Pirate Waves

Polish Private Radio Broadcasting in the Period of Transformation 1989–1995

by Urszula Doliwa (Author)
©2022 Monographs 248 Pages


This book reveals the value and significance of pirate radio, with a special focus on local radio stations that broadcast illegally in Poland in the early 90s. It shows that many of them, like in other countries from the region, began as non-commercial, community-oriented initiatives. Several sources of information were used to maximize the potential of the study, especially documents gathered from public institutions, press articles, interviews with radio representatives, and decision-makers who influenced the shape of the broadcasting system. The analysis of these sources supports the conclusion that, although the pirates left a lasting legacy, they lost out in the licensed regime driven by market logic.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • About the author
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I. The Beginnings of Pirate Broadcasting in Poland and Worldwide
  • Pirate Radio Stations and Their Role in Expanding Freedom on Air
  • First Attempts to Break the State Monopoly on Broadcasting in Poland
  • Chapter II. Citizens’ Access to the Airwaves and the Process of Systemic Transformation
  • Meeting Social Needs on the Air
  • Citizens’ Influence on the Shape of Radio Broadcasting in the Period of Systemic Transformation, with Special Reference to Central and Eastern Europe
  • Chapter III. Polish Private Broadcasting after 1989 – the Legal Context
  • Legal Situation before the Adoption of the Broadcasting Act
  • Work on the Broadcasting Act
  • Adopted Statutory Solutions and Their Consequences
  • Chapter IV. Activity of Private Stations after 1989
  • Establishing Local Private Stations
  • Creation of Catholic Stations
  • Program of Local Private Stations
  • The Relationship between Private Stations and Local Communities
  • Cooperation between Broadcasters
  • Conflicts between Institutions, Broadcasters, and Audiences
  • Chapter V. Not for Profit, but to Serve Local Communities – Characteristics of Emerging Private Stations
  • Non-commercial Organizational Formula and Goals of Private Stations
  • Sectorial Stations
  • Epicurean Stations Oriented at Local Communities
  • The Issue of Non-commercial Broadcasters in the Public Debate
  • The Problem of Non-commercial Broadcasters in the Work of the Commission for Radio and Television Reform and Other Media Bills
  • Public Debate with the Participation of Journalists
  • Public Debate with the Participation of Church Representatives
  • Chapter VI. Tidying up the Airwaves
  • The First Broadcast License Application Process
  • Analysis of the National Broadcasting Council’s Policy toward Applicants for Local Broadcasting Licenses
  • Before the First Broadcast License Application Process
  • The Course of Meetings with Local Broadcasters as Part of the First Licensing Process
  • After the Meetings with Broadcasters
  • Situation after the First Broadcast License Application Process
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Annexe
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Radio Stations
  • Series index

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At the beginning of the 1990s, there were over 100 local radio stations in Poland that could not legalize their operations, mainly due to the lack of appropriate legal framework. In this group, we should certainly include an incalculable number of radio ephemera and neighborhood projects with a very limited reach. Although this phenomenon was not on a scale corresponding to the emergence of pirate radio stations in the early 1970s in, for example, Italy, where according to various calculations, there were between 1,600 (García-Gil, Gómez García, Reguero Sanz, 2018) and 2,500 illegal radio stations (Mazzoleni, 1997: 129), it was significant in size in Poland as well. In the literature, as in the case of Italy, scholars sometimes call this process wild deregulation (Dobek-Ostrowska, 2006: 27; Dobek-Ostrowska, 2019: 120).

The nature of the emerging radio initiatives was unique and worthy of description – many of these stations began as non-commercial, pro-citizen initiatives. The creative potential of the teams involved in starting the stations, both at the organizational, technical and programming levels is also worth attention. No one has yet comprehensively analyzed their activities and role in the media system.1 Almost everyone has heard of such radio giants as Radio Zet or Radio RMF FM, which are still leading in Polish radio broadcasting, but we know very little about small local radio stations. Most of them – even if they managed to obtain a broadcasting license in 1994 – disappeared from the Polish radio waves due to the processes of concentration and globalization. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm and exceptional commitment of the pioneers of Polish private radio broadcasting who, disregarding the lack of equipment, experience or penalties that could be imposed for such broadcasting, launched the first private radio stations, deserve description and scholarly reflection – for they were the essence of radio as a creative medium close to the audience. This is all the more important because most people who participated in those events are still alive, but with the passage of time, reconstructing the history of broadcasting from that period may prove more difficult. American researcher Jane Curry, who became interested in the Polish media system as early as the 1960s, rightly notes that many new publications and radio and television programs appeared at the beginning of ←9 | 10→the transformation, and the changes were so rapid that no one had time to document them (Curry, 2006: 100). Therefore, it is worth filling this research gap, which concerns local radio stations established at the beginning of the transition period – to the extent possible after almost thirty years that have passed since those events. Thus, one of the important goals of this monograph is to record the activities of the true radio enthusiasts who started their radio journey at that time.

