Thursday, October 31, 2019

My First Halloween Pirate Radio Experience: 1984

Thirty-five years ago today, I was traveling through New England and a bit of Canada with my family. I'd been listening to pirates off and on for more than a year, but I hadn't experienced Halloween. I don't remember what happened in Halloween 1983 that I didn't hear anything. Maybe my radio wasn't working?

At some point in 1984 I sold a bunch of baseball cards to a dealer at the local mall (OK, that was a bad idea) and I think I sold my bike, too, so that I could raise the funds to buy a used Yaesu FRG-7 receiver. The Frog-7 was pathetic compared to my R8 and R-5000 (or the Sony 2010 that I later replaced it with), but it was great to finally have a real communications receiver.

I knew that Halloween was a big deal for pirates because I'd read about the escapades of WART, Munchkin Radio, KQSB, Radio Free Wave, and others that had appropriated the airwaves in prior years. But in 1984, the family vacation was scheduled completely across Halloween. I don't remember how I managed it, but somehow I was allowed to take my FRG-7. To complete the deal, I added my logbook, a pair of nasty rubbery plastic headphones that hurt my ears after about 10 minutes, and some enameled TV yoke wire.

If I remember correctly, we were driving from place to place to place, hitting up every historic spot in New England efficiently. My dad always planned out an itinerary months in advance so that we could see everything possible. On this night, I can't recall the whys or wherefores, but I don't think we pulled in for the night until after 11 PM.

One note about pirate radio in the early '80s. It was late. Sure some people were broadcasting at 2200 or so, but that was the start of it. It wasn't like today (literally today), when I heard Ion Radio at 1430 and what might have been Pumpkin Patch Radio around 1700 UTC. Back then, you just didn't hear many pirates during the daylight hours and most activity occurred between about 0000 and 0700 UTC.

Today, if I had to start listening after 0400, I might not even bother trying. But in 1984, I was really hopeful. We pulled into a BNB (I think these were more of a New England thing back then, not the schmansy place you think of now) in Newcastle, Maine, and I unpacked the Frog and started running wire around the room. Turned on the radio . . . and there was WMTV on 7440 kHz. I had heard WMTV a few times earlier that fall. The station had nice audio and broadcast the hits that were being aired on MTV at the time: The Fixx, The Cars, Yes, Scorpions, After the Fire, and The Police. They had some professional-sounding promos and announced that they were "South Florida's Best Rock" while giving out a phone number and a Del Ray, Florida, mailing address for reports. I listened to WMTV for about 75 minutes, but the signal wasn't nearly as strong as previous broadcast (no surprise, given my much greater distance from Florida when listening this time).

Part-way through this show, Radio Sound Wave fired up on 7425 kHz USB. I only heard Sound Wave for about 11 minutes this time. A couple of things that I'll never forget about Radio Sound Wave are that this is the first place I ever heard Madonna. I hadn't heard her on the radio or on a video show before--it was "Lucky Star" on Radio Sound Wave. Also, Radio Sound Wave was one of the few SSB stations back then, along with Radio Free Radio, Radio USA, and Radio Amity. Finally, I heard rumors that the station suddenly left the air in 1984 because the operator was arrested for fraud, I think. I don't know if that's true, but it was really active until that point and it quickly disappeared. Anyway, on this particular show, I think I heard a song or two by the Chipmunks, the announcer gave the mailing address, talked about QSLs, said hi to Mike Harris (a listener and, I think, ACE member), then said "This is RV and that was Radio Sound Wave" before turning off the transmitter.

By now, it was 0530 UTC and I probably should've been hitting the sack. My parents were asleep, and I think I was keeping my sister awake. I was writing notes in the logbook by the light of the FRG-7's front panel lamps. Given that my sister needed a lot of sleep, I covered part of the front panel with a shirt to try to give her a break.

In 1984, pirates weren't as concentrated around 7425 kHz as they would be around 7415 in the early '90s, so it wasn't unexpected to be tuning. At 0538, I found a huge signal on 7390 kHz with audio from horror movies, including The Exorcist. At the time, Halloween-themed programs were really unusual, so I was glued to the radio as I heard repeating clips of laughing, organ music, growling, and an announcement of "The Mister Nasty Show, ha!" This was something because the only way to create repeating clips was to splice them on an open-reel deck--so much more difficult than with today's digital audio programs. Some of the audio from movie trailers included The Night Caller, The Return of Count Jorga, Daughters of Satan, and Superbeast. Finally came the real ID: "666 on your dial, WBST, Salem, Massachussetts." WBST also played "The Witch of New Orleans," The Doors "Riders on the Storm," AC/DC "Problem Child," and Napoleon XIV "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha." Another ID was "This Halloween, remember the phrase that pays, WBST brings out the beast in me." The signal was nearly perfect for the full 62 minutes that I was listening.

Finally, at the same time I was hearing WBST, I was also tuning up to 7425 kHz to hear Secret Mountain Laboratory. I think this was the first time I heard SML and the station wasn't as strong as WBST, but it was hitting S9+10, so not too shabby at all. SML featured a lot of eclectic programming and this show was about a small-time political candidate named Jack who works his way up through the political system.

At 0640 UTC, WBST was still on the air, but I knew my dad would be getting ready in just a few hours so that we could pack up the car and keep heading toward Canada. Incidentally, I think it was the next day that I would see the Radio Canada International towers at Sackville and take some photos. If I could find one of those photos, I'd post it, but I'm not sure where it is.

That was my first Halloween listening for pirates . . . and the events of the evening made a real impression on me.

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