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.
April 1932 Radio News
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early
electronics. See articles from
Radio & Television News, published 1919-1959. All copyrights hereby
British Radio Hoax Traps "Pirate" Listeners
By Austen Fox
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.
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
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.
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 to
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.
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?
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."
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.
Anyway, 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.