"Pirate" Radio in the 1930's

In 1928 Hilversum started to broadcast Sunday concerts which were to last until 1930, this being only the start of what was to be a "pirate" era in some respects. Radio Toulouse commenced broadcasts in English in 1929 and these continued until 1931. In October 1931 IBC, the International Broadcasting Company started transmissions over Radio Normandie which had a 10kW transmitter located at Fecamp on the French coast. These broadcasts were received over all of Southern England. Later power was raised to 20kW and on a wavelength of 269.5m commercial programmes were aimed at a receptive audience. Typical programme hours were Sundays: 7.00am to 11.45am 1.30pm to 7.30pm and 10.00pm to 1.00am. Weekdays: 7.00am to 11.30am 2.00pm to 6.00pm and Midnight to 1.00am. In March 1938 the wavelength changed to 212.6m and later to 274m. Programmes were mainly recorded onto discs in London and featured fifteen minute sponsored slots. Live programmes also went out.

In May 1932 Radio Luxembourg started tests on 1250m and complaints were received of interference with aircraft radio transmissions. In the Spring of 1933 programmes commenced on Sundays only to start with. In January 1934 a change was made to 1304m and later 1293m. By the end of the decade programmes were going out from 8.15am to Midnight Sundays, and for about eight hours, spread over the day, on weekdays.

There were other stations, Poste Parisian an IBC station broadcasting on 312.8m with 60kW mainly on Sundays. Radio Lyons, 215m with 25kW on Sundays from 6.00pm to Midnight and for two hours on weekday evenings. Radio Toulouse, 328.6m, Radio Mediterrane, 235m broadcast from France. In addition other countries tried similar projects, Radio Ljubljana 569.5m, EAQ Madrid on 31.65m, to the Empire, Radio Eireann on 531m were among them. In the mid 1930's only on rare occasions did more than 35% of the population listen to the BBC compared with a Luxembourg audience of 45.7%.

Many of the smaller stations were forced to close through lack of advertising but by 1939 the major stations had some 300 firms on their books. With the outbreak of war the stations closed, except for Radio International which had taken over the 212m transmitter at Fecamp which stayed on the air until 1940 entertaining the British troops for thirteen hours per day. The war over, only Radio Luxembourg recommenced English broadcasts. Many comparisons can be made with the 1960's but one thing is sure, it wasn't the BBC that provided the majority with their radio entertainment.

Gerry Bishop from his book "Offshore Radio" 1975

Another publication this time from author John Scott-Taggart, The Book of Practical Radio 1934 published by The Amalgamated Press Ltd gives this rather amusing guide on,

How to Identify Foreign Stations

Often a constructor will write to me to say that he can get forty or fifty stations but can only identify one or two, and there is not the slightest doubt that the great majority of listeners are unable to tell one foreign station from another.

On a set having numerous controls, all of which may affect to some extent the tuning, it is certainly a little difficult to say offhand where a particular station is. I should not, for a moment, claim to be able to do so myself. An accurate wavemeter will, of course, settle the point immediately, but few constructors have wavemeters, and so other methods must be adopted. Where there is a single tuning dial, or where the controls have little effect on tuning, it is a simple matter to prepare a log of foreign stations, but even in these cases many users seem to experience difficulty.

The first thing to do is to get a list of broadcasting stations showing their wavelength and power. Put a pencil mark under all the British stations, including those of the Irish Free State. Also put a mark against Fecamp (Radio Normandie).

These stations, since they all speak English, are fairly easily identified, although some of the small stations such as Cork, Dublin, Newcastle and Aberdeen will not be heard well in most parts of the country. Athlone, at the top end of the medium-wave dial, is easily recognisable by the references to I.B.C., the Irish Free State, sweepstakes, and proprietary brands of articles which are being advertised. The Irish brogue is, of course, a definite identification feature, as is the presence of a woman announcer, also with a charming brogue.

The North Regional station is the highest English station on the dial, and is therefore the most easily recognised. The next lower down is the Midland Regional, Scottish Regional coming lower down and nearer to London Regional. Scottish Regional might be confused with Midland Regional, but further identification hints are given later. West Regional is a powerful station, and is identified by London listeners as being the " nearest " B.B.C. station below London Regional. North National and Scottish National are close together in wavelength, but if you are systematically covering the waveband North National is identifiable because of its longer wavelength. Belfast comes next but is not easily heard at most places on its present power of I kW. London National and West National are on the same wavelength at the time of writing. Aberdeen and Newcastle are towards the bottom end of the dial, and their weak strength from most parts of the country is a clue to their identity.

