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Regular version of the site
Book chapter
Common Government Services Portal of Russian Federation. How do people use it? What is the attitude towards it?
In print

Petrova E.

In bk.: Digital Transformation & Global Society: Second International Conference, DTGS 2017, St. Petersburg, Russia, June 21-23, 2017, Revised Selected Papers. Springer International Publishing, 2017.

Buccaneer Broadcasting

How the power of rock and illegal radio stations set the whole generation free


Each decade is represented in fiction, but nonе holds a place as special in popular culture, as The Swingin' Sixties do. To this day, people cannot stop talking about how great this time was. Say hello to the concept of free love, beehive hairdos, hippies, southern sheriffs, marijuana and pull, all-girl groups, psychedelic rock, stoner flicks, handsome male spies in tuxedos and girl in miniskirts with go-go boots. For the first time in recorded history, the British people were considered cool. Primarily, because of the mop-topped mods (Beatles) and cock-walking rockers (The Rolling Stones). It was time of the great political unrest: close escape from the nuclear showdown between the USSR and the USA, powerful anti-war protest movement, Vietnam war and civil rights movement. 


Yet most importantly, there was that eminent spirit of freedom that encompassed it all. That very spirit prompted people to be wild, rebellious. That spirit was the entire reason that the whole generation chose liberty over peaceful prosperity. And that spirit, which can be seen in all the works set or made during this time period, is best seen in music. The widespread popularity of classic rock & roll was on the decline and new musicians stepped to the scene and kicked with a bunch of new flavours.


The government started to regulate the radio broadcast. In Britain, BBC still held onto its monopoly in radio, only allowing one hour of pop music. That poor kind of supply was not about to fulfil people’s demand. And that economic law was the foremost reason pirate radio was born. To this day, pirate radio captures one’s imagination because of symbolizing resistance to the old-fashioned powers that opposed popular music and public access to information. 

 

Alternative rock, afrobeat, arena rock, blues rock, folk-rock music, funk, soul, garage rock, Motown sound, progressive rock, protopunk, psychedelic rock, reggae, ska, soul, surf rock and many others. All of them so very different, yet united in not giving a damn what old-fashioned establishment thought about them. 

 

 

Let’s get the ball rolling

 

The very first pirate radio, named Radio Luxembourg has been operating in Europe since 1933, being one of the very first commercial stations. The British neglected the necessity of working out a consistent body of laws regarding broadcasting. Thus, Luxembourg was fully capable of broadcasting whatever they wanted and completely disregard old-schooled morality of British establishment. And broadcast they did. Luxembourg focused on England for commercial reasons and began to air mostly music entertainment shows and advertising British goods, targeting teenage audience. The staff was mostly composed of former BBC employees, who got fired because of their opposition to company’s outdated policy on popular music.

 

Yet Luxembourg was neither the best known, nor the most influential pirate radio. Radio buccaneers mostly used old ships and abandoned World War army forts. The most infamous radio was Caroline, which was using a ship that dropped and anchor near the coast of Essex. The story of Caroline is told in the movie called The Boat That Rocked, even though the events depicted in the film are somewhat fictionalized.

 

 

Regardless, in 1967 there were more than ten significant pirate radio stations. Their combined audience exceeded 15 million people in England, Scotland and Ireland, eventually going up to 20 million listeners approximately a year later. 

 

 

Sounds of British invasion

Bucaneer broadcast was a product of its time and music trends. In late 1950s the rebellious tone and image of US classic rock & roll and blues musicians became immensely popular with the British youngsters. In turn, in the US the popularity of classic rock was declining, but it was surely steaming down. People were just tired of endless singles-oriented pop groups, who had no soul. Yet the rock revolution got reignited in England. British performers learned a lot from Chicago blues performers – such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Likewise, early rock stars like Elvis Presley have had a significant impact on the young Brits. 

