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Author: Richard Barbrook


An Analysis of British Radio in the 1990s

Radio in the Recession

In January 1991, the Bristol radio station For The People (FTP) was relaunched as Galaxy. Instead of a name promising community service, the Bristol station now shares the same trademark as a chocolate bar. This change in image symbolised the final stage in the corporate takeover of the station. Originally, FTP was a pirate station broadcasting to Bristol’s black community. After obtaining the licence, FTP was set up as a commercial station playing black music. But, FTP retained many of the ideals of its pirate days, such as the provision of speech programmes for the local Afro‑Caribbean community. However, in the current slump, FTP was unable to raise enough advertising revenue to pay its bills. Therefore, the black founders of FTP have lost control of the station to a local commercial radio group, Chiltern Radio. As Galaxy, the Bristol station has adopted a pop‑orientated dance music format and its community programmes have been axed. (Kavanagh 1991; 1991a) The collapse of FTP is only one of many failures among the incremental radio stations recently licenced in Great Britain. In almost every case, existing commercial radio stations have taken control from the original owners of the incremental licences. The change in management is soon followed by the abandonment of minority programmes and the introduction of a more mainstream music format. (Goodwin 1991) Even in London, Kiss‑FM has only escaped a corporate take‑over by watering down its dance music format with more chart hits. (Now Radio 1991)

The incremental radio licences were originally introduced by the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority) to provide extra specialist stations for areas with an existing commercial radio station. (IBA 1989: 7). Over the last two years, the IBA has awarded 21 incremental radio licences across the country. (IBA 1988; IBA 1988a) These incremental stations were the ‘forerunners’ of the ‘hundreds’ of new stations envisaged under the 1990 Broadcasting Act. (IBA 1989a: 1) For many years, neo‑liberal pressure groups within the Conservative party have demanded the reorganisation of British radio broadcasting along American lines. In their view, listeners would prefer a choice of many different stations operating under deregulated market competition, rather than the limited number of regulated channels offered by the existing radio system. (Adam Smith Institute 1984) But, with the economy in recession, commercial radio stations are sacking staff and combining into larger groups to survive the fall in advertising revenue. (Goodwin 1991) In its first stage, the neo‑liberal strategy for the expansion of radio broadcasting is already failing.

The Rule of the Duopoly

The major reason for the weakness of commercial radio in Great Britain is the popularity of the stations run by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). During 1990, the BBC stations obtained just under 60% of the total radio audience. (Kavanagh 1991c) The predominance of the BBC dates back nearly seventy years. During the 1920s, the BBC was set up as a broadcasting monopoly by the radio set manufacturers. Under pressure from the newspaper proprietors, the British government decided radio broadcasting couldn’t be funded by advertising. Instead, a licence fee was levied on all radio set owners to pay for the BBC’s services. (Barbrook 1985) Although the licence fee was a price for listening to radio programmes, the state collection of money for a private company was opposed by many politicians. (Sykes 1923; Crawford 1926) Therefore, the Conservative government decided to turn the BBC into a nationalised corporation. With no competitors and secure funding, the BBC was more insulated from the preferences of its listeners than foreign stations funded by advertising. Instead of maximising its audience, the BBC had political and cultural goals. Reith, the BBC’s first Director‑General, centralized most programme‑making in London. Under his control, radio broadcasting was used to impose the culture of the ruling class of South‑East England on the rest of the country. For example, ‘BBC English’ was created out of the Home Counties dialect. In its schedules, the BBC provided a choice of programmes, which covered the different tastes of the social classes. But, Reith only provided ‘cheap and catchy music’ to encourage radio listening by working class people. But, once these new listeners were tuned in, Reith believed that they could be led to an appreciation of ‘good music’ by inserting the classical concerts in the schedules. (Reith 1924: 174) Eventually, Reith hoped radio broadcasting would unite the British nation around a common method of speech, musical taste and political views: ‘the same music rings sweetly in mansion as in cottage.’ (Reith 1924: 217)

Since Reith’s days, the BBC has grown into the largest electronic media corporation in Great Britain. Nowadays, the two television channels have displaced radio broadcasting as the centre of the BBC’s activities. During the 1980s, only one‑third of total BBC expenditure was spent on radio broadcasting. (Peacock 1986: 13). However, the BBC still remains the dominant company within this sector. The corporation controls five national networks, regional services and 38 local stations. The national networks are divided into 5 specialist services:

  • Radio 1: Pop music and youth programmes;
  • Radio 2: Easy listening and nostalgia;
  • Radio 3: Classical music;
  • Radio 4: News, drama and ‘meaningful speech’;
  • Radio 5: Education, sport, youth and general.

