Pirate Radio in London

Constantly pushing the boundaries and breaking musical ground, as well as the law, pirate radio stations are somewhat of a phenomenon in London, if not a cultural tradition, as they have been broadcasting the freshest sounds in popular music for several decades now. Whether it was Rock’n'Roll in the 60’s, Acid House in the 80’s or Dubstep and Grime in the 00’s, that’s where you heard it first. But times are changing and many of the people involved seem to think that the era of pirate radio is coming to an end, with the internet being both the cause of its demise, as well as its successor.

The story of pirate radio begun in the 50’s on real pirate ships (thus the name) and sea forts in the English Channel, where pirate Dj’s broadcasted Rock’n'Roll to millions of people in the UK and around the world, as commercial radios were illegal in Europe at the time. Driven by a sense of social duty, pirate Dj’s of the time, much like today’s pirate Dj’s, considered “that it was the people’s right to have a radio station of their own, not run by governments”, as Tony Pine, an original pirate Dj of the Maunsell Sea Forts has said.

From the Maunsell Sea Forts to London tower blocks where the remaining pirate radio stations’ antennas are usually positioned, the purpose is the same, to broadcast the newest, most cutting-edge music, that is not being given the time of day on any of the official channels. And while the purpose remains the same, the hindrances they face are quite different. From actual pirates trying to take over their ships to the London police, pirate radio Dj’s always had some kind of opposition, although doing a seemingly harmless thing, playing records.

Perhaps that’s also what makes the phenomenon of pirate radio so interesting, the fact that it’s illegal without it necessarily being wrong, or doing any harm. Pirate Dj’s in London are treated akin to criminals and are just that in the eye of the law. Nevertheless, they keep on doing what they’ve always been doing, at whatever cost, without thinking about the consequences too much. In the words of Dan from Flex Fm Studio in South London, “we’re not actually causing anybody any harm, just putting up an aerial and playing some music at the end of the day”.

With around 80 pirate radio stations still broadcasting in London today, it’s not likely that this underground culture will cease to exist just yet, but it is certainly declining. And although it might be sad to think that an end of an era is imminent, the spirit of pirate radio will surely persevere online as the platforms change. Inevitably loosing something along the way, but hopefully gaining something else.

Andreas Stylianou – Images James Buck, Nico Hogg, Hossam el Hamalawy, Wayne Barry