you think of radio pirate, most likely what comes to mind is a rogue,
unlicensed transmitter that is re-broadcasting copyrighted material,
syndicated shows, etc., on radio or television. Nowadays that would
also include the Internet as a medium. Did you know that, at least decades
ago, the British government (and maybe others) charged citizens a fee
for listening to broadcasts on their household radios? That's right,
if you wanted to listen to the BBC, you would kindly remit a fee of
10 shillings ($2.50 in U.S. dollars at the time) per year. Otherwise,
you were apt to have government inspectors descend upon you and padlock
your radio set - or collect the requisite 10 shillings on the spot.
After a growing number of suspected dishonest British subjects finally
exceeded the reasonable level of tolerance of the government, a clever
scheme was devised to trick evil citizens into divulging their nefarious
crimes. Author Austen Fox does a great job of telling the tale. The
stunt would make a good candid camera ploy for a good laugh today, but
in the 1930s when radio waves were mysterious and even feared, it was
a dirty trick to play on the good people of England. The American government
long ago solved the problem of collecting mandatory sums for state-run
public radio and television broadcasts with tax dollars withheld from
your paycheck before you ever see it.
British Radio Hoax Traps "Pirate"
By Austen Fox
The "flying squad" leaving the post office to find the 400,000
radio "pirates" estimated within the London area. Whether the
radio sleuths actually used direction-finders or relied on their
ears in locating set-users is a question now puzzling Britishers.
The British Post Office has just "put across a hoax" on its trusting
public which would make Tammany blush for shame - or, what is more likely,
turn green with envy. It all has to do with the affair of the detective
"radio cars" created for the purpose of tracking to their lairs "pirate"
radio listeners throughout the British Isles. As everyone probably knows,
the British radio receiving-set owner must obtain a listener's license
at the rate of ten shillings ($2.50 at par exchange) per year. Otherwise
he is apt to have government inspectors descend upon him and padlock
his radio set - or collect ten shillings. There is, of course, no danger
of getting into jail for bootlegging radio programs over there - not
any more than in America for running an "alleged" speakeasy.
Radio Tax Pays for Programs
But the British
public as a whole is essentially honest. They go down and buy their
licenses at the local post-office because they feel that a government
decree or order is made to be obeyed. It has apparently struck them
that it is entirely fair to expect them to pay a small license fee,
a part of which, at least, goes to the monopoly company maintaining
their broadcasting programs. They prefer this to advertising; they feel
that they get better programs by such independence from commercialism.
In this they are evidently more or less right. At least they do not
have to get up every ten minutes to tune out some long speech about
the advantages of Pale Pills for Pink Toothbrush, as most of American
radio listeners do.
After some time, the General Post Office,
however, began to grow suspicious of its honest public. The statistics
on sales of receiving sets, parts, etc., did not seem to jibe with the
number of listeners' licenses taken out. There were too few of the latter;
anyway, some cynics started whispering nasty innuendos about human nature,
and all that. With true British caution, they did nothing for a while.
They carefully looked over the ground, and discussed the problem from
every angle. The general and the radio press likewise discussed it.
Nothing came of the fuss, and the Post Office, like Br'er Rabbit, lay
low and said nuffin'. The pirating of programs went right on as before.
After all, what could they do about it? To maintain a great corps of
inspectors would cost more than it was worth. To send a few here and
there to catch and punish offenders might be partially effective, but
it left the field pretty well uncovered. To spot the pirates otherwise
seemed to be just an engineering impossibility. Radio
Bootleggers - Warning!
Suddenly, during the Fall of
1931, the radio public of England was awakened with a violent shock.
The Post Office authority published an announcement, which was taken
up - and given plenty of space in the daily and the wireless press,
that they were "out to get" these license dodgers, and no fooling about
it either. They did not mince words - they said that it was just so
much dishonesty, and that they would deal summarily with anyone caught.
They were tired of letting fifty to one hundred thousand people sit
around enjoying these programs on which the British Broadcasting Company
had labored so long and lovingly, all at the expense of the honest people
of the island.
Being truly British, they were sporting about
the warning. They told the people just when they were starting off on
their crusade of reform, and they also told just how they were going
to achieve their results. A broadcast from the British Broadcasting
Company studios, and a broadside in the press opened the war. On a certain
fateful day, named and dated exactly in this year of Our Lord 1931,
two or more heavily armed vans (trucks) would set forth, manned by grim,
determined engineers, who would stop at nothing (except the houses of
pirate listeners), and one after another would bring these evil-doers
The vans were to be armed with everything of the
latest in radio direction-finding apparatus, ultra-sensitive and extra-accurate.
