Cover of The Pilkington Report from Her Majesty's Stationery Office circa 1962

Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Wavelengths: Pirate Radio Logos of the 20th Century

Can you own the airwaves? Probably not. This didn’t stop William Howard Taft, then president of the United States, from declaring war on unregulated frequencies in 1912, according to an article headlined “President Moves to Stop Mob Rule of Wireless.”

Since the early 1900s there have been numerous unlicensed, unwarranted, or quasi-legal radio stations operating at any given time. However, the mid-twentieth century was the true golden age of pirate radio. Here we take a look at some of the logos and marks that defined these clandestine waveform operations as well as the visual ecosystems that surrounded them.

The engineering crew of WJAZ Chicago is seen here looting the cargo hull of a frequency spectrum over the skies of Illinois in 1926
The engineering crew of WJAZ Chicago is seen here looting the cargo hull of a frequency spectrum over the skies of Illinois in 1926.

North America

United States

The Chicago Radio Laboratory would later call itself The Zenith Radio Corporation, but not before participating in armed territorial disputes with rivals and propagating some of the first equipment to be used by clandestine and illicit frequency operators in the United States.

Chicago Radio Laboratory enhanced logo composite taken from a 1914-patented piece of Zenith/Chicago Radio Lab equipment via Wikimedia Commons and the New England Wireless & Steam Museum
The Zenith Radio Corporation was not technically a pirate radio station, but it would have helped shape the landscape of the scene by designing and manufacturing early equipment used by both transmitters and receivers as well as running the temporarily-illegal station WJAZ.

Radio NewYork International operated from a ship in international waters off the coast of Jones Beach, New York, for a couple of years in the late 1980’s.

Enhanced Radio NewYork International logo composite from an extremely low resolution archived photo

Mexico

Border Blasters were radio stations operating (most commonly) on the US-Mexican border, often at frequencies much higher than the US laws would allow at the time. A particularly successful early border blaster, XER (later XERA and XERF) or “The Sunshine Station Between the Nations”, was relocated from Kansas to Mexico after the US government decided that advertising goat testical-to-human transplant surgery (to enhance male fertility) over the airwaves was not a good thing to do.

XER, the original border blaster from 1932 to 1933, would have been heard as far as Canada on a clear night from it’s too-powerful-to-be-legal 250,000 watt broadcasting station on the Mexican border. Original source material via worldofradio.co.uk
XERF was the final iteration (1960s) of the original XER border blaster. Enhanced and inverted logo composite from archived QSL mailer via Bill’s QSL Gallery

Honduras/Caribbean

Radio Swan (1960-1968) was an anti-Castro CIA operation based on a tropical island off the coast of Honduras in the western Caribbean. It would find purpose, hope, and a grandiose sense of delusion in broadcasting Phillip Morris and Kleenex advertisements towards Cuba.

Enhanced and inverted logo for Radio Swan from an incredibly low resolution archived 1961 postcard
Radio Swan logo in color

Europe

Denmark

Danish outfit Radio Mercur (1958-1962) was very likely the first pirate radio station to actually broadcast from an offshore platform in international waters. Tapes were pre-recorded in Copenhagen and literally shipped out to the open sea for broadcast.

Enhanced composite logo of Radio Mercur based off historical stationery documents and records — original source material via danskradio.dk
Enhanced composite logo of Radio Mercur based off historical stationery documents and records — original source material via danskradio.dk
Historical flyers for Radio Mercur, original source material via danskradio.dk

United Kingdom

The Pilkington Committee was set up in England in 1960 by Her Majesty the Queen and an eccentric, affluent industrialist to propagate uniquely expensive falsehoods regarding the British public’s interest in commercial radio. This unintentionally gave rise and a sense of purpose to illicit frequency operators, stations, and organized broadcasting groups across the UK.

Cover of The Pilkington Report from Her Majesty's Stationery Office circa 1962
Cover of The Pilkington Report from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, circa 1962, original pamphlet cover via offshoreradio.co.uk

Radio Caroline, an unlicensed station started in 1964 by a disgruntled Irish musician, would operate somewhat amorphously throughout the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s from various offshore ships in and around the U.K. It’s slogan, “Radio Caroline on 199, your all day music station”, reveals nothing about Caroline or if she knew a pirate radio station was named after her (she was apparently the six-year-old daughter of then-U.S.-president John F. Kennedy and she certainly did not).

