Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pirate Radio

Adrian Johns, Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2011).

Focused around the 1966 killing of a pirate radio operator, this book by historian Adrian Johns examines the rise and fall of pirate radio in England and its battle with British government and the BBC. Johns believes this helps us understand our own digital era. While Johns gives us an absorbing story, with interesting characters and incidents, I am not convinced about his connecting this to the modern information age or the debates about issues like intellectual property. But this may not be much of a criticism. Johns gets quite involved in revealing the details of the heyday of British pirate radio, so much so that when he interjects some sweeping assertion about the meaning of the period the reader really may not care if he or she buys the argument. In fact, Johns himself even asserts that it is not the role of the historian to tease out all the meaning for contemporary issues. Our historian reveals himself to be a good storyteller, a skill that a shrinking number of academic historians either possess or reveal, and that may be enough of a contribution. If one is energetic, you can read this book as a lengthy case study footnote to his other recent book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. I suspect the book of pirate radio was researched as part of his major study of piracy.

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