The hitchhikers guide to ... ... operating a pirate radio station

IssueDecember 2003 - February 2004
Feature by Anonymous

In a world of increasing regulation and control, deviance from established modes of behaviour are tolerated less and less. New ways are constantly being discovered by governments to discourage such behaviour. In addition to being regulated by governments, much of the broadcast community is controlled either directly or indirectly by a small group of people who use them to further their own agendas. Pirate radio is controlled neither by the government nor by special interests and so enjoys an unencumbered ability to present alternative expressions to its listeners.

Basic station operation

Careful choices regarding station locations, duration of broadcasts, time of broadcasts, and frequency of broadcasts needs to be made in order to minimise the chances of being caught by the authorities

In order to locate “undesirable” radio transmissions, the authorities will utilise direction finding (DF for short) radio equipment. DF equipment utilises a highly directional antenna coupled to a tuner and a field strength meter. After the desired frequency has been selected with the tuner, the operator rotates the DF antenna until he or she obtains a peak reading on the field strength meter and then notes the heading the antenna is pointed in. Next, a vector is drawn on a map beginning at the operator's current location and extending in the direction of the DF antenna's heading. Assuming the “undesirable” radio transmission hasn't moved, successive readings from different locations should intersect at the origin of the transmission.

In practice, because of limitations on the accuracy of the equipment, it is not possible to precisely determine the location of the transmitter from the first set of readings. Usually a second and often third set of readings will be necessary before the location of the transmitter can be narrowed down sufficiently.

The location you broadcast from should not arouse the suspicion of any passing vehicles, police or otherwise. A location that is well hidden from all other vehicles and far enough away from any buildings that might be occupied is one way to avoid unwanted attention. It may be more practical to find a location that is visible to other vehicles or people but does not arouse suspicion. In addition to having the potential to be a great transmitting location, overlooks are often frequented by sightseers both during the day and evenings. Think about where you would go should the need for a hasty retreat ever become necessary.

After finding a good location to make your broadcasts from, there will be a strong temptation to use that location over and over again for future broadcasts. Resist this temptation. The authorities may have located a site you have used previously, and could be lying in wait nearby for the next time you are scheduled to broadcast. Assume the authorities will scour the area shortly after you leave it so make sure nothing is left behind for them. If there are smooth surfaces around, don't forget about fingerprints. Either wear gloves during your broadcast, or spray everything you might have touched with degreaser before leaving.

It is important to visit the location during the day. This will give you the opportunity to check out the potential site in detail and scout around for the best ways to get to the site and to get away from the site quickly should the need arise pick a location. Relatively high points with a line-of-sight to your listeners are other important things to look for. Think about where you are going to put your antenna.

Avoiding the authorities

Once the authorities become aware of your operation, they may attempt to apprehend you in the middle of a broadcast. Whenever possible, you should take along someone you trust to your broadcast site and have them stand patrol. They should wear dark clothing and locate themselves where they have a good view of any obvious routes of approach to your broadcast area. A pair of walkie-talkies is ideal for keeping in touch if more than a few tens of feet will separate you.

The key to successfully escaping from the authorities can be summarised as follows: Remaining calm is essential. You should plan several routes of escape beforehand and consider what you will do with your equipment. You will want to pack it up and take it with you. If time doesn't allow, hiding it may be your best option.

The instinctive reaction to the presence (impending or actual) of the authorities is to flee. The authorities know this and if they are even marginally competent will have taken steps to maximise their chances of capturing individuals employing this method of escape. Unless they have obviously seen you and are actively pursuing you, you should stop and force yourself to look around and consider what options are open to you.

Dealing with the authorities

Whenever possible, you should take along someone you trust to your broadcast site and have them stand patrol. They should wear dark clothing and locate themselves where they have a good view of any obvious routes of approach to your broadcast area. A pair of walkie talkies is ideal for keeping in touch if more than a few tens of feet will separate you. Keep in mind that your transmissions could be monitored so watch what you say. Don't use names or other information, which could give away your identity or location.

If the authorities catch you, you should not automatically assume they are aware of your activities. Chances are, they are interested in you for something completely different; trespassing, suspicious appearances, etc.

If they question you about the presence of antennas or radio equipment, tell them that you are an amateur radio operator. If they ask you what you are doing with the equipment, you should tell them you are doing some experiments in radio wave propagation.

At some point, you will learn why they have stopped you and it will become clear whether they intend to arrest you or let you go. As soon as you discover that they intend to arrest you, there are only four words that should come out of your mouth, “I want a lawyer.”

If they don't arrest you, you should calmly leave the area and be prepared to lie low for a while.

Portable operation

If you require more than 25 AH or so of energy, you're looking at automotive batteries. The cost is around US$75, and they are available with energies from 30 to over 100 AH. You could also run a couple of motorcycle batteries in parallel to double the energy rating, but that is usually not as cost effective as getting an automotive battery.

If you require less than 5-10 AH or so of energy, one excellent power source to consider are sealed lead acid gel-cells. These are available from a number of distributors for under $25 or so and can be recharged hundreds of time with an inexpensive automotive battery trickle-charger (don't use more than 1 amp of charging current and stop charging when the battery voltage rises to about 13.8 volts or the battery starts to get warm).