They were to cruise the streets of London and the suburbs at first,
and then go on to other localities. Dark and mysterious would be their
movements, they would come with a blast of trumpets, "alarms and excursions
off stage". In other words, they would not sneak into a town and catch
these good people unaware. They would give everyone fair warning when
they were about, and it was just too bad for those who failed to take
advantage of this fair play and get their licenses in the meanwhile.
They would not question any license which might show a more recent date
than the radio set-but Heaven help the poor soul who had none!
For a week they operated with the grim efficiency of Scotland Yard
closing in on a band of criminals, while whole veins of shivers ran
up and down the British radio spine. It was found, said Post-Office
authorities, giving out communiqués as from a battle front, that the
morning was the best time to work, when the husbands were away and the
wives were whiling away their housework hours with gay melody. Not three
days after the opening of the campaign, there appeared in both the London
newsreel theatres - one on Charing Cross Road, the other on Shaftesbury
Ave., in the West End, pictures of these wonderful automobiles at work
catching pirates. We were shown the inside of the "van," filled with
lovely direction-finding sets, wheels, and gadgets. We were permitted
to see the engineers actually track down a set, and went with camera
right to the front door of a house, where the inspector rang the bell,
asking to see the license of the householder; and when the good wife
admitted, with very evident embarrassment in the face of the camera,
that there was no license, she was politely but firmly warned that His
Majesty's Government would find themselves obliged to proceed against
that family to the full force of the law. There we had the working of
this new policing system displayed to us in brief, convincing form.
The vans moved on and ever on. They were announced in Richmond,
in Westminster, in Mayfair, in Acton Town and Poplar - and the citizens
of each of these boroughs ran shivering to the branch post offices,
"queuing up" in long lines to wait their turns to pass the government
their ten shillings for a slip of paper guaranteeing them protection
and peace from the stern vans which so inexorably sought them out. The
radio detectives went to Oxford, to Cambridge, to Dundee and Glasgow,
and from John o' Groat's to Land's End, heralded far and near by the
ever vigilant press and the ubiquitous newsreel. And in Glasgow and
in Plymouth, on the Isle of Wight and on Clydeside, the lawbreakers
fled to cover themselves with licenses. New Licenses
At the end of about two weeks, an announcement was
made that some thirty to forty thousand new licenses had been taken
out, and that the radio vans were really proving themselves effective.
They had, in other words, made perhaps, £20,000 (nearly $100,000, at
par value) for the Post Office and the B.B.C. to split between themselves;
and they had installed a proper respect for the law into many hitherto
unpatriotic British breasts. Whereupon for a moment they dropped from
the public eye. Can It Be Done?
suddenly the public began to take note of the mutterings of a few cynics
who had from the first said they did not believe that any such vans
could be built. How, said these cynics, could anyone detect a receiving
set? Of course, they might wait until some set oscillated, and then
take a "bearing" on it. They would then move along 100 yards or so and
wait until the set oscillated again, and take another bearing - "Oh,
yeah?" (they are using that expression over here now, thanks to the
American talking films.) "That would be just fine; but by the time they
had gotten to another spot, the chances were that the listener would
have tuned off. Anyway, he would not still be oscillating. They might,
of course try to tempt him to oscillate by doing a bit of fancy re-radiation
themselves; but that would bring in perhaps twenty people in all the
London area - and probably eighteen of those would have licenses anyway."
The Secret Is Out
So the secret seems
to be that the vans were just used for the publicity they could obtain.
At least, the British public is getting very suspicious that it has
been badly hoaxed. It is true the van riders rolled merrily along the
residential streets twirling their frame aerials and looking fierce,
but in reality they listened carefully for any sounds of radio broadcasting
that might come through open windows. It has been a fairly mild Fall
in England, and the British are fresh-air fiends. They keep their windows
open until the last possible moment. Even an amateur detective might
be able to learn that some house was equipped with a radio set; and
it would not need a remarkable pair of ears to trace it down. It is
reported that the van riders went into houses, after listening at doors
and windows, whenever they heard strains from a radio.
the B.B.C. and the Post Office are rubbing their hands over a tidy sum
of delinquent license fees; and the English people, who, in spite of
all American belief to the contrary, are quick to see a good joke on
themselves, are chuckling at their own gullibility in not even questioning
how these vans could find them - the while the Post Office says it has
something even bigger and better in the way of "radio van" now coming
out, which will detect any metal antenna of over six inches long.
With which, one journalist opines, they will find a wonderful
amount of drain-pipes, eaves-troughs, and household plumbing.
Posted October 6, 2013