How to start a pirate radio station in London

At almost any location in London, and any time of day, even the deafest of FM radios will be able to hear between 30 and 40 pirate radio stations.

Ofcom has a department that is supposed to stop this happening.  The people charged with silencing the airwaves to all but those licensed to broadcast has swapped and changed over the years, moving from the “GPO” to the “DTI” and so on, before finally settling as an Ofcom responsibility.

One thing all the organisations have had in common over the decades is their inability to police the airwaves and put all the pirates off the air.  They of course will protest and quote their annual figures for the number of transmitters they’ve taken, and far smaller number of operators they’ve successfully prosecuted.  In context though, it’s rather like somebody going on about how they’ve stamped on nearly a hundred locusts from a massive swarm of hundreds of trillions.

Pirate radio in London has consequently developed its own hierarchy and structure, sort of self-policing but by being in the hands of the racketeers.  Any newcomer just picking a clear frequency and switching a transmitter on will find their transmitter removed very quickly. However, this won’t be Ofcom taking the swift action.

Clear frequencies are, bizarrely, ‘owned’ by individuals, and are protected, not legally of course, but in the murky underworld of the rules of the urban jungle.  It’s hard to discover where and how this ‘owning’ first started, but there was a time decades ago when there were less pirate stations than clear frequencies, and then once we passed the tipping point, there must have come a time when stations needed to protect what had been ‘their’ frequency during times when they were off the air (post raids or technical failure), from others leaping on and using them in their temporary absence.  Somehow, this mutated into what we have today, which is a frequency being ‘owned’ by an individual even if that individual is not operating a pirate radio station.

Frequencies can be sold, but most usually they are ‘rented’.  Paying a rent for a frequency works like paying any protection money, in that the transmitter doesn’t keep getting taken or smashed-up, and the operator’s knees don’t get shot out.  On the up side, others who might be tempted to steal the transmitter will leave it alone because they know that ‘Billy Hard Bollix’ owns the frequency and has given permission for it to be used.

Having crossed this hurdle, the next job is to find a suitable location.  Usually this is done by smashing into the roof area of a tower-block that’s not being already used by another pirate.  The transmitter is cemented in place, along with considerable and lethal booby-traps for anybody who dares to interfere.  Electricity is plumbed in from supplies in the lift-room or from any equipment also located in the roof space.

The main transmitter is technically part of a ‘repeater’. A ‘repeater’ receives the signal from somewhere else and then re-transmits it.  The path from the studio through to the ‘repeater’ is known as a ‘link’.  Linking comes in many forms, but the more successful stations will have a fairly local short-hop microwave radio ‘link’ from a piece of equipment which is converting (or ‘repeating’) the signal from an internet audio stream.  The internet stream will, of course, be the output from the studio which could be anywhere.

I’m not sure how successful this has been in law, but here’s how the idea works:  The station itself sets up as an internet only radio station.  It uses a name like, “BillyBollixFM.com” and has a website complete with ‘chatroom/shoutbox’ and DJ profiles and everything related to the station and events it might be promoting. There will be absolutely no mention of the FM frequency the station is on across London, and usually it will have carefully worded disclaimers saying things like, “BillyBollixFM.com is an internet only radio station. It is not available through analogue or digital radio broadcasts.  All rights in the broadcast/transmission are owned by BillyBollixFM.com. No part of this broadcast/transmission may be reproduced/rebroadcast/retransmitted without our written consent.”  In the studio itself, all the prompts on the wall will only refer to the internet, and the DJs and MCs are forbidden from ever mentioning the frequency or that the station is available via anything but your PC or mobile.

The inference is that whoever has annoyingly decided to rebroadcast the station on FM is doing so without permission, and so legally there is no connection.  Thus, should Ofcom come to call, all they are calling on is an internet radio station, over which they have no rights of confiscation or arrest relating to the FM signal.

Actually, the random rebroadcasting of internet-only radio stations is not a new phenomenon.  ‘Anoraks’ devoted to Radio Caroline have done it for many decades for no readily apparent reason, so the tale is feasible if a London-wide FM frequency contains the output of an internet-only radio station without their knowledge or permission.   