If you require between 10-25 AH or so of energy, a power source worth considering is motorcycle batteries. They can also be recharged with an inexpensive automotive battery trickle charger. One down side to these batteries is their liquid electrolyte. They can leak electrolyte if they are not kept upright or subjected to a lot of shock. The electrolyte is corrosive and will damage whatever it comes in contact with. If this is a problem, sealed lead-acid gel-cells are still available at these higher energy densities for a few dollars more but are generally a bit heavier than their liquid electrolyte cousins.

Even better are deep-cycle marine batteries. These can be drained and recharged many more times than an equivalent automotive battery.

Expect to pay a bit more for these batteries, however.

If you are running more than 15 watts or so of output power, make sure you use heavy wire to connect the power amplifier to the battery with and keep the length of wire as short as is practical. 16-gauge wire should be sufficient if you keep the lengths short for power levels up to 50 watts. For more than 50 watts or power cord lengths of more than a few feet, use 14 gauge or thicker wire for optimum performance.

Failure to do this will result in significant voltage drops occurring in the power cord, which will reduce the voltage available to the power amplifier and reduce its power output.

It is advisable to buy a cheap analogue voltmeter that can be clipped onto the battery during a broadcast to monitor its condition. Any sudden drop in voltage across the battery indicates it is discharged, and measures should then be taken to end the broadcast or use another power source. Digital voltmeters are harder to read from a distance or at night and are more expensive.

“Radio in a suitcase!”

  • Whitney Lanphear

    Wantok Enterprises based in Grunthal, Canada has developed an entire radio station that fits inside a case, roughly the size of the average briefcase. The station includes transmitters, a six channel audio mixer, compact disc and MP3 players, a cassette recorder and player, as well as microphones. The only thing the customer needs to provide is power. The station is capable of running off of 13.8/28 volts DC battery, which can even be charged with solar power.

    This radio in a single case is also capable of re-broadcasting any audio source. It is portable, but can also be used as a permanent FM radio station.

    The price of the equipment is $2,960.51. For foreign buyers there is no applicable tax, but customers are still subject to shipping, insurance, customs entry or licensing fees. Other products available from Wantok Enterprises include a television in a suitcase and accompanying weather station in a suitcase.

    Ron S Robbins Wantok Enterprises, Box 89, 171 Main Street, Grunthal, MB R0A 0R0, Canada (+1 204 434 6423; fax 434 6442; email


Transmitting equipment

You'll need an FM transmitter. A number of kits are available. Kits that run off of 12V DC are most convenient given the ready availability of 12-volt batteries. Several companies sell inexpensive transmitters that are suitable (see links at end of article).

If you want your signal to propagate for more than a few miles, you will need one or more power amplifiers.


A good antenna is absolutely essential to getting the most out of your transmitter. Nothing can affect your signals propagation so dramatically as the antenna.

Some of the factors you will want to consider when selecting an antenna include whether your station is operating in a portable environment or from a vehicle. Also of great importance is where your listeners are relative to you. If they are all roughly in one direction away from your transmitting location, you can utilise a beam antenna with a lot of gain that will really boost your signal.

If they are all around you, however, you will probably want to use an omni directional antenna such as a 5/8-wave ground plane antenna to reach the most listeners.

Whatever antennas you end up using should be checked with an SWR meter for proper operation. The SWR meter is connected between your transmitter and antenna and will tell you if your antenna is resonating on your transmitting frequency. If it is, you will get a low SWR reading (less than 2:1). If the reading is greater than about 2:1, your antenna is probably improperly adjusted and you should adjust it before you begin using it. Some of the more expensive models also read power output, though these are usually only accurate on amateur bands.

Make sure you purchase enough co-ax cable to allow you to place your antenna a reasonable distance from your transmitting equipment. RG-58 is adequate for short runs of cable (say, less than 25 feet), but higher quality cable such as RG-8X (mini-8) or RG-8 should be used if longer runs are needed.


Some radio stations will want the ability to broadcast pre-recorded material from a tape or CD as well as live material from a microphone. A mixer is an essential piece of equipment for such operation. By connecting them between your microphone, CD player, tape player, and transmitting equipment you will be able to switch between any of several sources or mix them together.


It is advisable to bring along an FM radio. This will allow you to monitor your transmissions to make sure you are getting good modulation and you are tuned to the frequency you want to be. To check your modulation, tune between your operating frequency and the frequency of another local station and compare volume levels. When the average volume level is about the same, you're modulation is probably about right.

Buy yourself a decent scanner. Program the scanner with the local police department, mutual aid frequencies, and anything else you think is relevant. Headlamps (head-mounted torches) are invaluable for night-time broadcasting. Purchase some red tail light-repair tape at your local auto supply store and cover the lens with it to turn the beam red and thus preserve your night vision.

And finally...

Under no circumstances should you ever attempt to operate a pirate radio station from a building you regularly frequent (eg home or office). This is asking to be caught. You should choose between operation from a vehicle, human-portable operation, or temporary occupation of an empty building.

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