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Author: Richard Barbrook

F.M. Fatale

Pirate Radio in 1980s London

It is 1.00 a.m. on a hot Saturday night at London’s King’s Cross station. Outside there is a traffic jam like the middle of a weekday rush hour. The northbound road is partially blocked by people dancing in the street. House music is being pumped out by a very loud car stereo. Outnumbered, the police look on with sullen faces. Suddenly an address is given out to members of the street party. Everybody is going to the rave!! Ten minutes later, the jam has disappeared and the station is deserted apart from the drunks and the queue for the late night bus. Why were all these people dancing in the road outside King’s Cross Station? Because they had heard on Sunrise Radio that this was the meeting point for the night’s entertainment.

Sunrise Radio is an illegal radio station which broadcasts on 88.75 FM from a tower block somewhere in East London. Along with Centreforce Radio on 88.3 FM, Sunrise is one of the leading stations in the new wave of pirate radio stations in London. At the end of 1988, the major London pirates stations stopped broadcasting so they could apply for new licences being offered by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). However, the listeners to pirate radios did not go away and they have transferred their loyalties to the stations which have continued on‑air. Over the last decade, the music pirates have been the central link in a network of venues, shops, musicians, DJs and drug dealers which make up the city’s club scene. These stations have popularised the new musical styles which only many months later make it onto mainstream radio. At present, the most popular London pirates devote themselves to non‑stop house music. This is a syncretic mix of disco, dub reggae and electronic pop created by the introduction of new computer technologies in the production and recording of music. The new pirates have not simply adopted a new style of music. They have also started to dispense with the old types of music radio inherited from the 1960s.

From the days of Radio Caroline onward, British radio adopted the American style of personality DJs playing records. The time‑checks, news, dedications, inane chat and bad jokes were an integral part of the show as the music. On the BBC, there even developed a more educated version of the same style where catalogue numbers and music information replaced the usual patter. Despite years of piracy, most DJs on the illegal stations have up to now followed the same format. At their worst, the pirates’ presenters sounded like bad imitations of mainstream radio. At best, they resembled a knowledgeable friend taking you through their record collection. But, nowadays, this personality DJ style is becoming as redundant as the 1920s BBC’s announcers in dinner‑jackets. When Sunrise Radio and Centreforce Radio are peaking, it is like having a sound system coming out of your radio. No dedications, no chat, no artist credits, no time checks, just records mixed into and on top of each other, with added sound effects and jingles. The occasional burst of ads is the only break in the music. The distance between club and radio DJ styles has disappeared.

This experimentation in music radio is possible because the government has been unable to stop pirate radio. The laws against illegal broadcasting are expensive to enforce and have crucial loopholes. For example, it is still legal to advertise on pirate stations. It only costs a few hundred pounds to buy a transmitter and makeshift studios are cheap. Creating music programmes is inexpensive as the major recording costs are paid for by the musicians themselves! Once on‑air, there is also the opportunity to make big money by using the station to promote clubs and events. As there are still dozens of spare frequencies, there is no technical barrier stopping people setting up their own pirate. With haphazard enforcement, nowadays most stations are more likely to lose their transmitters to gangsters than to the law.

Above all else, there is a growing audience for the pirates. The mainstream radio stations aren’t interested in updating either their tunes or their feel. For many years, the Home Office believed that the demand for pop music radio had been satisfied by BBC Radio 1 and the commercial stations. After a decade of piracy, they now know better. The Tory minister responsible for broadcasting has recently announced that British radio should move towards the USA’s free market model. Yet, despite its neo-liberal rhetoric, Margaret Thatcher’s government has carried out very little deregulation in the electronic media. In practice, it has wanted more centralised control over radio and television. Even when the Tories have encouraged new media, their initiatives have not been very successful. The recent opening up of cable and satellite television has already disappointed the hopes of many investors. Now the government is planning to licence hundreds of new commercial radio stations. But this too could quickly run into difficulties in this current period of high interest rates and falling advertising revenues. In the forthcoming Broadcasting Bill, the Tories are promising a ‘light touch’ regulatory authority for radio. Yet, the chair of this new body is to be Lord Chalfont who is a friend of Thatcher, MI5 and apartheid South Africa! Not surprisingly, the Tories’ plans for radio are much more focused on promoting profits than fostering free speech.

The Home Office envisages a move from a few stations broadcasting to large audiences to many stations narrowcasting to specialised audiences. Of course, in practice, simply adding to choice of outlets might worsen some existing services. For example, additional Top 40 stations could force Radio 1 adopt a more cautious musical policy. There is also the crucial question of whether there is enough money to run all of these new stations. The truth behind the hype will only be discovered as new stations come on‑air. The IBA has just started the process by licencing 21 new stations, including LJR (London Jazz Radio). This is the first specialist music channel in London and two more are promised soon. This franchise award has caused a minor scandal because leading members of LJR were seen wining and dining with Lord Chalfont before the announcement in the House of Lords restaurant. LJR also has a list of shareholders consisting of M.P.s, Peers, generals and other such people. This licence award may be dubious, but some more radical stations have been given franchises away from the capital.

However, this jazz station was not picked simply because it had powerful friends. It was also a compromise choice. Since the early-1980s, pirates have been playing a wide variety of black musical genres, including jazz. As the decade has progressed, their DJs have helped to start a minor jazz revival within London. For its licence bid, LJR recruited Gilles Peterson who is a veteran of many London pirates. For the IBA, jazz is black music, but only just. Nowadays it has become art and even high‑brow. But can the IBA also incorporate the more ragamuffin end of the pirates into the commercial system? So far the only licences given to ex‑pirates have been on low‑power or outside London. It is rumoured that the IBA still fear that black music stations could be used to ferment riots in this city! Groups associated with ex‑pirates, such as Kiss‑FM, Rhythm Radio, Horizon and JBC, have all sought the respectability of licences. But, in their bids, they all faced the problem of explaining how their proposed services could win over the listeners of the new wave of pirates.

Sunrise Radio, Centreforce Radio and their peers have fundamentally changed the sound of music radio in ways that the earlier pirates never did. This wasn’t just changing the groove from funk to house, but also the transformation of the DJ from personality to mixer. In Ondes de Choc, Claude Collin argued that innovative radio can only be created by stations as ephemeral as medium itself. The experimentation on London’s pirates took place because it is cheap and easy for amateurs to get on‑air. The institutionalisation inherent in licencing pirate radio might kill off their DJs’ creativity. In its licence bid, Rhythm Radio proposed a Channel 4 model of commissioning music programmes to try to square this circle. Yet, this approach does not satisfy the audience’s desire to listen to continuous house music on stations such as Sunrise Radio or Centreforce Radio. The reorganisation of the music industry around computer technologies and the convergence of the roles of DJ, musician and producer have concentrated the cutting edge of popular music in the rhythms of the sound system. Back in the 1960s, the Situationists believed that the supersession of art would only occur when everyone is an artist. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Sunrise and Centreforce is proving that anyone with two turntables, a fader and a microphone can now become a broadcaster …

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.