Britain’s pirate radio stations of the 1960s broadcast bands like the Who and the Rolling Stones to teenagers across the U.K. But when Oliver Smedley helped launch the offshore radio revolution, he didn’t have music on his mind. A classical liberal—he preferred the word radical—influenced by F.A. Hayek and Ronald Coase, Smedley was on a mission to break up the British Broadcasting Corporation’s monopoly of the airwaves.
Adrian Johns tells Smedley’s story capably in Death of a Pirate (Norton). Johns is both a sharp intellectual historian and a talented storyteller, a man who can lucidly explain libertarian critiques of copyright laws and central planning but is also at home spinning tales of aquatic raids and double agents. Not just a compelling history of the BBC and its foes, Johns’ book is an engrossing true-crime tale: Smedley ended up on trial for manslaughter after shooting an angry partner. The edge of the law turns out to be a risky place to do business.