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Pirate Radio

Mises Daily: Thursday, March 04, 2010 by

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While totalitarian governments seek to stifle the human spirit and initiative, there are always brave souls who either pierce or work around the walls that governments erect. For instance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, highlighted by Jeffrey Tucker's recent blog post, works on behalf of your rights in the digital world and has created Tor, making it possible for people to browse the Internet without being detected by government busybodies. Tor depends upon volunteer servers to provide proxy routes to shield thousands of users a day from detection.

Mises.org is one of these volunteer servers, helping to, as Tucker explains, "spread information, which might be the most important defense against despotism that the world has today."

This heroic struggle in the digital world is reminiscent of the fights over the radio waves in the mid-1960s depicted by the recent movie Pirate Radio (a pared-down version of the British theatrical release The Boat That Rocked). The movie has received spotty reviews at best, with complaints of thin character development, excessive length, and the fact that many of the songs in the soundtrack were actually released after the period portrayed. But these are niggling complaints about a movie with an amazing ensemble cast including Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Emma Thompson, incredible soundtrack, and inspiring storyline.

Of course, the movie leads one to believe that the battle with the British authorities was all about on-air content, with Kenneth Branagh portraying obsessed tight-assed Tory government minister Sir Alistair Dormandy, who promises his fellow ministers he will stop the "drug takers, lawbreakers, and bottom-bashing fornicators." Dormandy dispatches his smarmy sycophant underlings to devise a way to shut down the raucous rock 'n' rollers who broadcast from international waters — offshore in a rusted converted cargo ship — to millions of adoring fans in the UK.

The boat's captain and radio-station boss Quentin, played by Bill Nighy, is a walk-the-talk libertarian defying the authorities all the while trying to keep his stable of misfit DJs in line in order just to stay in business, reminding the crew that governments everywhere and always are against freedom. Each time the government thinks it has forced him off the air, Quentin comes up with a clever solution to skirt the authorities — until, that is, the passage of the Marine Offenses Act.

However, the real reason for pirate radio had more to do with the BBC being the only licensed broadcaster in the UK; it was restricted by union agreements as to how much recorded music could be played on the air. In response to the radio pirates, the British government did introduce a law to prohibit unlicensed broadcasting from offshore transmitters, but it didn't ban rock 'n' roll.

As it turns out, famed radio pirate Radio Caroline played as much Sinatra as British Invasion pop, and according to Slate, the programming actually tended "toward the middle of the road."

British state-owned radio "struggled to satisfy the broad and changing tastes of the nation's listeners," writes Eric Hynes.

Into the void steamed pirate radio, bringing with it not only more choice, but also sponsored shows and slick advertisements. Pirate radio proved that markets were neither being served nor exploited by the BBC, a bad-for-business reality that even buttoned-up Britain had to acknowledge.

So the real story is about the government allowing radio stations to sell advertising and earn profits. Ultimately, the on-air pirates forced the BBC to expand its offering and soon commercial radio was legalized.

Hynes believes that writer-director Richard Curtis was wise to focus on the "fight for the right to party instead of the fight for the right to sell adverts." But the fight against a government monopoly and edict that stifle commerce and keep consumers from consuming the media they desire is a story worth telling and championing. Consumer choice drives innovation and human progress. As Ludwig von Mises emphasized, it is consumers that "decide who should own the capital and run the plants. They determine what should be produced and in what quantity and quality," whether it's Beethoven, the Beatles, or some of both.