Pirate Radio

I saw most of Pirate Radio on an SAS flight back when I was in Europe, but it just opened in the U.S. (or here in DC at any rate) this weekend so I went to see the whole thing. Very fun movie, with a lot of great music.

It also comes, in virtue of the subject matter, with a strong libertarian, anti-statist message. And of course it’s quite true that a public agency getting involved in the arts is likely to tend toward propagation of the status quo rather than toward innovation. The German government does a lot of subsidizing of opera, and by most accounts (I’m not in a position to judge) they do a very good job of mounting good performances of the classic works. But boosting innovation, the way an illegal offshore radio broadcaster like the one depicted in the movie could, is not the forte of a state broadcaster.

That said, the film’s portrayal of the creative promise of commercial radio doesn’t seem to hold up all that well to the rather tawdry reality of today’s commercial FM radio stations. They’re not run by fussy bureaucrats who insist on classical music only, but you’d hardly say that they’re havens of good taste and pioneering aesthetic. In a sense, you might think of the fact that pirate radio stations operate in a legal gray area as integral to their success. The enterprise is commercial enough to cater to consumer demand for rock ‘n roll, but it’s enough of a dubious prospect to mostly attract real enthusiasts as proprietors and staff. Full-blown commercialization, combined with the limited supply of viable broadcast frequencies, pushes stations toward homogenization and a least common denominator mindset. That’s why in the U.S. innovative music programming came to be associated with college radio stations that, like the pirate stations from the movie, are driven by the interests of enthusiasts rather than an ethic of profit-maximization. At this point, of course, it’s all moot since terrestrial radio is basically yesterday’s news.