The documentary Pirate Radio USA is an enjoyable if somewhat strident look at the world of pirate radio, in which do-it-yourself radio afficianados build their own (illegal) mini-stations and broadcast at ultra-low frequencies (called microcasting). The film strives to use pirate radio's legal difficulties to paint a larger picture about the disintegration of American rights and the influence of mainstream media and large corporations.

Pirate Radio USA is an unabashadly personal and partisan film --the filmmakers aren't afraid to appear on-camera to tell you what they think. Director and longtime radio pirate Jeff Pearson periodically narrates the film with help from Mary Jones on a stylized set that is actually a working pirate radio station, in their on-air personas of DJ Him and DJ Her. (The station set does not get raided by the FCC, which is fortunate but would have made the film even more interesting.) Pearson is engaging and amusing even when he gets a bit ranty about the FCC. He's got that Morgan Spurlock-style narration down pat.

The budget of Pirate Radio USA must not have been much bigger than that of one of the radio communities it profiles -- for example, cities are portrayed by crude yet cute plastic models. The Seattle model involves a big Starbucks coffee mug, of course. The models fit in nicely with the overall retro look and feel of the movie -- the filmmakers often use older stock footage in the public domain to illustrate their points, especially when discussing the history of low-frequency radio. (At Austin Film Festival, the documentary screened in the tiny theater at The Hideout, an independently owned coffeeshop, which provided the perfect setting.) The film is at its best when it shows us actual pirate radio stations and excerpts of their broadcasts. I enjoyed seeing all the different setups in various parts of the country, from Seattle to Iowa City to Tucson. (The one aboard the Kalakala in Seattle was very cool.) I'm also enough of a techie to like watching the radio pirates show us how they set up their equipment -- I would have appreciated more how-to sections, but I suspect I'm in the minority. Another high point in the film was an interview with Mark Alan, a right-wing pirate radio broadcaster who was jailed for his microcasting endeavors.

Pirate Radio USA is less successful when it ventures away from the world of pirate radio. The documentary spends a large chunk of time at the WTO protests in Seattle, where many pirate radio personalities took part in peaceful protests and also covered the protests live on their low-power stations. We didn't see or hear much of the radio broadcasts, however; we just saw the protests. I thought the WTO coverage was fascinating at times but it didn't quite fit with the focus of the documentary. The recurring Starbucks bashing also didn't work -- Starbucks has nothing to do with pirate radio, except perhaps on the most abstract level (it's a corporation squishing independent businesses). Although the filmmakers are trying to show how corporate interests have affected pirate radio and ultimately freedom of speech, I think that Starbucks was the wrong target.

I knew almost nothing about low-watt radio stations before seeing Pirate Radio USA. The documentary provided me with some insight into the pirate radio communities and their goals, and managed to entertain me in the process. I hope the film gets the opportunity to reach a wider audience than regional film festivals -- although when you consider that even NPR is a bad guy in the eyes of radio pirates (for its part in promoting regulations that made these stations illegal), it's hard to imagine how the documentary will find wide distribution. However, I have faith in the ability of these persistent radio pirates to find a way.
categories Reviews, Cinematical