How two ideas of media piracy—conservative and experimental—came head to head

Cover Interview of

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.

“Modern history has seen a series of crises of intellectual piracy, extending back to at least 1700. The basic terms of engagement between creativity, commerce, and culture, have been redefined in those crises.”

The wide angle

Death of a Pirate tells a story about the politics of media from the 1920s to the present.

Broadcasting was something radically new when it arrived after World War I, and nobody knew for sure what form it should take. In Britain, a semi-autonomous state corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, was created to make radio into a public service. It was a great success, and by the 1930s British politicians were arguing that the BBC represented a model for the future of the country’s economy as a whole.

But conservative critics despised the corporation, and amateur experimenters resented its monopoly on the airwaves.

After WWII, the conservatives mounted a fresh campaign to eliminate the BBC, reasoning that if the BBC could be dethroned then much of the social-democratic consensus would follow. In their eyes the great modern struggle in politics and economics between laissez faire and intervention—between Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes—might come down to this.

The wave of pirate radio enterprises in the Sixties offered them an opportunity. It led to a wide-ranging debate about the media and public culture.

Death of a Pirate shows how that debate came to pass, and how it was resolved.

One outcome was a harbinger of the new age of digital libertarianism, in the form of what Wired magazine called the world’s first online data haven—a soi-disant nation called Sealand, originally established in 1967 in a bid to allow pirate radio to survive the aftermath of Calvert’s death.

The book thus describes a crisis of media piracy—a moment when a medium and its relationship to society had to be redefined, calling into question long-cherished impressions of the society itself.

This is not the only such crisis to have occurred in modern history. I give a broader account of their history in Piracy—which I discussed on Rorotoko before.

In writing that book I came to believe that modern history has seen a series of crises of intellectual piracy, extending back to at least 1700. The basic terms of engagement between creativity, commerce, and culture, have been redefined in those crises. What happened in 1966 was one of them—and perhaps, for us today, the most important one.

December 8, 2010

A close-up

A casual browser could do worse than start around p.189, with the story of Oliver Smedley and Kitty Black’s raid on the Shivering Sands fort.

Shivering Sands was an old World War II anti-aircraft installation sited a few miles offshore from the Thames Estuary in southern England. It comprised a set of rusting metal chambers atop 60-foot legs, linked by rickety walkways. The complex had been abandoned after the war, but had recently been commandeered by a pirate radio outfit called Radio City. City’s boss, Reg Calvert, had arranged for a huge aerial to be built atop the fort, and begun broadcasting pop music into London.

Smedley’s rival pirate radio broadcaster was by this point facing collapse, and he saw the facility as his last chance to salvage his dream of a commercial broadcasting operation capable of beating the BBC. He decided to take it over. He and Black organized a gang of stevedores to capture the fort, which they did at the dead of night.

It was this raid that brought about the fatal confrontation with Calvert. It ended only a week later, after the dockers and DJs had spent a week in enforced proximity aboard Shivering Sands.

By that time Calvert had met with Smedley and Black, and leveled a series of bizarre threats against them—including an announcement that he had invented a deadly form of nerve gas and was hoping to use it against the usurpers.

On the night of June 21, he showed up at Smedley’s country house, and after a brief altercation—the details of which remain murky to this day—his rival shot him dead.

By the time the dockers left Shivering Sands a few days later, Smedley was facing a murder charge, and the British government had set in train the measures that would end the golden age of Sixties pirate radio.

This part of the book tells the story of the plot, the killing, and their consequences. It is quite a dramatic tale, involving skullduggery, threats, fantasy, and, in the end, tragic violence.

But it also has a broader point, because these events led to a transformation in Britain’s sound broadcasting.

“In the mid-twentieth century critics of the emerging welfare state often saw the BBC as the lynchpin of the culture they were attacking.”


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
Adrian Johns Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age W. W. Norton 305 pages, 9¼ x 6½ inches ISBN 978 0393068603

Adrian Johns is Professor of History and Chair of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the University of Chicago. Educated at the University of Cambridge, he also taught at CalTech and the University of California, San Diego. Besides the books featured in his Rorotoko interviews, Death of a Pirate and Piracy, he is also the author of The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (1998).

Cover Interview of
December 8, 2010