Phase One, September 1988 to August 1989
SYT Radio was political – with a small “p”, in the same way that community radio itself is political. You could reference it into the wider story of political radio and the long history of broadcasting, on the subject of which there are now many books on the market. But to summarise here, there have for many years been radical stations appearing on the airwaves with a different take on society and culture: Radio Free Wales, now almost forgotten, was operated by members of Plaid Cymru in the Rhondda area during the middle 1950’s; the Cornish Nationalist party made an abortive attempt at launching its own political station in 1969. And during the explosion in land based and offshore pirate radio during the early 1970’s, there were several ‘underground’ stations: Radio Concord was one in the London area – even the Caroline organisation’s “progressive” overnight station Radio Seagull offered a radical format including squatting news, titbits of the counterculture and an awful lot of prog rock.
By the 1980’s, technology had made pirate broadcasting cheaper and ever more accessible. Stations such as Radio Jackie, JFM and Horizon in London were pushing the authorities with round the clock broadcasts. In continental Europe, left of centre governments in Italy and France had legalised hundreds of previously unlicensed “free radios”, leading to speculation that the same might happen in Britain.
The UK government however, was having none of it. Although sympathetic to commercial radio and presiding over a raft of new ILR stations, the Conservative administration generally viewed the new wave of pirate operators with suspicion. Community radio as a concept was seen as too radical.
The pirates of the 1980’s brought a plethora of voices to the airwaves: Afro-Caribbean, Asian, Turkish, Greek and Chinese stations were on the air in urban areas, along with specialist music stations and technical hobby stations. A fourth group saw pirate radio as a form of civil disobedience and a means to change society. Perhaps the best documented example of this was Our Radio in London, which operated in 1982-3. It was organised by a coalition of community and political activists and offered ground breaking programmes such as a Polish programme, feminist magazine programme, a gay news show, interviews with radical political figures, and much anarcho-punk music.
Giving airtime to Sinn Fein during the period of the hunger strikes sealed the station’s fate, and the authorities made a concerted effort to silence Our Radio. Nonetheless, there were other similar stations to come on the air. Radio Interference in London, Radio Funky in Leeds, Sheffield Peace Radio, and, in Bristol, Rebel Radio. This made four broadcasts in 1984 from the Demolition Diner squat in Cheltenham Road (an area which is still a hotbed of radical politics – and home to a fierce anti-Tesco campaign in 2011).
By September 1988, Bristol had three unlicensed radio stations regularly broadcasting. On Sunday 18th September, without any test transmissions having been monitored, Savage Yet Tender Radio made its first broadcast on 104.4 MHz, in stereo. The initial line up of the station clearly marked it out as different from the other three pirates in the city, which played a variety of what in those days was called “black music”, what we would today class as urban and world music.
Between 8 and 9pm there was a punk programme (Bristol has always enjoyed a vibrant and political punk scene), and between 9 and 9.45 was the “Doug Savage and Pete Tender Show”, after the supposed names of the station’s founders. Doug and Pete presented a programme that lived the station’s values – it was closely linked with the activist scene, extolled the virtues of the free radio movement across Europe, and encouraged listeners to become part of SYT Radio’s output by producing their own programmes on cassette and submitting them via the station’s mail box, which was (inevitably!) at the radical bookstore Full Marks at 37 Stokes Croft. (Incidentally, these premises remain politicised to this day, 23 years after Full Marks ceased trading: the building has been squatted and evicted on numerous occasions).
Gradually, over the months that followed, more programmes joined SYT as its presenter base expanded. Few of these were put together using a multi-channel mixing studio as the other pirates (and legal stations for that matter) used. True to its grassroots ethos, most of the programmes were pre-recorded onto 90 minute cassettes and pieced together on home hi-fi equipment, meaning that tracks could play out in their entirely, and giving the whole station a unique sound.
