London’s Radio Pirates Changed Music. Then Came the Internet.
By Annalisa Quinn
Oct. 3, 2018
LONDON — In 1993, the illegal radio broadcasters at Kool FM came up with a plan to keep the regulators from raiding their studios.
In those days, the rooftops of South and East London still bristled with unauthorized antennas. Installed by pirate radio stations on top of public housing blocks — the city’s tallest and least secure buildings — they transmitted sounds rarely heard on the BBC or commercial stations. Kool FM was at the heart of the scene, broadcasting jungle, rave, and drum and bass music from the Hackney district of East London.
All the pirates needed was a key to the building — easy to buy off a building worker or tenant — and a cheap transmitter. But they had a problem. Illegal broadcasting is, well, illegal, and, in Britain, pirates can face up to two years in prison, unlimited fines, bans from appearing on legal stations and equipment seizures.
So the pirates at Kool FM covered their studio door with concrete. To get in, they had to scale the outside of the building, jumping from balcony to balcony, said one of the station’s founders, who declined to give his real name but who broadcasts as Eastman. On a recent afternoon, he was standing outside Kool’s current studio in a warehouse on London’s outskirts. Drum and bass sounds from a D.J. called Papa G. emanated from behind the wall.
The regulators rarely bother them now, he said, and capers like the one he described are scarce. In the early 1990s, Kool “was the in thing,” said Eastman. But he estimated that Kool has lost 90 percent of its advertising revenue since its heyday.
“We’re struggling because it’s hard to raise money to keep the station going.” Kool has recently rebranded as Kool London, and started focusing more on broadcasting online, though its shows still go out on the old pirate FM frequency.
Kool’s problems are part of a broader trend: Ofcom, the British communications regulator, estimated there are now just 50 pirate stations in London, down from about 100 a decade ago, and hundreds in the 1990s, when stations were constantly starting up and shutting down. Ofcom considers this good news, because illegal broadcasters could interfere with radio frequencies used by emergency services and air traffic control, a spokesman said.
But pirate radio stations also offered public services, of a different sort: They gave immigrant communities programming in their native languages, ran charity drives and created the first radio specifically for black Britons.
Pirate radio was also the site of some of Britain’s most important musical innovations, introducing pop to the airwaves in the 1960s and incubating the major underground British music trends of recent decades, up to and including dubstep and grime: Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Skepta all launched their careers on the pirates.
But in the last decade, two things happened that changed the landscape of underground radio: first, the internet, and second, new licenses that encouraged pirates to reinvent themselves along more official lines.
Suddenly, doing pirate radio “was kind of like stepping into the past,” said Kojo Kankam, 21, an M.C. who performs as Novelist. He honed his skills at the pirate stations Rinse FM and Flex FM. “I was doing it for the sake of the culture and the style, but it’s not something a young musician necessarily needs to do in this day and age, because everything is so digital now,” he said.
The FM dial only has room for so many stations, but online streaming enables myriad small broadcasters to operate simultaneously. Balamii, a online music station based in the Peckham neighborhood of South London, operates out of a tiny studio that opens into a retail arcade.
“Pirate set the tone for this,” said Balamii’s founder, James Browning, but “the internet has enabled everyone to do it from a laptop. You don’t have to climb up blocks of flats to stick aerials up there,” he added. “You’ve got to take your hats off to them because they went through that to actually get it done. And now you can just broadcast from your living room.”
The other important change was the introduction of community licenses, which were first issued in 2005 to counter the influence of pirates, and which allow stations to broadcast legally within small radiuses.
Sarah Lockhart, the chief executive and co-founder of Rinse FM, liked the rooftop views that came with being a pirate. But that was the only fun part of being a criminal, she said in an interview at the spotless (though gently pot-scented) East London studio that Rinse FM now occupies. Before it went legal in 2010, Rinse was one of the Britain’s most notable pirate stations, transmitting grime, dubstep, and other underground genres. Ms. Lockhart said she hated it. “You couldn’t have a party, you couldn’t do a sponsorship,” she said. “You can get arrested. You can go to jail.”
So when she heard that the communications regulator might be open to pirates transitioning to become legal stations, she jumped on the opportunity. It took her five years to win one of the few community FM spots. Now that Rinse is a licensed station, the contrast with Kool, a former competitor, is stark. Kool operates out of a grim warehouse with flickering bulbs and patchy black paint, but Rinse has leather couches, its own record label, and corporate partners like Smirnoff.
At the same time, Rinse and its contemporaries are hoping to do what the pirates did best: give young people without money or connections space to make new kinds of music.
Reprezent, a youth community radio station in the Brixton district of South London, offers radio training to young people, who in turn bring in music older D.J.s have never encountered, the station’s manager Adrian Newman said. For instance, before Remi Aderemi, a charismatic 25-year old with two gold teeth who performs as Remi Burgz, had her own show on Reprezent, she spread her love of music, in particular a style called U.K. Afrobeats, through a maneuver she called “the roadblock”: She pulls up at a red light, she said, pumps the music, gets out of the car and then dances madly until the light changes.
“It’s a way of sharing music,” she said in an interview. Some people shouted at her to move, she added, but others stopped and asked what the song was.
That spirit — evangelical, hyperlocal, slightly dangerous — is characteristic of community stations with their roots in pirate radio.
At the same time, the internet, which allows community stations to compete in a wider market by streaming digitally, has eliminated the local flavor and intimacy that came with the transience of pre-internet radio.
“It has to start in a small space,” said Ms. Lockhart. At the birth of every important cultural movement, she said, “there would have been a bunch of friends hanging out, passionate about something and creating something. And then somehow it hits its stride.” But “there doesn’t seem to be that privacy where everything can happen,” she said, because everything is posted online.
Pirate radio was “the last safe space you have as an artist to make mistakes” according to Jama Little, 27, a grime M.C. from Hackney who performs as Jammz. “With online,” he said, “if you get it wrong, it’s forever.”