Noteworthy, at the beginning of the political transformation almost all private radio stations in Poland operated illegally to a greater or lesser extent. Even those that applied for a special broadcasting permit eventually had to face the fact that under the Broadcasting Act, adopted at the end of 1992, private broadcasters were subject to criminal sanctions after July 1, 1993, if they broadcast without a license. Meanwhile, the licensing process dragged on and the authorities issued their first permits only a year later. Thus, it meant that with the exception of some church entities which could legalize their activity under a special law on the relation between the State and the Church (Sejm, 1989), all private broadcasters of that period were broadcasting illegally. Therefore, I use the term pirate stations with reference to such broadcasters, although, as I will try to show, this type of activity was not always perceived in these terms. By the way, it is worth emphasizing that we should not treat this term as pejorative. On the contrary, pirate radio stations in Poland and around the world played a positive role in expanding the scope of freedom over the airwaves. They also tried to respond to social needs.

The name pirate radio stations originates from radio stations broadcasting from ships, which could not legally transmit from the territory of a given country and thus tried to circumvent the law. However, with time, people started using the term with reference to illegal broadcasters who were eager to refer to the tradition started by these pioneering radio initiatives. This is because they were accompanied by a number of positive connotations. If we can say that radio as a medium has a certain magic about it, that impression is heightened in the case of offshore radio stations that broadcast, when legal operations on the mainland were impossible in most countries in Europe. Paul Harris, a scholar of the history of pirate radio in Britain, writes: “There is something irresistibly romantic about a ship wallowing lazily in a light swell and a small team of technicians and disc jockeys defying state monopolies to take programs into the homes” (Harris, 2001: VII).

Along with the name pirate stations, illegal broadcasters have also taken over, more or less consciously, a certain philosophy of operating such stations. Is it possible to present it? It is certainly very difficult, but it is worth mentioning at least some of its components: the joy of creating a radio in harmony with oneself, ←10 | 11→creativity, going against the beaten track, willingness to take big risks, the belief that in order to respond to social needs one sometimes has to go against the state and the law, a sense of social mission and a close relationship with the listeners who are ready to fight for their radio, and most importantly – a true passion for radio. This book is an attempt to show that this particular philosophy of the pirate stations was also close to the pioneers of private broadcasting in Poland, who after 1989 often decided not to wait for appropriate legal framework and started broadcasting.

Another very important aim of this book is to show the policy pursued in Poland after the fall of communism with regard to private radio broadcasting and its consequences for citizens. It is worth posing the question to what extent social interest was taken into account during the design of the new order in private radio broadcasting and whether it was the logic of social benefit or rather market logic that dominated this process. At this point, it is worth explaining that the market logic is characteristic of the commercial broadcasting sector, associated with profitability and competition (Croteau, Hoynes, 2006: 250) and does not fully respond to public needs. On the other hand, the social gain logic is connected with taking care of social interests also of those groups, which from the commercial point of view are not very attractive for broadcasters. It is expressed in an appropriate conduct of licensing policy to ensure the most pluralistic offer, which is connected with support for socially important broadcasters, such as, for example, public, community or local media in general.

The topic of proper attention to the public interest in designing the system of private radio broadcasting in Poland, especially in the area of the role and importance of local and community radio, is often overlooked in reporting on the history of Polish radio broadcasting, but it certainly deserves attention and scholarly reflection. As Denis McQuail rightly notes, groups, organizations and local communities should have their own media. In his opinion, communication is too important a field to be left only to professionals (McQuail, 1987: 123). However, this type of media needs support and special treatment when designing a media system. In this book, I would like to show to what extent the decision-makers were aware of the special role of this type of media and whether they took proper care of the public interest in this regard when designing the radio broadcasting system in Poland.

As Tomasz Mielczarek emphasizes, independent local radio stations, which remain outside the media networks operating under the wing of large media groups, perform important social functions as often they are the only medium distributing information about small towns and villages and providing this type of content to economically weaker groups of recipients (Mielczarek, 2006: 85). ←11 | 12→The space in which civic activity can develop is in particular the locally based third radio sector, referred to as community radio. People often use expressions like social benefit, social goals, and social gain in the law definitions of the third media sector. As Stefania Milan underlines, grassroots media, which include community radio, make a very significant contribution to development processes and play an important role in social democratization (2009: 598).

