioner who claims that, "... radio transmissions interfere with, and sometimes entirely disable, the communications systems the London Fire Brigade relies on." But is it really pirates or could it be the Russians instead?

vorNext onto the Air Traffic Service. They use many frequencies but in particular use 108 - 137 MHz which is directly adjacent to the FM band. A report from 1997, 'Investigation of Interference Sources and Mechanisms...' showed that illegal transmitters were a constant source of interference to both navigation and communication. This is easier to understand as spurious emissions from a transmitter are usually close in frequency to the main transmission thus spurii in the band 108 - 137 MHz are not unlikely. Thus I don't necessarily doubt 'A spokesman for NATS' who said, "Unauthorised broadcasts on or close to frequencies used by air traffic controllers can interfere with the passing of vital information between air traffic controllers and pilots. They can also affect the navigation aids used as landmarks." Point to Ofcom!

"Illegal broadcasting also causes interference to legitimate radio stations, denying hundreds of thousands of listeners the opportunity to hear their favourite programmes."

Does it now? Well in some cases yes. Drive past a pirate transmitter and if you are tuned to a nearby frequency there is every likelihood that you will hear the pirate 'splattering' over the top of the station you were trying to listen to (though the same thing would also happen if you drove past a legal transmitter). However, some pirates operate 200 kHz or less away from legal stations which is insufficient to prevent such interference (legal stations typically leave a gap of 400 kHz to prevent these problems occuring). However legal stations typically use much more power than pirate stations and the effect is very localised (and anyway whose to say that your favourite programme isn't on a pirate station...)

londonIt is only in desperation, however, that pirates would choose a frequency likely to interfere with a legal station. In London such desparation stems from the lack of available frequencies (as most are already used by legal and other pirate stations). Given the option, most pirates choose a frequency as unlikely as possible to interfere with legal stations as it's much more likely that a complaint will be received against them if they do cause interference as if they don't.

Overall I suspect that pirate radio does cause interference in one or two cases, however in many cases it operates quite happily without causing problems to anyone else. Kudos to Ofcom for having a go at the problem, but only time will tell whether they will make any dent on the runaway train of stations that inhabit every nook and cranny of the FM band in London (and in some other major cities).

Of course there are other solutions, one being to actually licence the stations concerned and bring them into a controlled environment. Ofcom has already licensed about 30 community radio stations, however it claims that such services can only be licensed in remote areas where spare frequencies exist. A change in planning rules to recognise the low potential for interference that properly organised low-power FM stations cause might open up the band to more users and solve the pirate problem in a much more effective way.
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