Through these channels, the BBC provides a choice of programmes for listeners of all ages and classes. The national networks are aimed at specific demographic groups. While Radio 3 has a music service for the richer and older audience, Radio 1 broadcasts records favoured by poorer and younger listeners. Over the decades, the BBC has created a distinct style of public service broadcasting. As under the Reith, the corporation tries to provide a ‘universal service’ for all British listeners. But, instead of providing a mix of programmes for all types of listeners on one channel, the BBC now produces a choice of specialist services covering various audiences formed by the age and class differences within British society. Moreover, the corporation hasn’t lost its bias towards high culture over the years. Thus, despite having one‑fifth of its audience, Radio 3 receives twice as much income as Radio 1. (Barnett and Morrison 1988: 15; Peacock 1986: 13).

Yet, the committment to provide programmes for different types of listeners has resulted in a wide variety of programmes in the BBC schedules, from drama to reggae music. In addition, the necessity of winning listeners from different backgrounds has created a limited form of political pluralism within the BBC’s news and current affairs programmes. During the 1980s, Thatcher’s hostility towards the corporation was caused by the BBC’s unsycophantic coverage of her policies. For the BBC, the creation of public service broadcasting has been a great success. This is not only reflected in the high ratings of BBC radio stations, but also in the high levels of satisfaction with the corporation’s performance discovered in listener surveys. (Barnett and Morrison 1988: 34‑5) During Thatcher’s rule, this public support protected the BBC from schemes for the privatisation and commercialisation of the corporation, which were advocated by neo‑liberal pressure groups. When the Peacock committee examined broadcasting, it recommended not only the privatisation of Radios 1 and 2, but also the introduction of advertising on BBC local stations. However, fearing public opposition, these proposals were subsequently rejected by the Thatcher government. (Peacock 1986: 140‑1; Home Office 1987: 21) With a loyal listenership, the BBC remains the dominant force in British radio broadcasting.

In contrast, commercial radio broadcasting has remained the weaker sector within the British radio system. During the 1960s, the BBC’s monopoly over radio broadcasting in Great Britain was ended by offshore pirate radio stations operating from the North Sea. Because of cultural elitism, the BBC refused to create an all‑day pop music service for young working class listeners. Instead, by using a top 40 format, the pirate stations gained the large audience for this type of music. In turn, companies seeking younger consumers started advertising on these illegal stations. With the popularity of the pirates increasing, the Labour government decided to close down the pirate ships by cutting off their advertising revenue. Simultaneously, the BBC was authorised to set up a pop music service, known as Radio 1. This station not only copied the top 40 format of the pirates, but also employed most of its DJs from the outlawed stations. (Chapman 1991)

Although Radio 1 provided the choice of a pop music service for young listeners, the companies interested in running commercial stations were still prevented from obtaining licences. In 1972, a Conservative government decided to licence commercial radio stations. Under new legislation, the IBA was established as the regulatory authority and transmitting company for the new commercial stations. After rival bids were considered, the IBA was empowered to award only one commercial radio licence in each city or area of Great Britain, with the exception of two stations for London. Under the law, all commercial stations were only allowed to broadcast as the ‘IBA’s agents’. (IBA 1989: 4) In theory, this dependence on IBA transmitting facilities ensured the observance of various public service requirements by the franchise‑holders. In their franchise bids, the new commercial radio stations promised to provide a wide range of programmes in their schedules. However, soon after winning the licences, most commercial radio stations adopted the top 40 format of the pirates and Radio 1.