The main people behind the internet-only/London wide pirate stations, ‘the management’, tend to also be heavily into promotions (gigs, events, record labels, etc). Promotions is kind of super-used-car-salesmen type territory and very cut-throat and mercenary. Most of the people are very scary, especially if you get on the wrong side of them, and within them there are usually people with guns who live by a code of ‘teaching people lessons’. The majority of these folk are very rich one minute and then extremely poor the next, and most have expensive coke habits alongside the associated irrational and erratic behaviour.

If a newcomer is not already this type of person, yet is thinking seriously about becoming a pirate radio station operator, they may find life is very difficult when it comes to dealing with ‘staff’ and growing their station.  They will not have built the level of kudos and respect they will need in order to be seen as strong.

Strength and respect is important in order to get top DJs/MCs.

The main drug of choice in all ‘yoof’ culture is ‘skunk’. It is part of the culture, just as alcohol is part of older cultures and ‘everybody’ drinks, so amongst the ‘yoof’ everybody smokes.  That’s why ‘drugs’ can be associated with the pirate radio stations, I guess just like drinking can be associated with, say, a golf club.

Everybody associated with a station will use or supply skunk. Non-users are very rare. In ‘yoof’ society, ‘skunk’ is passed on as part of a huge pyramid selling scheme (I guess dope of one kind or another has always been so), whereby you buy enough to supply yourself with part of it, and it is all paid for by the amount you charge the next person down the chain for his smaller quantity.  The ones at the very bottom have to steal and mug in order to be able to afford it.  It is usually the case that the ‘management’ are at the top of the drug pyramid, and that’s the main or only connection between pirate stations and the supply of drugs.

Despite this, slur and innuendo will allege that pirate radio stations are “selling drugs over the air”.  It’s important to have something negative to say about them, and ‘drugs’ motivates the older tut-tut generations.

I’ve never seen any evidence that stations actually advertise drugs on air despite this being the wild claim, and there really is no need to in these days of Blackberry messaging, texts and Facebook, and instant mobile communication, and so I’d say that the connection is purely one of the fact that drug use is part of yoof culture. Some of the stations, fearful of it being an excuse for being busted, have signs up in their studios telling the MCs and DJs not to bring drugs into the studio or they will be banned/fined/punished.

Of the stations I know less well, the ‘management’ will (allegedly) be involved in all things hustling, the supply of cocaine, including crack cocaine, alongside skunk, very rarely pills or heroin directly, but also things like guns, knives, stolen things, etc. They live in a rather violent parallel universe to most ordinary folk, where if a person won’t supply something they’ve requested they will punish them.  In this respect, once they know the location of a ‘rig doctor’ (a transmitter builder and engineer) they will often demand transmitters for free or ‘punish’ him if he fails to supply on time.

Most MCs and DJs are genuine, a bit like old style ego-tripper radio DJs of the 60s, 70s and 80s, and are on the air to self-promote or just to have fun. Nearly all those who’ve made it into the big time (well, the ones that aren’t owned by Simon Cowell) were given exposure via London pirate radio. Here we are nearly 50 years after Radio Caroline, Radio London and the offshore pirates started, and we still need pirate radio in order for the music scene to develop and grow. Usually they get to be on the air by paying around 20 quid a show, or by doing ‘management’ favours.

Some ‘management’ see stations as a bit of kudos, adding to their public display of their ‘power’, others as essential as a costly ‘flyer’ in order to cross-promote events, and some see them as profit centres. Most stations kind of pay their own way, but I wouldn’t say they make huge money as such, which is another Ofcom propagated myth. I don’t believe any have ever made huge profits. Nearly all of the ads and promotions played on air are in-house or contra, rather than in exchange for cash.

There are some good and professionally run stations. The bad stations tend to be in the hands of the MCs or DJs who break away from the main set-ups and try to go it alone. These wannabes are the ones that have no idea about frequency allocation, interference, or technical pride. They are also usually extremely young, kind of 13 and 14, too immature to see the bigger picture of there being a kind of ‘code’ of piracy.

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