 

 

At the end of 1963 no one in America had heard of The Rolling Stones or The Beatles. And in 1964 and 1965 the British rock musicians invaded America. Invaded by The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, The Who, The Zombies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Dusty Springfield, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Animals, The Yardbirds and a whole lotta of the other bands. A significant age gap, anti-war sentiment in the American society have all contributed to the popular British-revived rock. The English achieved what their American predecessors didn't. In the words of Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, the Beatles and the later British bands would usher in a cultural shift that, by the late 60s, meant “the counterculture had jumped the counter. The bubbling counterculture would become the culture.” 

 

Pirate radios eventually went into obscurity, yet some of these buccaneers lived on. To this day, there are more than fifteen tens of illegal music stations in the UK, mostly in London. Some legendary stations just had to close down, some, like Kiss FM or Rinse just had to legalize. 

 

All over  “the Iron Curtain”

Rock became mainstream, eventually, and is currently in decline. Despite that, rock music played an important role in subverting existing order not only in Britain of the 60s, but in USSR. 

 

The Soviets didn’t eradicate or assimilate rock music – they didn’t, they couldn’t understand it. And the Soviet empire just crumbled into the sea, because of its own inflexibility and inability to absorb the rising rock’n’rolla subculture. Vaclav Havel, a legendary anti-communist Czech leader was first drawn into resistance because of the government’s attack on Plastic People of the Universe – a tribute band to a group known as Velvet Underground. People listened to music secretly, a few youths lucky enough to be able to go to the West bought vinyl records and distributed them among friends later on. Frequently, black marketers smuggles records in from the west and stole discarded X-Ray emulsion plates from garbage cans at hospitals, producing DIY records.

 

Thus, a whole generation of soviet youth was exposed to the western lifestyle. And where music is banned, pirate radio appears. Though, in the case of USSR there were two kinds of illegal radio stations: domestic and foreign. In order to listen to the either of these, people bought short-wave radio sets. According to the party’s propaganda department, in 1960 there were 20 million radio sets, capable of receiving signals from foreign stations. It is also well-known that from 1955 to 1964 the number of radio sets in USSR-dominated Eastern Europe increased in three times. 

Despite the all-controlling nature of the Soviet regime, it was fairly easy for an ordinary to obtain a license to own a short-wave radio set. In fact, one only had to know Morse code well and pass an exam. These people broadcasted the very first tapes of Soviet rock groups, western rock they obtained via means described above. What is best about Soviet domestic radio pirates is their mother wit. In order to avoid prosecution, they constructed their own transmitters. For some reasons, these were called sharmanka (a barrel-organ). These men used 6ПЗС radio-lamp (known as 6L6 in the USA) a variable capacitor and wire in order to produce a better, more velvety sound. It is not known, who was the first to use the lamp like that, but this man did radio pirates a great service. To this day, 6ПЗС radio-lamp remains a symbol of low-level pirate radio resistance. An enduring symbol of freedom. It has to be mentioned, that this lamp was also used in the production of Soviet homemade guitar amplifiers. Buying a normal one was nearly impossible and required a lot of money and a load of friends in the right places. Just one lamp that was used right by a nameless radio amateur somewhere in USSR contributed so much. Never in history was so much owed by so many to so few.

 

 

The Voice of America (obviously, USA), Deutsche Welle (Germany), KBS World Radio (South Korea), NHK (Japan), BBC Russian Service (UK), Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, RFI (France), Yle (Finland) and many others. Reagan administration officially decided to send degenerate rock music eastwards, though some bureaucrats argues whether that as appropriate. Apart from their direct anti-communist political stance, these stations relied on soft power as well. They relied on the sweetness of the forbidden fruit, broadcasting songs of Pink Floyd, Van Halen, Depeche Mode, Motorhead, Nazareth and many other rock bands. Yet it wasn’t only rock that was banned in the USSR. Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Madonna, Donna Summer – pop, disco and other genres were illegal as well, for different reasons. The soviet authorities accused bands of promoting violence, anti-communism, militarism, homosexuality, political indifference, sex, erotic, satanism, etc. Quite a list, eh? Well, their own petard hoisted the Soviets. They only made this music more appealing. The popularity of Beatles in Soviet Russia was comparable to that of a sizeable religious cult. Because the young hated the necessity of submitting to the existing order the thought was unfair.