Despite having a local monopoly over radio advertising, the British commercial stations have never been financially successful, except in the major cities. Although a large number of British people listen to the radio, only a minority tune into the commercial stations. (IPA 1987a: 6; Kavanagh 1991c) In turn, the low listenership of commercial stations has reduced the amount of advertising money spent in this sector of the mass media. While over 10% of advertising money is spent on radio commercials in France or the USA, only 2.3% of the agencies’ campaigns goes into this medium in Great Britain. (Peacock 1986: 69) Among advertising agencies, radio broadcasting is disparagingly known as the ’2% medium’. (IPA 1987a: 14) Thus, the commercial radio sector has never raised enough advertising revenue to challenge the BBC’s dominance over radio broadcasting. Without money, the commercial stations couldn’t produce enough quality programmes to gain audiences. But, without a large listenership, the advertising agencies weren’t interested in using radio for their campaigns.

The Challenge of the Pirates

What is more, the commercial radio stations weren’t only financially unsuccessful. The top 40 format adopted by these stations excluded many other types of music, especially those favoured by ethnic communities. As in the 1960s, the refusal of licenced stations to play certain styles of music created an audience for pirate stations. During the early‑1980s, land‑based pirate stations appeared in London and other major cities. Soon, illegal broadcasting evolved beyond the craze of a few hobbyists into a serious challenge to the BBC and commercial radio stations. The new microelectronic technologies had created cheap radio transmitters, which could cover a whole city for only £250. By promoting their own clubs, DJs and engineers could survive the regular confiscation of their transmitters by the DTI (Department of Trade & Industry), which was responsible for policing the airwaves. By the late‑1980s, the pirate radio stations had become an integral part of the ‘ragamuffin’ economy, which ranged from drugs to warehouse parties. (Barbrook 1987: 96‑9; 1988: 82‑4)

Unlike other European Community countries, there have been few political pirate stations in Great Britain. Instead, the major pirate stations have won substantial audiences by playing black dance music. In the early‑1980s, this music was usually African‑American in origin. However, in the last few years, the pirates have helped to popularise British and European dance music records. Since the arrival of Afro‑Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s, British popular music has evolved through different cross‑fertilisations of black and white influences. (Hebdige 1979: 46‑70) Moreover, because of the ‘morbidity of English culture’, black styles of music have been adopted as a mark of ‘distinction’ by large sections of the British working class. (Gilroy 1989; Bourdieu 1984) In the late‑1980s, house music emerged as the dominant sound within British clubs. As with previous musical styles, house music was denounced by the right‑wing newspapers for encouraging sexual and chemical hedonism. Once again, young workers were castigated for being more interested in short‑term pleasure than long‑term responsibilities. However, house music wasn’t simply a moral panic. The new musical style was created by the availability of cheap computer technologies, such as samplers and MIDIs. This was part of the long‑term shift within popular music away from live performances towards studio production and DJ-ing. (Frith 1988; Franklin 1991) As with radio transmitters, cheap microelectronics dramatically lowered the price of computer and studio technologies. This fall in the price of electronic instruments encouraged more people to make their own recordings. In turn, these new musicians relied on the pirate stations to popularise their records. For example, most house music records have only been included in the top 40 formats of BBC and commercial radio stations after becoming hits on the pirate stations. Contrary to the low‑tech image of radio, both the hardware and software used by the pirates were on the leading edge of the new microelectronic technologies.

In one week of the summer of 1989, there were 35 pirate stations broadcasting in London, 8 of them in stereo. (Anoraks 1989: 3) By the late‑1980s, it had become very cheap to set up an unlicenced radio station. For example, Centreforce, a London house music pirate, started broadcasting for only £1,300. (Heley 1989: 15) The further proliferation of pirates was only checked by the DTI confiscations of illegal transmitters. However, because of the cheapness of transmitters, the policing of the radio spectrum became increasingly expensive. Between 1985 and 1988, the DTI spent £2,000,000 enforcing the broadcasting law. (Butcher 1988) By the late‑1980s, it became obvious that the DTI’s efforts were doomed to failure. The pirates were earning enough money from advertising and clubs to cover the costs of transmitters removed by the DTI. In effect, the impossibility of enforcing the ban on unlicenced broadcasting had created a form of radical deregulation. Although the DTI could harry individual pirates off‑air, new illegal stations quickly emerged to replace them. In turn, the continued existence of the pirates created public pressure for legal stations playing black music. For example, in one London survey of radio audiences, nearly half of Afro‑Caribbeans were found to be regularly listening to the pirate stations. (Barnett and Morrison 1988: 78‑9) Thus, the government was forced to admit that the popularity of pirates had demonstrated the demand for a wider choice of radio services. (Home Office 1987: 14)

