June 7, 2014
Flex FM is one of London’s best-known radio stations. For 22 years it has broadcast a mixture of house, garage, jungle and techno music; its DJs appear at parties across the city. Yet its primary output is illegal. Flex FM’s studio is in a secret spot in south-west London and its transmitters are hidden at the top of council tower blocks. Every few months Ofcom, Britain’s broadcast regulator, rings up to suggest the station gets a licence, says Daniel James, a DJ. “But that’s not for us.”
Britain has had pirate radio stations since the 1960s, when Radio Caroline broadcast from a ship in the North Sea. In the 1990s unlicensed operators helped drive the rise of British types of dance music such as jungle and garage. Now that anyone can broadcast on the internet, illegal transmissions might seem unnecessary. Yet pirate stations survive, particularly in London. Around 75 broadcast regularly from within the capital, according to Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, and around ten do so 24 hours a day.
Pirate radio stations divide into two camps. Stations such as Flex FM and House FM mostly play dance music mixed by their own DJs. The second sort serve immigrants: south London has Ghanaian stations; Hackney has Turkish ones; Nigerian ones broadcast throughout the city. These combine music with religious broadcasting, fast-paced chat and some news. Both types typically broadcast from tower-block “rigs” connected to studios with infrared beams so as to avoid detection.
Few make much money. The business model tends to be co-operative: typically, DJs pay nominal subscription fees in exchange for airtime. Advertising brings in some cash: though it is illegal to advertise on a pirate station, in practice this is rarely prosecuted. On dance-music stations the ads are often for club nights hosted by the station. On ethnic-minority stations they are more typically for money-transfer companies and immigration lawyers. Even the police have used pirate broadcasters to reach young people.
Stations hold on for several reasons. Decent rigs are becoming cheaper, lowering the costs of entry. FM radio is convenient for poor immigrants, who may not have access to a computer or a digital radio. And broadcasting reaches a local audience in a way that few alternative media yet can. Pirate radio is still important to the music business.
“When Radio One DJs get in their cars, what do they listen to? Not the BBC,” says Mr James. Ambitious DJs continue to join pirate outfits in the hope of getting gigs at clubs or commercial stations.
Yet decline seems inevitable. Hipsters increasingly use online services such as SoundCloud to find new music; gigs and raves are advertised on Facebook. And FM’s slow fall looks terminal. Though 90% of people still listen to the radio each week, the proportion listening to FM and AM stations has fallen from 68% in 2010 to 58% in March, according to RAJAR, which measures audiences. In London at least, fewer young people drive, removing a crucial market for FM radio.
Pirate broadcasters pledge to carry on. Matt Mason, an author and former pirate DJ, says there is something authentic about the crackle of radio. But the future, most admit, is online. Flex FM has 33,000 subscribers on TuneIn radio, an online streaming app. More still download podcasts. And thriving online is difficult: the competition is fierce and listeners fickle. Mr Mason now works for a bigger organisation—BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer platform many people use to share music. The appeal of broadcast is fading.
http://www.economist.com/news/britain/2 ... plank-walk
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