Airwave Revolution

Words by Sarah Bentley

Illustration by:

Internet and pirate radio stations ‘free-up’ the UK’s otherwise highly monitored airwaves. But who reigns supreme in the airwave democracy – the cyber DJs or the airwave bandits?

“I want ten missed calls to give this one a rewind. Ten missed calls.” From an abandoned council flat in a high-rise, four-man garage crew The Untouchables are presenting their Saturday show on London pirate station Y2K. A sign on the wall reads ‘USE SECURITY CHAIN WHEN ANSWERING DOOR’. The listeners direct the show ‘one-ringing’ the studio mobile to request a rewind. Through a cloud of weed smoke the teenage DJs acknowledge the callers by shouting out the last three digits of their phone number – “376, I see ya.”

Pirate radio is a personal (“Alright Kirsty – nice to see you out last night”), and empowering style of broadcast, with unrestricted playlists, specialist and localised news, culture, and debate forums. Without it new artists would struggle to get their first break (Dizzee Rascal, Estelle, and Roots Manuva all started their careers on a pirate) and emerging sounds such as acid house in the 1980s, jungle in the 1990s, and more recently UK garage and grime, wouldn’t have evolved entire scenes with their own DJs, artists, clubs and national followings.

Britain’s first pirate station – Radio Caroline – began broadcasting off a moored ship in the Atlantic Ocean in 1964. Within six months, Radio London, Radio Caroline North, Radio City and Radio Atlanta also set up and between them they had more listeners than all the BBC networks put together. After three years of unchallenged broadcasting, the Marine Broadcasting Act was introduced, making all unlicensed stations, on land or sea, illegal. However, From the 1970s onwards, land-based pirates took off and despite constant attempts by the Department Of Trade & Industry (DTI) and, since 2004, Ofcom – to switch them off, they have been a staple part of UK broadcasting.

But there is another way. Invincible Internet Radio has been broadcasting from a renovated East London warehouse since 2003. Unlike a pirate station there is no secret knock to get in – just a buzzer next to a placard bearing the station’s name. “Welcome to Invincible,” beams Mystery, the dreadlocked station manager who moved, after managing it for six years, from South London pirate station Genesis to try his hand at legal operations.

In the spotless station office visitors sign a guestbook and a teenage girl makes tea and coffee. Unlike many internet stations that run from music enthusiast’s bedrooms, Invincible operates more like a community station. All be it a worldwide community. Mystery taps away on a PC replying to emails from listeners – “This one’s from Russia”. Although far from dry, the atmosphere certainly lacks the same excitement, grit and ‘anything can happen’ vibe of a pirate. Mystery agrees. “It took me a while to get used to the change,” he admits. “But there’s no use being sentimental. We did pirates because there was no other way. Internet radio is the future. It allows us to take our music to parts of the UK that don’t have pirates and indeed the rest of the world. Genesis was a community station, but because we were illegal we could never get funding for computers and equipment. We have everything here.”

Despite the pros of being legal, Badger, Y2K’s station manager, is not keen to make the switch. “Y2K is there to serve the community. Most of the people round here can’t afford a computer, never mind an internet connection, but everyone has a radio. My DJs talk about local news, events, raves – how would that make sense to people on the other side of the world? It doesn’t bother me we only go out to a 15-mile radius.”

Y2K has been broadcasting for 16 years, and Badger can’t remember the amount of times the station’s transmitter has been seized by the DTI – and at £300 a pop, it’s not cheap. “Over the years I’ve spent thousands replacing equipment. I stockpile it so that as soon as we’ve been hit I can get us back on air in less than twelve hours. Are we on? Are we off? It’s part of the culture. I applied for a community license but they turned us down. This is our only way.”

Launched in the early 1990s, drum and bass pirate Kool FM was at the forefront of jungle and the sound’s biggest DJs, producers and emcees have all passed through its doors. In 2004 they began broadcasting online in addition to illegally on the FM dial. “I took some persuading,” admits Eastman, the station manager. “But I’m glad we’re online. Listeners that have grown up with Kool can still tune in no matter where they are in the world. The other week I heard some kid from Rio playing baile funk records online, it felt like a pirate. Very raw, very un-formatted.”

Would he switch entirely to Internet? “Never. How could you get us in the car? People listen to us everywhere, even secretly on their computers at work, without having to listen to the paid-for crap on the mainstream stations. You need internet and pirates. Thank God we’ve got them both.” +

ONLINE RADIO STATIONS (Urban) (Jazz/Soul/House) (Urban) (Electronic/Dance) (Eclectic) (House) (weekly Hip-Hop/Funk show) (Garage)

Itch FM 105.15FM UK Hip-Hop (London)
Rude FM 88.2FM D’n’B (London)
De Ja Vu 92.3FM Garage (London)
Galaxy 99.5FM Reggae (London)
Ragga 105.0 Reggae/Dancehall (Bristol)
Energy 101.5FM Rave/Dance (Dorset)