The Neo‑Liberal Solution

As in other European Community countries, pressure for the expansion of commercial radio broadcasting in Great Britain didn’t only come from the pirate stations. During the 1980s, the media corporations and the advertising agencies were lobbying for the deregulation of radio broadcasting. (Barbrook 1988) In this campaign, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) has played a leading role. In its view, there needed to be not only a rapid growth in the number of local commercial stations, but also the licencing of National Commercial Radio stations (NCRs). Within the IBA system, eleven regional conglomerates of local commercial stations had already been formed. These amalgamations were sanctioned by the IBA to prevent the weaker members of the commercial system from bankruptcy. (Vick 1988) At present, FTP and other failing incremental stations are being incorporated into these commercial radio groups. According to the IPA, this process of concentration should be taken further by licencing national networks. The creation of the NCRs and more local stations was designed to create a ‘critical mass’ of commercial radio listeners for the advertising agencies. With a greater choice of services, the commercial radio system could gain larger audiences. In turn, this should increase substantially the amount of advertising money spent on radio commercials. (IPA 1987: 4) According to the IPA, a significant rise in the number of listeners to commercial radio stations could double the percentage of total advertising revenue received by this sector of the mass media. (IPA 1987: 12) For many commercial radio companies, a large increase in radio’s share of advertising spending was the only guarantee of long‑term financial success for their stations. (Goodwin 1991

The Conservative government also saw the licencing of more commercial stations as a solution to the collapse of the laws against illegal broadcasting. By filling up vacant frequencies with legal services, radio piracy could be made technically impossible. For example, the NCR service on the FM band will exclude many local stations from the airwaves by occupying many different frequencies across the country. (Home Office 1987: 43) In addition, the  legalisation of pirate radio broadcasting will dramatically increase the costs of becoming involved in operating a station. Outside the law, the pirates didn’t have to pay copyright fees, wages and other overhead costs. Even with lighter regulation, it will be very much more expensive to run a legal local station than a pirate operation. This financial barrier is be even higher for the NCRs. Under the 1990 Broadcasting Act, a NCR licence‑holder has to be rich enough not only to construct a nationwide network of transmitters, but also to bid for the franchise in a competitive auction. (Broadcasting Act 1990: 88‑96) In the first franchise contest, the NCR FM licence was initially awarded to Showtime. But, when this group failed to raise enough money, the licence had to be reallocated to Classic FM, which did have the necessary investment. Despite this drama, the auction system successfully restricted the NCR franchise to commercial companies financed by the major financial institutions. (Kavanagh 1991d; Now Radio 1991a)

At present, determined people can participate in radio broadcasting by setting up a pirate station. Once there are no vacant frequencies, only groups with enough money to run a station along business lines will gain access to the airwaves. However, despite the discriminatory intentions of present government policy, many pirate stations still support the expansion of commercial radio proposed in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. Because most pirates are already run as small businesses, their owners are as much yuppies as ragamuffins. Moreover, for many within the Afro‑Caribbean community, the pirates are an integral part of the construction of an independent black business sector. Ironically, this oppositional nationalism has created the conditions for the assimilation of black pirates within the commercial radio system. For FTP and other ex‑pirates, the legalisation of the pirates as commercial companies was welcomed as long as the majority of shares were owned by black people. (Gilroy 1989)

The planned future of British commercial radio is based on the system of competing stations with different formats developed in the USA. Because they are funded by advertising, these American stations try attract those audiences which can be sold to advertisers. Using careful research, each station’s format is constructed around a particular playlist of records. (Barnes 1988: 43) Within a station’s service area, the potential listeners are already segmented by the division of labour under capitalism into classes and class fractions. The various classes and class fractions within industrial societies use music and other forms of culture as a way of marking themselves out from each other. Moreover, within the individual classes, the different generations also have their own cultural preferences. (Bourdieu 1984: 60, 83‑4, 326‑7) The programme controllers of format stations use these musical marks of ‘distinction’ to create an individual playlist suited for a particular audience. If successful, the style of music used in the format will attract the desired section of the radio audience.