Fecamp at the bottom of the dial gives programmes frequently in English, while a French announcer makes occasional announcements to keep the French population happy. There is a very great deal about the I.B.C., stockings, cosmetics, old gold, etc., from this station which works cheerfully until the early hours. There is absolutely no mistaking Fecamp, because the announcer spends a great deal of time taking the public into his confidence. There is, however, just a possibility that Juan-les-Pins, which is higher up the dial than Radio Normandie, may be confused with the latter station because programmes are also given in English from this station which announces itself as Radio-Nice, the signals sometimes come in surprisingly loudly, and there is frequently something about the I.B.C. and Irish Free State. A woman announcer is frequently heard, but the accent is not Irish, so you are not likely to get confused with Cork, which is the next-door station.

The B.B.C. Regionals can frequently be identified by their programmes, especially at those times when they are not giving the same programme as that of London Regional.

Midland Regional is inclined to close earlier than the other Regionals, and this may help you to distinguish Midland Regional from Scottish Regional.

In fact, the hours of working are a very helpful indication. If you are convinced that a certain station you are hearing is Milan, and the time is 11.30 p.m., you may find on consulting the programme that Milan is closed down.

The language of a station is an extremely useful aid to identification. Most people will know enough French to recognise a French station. German is rather more difficult. I do not know a word of Czecho-Slovakian, but no speech from such a station could be readily mistaken for another. Without, in any way, desiring to create international trouble, I should be inclined to describe Czecho-Slovakian speech as that of a rather angry man speaking demonstratively with a hot, prickly potato in his mouth, and introducing the syllable " vitch" extremely frequently. It is rather like what the average person imagines Russian to be.

Equally monotonous but with no fire, is the tongue of Norway Denmark and Sweden. It sounds far more leisured than Czecho-Slovakian and has an unmistakable sing-song sound to English ears. They sound a very gentle people, and their method of delivery rather than the language itself is easily recognised. It is more difficult to separate these Scandinavian countries.

Italian is unmistakable, and probably the most beautiful of all the languages, especially when spoken by the clear-voiced women announcers who rival the nightingale which provides the interval signal for Italian stations. The news bulletins will contain references to Roma (Rome) Mussolini and Fascismo (pronounced Fashismo). Opera is very frequently on the menu of Italian stations especially late at night, although these operas are also frequently relayed by other European stations, this tending to cause confusion.

Subject to the above, the nightingale interval signal will be a certain identification test of an Italian station except when the B.B.C. put our own birds on the air during June.

The Dutch stations Huizen and Hilversum also speak a language which is soon recognised; it rather resembles German with a dash of Scandinavian, to my imaginative ear. Huizen is recognised by its position at the very top of the long-wave dial. It is a powerful station heard above Radio Paris, Moscow is at present immediately above Radio Paris, and it can be recognised usually by the talks about conditions in Russia. For some reason, even when signals are coming in strongly, the talks always sound as though they were being given a long way off, which I suppose they are. The programmes from Moscow end with the Red Flag and the Internationale. These anthems are interesting enough but they last for an unusually long time and any listeners, however ignorant of national anthems, can recognise the closing tunes of Moscow by the fact that they last far longer than one expects.

Sottens speaks French, as also does Brussels No. i (in fact, in the day-time if it is a French-speaking station above North Regional, you may be sure it is Brussels No. i). Brussels No. 2 speaks Flemish, which sounds to me like a sort of Dutch.

Spanish stations often work late into the night, and Madrid may be heard after midnight when Rome is probably closed down. There is some similarity between Spanish and Italian. The lateness of the hour, the prevalence of words ending in A and having the letter N (pronounced rather like N followed by Y so as to produce a nasal sound) and the dance music played (which is mostly of tango type) all indicate Spain (or, sometimes, South America).

Budapest plays a large amount of Czigane music which once heard is easily recognised again. France seems to be fond of martial music and lively tunes. Concertina-like items also seem favoured.

Dutch stations are fond of choral music, and on Sundays a programme containing much hymn music on the organ. Radio Moroc gives at times unmistakably African music which carries one to the tribes of this sun-scorched portion of the world.

Sometimes it is a good plan to check a programme from a weak or unknown station against a more important station which has been identified, and which is giving the same programme. For example, if you suspect a station is Miskolc (which relays Budapest No. i) you can note the music they are playing, or the particular tune, and rapidly tune to Budapest and see whether it is the same programme. If it is, this will help to identify your station, although you should look out for any others that may be relaying Budapest.

The same applies to Czecho-Slovakian stations which may be relaying the same programme from Prague. Thus Brno (pro┬Čnounced Bruno), Kosice, Moravska-Ostrava may sometimes be referred to Prague, which is an excellent strong station easily found just above North Regional.

In the same way Lwow (pronounced Lvoof) relays Warsaw (pronounced on the wireless as Varsarva), which is on the long waves.