By the close of 1988, the station’s typical Sunday schedule had expanded to around eight hours of material. At 3.30pm, there was the Climb Every Mountain Show, featuring a lot of industrial and post-punk music. At 5.00pm, there were a variety of programmes depending on which week of the month it was, including the Chaplin Sisters, DJ Bungee (still very much a face on Bristol’s hip hop music scene, and a veteran of numerous pirate and legal community stations over the years), The Central American Magazine programme and others.
At 6.30pm, there was Modge’s Wonderland of Sound – a retro soul and funky pop music show. At 8.00pm, Nathan Yet’s Punk Show took to the air. After Doug and Peter at 9.30, Nigel’s Northern Soul and Ska Show went out. There’s a coda here as well – Andy Stevenson from the Roots and Shoots programme on present day legal community station BCFM is a friend of ‘Nigel’, by complete coincidence. So far, efforts at persuading him to recreate his SYT show for a one-off revival have been politely declined]. Late in the evening there would be Rockin Mikey B and Porky with a speed and thrash metal programme, something very rare on British radio. SYT went off the air in the small hours.
December 1988 saw the other three pirate stations in Bristol leave the air to apply for a license to broadcast legally. A small number of smaller scale ILR franchises were up for grabs round the country as part of the very first part of a long process of de-regulation of the radio sector. The enormously successful FTP Radio, alongside RAW Radio and Emergency Radio, closed down in the days leading up to the New Year.
SYT was having none of it. “So, all you would be broadcasters”, proclaimed Doug Savage, “Are you seriously going to wait around on the off chance that one of the meagre 21 licenses the government is dishing out to the whole country is going to come your way? And do you seriously think that the powers that be will permit people to go on and slag off the government for hours a day – just forget it”. The station carried on broadcasting into 1989.
For a while it was joined by the re-launched B.A.D. Radio, also rudely gesturing to the authorities and their ruling that anyone convicted of pirate broadcasting would be barred from the all-new commercial stations (a rule that Ofcom still adheres to, although in practice it is widely flouted by legal stations who regularly hire from unlicensed operators).
In February, B.A.D. was once again raided, whilst SYT was left alone. In typically provocative fashion, the station speculated that it was because the largely black urban stations were seen as more of a threat than either “hobby pirates” or agit-prop stations like themselves.
Other developments during the spring of 1989 included a one-off newscast brought to the air in association with Britain’s most popular anarchist newspaper, Class War (1983-present). In June 1989, Doug Savage and Pete Tender even made a public appearance at a performance art session held at the Arnolfini, Bristol’s contemporary arts centre (founded 1961, continues to the present).
The long hot summer of 1989 drew on, but gradually, SYT was cutting back on its broadcasting hours. On one occasion, it skipped a week’s broadcast. Explaining, Doug Savage the following weekend explained that many of the station’s presenters had not supplied enough material for a full transmission. There were still programmes going out, but at times, shows vanished and were replaced by others, the station would only transmit for a few hours and so on.
SYT had always joked about being a station where internal organisation was the main challenge, and now it was succumbing to just those problems. Now, it seemed that the organisation was breaking down. In August a brief transmission was made on a totally different frequency, in amongst the many BBC Radio Three relays further down the band. This move may have been due to the proximity of 104.4 to a new BBC Wiltshire service on 104.6 which caused some interference in outlying parts of Bristol. But whatever the case, 104.4 fell silent by the end of the month, and no more broadcasts were heard from SYT Radio. It seemed that the station had simply closed down.
Radio carried on regardless. Atlantic 252 was getting going from the Republic of Ireland, offering a “daytime” version of Radio Luxembourg. Luxembourg itself was coming to the end of its 50 odd year history. At sea, the last offshore pirate, Caroline was finally silenced in one of the final acts of the Thatcher government, the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which also toughened up the penalties on land based pirate radios too.
