Channel 4 News: Pirate Power

Pirate Power: The pirate radio boom that is now earning station owners big money.

By David Rowan, reporting for Channel 4 News

(Broadcast transcript)

Presenter, Sarah Smith: It’s hip, it’s hyped and it’s totally against the law. Tune your radio dial nowadays and the chances are, you’ll enter a criminal underworld. Pirate radio is still illegal but today there are more stations than ever beaming everything from trance music to anarchy into Britain’s homes. Some are now making so much money that the legally stations are seriously concerned. In this special report David Rowan joins the pirates on the rooftops to find out why the radio outlaws are now calling the tunes. David Rowan reports:
Across the radio dial a powerful new underworld is breaking down the established order. While commercial radio struggles with recession, pirate radio is booming, with hundreds of stations stealing listeners and profits that legal broadcasters say should be theirs. Today’s pirates are slick professional operations filling Britain’s airwaves with everything from street music to extreme political messages. There are now almost 300 stations, twice what there were 10 years ago and the profit some make suggests crime really does pay.

“Mr C”, from Silk City FM says: “If you put the right infrastructure into place and your business ideas are correct, you can gross between from 30 to 60 grand a year if it’s run properly.”

The key is bringing advertisers to those young hard to find listeners. “Mr Kidd” sells adverts to half a dozen Birmingham stations taking his media to clubs and nail salons promising to undercut the legal stations rates. “If you come to a pirate station, for £1,500 you could get at least six months’ advertising . A pirate station will give you the same quality, plus you’re getting the DJs mentioning it with a little bit more heart – because they are told to.”

Just as the 60s pirates led to Radio 1, todays pirates are leading to Number 1s. Acts like So Solid Crew have broken through from illegal radio to major record deals. It doesn’t bother the pirates that they face two years in jail. “Mr C” says: “They are part of household culture now. Everyday household entertainment culture is pirate radio, especially in London, Birmingham and Manchester.”

They leave their £400 transmitters on tower blocks and hope that they are safe from government raids and rival stations. Some pirates have cut the odds by keeping dogs on the roof, or booby trapping transmitters with CS spray.

A recent police raid in Lewisham, South London unearthed in a studio a guide to pirate radio called “Radio is my Bomb”, a DIY pirate radio manual with everything from contacts to guides to building a transmitter. And then there is the internet.

Stations claim they are bringing new listeners to the dial and that this crime has no victims. But not according to Thames FM, a legal station which plays “adult cool” music to South London.

Mark Walker, programme controller of Thames 107.8, says: “There are people sitting in the sales area trying to sell this radio station and they don’t want it being interfered with by people who have no right to be there. So yes, they are nibbling into our income and possibly taking away our listeners, who find it irritating and affecting the livelyhood of these people”

Legal stations are getting desperate. They say the fines for pirates, just £377 on average, are too low. They are suing individual DJs and are now calling in the DTI. But complaining brings its own risks. Greg Martin, managing director of Thames FM, says: “One of our presenters had his vehicle in the station parking lot smashed up and we believe this is the direct result of notifying the DTI about a pirate station”.

In Glasgow, Club FM was raided after organising gang fights live on air. Another local station told us it was giving pirates like them a bad name. DJ “Miss-Chief”, of Allusion FM, says: “They are advertising gang fights and we can’t be bothered with that. We are all too old for that. Basically we are here to play the music and make sure everyone is listening to the tunes they want to listen to.”

But some stations are speaking out for their communities. Sandra Lewis has a three-year-old daughter who needs a lung transplant in America. It will cost £50,000, which three London pirates are helping to raise. One of the stations has tried to go legal, but was turned down. Its supporters are not surprised. Galaxy FM urges its listeners to empower themselves against white oppression. A spokesman says: “What we are doing as a people’s station is debriefing black people after going through 400 years of mental slavery”.

For some stations, the politics are even more radical. Interference FM preaches anti-capitalism to London, Brighton and Bristol. On election day, its message was stark. “Chris Winton”, from Interference FM, says: “Vote for nobody because nobody will change anything. The politicians promise and renege on their promises left right and centre, continually. We are dangerous because we are there offering alternative views. When we start giving out the actual facts, we are dangerous to the state. Stations that just play music last for two or three months. We last five or six hours.”

The DTI sees raids as the most cost effective way of policing the airwaves. Yet for a station selling lucrative adverts, one lost transmitter is a mere business expense. If raids are meant to silence the pirates, then the system is clearly failing.

With more illegal broadcasters than ever jamming Britain’s airwaves, their listeners and advertisers seem to want something they are not getting elsewhere. Yet every pirate station we spoke to said they would go legal if given the chance. Then it would be for the market to sort out who survives.

(David Rowan, reporting for Channel 4 News, January 4 2002)

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