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Common Knowledge
Talk like a pirate
By John Zipperer

Every time I walk downstairs to Caroline’s office, it’s like heading down to the laboratory to see experiments in progress. I feel like James Bond visiting Q to see what’s in the pipeline, only Caroline has fewer exploding gadgets.

Illustration: Steven Fromtling

“Pirates!” she exclaimed when I asked her what she was working on. Caroline Moriarity Sacks runs The Commonwealth Club’s Inforum division, which hosts speakers and panel discussions and other programs aimed at young Bay Area professionals. When I heard her answer, I assumed she was referring to the Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but Caroline set me straight.
“Pirate radio!” she corrected me. She often has exclamation points in her sentences when she’s exploring some exciting new topic. She was in the middle of researching a possible program on piracy and information control, including the decades-old phenomenon of pirate – or unlicensed – radio stations.

You might have heard of Pirate Radio, the 2009 movie that lets aging British baby boomers tell their children that they were cool once. It relates the story of a fictitious boat that hosts an illegal rock radio station in 1960s Britain, where the only licensed radio stations were part of the BBC. The story is very loosely based on some offshore pirate radio ships – originally from America, or so I hear – that helped rock music get onto the British airwaves.

The idea of individuals or groups broadcasting their own programming from some secret location still has a romantic flavor to it – free speech, independence, local content, pushing the boundaries. When I was an editor of my college newspaper, I was invited by a friend to be a guest on the program he had on a small campus radio station. The “studio” was a cramped basement room that looked like it was being primarily used as someone’s closet. Just before going on-air, my friend announced that we could talk about anything – except politics, which was the only thing I cared to talk about. I have always imagined pirate radio stations as being like that radio station, except without proscribed topics.
Now transition to today, and it’s less clear why someone would bother being in the pirate radio business. When shock jock Howard Stern got tired of Federal Communications Commission broadcast decency rules, he went to satellite radio. But the same thing could be said for satellite radio as could be said about terrestrial radio. Is it still necessary? The distribution channels have all been changed because of a little thing called the Internet.

Computers and the Internet take care of everything, see.

Other than the one in my car, I don’t own a radio. Frankly, I listen to radio (from around the world) almost exclusively via the Internet on my computer, which is also where I listen to all of my recorded music and audio books, despite the fact that I own two iPods. I know people who do not own televisions, but who watch television programs over their computers. I publish a magazine that appears in print and digitally. And my organization holds events that are live, podcast, videotaped for YouTube, and more.

None of that is new, of course. Disaggregation, disintermediation – all kinds of things have happened to reinvent the distribution channels for every media product in recent years.

So you can be forgiven for wondering why people would bother with pirate radio in this day of free podcasting and other free or inexpensive ways of doing audio (and video) over the Internet. It makes pirate radio look like an anachronistic affectation, like collecting LP records.

The Commonwealth Club is hosting a speaker in late September discussing real pirates – the stop-the-boat-and-give-us-a-ransom type. They really steal things and create real havoc. But radio pirates steal time, or, more exactly, time on bandwidth that the state owns and prefers to license out to stations.

With the Internet, though, there’s no stealing necessary to have your voice out there. There’s not even a need for a closet-sized studio. Write it on a blog, put it in a podcast, record a video on your cell phone, stream it on your website, create a magazine on your computer – and put it all out there for everyone to see (or ignore or ridicule). No one’s a pirate if everyone can do it.

Once again, Caroline came to my rescue. She pointed me to reports that San Francisco’s own Pirate Cat Radio is moving off terrestrial radio and to the Internet. Of course, being on the Internet, they technically aren’t pirates any longer, but it sounds better than calling yourself Streaming Audio Cat Radio. Anyway, Caroline can figure that all out when she pulls together the program. So I asked what program she’s planning after pirates.

“Local comedians!”

Now that will make good radio.

John Zipperer is vice president of editorial and media at The Commonwealth Club of California, E-mail:

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