In theory, the format radio system should give the widest possible choice of services for listeners. As more licences are given out, so stations will provide increasingly specialised services for specific sections of the radio audience. If a commercial station broadens its format to gain a larger audience, it is in danger of losing its existing listeners to rivals who provide a more specialised service. (Routt, McGrath and Weiss 1978: 35‑7) As competition increases, the radio audience will be increasingly fragmented into different classes and age‑groups. On the one hand, the classical music stations will attract the richest and oldest audience. On the other hand, dance music stations will have the poorest and youngest listeners. The stations with other formats will be position in-between these economic and cultural poles. (Barbrook 1990: 210) In place of broadcasting a mix of programmes for listeners from different classes and ages, each format radio station narrowcasts a specific service for each section of the radio audience. Under this system, a single public service broadcasting corporation is no longer needed for the provision of specialised formats. Instead, competition between different commercial stations for specialist audiences ensures that every major group of listeners will have a format provided for their cultural needs. (Routt, McGrath and Weiss 1978: 33)

Although the advocates of format radio promise a variety of specialised services, the results of competition between many commercial stations are different in practice. In the USA, the format radio system doesn’t provide programmes for all sections of the audience. Because they are funded by commercials, American radio stations won’t adopt formats aimed at poorer listeners. Instead, successful formats will be duplicated across several channels, especially if they attract high‑spending audiences. Thus, market competition in radio broadcasting can only create a limited choice between formats aimed at the larger and richer demographic groups in society. In its recent broadcasting legislation, the British government has recognised these limits on the adoption of laissez‑faire policies in the electronic media. Despite rhetoric of deregulation, there has not been any substantial weakening of controls over radio broadcasting. Because of the sector’s past economic difficulties, the IBA had already lifted most of the public service commitments of the commercial radio stations. In the 1970s, the commercial stations were allow to abandon their minority programmes for a narrow top 40 format. In recent years, the rules over networking of programmes, sponsorship and the concentration of station ownership have been relaxed as well. (Barbrook 1988: 73‑7)

In the 1990 law, the major change carried out in radio broadcasting was the replacement of the IBA by a new regulatory body, called the Radio Authority. (Broadcasting Act 1990: 76‑9) After this reorganisation, the radio regulatory body no longer acted as the transmission company for the commercial radio franchise‑holders. However, the new Radio Authority still retained extensive powers over the commercial radio stations. When the incremental stations were licenced, each franchise holder had to sign a ‘promise of performance’ as part of its licence contract with the IBA. (IBA 1989: 7) This statement pledged the station to produce only ‘…programmes aimed to appeal within an identified geographical area either to a specialist need or interest or community…’ (IBA 1989b: 1) If a station failed to fulfill this promise, the radio regulatory body could impose fines and other sanctions on the offending franchise‑holder. Now the 1990 act has been passed, all commercial radio stations will have to give a ‘promise of performance’ as part of their licence agreement. As a choice of services can’t be ensured by competition, the Radio Authority uses regulation to ensure a diversity of formats across the commercial radio stations licenced in each city or region.

The duplication of the same format by different commercial stations hasn’t been outlawed solely to preserve the choice of services for radio listeners. The close regulation of radio broadcasting is also needed to protect the shaky finances of the existing commercial radio stations. Despite having a local monopoly over the sale of radio advertising in its own transmission area, most commercial stations have been almost continual financial difficulties since their launch. During the 1981‑2 ‘monetarist shock’, many stations were severely weakened by the collapse in advertising spending, which led to cutbacks and redundancies. (Peacock 1986: 20) Along with the rest of British industry, the finances of commercial radio broadcasting slowly improved in the mid‑1980s. But, even then, nearly one‑quarter of the stations were still running at a loss. (Phillips 1985; Phillips 1986; Phillips 1987) Finally, when the Lawson credit boom had overstimulated the whole economy, there was a substantial rise in the advertising revenue of all commercial radio stations. For a brief moment, the commercial stations enjoyed windfall profits, with even the weakest stations making money. (Deloitte, Haskins and Sells 1988)

