The Underground Sound: What is Pirate Radio?
When I think of Pirate radio I picture a small flat in East London with a dozen MCs crowding around a DJ. They’ve all paid subs (subsidiaries) to be there knowing that if they don’t spit their best 16 bars the microphone might never return their way. The DJ periodically mixes into the next instrumental as the MCs spar lyrically with the hope that one of their verses will get a reload. There is tension but it is still a sport.
v. When a DJ spins back a turntable to start a track from the beginning
Before 50mbps download speeds, streaming, wifi and even the internet itself, radio was an exclusive platform where licensed broadcasters could reach listeners from miles away. Predominantly a wartime technology in the 1880’s, it began as a communication system that implemented Morse code. It evolved into one-way and two-way technology before becoming what we now have as radar and digital audio. At its inception, there were no laws or entities governing the airwaves. If you were able to get your hands on the right gear you were free to transmit and listen as you pleased. As time went on, governments worldwide found real-life social applications for radio as the technology that would later grow into its own culture.
Realizing how powerful of a tool it was, particularly as a device for propaganda, governing bodies began to police the airwaves and implement strict regulations that only allowed recognized authorities to legally broadcast. As a result, people had to find inventive ways of getting their broadcasts out onto the government-owned frequencies. And that’s kind of how Pirate radio was born.
You could call it hacking, hijacking, or maybe even regularly-scheduled-takeovers, pirate radio is DIY culture. It gets its name from hobbyists who would broadcast from ships and marine platforms in international waters without permission. It was championed by music enthusiasts who created a space for under-represented music as an act of community service. It was also an attempt to fight radio monopolies like AT&T and the BBC. The first known radio station to illegally broadcast commercial radio is thought to be Radio Mercur in Copenhagen around 1958. They made tape recordings in the studio and sailed them out to transmitting vessels in between Denmark and Sweden.
Pirate radio made me realize that DJs are vital in the musical supply chain. Artists usually get the spotlight and take most of the credit but without a DJ to actually introduce these songs to listeners, the music has no momentum. Whether a disc jockey or a radio personality that champions a genre, their role as gatekeepers and influencers was a staple at the peak of the pirate radio era.
In the 60’s pirate radio was on outlet for a lot of new rock n roll sounds. In the 80’s genres like acid house, trance and ragga flourished. In the 90’s music listeners experienced the likes of jungle, garage, and grime. By the early 2000’s DJ’s were setting up their own pirate radio stations in local settings. Sound engineers, technicians, and amateurs would set up rigs and antennas at the top of highrise buildings. Its clandestine nature meant that studios risked getting raided by the authorities upon the discovery of illegal transmitters. Stations had backup equipment and were always on the move to avoid getting caught. Communication through word of mouth and later forums helped listeners to stay in the loop. The method involved in setting up antennas weren’t exactly legal and could’ve resulted in property crimes like breaking and entering or theft, and not to mention the legal repercussions of broadcasting without a license.
Despite the long lists of legal implications, the individuals running the pirate radio stations took it upon themselves to broadcast music to audiences that weren’t catered to by licensed mainstream stations. Hiding in plain sight, they were able to popularize underground music and become tastemakers for the younger generation. A lot of the pirate radio stations created platforms for artists and DJ’s that went on to join mainstream stations where they play music we listen to today. Many stations were eventually given licenses and run as legitimate organizations.
When you love a genre of music that is seen as different, unorthodox and part of the counterculture, it is generally ignored until the powers-that-be find a way to exploit and monetize it. A few decades ago that meant that if you wanted to listen to the latest calypso, grime, or reggaeton record you wouldn’t find it on mainstream radio. You had to mingle and network with like-minded people to know that Logan Sama was going to be on Rinse FM at 7 pm on Friday with the new Skepta dubplate.
Some argue that the Internet killed pirate radio. Others will say it made it easier and legal. Thanks to platforms like YouTube and Apple Music we’re allowed to live stream music and podcasts for next to nothing. With streaming comes to ease of access. The internet has eliminated the risk of losing records and equipment from possible police raids. You don’t have to scale a 20-story building or dangle out of your window holding an antenna in 2018. Showrunners are still able to reach millions of listeners across the world and cater to niche markets. Record companies and DJ’s are constantly searching through Audiomack, Bandcamp and Soundcloud to find the next hit record or crown the new sound. The DIY mentality still lives on through the passion to creatively cater to musically starved audiences with the technology that is readily available.
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