Bootlegging the Airwaves, Eleanor Patterson

The Fine Art of Bootlegging

Eleanor Patterson’s Bootlegging the Airwaves is a lively study of home-taping in the pre-digital era and the communities this “unpaid labor” created.

Bootlegging the Airwaves: Alternative Histories of Radio and Television Distribution
Eleanor Patterson
University of Illinois Press
February 2024

As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I recall nearly every household I visited having a stack of hand-labeled VHS tapes teetering on a shelf near the television. In high school, my fellow metalheads and I traded gonzo cassettes full of tunes taped from CHOM-FM, our nearest rock radio station out of Montreal, a couple of hours down Highway 10.

To this day, whenever I hear Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them“, my memory auto-inserts a DJ shouting “Hello! Hello! Hello!” over the song’s coda – a ghostly recollection of the song as I first heard it on one of those mixtapes. The first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’ comedy sci-fi, Back to the Future, I had no idea if Doc Brown survived being shot near the end of the movie. Our bootlegged VHS copy of the film ran out of tape just as Marty McFly touched the DeLorean back down in the world of 1985.

For media studies scholar Eleanor Patterson, such “altered imperfections” caused by technical glitches in the bootlegging process were more than simple mistakes. For dedicated collectors, they were the stamps of unauthorized exchange – the emblems of “time-shifting” through which bootleggers freed their favourite radio and television programs from the tyranny of “scheduled flow” predetermined by corporatized media.

Patterson’s new book, Bootlegging the Airwaves: Alternate Histories of Radio and Television Distribution, presents four in-depth case studies of bootlegging communities that recorded, documented, and traded radio and television broadcasts during the pre-digital era. The author devotes a chapter each to enthusiasts of old-time radio, fans of buddy-cop shows in the ’70s, Australian “Trekkies” (in the years before Star Trek was officially aired down under), and wrestling fan communities (before cable and digital access unified the once highly localized sport).

Patterson’s main argument analyzes how bootlegging depended on the “distributive labor” of unpaid enthusiasts to make “ephemeral content” – programs broadcast on a time grid aimed at maximizing advertising revenue – available for rewatching and wider redistribution. The fan clubs, fanzines, conferences, and trading communities that developed from this process bolstered listener and viewer interest. For Patterson, non-remunerative violations of copyright law from such ventures were outweighed by audience expansion, which was often beneficial to the original content and its cultural impact.   

Further, as Patterson shows, tape-trading communities – for example, women who loved the ’70s cop show Starsky & Hutch – created critical discussions around the shows they loved. One chapter of Bootlegging the Airwaves documents how queer (or “slash”) interpretations of Starsky and Hutch reimagined the two cops as “buddies” in a more than professional sense. Reimagined content could turn shows normally viewed as mere entertainment into sites of progressive discourse happening elsewhere in society.

Fan interpretations could be progressive or reactionary. A chapter on old-time radio documents how fans of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a long-running radio series first broadcast in 1928, challenged racial stereotypes the show was often accused of perpetuating. Some radio enthusiasts regarded Amos ‘n’ Andy as a racially charged relic of the past; others argued it was ahead of its time for presenting Black culture as part of the fabric of American life during the oppressive Jim Crow era. Patterson deploys meticulous research, scanning archives, interviewing collectors, and reading thousands of fanzines to build a cultural history and critical context around such debates.

Drawing from previous research on media culture by Raymond Williams and others, Patterson takes an implicitly Marxist stance against large media corporations and their policies of controlled content. In one striking case, she documents how US-based Paramount Communications staged a “crackdown on the communal viewing of Star Trek in clubs” in Australia. These enterprising clubs had built fan loyalty and potential viewership long before Star Trek (and its Next Generation offshoot) were seen on television down under. Yet, to Paramount, Star Trek bootleggers were mere copyright bandits to be squashed in the pursuit of maximized profit.

Bootlegging the Airwaves is written in academic prose lively enough to remain accessible to any reader interested in the subject. Patterson lightens the tone occasionally with digressions into personal anecdotes about her own bootlegging experiences. Especially welcome are the many quotations from devoted and sometimes eccentric folks for whom “fan labor” was a labour of love. 

Readers seeking a complete history of bootlegging practices will not find it in Patterson’s relatively brief book. Her introduction limits the breadth of a topic that might have encompassed cinema, other television genres, and the bootlegging of music performances – such as private “air shot” and “air check” recordings of radio broadcasts that remain crucial in the preservation of live jazz. Patterson’s case studies provide an appropriate scope for Bootlegging the Airwaves while signaling tantalizing opportunities for further research on the subject.   

RATING 7 / 10