When you think of "pirate radio,"
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 cleverly solved the problem
of collecting mandatory sums for state-run public radio and television broadcasts
via 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 "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 to justice.
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?
Until 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.
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.
Posted February 5, 2021
(updated from original post on 10/6/2013)