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Pirate Radio as Freedom Hack

November 3, 2010

The WSJ reviews a new history of the British pirate radio movement of the 1960s:

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.

Looks interesting. The Richard Curtis movie wasn’t half bad. It had its moments. You can buy Death of a Pirate here.

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