Because of the optimism generated by Lawson’s ‘economic miracle’, the Conservative government assumed that there would be no difficulties in expanding the number of commercial radio stations. However, the passing of the new Broadcasting Act has coincided with the arrival of another economic slump. During 1990, there was a large decline in advertising revenue, which sent many commercial radio stations back into losses. FTP and other incremental stations were among the first victims of the recession in the commercial radio sector. (Goodwin 1991) With many incrementals being taken over, the ‘promise of performance’ has become the crucial method of regulating radio broadcasting. In the USA, a failed station can abandon its old format and introduce a more popular service. But, in Great Britain, the ‘promise of performance’ inhibits an owner of a loss‑making radio station from adopting a radically different format. In effect, the ‘promise of performance’ prevents any competition with the top 40 and oldies formats provided by the original commercial radio stations. Similarly, the recently awarded NCR FM franchise has been forbidden from playing any pop records made after 1960. (Kavanagh 1991b) By preventing duplication of the most successful formats, the Radio Authority can protect the main commercial radio stations from insolvency. After a decade of neo‑liberalism, British commercial radio broadcasting still depends for its survival on close regulation of the sector by the state.

While radio broadcasting remains the ’2% medium’, tight regulation will be needed to protect this sector from too intensive competition. But, a rapid expansion in commercial radio broadcasting is still planned. For many commercial radio operators, only a ‘quantum leap’ in the number of listeners will finally make the sector profitable. (Goodwin 1991) However, their dreams of a virtuous circle of growing audiences and advertising revenue aren’t only threatened by the recession, but also by the continuing dominance of the television sector. Because they were licenced first, the commercial television stations already had a strong position within the advertising market when the commercial radio franchises were awarded. (Peacock 1986: 94) The expansion of both terrestrial and satellite commercial television broadcasting will further intensify the competition for corporate advertisers between the two types of electronic media. In this struggle, commercial radio broadcasting also suffers from the hostility of many listeners to radio advertising. Unlike television advertising, many British people think radio commercials are annoying and unpleasant. This widespread view not only reduces the potential audience of commercial stations, but also their usefulness of their advertising slots for the agencies. (Barnett and Morrison 1988: 46) Thus, even without a slump, there are severe economic limitations on the expansion of commercial radio broadcasting in Great Britain. Although frequencies remain unused, the shortage of sufficient advertising revenue will hamper the rapid growth of the commercial radio secto

The Community Radio Alternative

With the expansion of commercial broadcasting stalled, the British government can only prevent more radio piracy by repression. During 1991, the increased penalties for running a pirate station in the recent broadcasting legislation have temporarily checked the increase in illegal stations. However, the repression of the pirate stations is a costly solution to the problem of illegal broadcasting. Hence, for the Conservative government, the granting of more commercial radio licences was never a form of deregulation. Instead, this policy was introduced to re-regulate a section of the electronic media outside all government controls. But, without sufficient commercial radio licences, there will still be space on the FM band for pirate stations. As a consequence, other ways of expanding radio broadcasting are being examined again. In 1986, the Home Office [Ministry of the Interior] almost licenced a number of community radio stations across the country. (Barbrook 1987) Although this scheme was abandoned, 3 of the later incremental stations were members of the community radio movement. In Great Britain, the Community Radio Association (CRA) has been campaigning over many years for the establishment of a third tier of radio broadcasting, organised differently from both BBC and commercial services. For the CRA, community radio stations must be non‑commercial organisations, such as co‑operatives or voluntary organisations. Using overseas experience, the CRA has lobbied for the recognition of this new sector of radio broadcasting. (CRA 1987; Jones 1987/8) Over recent years, the CRA has had an ambiguous relationship with the pirates. On the one hand, many CRA members disapprove of the illegal tactics of the pirates. But, on the other hand, some CRA activists are involved in pirate stations. But, with the limitations of commercial radio stations becoming apparent, there has been a gradual convergence between the two different groups fighting for access to the airwaves.

