Pirate radio has long since been a hugely successful medium in the UK. However, increasing support for digitalisation initiatives poses a direct threat to their traditional means of broadcasting.
Originally derived from the offshore setups that bootlegged transmissions from rigs and boats throughout the seas, Pirate radio spread unlicensed broadcasts directly to listeners back on land. Famously, stations like Radio Caroline and Radio London – the latter of which gave the infamous John Peel his radio break – sprung up throughout the 1960s. Although many of the Pirate originators reconstitute the image of Bohemian flower children rebelling against the systematic repression of culture by governments disinterested in peace, free love, and music, they paved way for the future urban movements of the late-80s and 90s. These successive rejuvenations of Pirate radio underpinned the British rave scene. As Rock and Psychedelia had done in the 60s, the foundations of Drum and Bass took hold within sentiments of social disillusionment on behalf of an increasingly disenfranchised youth. Pirate radio steadied the ship. It offered young people the ability to dictate their terms. There would be no censorship, no curfew. Just a channel through which they could forge their future; the ability to express their passion.
In-turn, Pirate radio popularised many underground genres during the end of the 20th century. In an age before streaming platforms, it represented the core of many dance movements. At first, traditional mainstream stations largely avoided the underground sound in favour of Britpop and Alt-Rock. Yet Pirate radio nurtured genres like jungle and garage towards their commercial success. Dedicated stations popped up throughout the country but were mainly concentrated across London – their aerials broadcasting from the tops of tower blocks to reach far and wide, fixtures of the concrete jungle. Pirate networks also propelled the nightlife. For instance, Kool FM was instrumental in promoting ‘Jungle Fever’ during the early-90s. These stations provided DJs with a place to hone their skills, with the aforementioned Kool hosting Brockie, Ron, and Bryan Gee. Other notable starts include Randall and Kenny Ken on Centreforce and Ed Rush on Don FM. Alongside record stores, Pirate radio quickly became deeply ingrained with the identity of Drum and Bass and underground music.
As Pirate stations grew into fixtures of community culture, they faced a more demanding paradox. Most were still operating illegally, criticised for their bandwidth interference, and thus faced being shut down by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Radio Authority and its successor, Ofcom. As such, some stations left their Pirate roots behind and applied for broadcast licences. Kiss FM became the first legal radio station dedicated to dance music when it relaunched in 1990. The regulatory authorities later introduced a scheme to help support local stations with a specific audience and a perceived positive-social impact through the ‘Community Radio’ program. One of the most prominent is London’s Rinse FM, instrumental in the development of Dubstep and Grime through its own label, which gained a license in 2010.
There has, in the recent past, been talk of a “digital switchover” of radio in the UK. This is similar to the process which phased out analogue television in Britain between 2007 and 2012. According to RAJAR – the agency responsible for measuring radio audiences – only 44% of British radio listeners still use analogue in 2019. It only took a year for this figure to fall from 50%. Additionally, the analogue system is restricted by frequency, whilst digital radio minimises the bit rate of transmissions to allow more stations to be broadcast. Consequently, the proposal to digitalise radio has experienced a boost in support. Although nothing has yet been cemented, the digitalisation of radio is inevitable as the UK modernises. The FM pirate broadcasts will soon be no more.
But hope is not lost. Ironically, part of the process that kills off analogue radio is promising to be the saviour of its stations. Many have made the transition to concurrently broadcast online. In 2006 Rinse began broadcasting online, and Kool FM relaunched online as Kool London in 2010. A paper published back in 2009 suggested that although online radio stations had been around since the mid-1990s, they lacked any real listener base. This was plausibly based upon a lack of familiarity with the medium and a low affinity with radio listening. However, as generations have grown up with the internet, our online presence and competence has increased. Alongside this transfer to the internet, a new wave of stations firmly rooted in their online presence have magnetised followers. Stations like Balamii, Reprezent, and NTS have established incredible reputations for themselves.
Through these, it appears the essence of Pirate radio is still very much alive. The DIY attitude that drove Pirate reflects how the spirit of music in the UK is still deeply rooted in the underground, even if the music itself is becoming more popular. Balamii recently started their own booking agency, whilst Reprezent has worked closely with Lovebox to broadcast the festival and establish a free training initiative to develop talent in the local community. Using the internet means that stations are no longer restricted by location. They can transmit to a global audience. Archived programming means their content creators can build catalogues of work uploaded to sites like Soundcloud and Mixcloud. The integration of social media into this model has boosted popularity, and the option to broadcast to sites likes Facebook maintains interaction between creators and their audience.
Although the dial may soon be dead, pirate radio won’t be. Perhaps no longer pirate in nature, the self-reliant mentality that has proven to support the medium time and time again has driven it to develop into the age of the Internet. The homespun ethic is still fuelling young creatives to this day. The future is more than bright for radio in the UK. Internet broadcasting has re-affirmed that music is for the people. The ability to dictate your own broadcasts and show love to what you’re passionate about keeps scenes alive and fruitful. It allows artists to gain exposure and develop their sound and empowers them to forge careers for themselves.