Not that many were taking notice: in spite of the legalisation of Kiss-FM and, in Bristol, FTP Radio, unlicensed stations continued to blossom. FTP’s accommodation of commercial interests led to internal splits and the creation of St Paul’s and Easton Community Radio (S.P.E.C.). Black FM emphatically refused to be a community station and referred to themselves as a black music station; in 1990, TNT Radio played pop in South Bristol for a few hours each Sunday in winter, and Magnum Radio launched yet another reggae, soul and hip-hop service in the summer.
Phase Two – 1991-1992
By early 1991, Bristol once again had four or five pirates regularly operating. These were mostly urban stations, with a few others such as the youth orientated FPR Radio from the East Side of the city. Strangely, Bristol remained short on dance music stations playing “rave” music – something that was happening across the rest of the country with a new generation of pirate stations coming from tower blocks and bedrooms.
One Sunday afternoon in mid-March, transmissions suddenly began without any prior notice on 104.4 FM and immediately identifying as Savage Yet Tender Radio. Broadcasts were in stereo with a clean separation, and were reportedly made with a transmitter power of around 20 watts, which is similar to the power used by legal community stations BCFM and Ujima Radio today.
This time however, SYT was broadcast live as was the case for other stations. Some of the presenters from the 1988-89 period rejoined the station, but there were many new voices. DJs selected improbable names like Warm and Milky, DJ Low Alcohol, The Pig, Billy Ray Steelman (who presented the Hardcore Hayride).
The music ranged over a variety of punk, metal, indie, hardcore (what the Americans call Hardcore, which is a subdivision of punk), soul and – after 10pm – dance music. A typical afternoon’s programming would start around 1 or 2pm and run right through until 4am on Monday morning when the dance music signed off. This was the era of the techno traveller and free party rave scene, and SYT Radio’s late night “rave” music affairs were unlike anything else on Bristol radio at the time.
In June, there was another surprise, when transmissions started on 101.7 MHz with a signal penetration and stereo separation very reminiscent of SYT Radio. This was one of the most unusual of all Bristol’s many unlicensed operators over the years – Electro Magnetic Installation (or EMI Radio). Not that it often identified over the air.
EMI aired experimental and political audio soundscapes with occasional music compilations thrown in. The nearest thing on legal radio these days are some of the experimental audio output of the London arts station Resonance FM. You might hear occasional political discussions, always from a radical or activist perspective, polemics on car use, gay rights, capitalism and economics. The exact relationship between SYT and EMI Radio has never been fully established, but they both had a box number at the progressive Greenleaf Bookshop on Colston Street, and both operated with around 20 Watts with stereo encoding. Doug Savage and Pete Tender, whose programme on SYT included all the latest radio gossip, referred to EMI as the “station that has no name”!.
The late autumn of 1991 then, saw SYT Radio as one of five or six pirate operators regularly broadcasting to Bristol. Its output was regular, running for around 16 hours each Sunday. Other stations on the air at this time included St Paul’s and Easton Community Radio, announcing a closure at New Year to apply for an ILR license, FPR Radio, EMI Radio, Magnum Radio and the occasional Chew Magna based raver station Shag-FM.
In early December, the station announced that it would be transmitting on Saturday nights from December 14th. True to its word, transmissions commenced at 5pm on Saturday December 14th 1991 with an expansion of its Sunday service, with metal, punk and indie music being played by a variety of presenters. However, the service abruptly left the air late on Saturday night. No transmissions were heard on the Sunday, and it was only the following weekend, Sunday 22nd December, right before the Christmas holidays, that SYT returned.
Apparently, officers from Redland police station had visited the station and confiscated the equipment, according to on-air comments. This was truly intriguing – an unauthorised raid by an agency not responsible for radio spectrum regulation. One presenter added that the DTI had advised that the station may be able to claim its equipment back on a legal technicality.
SYT reverted to a Sunday only schedule for the next few weeks. However, just into the New Year, on January 12th, the station abruptly vanished once again. So too did EMI Radio. (SPEC Radio had come off the air voluntarily at the New Year to pursue their ambitions of becoming a legal community station). In fact, Bristol suddenly fell silent and no more pirate stations were heard until the start of programmes from Shades of Soul (SOS) Radio later in February. It seems likely that there was a full DTI raiding party in town at this time. Savage Yet Tender Radio had come to an end.