Crucially, both pirate and community radio stations share one fundamental characteristic: they are do‑it‑yourself media. Although it is an old discovery, radio has benefited from the latest advances in microelectronic technologies. With contemporary recorders and mixers, it is nowadays cheaper and easier for amateurs to make radio programmes than in the past. Moreover, participation in radio broadcasting is encouraged by developments in other communications technologies, as with the homemade house music records played by British pirate stations. In turn, these advances in media technologies can help to transform the methods of production as well. The weakening of skill hierarchies within radio broadcasting facilitates the creation of internal democracy within a community radio station. Thus, the CRA stresses the need for all community radio stations to be organised as co‑operatives or voluntary organisations. By participating in programme‑making, listeners can become involved in the management of their community radio station. For the CRA, community radio stations act as focal points for those listeners ignored by the state and commercial radio stations, such as ethnic communities or neighbourhoods. In addition, this type of station can provide a space for cultural experimentation. Contrary to the promises of the neo‑liberals, format radio stations are usually culturally conservative. With the need to win ratings, format stations wouldn’t risk alienating existing listeners with new styles of music. In contrast, community radio stations can take more risks in their musical and other programmes. Moreover, the creation of community radio stations is closely connected with the wider struggles for more democracy within capitalist societies. Once they can run their own radio station, people are encouraged to demand participation in other social institutions. (Barbrook 1987: 117‑26)

According to one unlicenced broadcaster, ‘the real reason for pirate radio lies in a basic ethos, which is “knowledge is power”.’ (Holiday 1990: 48) For those excluded by the mainstream media, pirate radio stations offered a means of participating in the production of information and entertainment within British society. Already, the pirates have already helped to change British culture by popularising house music. As in the new forms of music, the pirates have appropriated the technological advances of microelectronics for their own purposes. Under capitalism, new technologies are only integrated within society through social struggles. In each case, capitalists and workers fight over who gains from the introduction of new technologies, especially when methods of working are changed by these advances. (Preteceille and Terrail 1985: 125‑6; Aglietta 1979: 165) As electronic media, radio and television broadcasting are being dramatically changed by the new information technologies. However, many socialists fear these technological changes are leading to the domination of the mass media by large multinationals. But, the success of the pirate radio stations proves that microelectronics can also create opportunities for the Left. The pirates not only used cheap transmitters to survive repeated raids by the DTI, but also played music made on the latest computers.

As technological advance quickens, the rapid pace of social change within capitalist societies can only be managed through increased participation by the working class. However, the involvement of workers in this process can undermine the social division between labour and capital. For the neo‑liberals, deregulation policies were a solution to this dilemma. In their view, the creation of competition would turn the innovators within the dominated classes into small entrepreneurs. Moreover, the ending of existing cartels would bring more choice of goods and services for the rest of the working class. In radio broadcasting, the application of these neo‑liberal policies has created a greater choice of services, especially for dance music fans and the ethnic communities. However, this diversification of services was started by the BBC, the nationalised broadcasting monopoly. While the BBC broadcast a mix of programmes for different listeners in its early years, nowadays the corporation narrowcasts a range of services for the main demographic groups. The success of the BBC’s strategy has considerably weakened the commercial radio sector in Great Britain. Upto the licencing of the incrementals, most commercial radio stations have been poor copies of BBC Radios 1 or 2.

Nowadays, there are commercial radio stations providing services for previously excluded audiences, such as from the ethnic communities. But, although a few pirate operators have turned into legal entrepreneurs, the majority of radio listeners remain as much passive consumers as in Reith’s days. Yet, the musical innovations of the pirates were largely created by amateurs. By allowing DJs and musicians to experiment on‑air, the pirate stations changed the rhythms of British popular music. With microelectronic technologies, it is very easy for most listeners to participate in radio programme‑making. In any society, it is unlikely the majority of listeners will want to be involved in broadcasting. But, communications within communities and cultural experimentation involves creating the conditions for the participation in radio broadcasting by an active minority of listeners. As more frequencies are used up, the campaign of the CRA for a ‘third tier’ of radio broadcasting becomes more important. By being organised as co‑operatives or voluntary organisations, community radio stations can offer a legal method of listener participation in broadcasting. As the pirates have shown, without participation in radio broadcasting, it is impossible to know what choices of services will be needed for the future.

Publication Details: ‘Choice or Participation: British Radio in the 1990s’, Science as Culture, No. 15, Vol. 3, part 2, 1992, pp. 240-262, (ISSN 0950 5431).


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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.