Many stations announce themselves by name such as Hamburg, Stuttgart, Moscow, Strasbourg, Poste Parisien, but many others belong to a chain of stations under some general name, and it becomes very difficult to identify the stations by an announcement. One may know the country of origin, and even the chain of relays, but which station is in question can only be judged by the position on the dial.

A station such as Strasbourg is bi-lingual, and announcements are made in both French and German. If, therefore, you hear a musical item announced first in French and then in German and no other languages are used, you may be pretty sure it is Strasbourg.

Listening to the news or the National anthem from a station will give an excellent idea of the nationality, but this requires the operator to wait for some possibly inconvenient time. The actual programme being radiated is an excellent guide, and even if one does not understand the language one can listen out for names of composers or conductors. Another method if identifying a station is almost entirely a process of noting its position on the dial in respect to other stations and the language that is being spoken. Very often the language is unimportant if a good deal of logging is being done, as one has a very good idea of what 9 kilocycles means on the dial.

Suppose you are in some doubt as to whether a station is Scottish Regional or Midland Regional and they are both radiating the same programme, and you do not wish to take the trouble of looking up the programmes. If below the signal you hear the interval signal of a nightingale you will know at once that this is Milan and the British station just above is Scottish Regional.

By selecting any particular British station that you can identify, it becomes a fairly simple matter to trace foreign stations near to it. For example, selecting North Regional as our starting-point, there is a German station immediately above it, and this is Cologne. Just above that is Lyons, a French station, while Prague comes a little higher up with its unmistakable Czecho-Slovakian talk. The next stations, Lisbon and Trondelag, may not easily be distinguished in many parts of the country, although those who live on the east coast of Scotland and England may get excellent results from Scandinavian stations, even of weak power. The next station, therefore, will probably be speaking French, and since there is no worth-while French station above Prague, you can be certain that this will be Brussels No. 1. Just above this is an Italian station, which would be Florence. In fact, if you heard a nightingale interval signal above North Regional, the chances are ten to one that this will be Florence, although Palermo working on the same wavelength as Athlone may be occasionally heard.

Above Brussels, the strongest German speaking stations are Stuttgart (Miihlacher) and the Swiss station of Beromunster (known also as Schweizerischer Landessender). This latter station closes down about 10.30 p.m., while Stuttgart often goes on after midnight with excellent programmes. Stuttgart is certainly one of the loudest signals on the dial, and it is heard just below Athlone, whereas Beromunster is heard just above Athlone. Budapest is just higher then Beromunster, and if there are two stations just above Athlone, Budapest will be the higher one.

We can now go back to North Regional, and either work downwards, which makes the reaction adjustment tend to produce oscillation of the set, or we can go to Midland Regional and work upwards. Just below North Regional is Softens, the Swiss station which caters for the French-speaking portion of Switzerland.

Let us now go to Midland Regional. This will be the first English-speaking station below North Regional. Just above Midland Regional may be heard Katowice, the Polish station. This may not be heard on many sets, and Marseilles may also not be heard. But the very powerful station of Munich, Germany, is sure to ba heard, and the fact that it is the only German-speaking station be tween Midland Regional and North Regional is a sure identification.

The next really important station is Rome No. 1, which is the only Italian station between Midland Regional and North Regional, and therefore is easily identified. Immediately above Rome is Stockholm, while Paris P.T.T. often comes m loudly immediately above ; Belgrade will probably be difficult to receive, and if one hears a French-speaking station below North Regional it may either be the Paris P.T.T. or Softens. When Softens and Paris P.T.T. are working, there is no mistaking which is which, since Softens comes just below North Regional.

We can now explore the zone between Scottish Regional and Midland Regional. Poznan will probably not be heard near London, but Strasbourg on a good set will be heard and can be identified by its combined French and German announcements. Valencia may not be received till after midnight, but the strong station Berlin Funkstunde, will be heard on a good receiver. The other stations after Milan which is immediately below Scottish Regional may be difficult to receive. Below London Regional a selective receiver in the London area may get a French station, Limoges, Hamburg is a good signal and Tolouse is below it. The loudest French station below London Regional will be Poste Parisien, which is so good that it can be treated as a landmark as good as the British Regional stations. It also announces its name frequently. West Regional is a little below Poste Parisien.

This general method of picking a well-known station and working upwards or downwards from it can be done all over the dial. If you do not wish to log station by station, it is a good plan to note what nationalities are sandwiched between two well-known stations. For example, a good Italian station above North Regional will no doubt be Florence, while an Italian station between Scottish Regional and London Regional would be Milan.

John Scott-Taggart 1934

Any new material is always welcome, just use the Contact page and I will get back to you. To chat about Pirate/Free Radio visit Garry Stevens Forum (not mobile friendly), or for information about today's land-based radio pirates check out the Radio Necks forum. To read more about Pirate Radio in London read London's Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch

Mark King,

Last updated March 2018