Adrian Johns


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

Cover Interview of December 08, 2010


The significance of the book lies in two main areas.

One has to do with the meanings of “public service” media in modern societies.

In the UK, the BBC was founded and maintained with the purpose of being a “public corporation,” dedicated to using the airwaves to enhance the culture of the nation.  It was controversial from the outset, but by the 1930s it had a reputation great enough that many saw it as a model for the future of the national economy itself.  Politicians began to argue that industries like transport and energy should be reorganized into institutional forms resembling the BBC.

This meant that in the mid-twentieth century critics of the emerging welfare state often saw the BBC as the lynchpin of the culture they were attacking.  For Smedley, who was such a critic, launching a pirate radio station was of a piece with creating a think-tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, dedicated to combating the social-democratic consensus of postwar politics.

The debate over public service media that peaked with the pirate radio boom of the Sixties was thus a debate over the trajectory of modern politics itself.  And right now, with the fate of public broadcasting once more in the balance, this part of the story has lessons that we could do with learning all over again.

The other area of the book’s significance relates to the character of the information age.

Some of the protagonists of the book were the first experts to predict this coming of an information economy.  They pioneered skeptical approaches to the principles of intellectual property that structure and, to some extent, constrain that economy.  Moreover, the community of amateur experimenters that competed with the BBC for the use of the ether in the 1920s and 1930s forged ideals of sharing and technocratic libertarianism that would later become the ideals of the digerati.  The moral convictions of today’s digital communities derive from those earlier challengers to “big media.”

In 1966, two ideas of media piracy—conservative and experimental—came head to head.  In the short run, the conservative won.  But in a longer-term view the experimental tradition represented by Calvert and the 1920s radio amateurs may well turn out to have been more important.  The world of networked digital creativity might have been very different if it had not existed.

© 2010 Adrian Johns