Adrian Johns


On his book Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age

Cover Interview of December 08, 2010

In a nutshell

This book is about pirate radio, which was a major enterprise in Britain in the Sixties.

I focus on a clash between two of the most important pirate entrepreneurs, which culminated with one shooting the other dead in mid-1966.  The story of this contest between Reginald Calvert, a self-made entrepreneur, and Oliver Smedley, a decorated war veteran and politically active financier, is the book’s central narrative.

The shooting of Calvert led to the end of the pirate radio boom—a temporary end, as it turned out.  But it also catalyzed a fundamental change in British broadcasting, the consequences of which still shape the medium today.

I treat this clash as a confrontation between two kinds of pirate enterprise.

The first, Smedley’s, centered on radical libertarianism—in effect, it was Thatcherism avant la lettre.  (Smedley had earlier helped establish the think-tank that gave rise to Thatcherite ideology.)  The story of this kind of pirate enterprise is the story of conservative opposition to public-service media and the postwar political consensus surrounding the welfare state.

The other kind of enterprise emerged from a tradition of popular scientific experiment that dated back to the beginning of radio in the early years of the twentieth century.  Calvert had roots in this tradition, and his pirate station captured its ethos more than any other.

In the long term, this more anarchic popular-science tradition would have the greater impact of the two.  Its values became central to the new forms of creativity that would flourish a generation later in the digital age.