Enhanced composite of a version of the Radio Caroline logo as seen on an archived QSL card circa 1964 or 1965
Radio Caroline logo in color, 1964 or 1965

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) became terrified of Caroline and her cool new radio station as it posed an existential threat to the BBC’s domination of the airwaves and its monopoly on British ears. The Caroline Phenomenon; an eccentric art-house internal classified zine–a corporate fan letter to President Kennedy’s daughter–and an actual physical PDF full of charts and numbers, was the media monolith’s attempt at quantifying their unpopularity.

The Caroline Phenomenon was an eccentric internal classified corporate zine published by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1964.

Radio Jackie was live from 1969 to 1985 until it was ultimately shut down by the British government after a series of raids by what we can assume was a particularly well-dressed anti-radio division of The Queen’s Guard. The offices and studios of Radio Jackie would have been made into a complete mess, equipment and office supplies thrown into the river Thames by the Household Division’s Foot Guards; sweaty, irate, absolutely livid, and undoubtedly wearing those weird fur hats throughout the entire process.

Composite Radio Jackie logo sourced from an archived campaign/outreach letter from the 1970’s, original source via radiojackie.com

The Free Radio Association was a seemingly loose cohort of activists, listeners, and operators in and around 1967 advocating and organizing to secure a free and open landscape for radio in the UK.

Free Radio Association (FRA)–an Essex, England-based advocacy group formed in 1969–flyer, exact year unknown, original source material from Radio Kaleidoscope online archive
Free Radio Association Logo

The Free Radio Association is fighting for free speech, free enterprise and free choice. The Government is trying to crush all competition over the air by silencing the commercial stations – thereby preserving the monopoly of the BBC and depriving us of the freedom to listen to the stations of our choice. This is a step towards dictatorship...

Excerpt from FRA petition statement from 1967 via the Offshore Radio Museum

Radio 270, an unofficial member of the FRA, was short-lived but had an extremely cool logo.

Promotional logo lockup for Radio 270 (1966 to 1967), original source material via Wikipedia

Listen here the final broadcast as the station’s operator, Paul Kramer, takes the Oceaan 7 transmitter off-air for the night in 1967.

Promotional logo lockup for Radio 270 in red
Alternative logo lockup as used on letterhead, originally referenced from the Media Communicatie Foundation archives

Switzerland/Netherlands/U.K.

Radio Northsea International was based out of Zurich but spent most of its time in the waters between the U.K. and the coast of the Netherlands where it would broadcast intermittently for roughly five years in the early 1070s.

Radio NorthSea International logo enhanced composite from archived low-res image

Either intentionally or coincidentally, the logo for Radio Northsea International resembles an exploding ship. Listen below to a particularly on-brand broadcast of DJ Alan West reacting to a bombing of the RNI’s vessel, MV Mebo II, at sea in 1971:

A peculiar and interesting feature on a ubiquitous RNI campaign sticker design is what appears to be an azimuthal equidistant projection of the globe, centered on the North Pole. This would have certainly been a clever reference to the United Nations logo–the UN being an organization that many pirate radio advocates looked to as a potential ally, idealistic governance model, or even antagonist.

Enhanced composite of a Radio NorthSea International campaign sticker, produced by FRA, early 1970s
Another RNI campaign sticker, produced by FRA, early 1970s

Asia

Hong Kong

Citizens’ Radio 民間電台 (established in 2005, so not technically “of the 20th century”) logo, while not exactly a modernist masterpiece or even a particularly successful mark by most standards, appears to convey a clear meaning, agnostic of language, and is at least used consistently across the digital landscape (from what we can tell).

Hong Kong’s Citizens’ Radio logo via their official Facebook page

This list is hardly exhaustive and leaves off a lot of excellent pirate radio stations that either had unfortunately and exceptionally bad logos (e.g., Radio First Termer and Radio Luxembourg) or who’s logos were simply unreasonably difficult to track down in an acceptable format or resolution.