UK Garage music

History of pirate radio



Pirate radio history



The text below is taken from a book by Simon Reynolds entitled ENERGY FLASH

Pirate radio gets its romantic name not just from its flagrant flouting of government restrictions on the airwaves, but from its early days in the sixties, when unlicensed stations broadcast from ships anchored at sea just outside British territorial waters, or from derelict Army & Navy forts on the Thames estuary.

By 1966, Radio London claimed over eight million listeners, and Radio Caroline over six million, pirate DJ's were cult stars and stations had their own fan clubs. But this first golden age of pirate radio came to an abrupt end when Harold Wilson's Labour government instituted the Marine Broadcasting offences act in August 1967, making it unlawful to operate, finance or aid in any way an unlicensed station. As a sop to public demand, the BBC launched its own national pop station, Radio One, and recruited many pirate DJ's, such as Tony Blackburn, John Peel, Johnny Walker and Dave Lee Travis.

In the early eighties, pirate radio entered its second boom period, with the rise of black music stations like Horizon, JFM (Jazz Funk Music), Dread Broadcasting Corporation and LWR, specializing in the soul, reggae and funk that Radio One marginalized. But the nautical connotations of "pirate" had faded; the new pirates broadcast not just from the mainland, but from tower blocks in the heart of the metropolis.

As the Government closed loopholes in the law and increased the penalties, the illegal stations grew ever more cunning in their struggle to outwit the anti pirate agents of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The invention of the microlink (a method of relaying the station's signal to a distant transmitter) made it harder for the DTI to trace and raid the illegal stations studio-HQ. The result was an explosion of piracy; by 1989-90, there were over 600 stations nationwide, and 60 in the London area alone. And by 1989, a new breed of rave pirates - Sunrise, Centre force, Dance FM, Fantasy - had joined the ranks of established black dance stations like LWR and Kiss.

As in the sixties, the Government responded with the double whammy of suppression and limited permission. In a weird echo of the pardons offered to buccaneers and corsairs in the seventeenth century, pirate stations were offered an amnesty if they went off the air, and a chance to apply for one of the bonanza of licenses being made available as part of the Conservatives government's policy of "freeing" the airwaves. LWR and Kiss closed down voluntarily but only Kiss won a license.

The legitimization of Kiss FM, in combination with an ultra tough Broadcasting act in January 1990, reduced pirate activity to its lowest since 1967. But in 1992, the London pirates resurged massively, as a crucial component of hardcore raves underground infrastructure, alongside home-studio recording, indie labels, white label releases and specialist record stores. Abandoning the last vestiges of mainstream pop radio protocol, the new 'ardkore pirates sounded like raves on the air': rowdy, chaotic, with the DJ's voiceover replaced by a raucous rave style MC (master of ceremonies), and with a strong emphasis on audience participation (enabled by the spread of the portable cellular phone, which made the studio location impossible to trace by the DTI).

Despite the governments fresh package of draconian penalties (the threat of unlimited fines, prison sentences of up to two years and the confiscation of all studio equipment - including the DJ's precious record collection), 1992-3 saw the biggest boom in the history of radio piracy. Undeterred, the pirate attitude was, in the words of a track by Rum and Black - "F**K the legal stations".

Extract from Energy Flash, by Simon Reynolds.

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