There are however, a couple of codas, which show that the station’s influence continued to be felt. In 1993, a similar indie/punk/alternative station opened called NBS – No Bullshit Radio, operating on Saturdays and Sundays on 102.2 MHz with stereo separation. They were noted during the Easter period, but had vanished by the end of the spring. NBS had a similar overall sound, both technically and in terms of format, so it seems reasonable that this was an offshoot of SYT Radio.
By the end of the 1990’s, FM piracy was in decline relative to the high tide of the early part of the decade. (AM pirate radio, by contrast, goes from strength to strength with hundreds of hobby operators across Europe). The beginning of reliable internet radio stations, the gradual filling up of the FM band, and the proposals by the new Labour government to (finally!) get round to implementing legal and non-profit community broadcasting meant that FM illegal operations were fewer, although Bristol still boasted a few different music pirates, Passion Radio Bristol being chief among them on 106.2 FM.
At the start of the new millennium, however, there was a station with kick to it. Initially conceived as a one-off operation for the June 18th (1999) anti-capitalist demonstrations in major cities, Interference FM had strong links with the radical activist movement, and made sporadic broadcasts on 106.9 or 107.4 MHz (then clear frequencies in Bristol) with a mixture of drum and bass, spoken word revolutionary rhyme, and the odd feature. It was not always an easy listen, and in this respect fell into the trap of many “political” pirates of not being terribly listenable outside of the activist scene.
The Interference signal was strong across Bristol, with good modulation without much deviation. A box number at Green Leaf Bookshop (Box 6) was established for correspondence and advertising was crude, in the shape of graffiti on billboards and in subways. Funnily enough, the graffiti looked distinctly familiar to political slogans around the city, which clearly identified the operation as belonging in that milieu. “The Big Issue” street sold magazine profiled the station as part of its coverage of the anti-capitalist movement in October 1999, and intriguingly featured a spokesperson for the station by the name of “Doug Savage”. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.
Interference broadcast until a raid during the general election of 2001, during which the station had been campaigning against the electoral system and for the anarchist position of refusing to participate. Its own legacy continues online, however. The anarchist/autonomous social centre Kebele on Robertson Road in Easton opened its own internet podcast station called Radio Kebele from 2006, and in 2011, this podcast began regular streaming at the online activist radio station Catalyst Radio (http://www.catalystradio.org). The output is more openly political than on SYT, but the tradition of activist style radio continues.
Another legacy was the short-lived FM pirate “Radio Gnome Invisible” in the student town of Aberystwyth, Ceredigion. This operated sporadically between November 1995 and March 1996, when threats to report it to the DTI forced the station to close down. The station produced a clear signal over the valley town from a high location with just a couple of Watts, and on occasion managed to get out across Cardigan Bay to towns and villages along the coast on 105.5 MHz.
Like SYT in its early phase, the station operated from around 8pm on Sundays to the late evening or early morning. Programmes included rock, goth, punk and general arty/alternative music with bits of politics thrown in from the vibrant activist scene locally. The station was unique in that it experimented with bilingual Welsh and English programming to try and adequately reflect the local community. In early 2000, an article in the insurrectionary magazine Green Anarchist looked back at the station’s brief but exciting broadcasting history and referenced the influence the station owed to Bristol’s SYT.
Twenty years on, a few people still remember SYT Radio. Community radio is legal now, but it is probable that SYT would not believe BCFM, Ujima or other stations fulfil their vision of the radio scene. SYT’s open access policy is still far beyond anything being attempted by legal community stations, and with their boards of responsible local people, the new tier of stations would be seen by SYT’s activists as just more rubbish radio. They would still advocate a strong pirate radio sector to continue the challenge to legal stations and to -in the words of one SYT jingle “Transform the existing social order”.