 

Interestingly, a renowned music critics Artemy Troitsky claims that rock invaded USSR akin to a virus attacking a host body. He also provides evidence that soviet authorities described rock as a form of disease, creating his metaphor. 

 

None of the foreign DJs was as legendary as Seva Novgorodsev, a radio presenter on the BBC Russian Service, famed through the former Soviet Union. Novgorodsev was Russia’s first DJ. He operated from London since 1977, hosting a radio show Rock the Seva way. As was already mentioned, Soviet citizens frequently listened to foreign short-wave stations, and BBC broadcasted some true British rock to the ears of the Soviets. And broadcast they did. 

 

Novgorodsev’s program lasted for 27 years, up until 2004. And Seva Novgorodsev provided the Soviet youth with an immense knowledge on pop music history and current trends, never waving from his way. He was the prophet of the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

 

Piracy: Russian Style

 

In Moscow pirate stations were gradually pushed out of business by commercial stations, yet in Saint Petersburg the buccaneers enjoyed a high degree of success. In 1988-1998 a pirate who went by the nickname Alphonse organized Voice of Kupchino radio, which was operating in Petersburg’s suburbs. Even the local authorities enjoyed this station and never arrested its staff, despite being fully capable of that. Then there was Comet Radio, which used to be the top station in the city of Chekhov and was listened to even by the fastidious Muscovites. It posed itself as people’s radio, beginning broadcasting in 1983. To this day, Comet is operating in Chekhov, even though it is no longer as popular as it once was. One can guess that the station lost quite a bit of its countercultural charm after going legal in 2007. The station is still headed by the man who founded it in 1983, Pavel Khlupin. 

 

 

A period of relative radio lawlessness in 1990s was followed by a swift crackdown on the pirate radios in the beginning of 2000s. Somehow, the pirate underground survived again. In the summer of 2016 FSB arrested a radio pirate, who was operating in a village in Bryanskaya oblast’ and was fairly popular in his home region. The man’s name is Anton Zaporozhets and he ran a radio called NStation. He gave a profound interview to Furfur magazine. 

 

 

Zaporozhets claimed that the radio was arrested because some locals made a complaint to the authorities, which are usually soft on radio pirates. People worked on the station for free. As Mr Zaporozhets claims, he only spent 200 dollars on the basic equipment necessary for pirate radio, while one would have to spend ten times more in order to buy a transmitter, demanded by the authorities. According to his statement, it is almost impossible for a pirate station to operate in Moscow nowadays, yet there are a lot of stations around, especially in Saint-Petersburg. Most just play music, while others have a full-fledged studio and live broadcasting. So, kiddos, if you want to, just tune in and listen to some buccaneer broadcasting. 

 

In the end it all comes down to a question, whether pirates did do some good? As far as I can judge, they did. And ultimately the pirates won their war. Yes, a vast majority of the illegal stations were forced to close, but rock and pop became immensely popular. And most of the buccaneers settled down, working on legal stations. No matter what you prefer to listen to – rock, blues, jazz, funk, soul, punk, country or hip-hop – you listen to the music because you want to be free to enjoy life, as you want it. Yes, the age of pirates is mostly gone, but we owe them all big time. The deeds of pirates are now the staff legends are made of. So, unless you are brave enough to start your own station, take a look at people who did in such films as The Boat That Rocked, Pump Up the Volume, On The Rocks, Radio Free Roscoe, The Goodies and other films and live-action TV shows. ‘Cause you know how people fought for freedom of music and freedom of joy via these stations.

Artem Kavaleryan