Noteworthy, pirate radio stations in the world paved the way not only for the development of commercial radio, but also for the third radio sector – non-commercial community radio stations (Buckley, 2016). It is difficult to explain the term community radio for there are many definitions of this type of media, which is due to the diversity of the sector, local conditions and the history of this type of media in different regions of the world. However, Peter Lewis presents a list of basic conditions a radio should meet to be called community radio. In his opinion, these are entities operating not for profit, but for social benefit. They are the property of a given community and are accountable to the community they serve and create the possibility of participation of a given community in the production of the program and management of the station (Lewis, 2015: 179–188). I will try to show that many local radio stations which started broadcasting after 1989 operated largely on the basis of principles similar to community radio.

This is an important issue, because many radio initiatives emerged at that time for non-commercial and pro-social reasons. At the beginning of the 90s there was a very strong connection between local broadcasters and local communities, they were often the voice of this community. Ryszard Miazek, a member of the first National Broadcasting Council (Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji, later: KRRiT), admitted that in almost every city someone wanted to set up a private, non-commercial station (Modrzejewska, 1994a). The list of entities applying for broadcasting included several dozen of this kind of stations (KRRiT, 1996: 26). Foundations, associations, societies, community centers, universities, municipalities and other legal entities, such as the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association, wanted to set up their radio initiatives. Many stations established by private individuals also had a non-commercial, pro-social character. I will try to prove it by taking a closer look at the motivations of their creators, the organizational structure, the financing system and the diverse and community-oriented program.

Moreover, there was an interesting debate in Poland on how to care for the interests of citizens on the air, including how to regulate the operation of non-profit stations. Nevertheless, in the literature on the subject, it is a rarely discussed topic. It is not widely known that there were many voices in the country at that time about how disastrous the excessive commercialization in broadcast ←12 | 13→media could be. More often than it might seem, people raised the problem that community-oriented stations should receive support. In this book, I will try to reconstruct the debate that was going on in Poland at that time, and indicate its main participants.

It is worth mentioning that especially in the initial stage, there were many positive opinions about the effects of the transformation of radio broadcasting in Poland. In an interview published in Życie in 1996, Stanisław Jędrzejewski referred to the radio market in Poland as “the best radio market east of the Elbe” (Biegluk, 1996: 6). Other researchers also noticed positive aspects of the transformation process of broadcast media in Poland in later publications. For example, Bogusława Dobek-Ostrowska points out that as a result of the reform, the Polish electronic media market has become “one of the most diverse and competitive in Central and Eastern Europe” (Dobek-Ostrowska, 2002: 22). Stanisław Piątek, one of the important architects of the new media order in the field of radio and television broadcasting in Poland after 1989, adopts a similar position: “I believe that radio and television broadcasting has developed very well in general. This reform was a success” (Piątek, 2020). Therefore, the aim of this work is also to supplement the historical narrative regarding the transformation of the broadcasting system in Poland and to show that, for example, when it comes to ensuring access to the airwaves for citizens, we cannot so unequivocally classify this process as successful.

Moreover, I would also like to show that the transformation of the radio system in Poland followed a certain pattern of media transformation in other countries during the political transformation, especially in Central-Eastern Europe. As indicated by researchers dealing with the transformation process in this region, in the initial period, we could observe the operation of the participatory democracy model in some countries, but it was soon followed by a period of strengthening the power of political parties and majority democracy (Hadjiiski, 2001: 43–46), which was accompanied by the remoteness of societies from the civic model (Skowera, 2006: 117). The lack of an appropriate state policy that would take into account the needs of citizens on the air, combined with the general market-oriented tendency prevailing in Central and Eastern Europe at that time, led to the collapse of many non-commercial initiatives close to local communities. Therefore, I will present the changes concerning radio broadcasters in Poland against the background of changes that took place in other countries of the region.

The previously described goals and tasks that I have set for myself in this book allow for the formulation of the following leading research questions.

←13 |

RQ1: Was the operating model of local pirate stations established in Poland similar to that of other pirate stations in the world, and in particular in Europe?

RQ2: Was the operating model of local pirate stations established in Poland similar to the operating model of community radio stations?

RQ3: To what extent did the process of transformation of the media in Poland, and especially of private radio broadcasting, fit into the process of transformation of the media in other countries undergoing systemic transformation, especially in Central-Eastern Europe?

RQ4: When designing a new media order in the field of private radio broadcasting, were authorities guided by the logic of the market or the logic of social benefit?

RQ5: Was it possible to design a more citizen and local community-friendly private radio system in the early 1990s?


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (January)
media policy community media non-commercial media broadcast media media in CEE media in transition
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 248 pp., 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Urszula Doliwa (Author)

Urszula Doliwa is Professor and Head of the Institute of Journalism and Social Communication at the University of Warmia and Mazury, Poland. Her research interests center on radio broadcasting and community media.


Title: Pirate Waves
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250 pages