Importance of Pirate Radio

Monday 17th June 2013 | jim

Pirate radio is not a radio station run by a bunch of guys with wooden legs and eye-patches and a tendency to love a bit of rum and booty. Sorry to ruin those hopes and dreams. Although, maybe there is a radio station run by pirates somewhere, so I could stand corrected.

Pirate radio basically just means a station that is illegal and unlicensed, of which there are a huge number. Pirate radio was first popular in the 60s and then much later in the 80s and 90s. There are apparently estimated to be about 150 pirate radio stations in the UK, and a large proportion of these operating in London.

The boat that rocked is loosely based on one of the original stations: Radio Caroline 

Pirate radio first became widespread in the 1960s, in the UK, when stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London, began broadcasting from offshore ships or disused sea forts. To begin with these stations were not actually illegal though as they were broadcasting from international waters, but this did later change. The stations were set up to cater for the growing demand for rock and pop music, which the BBC radio was not providing. As with most pirate stations, the reason for their conception is to provide something that was not already there.  In reaction to the popularity of these pirate stations the BBC established radio 1, 2, 3 and 4 to provide a broader service. The UK government also closed the international waters loophole via an Act in 1967.

It wasn’t until later, in the 80s and 90s, that a resurgence in Pirate Radio happened. In London pirate stations emerged that, for the first time in UK radio, focused on particular music genres. Perhaps most famously KISS FM, focused on the dance music scene. As the stations grew they met with increasing opposition, especially from authorities. Despite this though Pirate radio continued to operate, targeting musical communities ignored by the mainstream broadcasting.

In the early 1990s the Department of Trade and Industry intensified crackdowns on the stations, and leading station Kiss FM responded to an amnesty offer, by closing the station and applying for an official licence. However, Kiss FM still failed to satisfy the rising rave audience and pirate radio stations continued to operate. Opposed to the regular radio format, pirate stations opted for ‘raves on air’ and an increased audience participation enabled with the rise of mobiles, something, which would later become a major element of legal radio.

Perhaps most famously of these 1990s stations that continued to help drive the growing interest in jungle and UK garage was Rinse FM, which like Kiss FM received its legal licence in 2010. Rinse FM demonstrates perfectly the importance that these stations have played, both in shaping popular music and the underground music scene in cities such as London.

DJ Geeneus in Tower Hamlets founded Rinse FM in 1994. In its early years the station predominantly focused on jungle music, the popular underground sound of the time, with a particular focus on the MC’s, which let Rinse stand out from other stations. When starting, and up until the FM licence, the broadcasts took place in secret, makeshift locations throughout East London, with aerials being perched on top of tower blocks, until the police shut them down, confiscating equipment worth a couple hundred quid a time.

Before Rinse Fm really got going though a few other stations really helped shape the premise for what Pirate radio should be. At the time Kool Fm and Don FM,  were critical in the development of Jungle, Breakbeat and drum and bass. Don Fm helped break artists such as Ed Rush, the Freestylers and Dj Deekline into the scene, whereas Kool Fm started in Birmingham, and later moved to London. Today though Kool FM is still broadcasting via the internet.  

Kool FM and Don FM were the other leading stations at the time within the jungle scene, and it wasn’t until Rinse changed to focus on the emerging garage scene that it really took off in popularity. Rinse FM, and many of the other pirate stations were instrumental in changing and helping develop the UK urban scenes such as grime and dubstep.

The battle with authorities was pretty fierce and in 2005 Ofcom disconnected a Rinse FM transmitter and Dean Fullman, or DJ Slimzee, received an ASBO, banning him from every rooftop in borough of Tower Hamlets. Despite this though, the laws in the UK is far more relaxed than other places, which means pirate stations

Finally in 2007 the station was given a legal licence, after a huge petition, which received hundreds of supporters within less than a week. Geeneus though was keen to point out that: “We don’t want to be legal so that we can make loads of money, but so that we can say: look at our scene, look at what we’re doing. We’re supplying something that no one else is providing.

during their 18th birthday celebrations Rinse FM produced a number of videos featuring those there at the begginning and those who have felt the influential power of the station 

Pirate radio stations are instrumental and in some cases essential for the development music. Without stations like Rinse, Grime and Dubstep would be very different and may not exist at all. The station provided a ground for artists to put out a sound that know one else was playing. Today looking at the musical landscape, so many songs in the charts have taken elements that although sounding different now, is essentially related to dubstep. 

However, the relationship is cyclical, and symbiotic. Without the music the stations would not exist and without the stations the music would not have a platform to develop and exist. Without previous stations such as Kiss providing earlier dance music, stations like Kool and Rinse would not have existed and quite possibly the whole music scene would be incredibly different. It is hard to say how much pirate stations, that were playing the underground sounds, that would inevitably become influential on the mainstream, were, but there is no doubt that there is a strong argument for their importance.

Since their conception pirate stations always played a music that had a want, or people were interested in, but that no other station was playing. As each station grew in popularity this music was pushed further into the mainstream, helping to evolve the ever-changing music scene into what it is today. As with everything what begins underground will inevitably end the mainstream.

But today pirate radio is changing. You no longer have to plonk a huge transmitter on top of a tower block somewhere, held together with bits of Sellotape. The influence of Pirate Radio is dwindling, and the power of the Internet is taking over to a certain extent. Now you can just get on the Internet and make your own station. It's no longer illegal, anyone can do it. It doesn’t have the same kind of appeal that pirate radio did though. Before only a certain part of London could receive the radio and even then tall tower blocks would quite often hinder the signal. Turning on a computer and just choosing from the thousands of stations is not exactly the same, but at least it has the same power to allow anyone to listen to whatever. Today even sites like Youtube provide a similar platform as anyone can uplaod their own videos and hope that followers tune in to witness their personal song production.

 Pirate radio is a good thing, but only with it being pirate. If it was all legal, then rules and regulations would have to be followed and the raw experimental progression which makes pirate radio so good would be lost. The energy surroudning pirate radio, and the pure love of music, which required these people to buy new transmitters and transmit for free is probably also somewhat invovled in the power it had to progress music. 


written by Jim Roberts