Radio Renegades

Taking on statism’s pride and joy, the BBC.

On the night of June 21, 1966, Oliver Smedley, who operated a pirate radio station off the coast of England, shot a rival named Reg Calvert during a heated confrontation at Smedley’s home outside London. Calvert died instantly, but there were other victims—pirate radio itself and, it seemed, Smedley’s dream of using that colorful, ephemeral medium to help roll back the British welfare state.

The phrase pirate radio conjures an image of wild times on the high seas as free-spirited DJs in the 1960s stick it to The Man by giving the kids their rock ‘n’ roll. But Adrian Johns’s “Death of a Pirate” is more concerned with Friedrich von Hayek and “The Road to Serfdom” than with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Mr. Johns, a University of Chicago history professor who specializes in intellectual property, portrays the British radio pirates not in the warm glow of sentimental memory that the period usually enjoys but in the historian’s cold bright light. “Death of a Pirate” is, in its way, a treasure.

At the center of the tale stands Oliver Smedley, a conservative political activist and entrepreneur determined to stop what he saw as Britain’s slide toward socialism. After dabbling in politics and journalism in the 1950s, he launched a network of think tanks and political organizations that pressed his call to cut taxes, slash public spending, eliminate tariffs and reduce government’s role in economic life. When in 1964 two like-minded acquaintances pitched him on the idea of launching a pirate-radio ship, Smedley seized on the project as a chance to trade talk for action by taking on statism’s pride and joy, the BBC.

The BBC is a nonprofit “state corporation” funded primarily by an annual license fee (currently about $200) charged to every television owner. At its founding in 1922, the BBC was designated as the sole provider of radio programming in the United Kingdom. Unofficially, the Beeb was expected to reinforce a traditional view of British culture and life. The programming was a highbrow blend of mostly classical music and lectures. Commercials were forbidden for their alleged coarsening effect. Critics of laissez-faire capitalism, including John Maynard Keynes, cited the BBC’s “success” in delivering a vital service to the masses as proof that public corporations were the answer to the free market’s problems.

Oliver Smedley was eager to demonstrate otherwise. His Radio Atlanta would show the benefits of giving people what they desired instead of what central planners thought they should get. The station would sell commercials not only to make a profit but also to deliver knowledge that is essential to the efficient operation of a market economy. Smedley raised capital, created the convoluted corporate structure necessary to skirt British law, set up an advertising sales operation, bought a ship, fitted it with the necessary broadcast gear and sent it to sea—where it immediately began leaking money.

Radio Atlanta wasn’t alone in that predicament. Advertisers were reluctant to spend money with pirate stations—there were about 10—that might be made to disappear the following week by forces of nature or government. Radio Atlanta was also hampered by its programming. Contrary to myth, not all British pirates were full-time rockers, even if plenty of British kids were dying to hear rock music on that must-have new gadget, the transistor radio. The legendary Radio Caroline, for example, featured a music mix that ranged from the Beatles and Searchers to the Mantovani Orchestra and West End show tunes. Radio Atlanta’s offerings were so staid, says Mr. Johns, that “at times they could even sound distinctly similar to BBC fare.”

What’s more, many of the pirate-radio operators were dreadful businessmen. Smedley and other owners seriously underestimated the cost of building and operating a pirate station. In July 1964, just weeks after launching Radio Atlanta, Smedley entered an uneasy partnership with the rival Radio Caroline. The following year, he sold his station’s meager assets to Caroline in a bid to pay off his creditors. Undeterred, Smedley then formed an informal “alliance” with another pirate operation, Radio City, which broadcast from Shivering Sands, an abandoned antiaircraft gun emplacement in the Thames estuary.

Radio City owner Reg Calvert was a streetwise dance-hall impresario who used the airwaves to promote his stable of aspiring rock and pop stars, including Screaming Lord Sutch, who became Radio City’s star DJ. Calvert unwisely regarded the tapped-out Smedley as a potential source of capital; Smedley coveted the Shivering Sands facility. But Calvert, frustrated with Smedley’s failure to deliver promised equipment and payments, soon began talks with yet another pirate, American-owned Radio London. Matters came to a head in June 1966 when a gang of strike-idled dockworkers hired by Smedley seized Shivering Sands and expelled the Radio City staff. The move prompted the fatal confrontation at Smedley’s house.

Smedley pleaded self-defense and was acquitted. But Reg Calvert’s death and the resulting headlines forced the British government to address what appeared to be an out-of-control situation. Unfortunately for the authorities, radio piracy wasn’t illegal. Parliament rectified that situation by passing a marine “broadcast offences” act outlawing offshore radio stations and, more important, forbidding British companies to advertise on them. By late 1967, the pirate armada had largely been swept from the seas.

While Radio Caroline is the best-remembered of the renegade stations—the 2009 film “Pirate Radio” is loosely based on its story—the nearly forgotten Oliver Smedley, who died in 1989, was arguably the most successful buccaneer of the bunch. After all, as Mr. Johns notes, the pirate-radio episode sparked just the sort of transformation in British broadcasting that Smedley had envisioned. The government soon licensed commercial radio stations, the BBC accepted pop music and even adopted a more skeptical stance toward officialdom. Smedley succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation in spotlighting the flaws of state media and, by extension, state-controlled business.

Mr. Bloomquist is president of the consulting firm Talk Frontier Media.


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