DEATH OF A PIRATE by Adrian Johns


British Radio and the Making of the Information Age
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A historical retelling of the pirate-radio revolution that swept throughout 1960s England.

In June 1966, pirate-radio rivals Reg Calvert and Oliver Smedley faced off in Smedley’s home, leaving Calvert dead. After chronicling the encounter, Johns (History/Univ. of Chicago; Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, 2010, etc.) takes a leap backward to the ’20s and England’s initial steps to introduce the nation to radio. After the British Broadcasting Corporation monopolized the airwaves, several music lovers and businessmen set out to win them back, oftentimes employing guerrilla tactics to offer free music to the people. These so-called pirates of radio began assembling their operations beyond territorial waters—most notably, Shivering Sands, an abandoned, high-rise military fort in an estuary of the Thames. Described as “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs,” the abandoned structure was occupied by Calvert and his colleagues, who imbued it with new life. What began as an enterprise of free-spirited entrepreneurs transmitting music from off-shore ships soon morphed into something else. “Floating DJs were one thing,” writes the author. “Squatters on military installations was quite another.” The stakes continued to rise, eventually leading to an actual invasion of the fort by Smedley’s men. It was, quite literally, piratical behavior on the high seas, eventually leading Calvert to Smedley's home to settle the matter. Yet Calvert's murder functions solely as a convenient focal point for the larger implications that arose during the movement. The pirate-radio revolution spurred a debate that would have long-lasting implications. While Americans celebrated peace and love at Woodstock, the British pirates pushed the boundaries of copyright and information sharing well into the 21st century. Smedley called Calvert’s murder “a joke gone sour,” yet the lasting effects of their revolution is no laughing matter.

A powerful yet understated history of pirate radio and its impact in the Internet age.

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-393-06860-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2010