Bouncing the illegal broadcasters off the overcrowded airwaves
Is pirate radio a public nuisance linked to crime or breeding ground for talent?
Owen Gibson, media correspondent
Friday February 17, 2006
An expectant crowd is waiting eagerly for Bounce FM to take to the airwaves. But their enthusiasm does not stem from a passion for the hip hop on offer. The crowd is in a police station in south London, and the delay is caused by the fact that the planned raid on the pirate station cannot take place until it begins broadcasting. After two hours of silence there is a crackle then a burst of enthusiasm as a budding DJ takes to the air. "You're locked in to Bounce 97.6 on your FM dial," he exclaims, as two enforcement officers from the media regulator Ofcom track the signal, followed by a police car and a van containing 10 police officers.
Minutes later the convoy swoops down the ramp of a local car wash, where the tinny strains of rapper Lil' Kim's Lighters Up can be heard emanating from a graffiti covered office disguised, not altogether convincingly, as a CD shop. The two officials bag up the record decks, CD mixer, computer, mobile phones, transmitter and stacks of CDs that allow Bounce FM to broadcast. As police arrest the DJ and joint station owner each wears an air of amused, weary resignation confirming the raid as the latest move in their game of chess with the authorities. On previous form, the station could be back on air in hours.
Meanwhile, another Ofcom team is alerted on top of a tower block two miles away. They take down the transmitter that has been broadcasting the station to listeners within a five mile radius. This raid is just one of many and marks the beginning of a renewed clampdown on pirate radio amid warnings that London's airwaves are now saturated with illegal stations that interfere with emergency services and commercial rivals.
Ofcom, which has responsibility for investigating illegal broadcasts, plans to press for the courts to issue heavier penalties after recording a significant rise in the number of pirate stations on air during the past two years. It argues that the popular image of music enthusiasts operating on the edge of the law hides links with drugs, guns and organised crime.
New figures show that Ofcom targeted 177 stations in the past year, securing 58 convictions. But officers from the regulator's enforcement unit told the Guardian that stations are often back on air hours after being raided and having their equipment confiscated. The more established stations with sizeable followings are able to kit out a studio and buy a transmitter for less than £3,000, while raking in up to £5,000 a week in advertising revenue.
In addition to advertising income, up and coming DJs are charged a fee of between £10 and £20 an hour for the privilege of playing and the stations often have links to local nightclubs. At weekends there are now more than 80 pirate radio stations operating in London and more than 150 around the country.
Apart from interfering with emergency services, air traffic control, the Ministry of Defence and commercial stations, Ofcom claims there is often a direct link between pirate radio and organised crime. Raids on studios have uncovered firearms and other weapons, while police report an increase in violent confrontations between rival broadcasters battling for possession of vacant slots on the FM dial. They also report an upsurge in the amount of transmission equipment stolen to order from local BBC and commercial stations.
"People's behaviour has changed. In the past they would allow us to get on with our jobs. People are now more volatile, more protective of the equipment and more likely to make verbal and violent threats," said Paul Mercer, Ofcom's head of operations in London and the south-east.
In an effort to combat the growing problem Ofcom has reorganised its enforcement unit. Around 125 staff work in the field operations unit that has responsibility for policing the airwaves. A new division will concentrate solely on longer term investigations, in particular the links between pirate radio stations and their advertisers, their connections with nightclubs and the black market supply of equipment. Having incessantly promoted a club night on air, the operators of the station will often run it themselves, profiting from admission fees and bar takings. Sometimes, say officials, a nightclub owner may not even know their venue is being used for an illegal event. Police say that money raised through advertising is also sometimes used to buy drugs to sell at these nights. Talk radio stations, while rarer than those pumping out music, can also present particular problems. Pirate radio stations in Birmingham were accused of spreading rumours of the rape of a West Indian girl by a gang of Asian men that contributed to riots in October last year. Others argue that pirate stations take advantage of young DJs and MCs by charging them to appear. At Bounce FM a notice on the wall reminds DJs to pay their £10 an hour subs to "keep Bounce bouncing".
Local councils also report an upsurge in the nuisance and damage caused by pirate stations gaining access to the rooftops of high rise tower blocks in order to erect their transmitters, often scaling the balconies of blocks of flats or leaping from one rooftop to another. According to Mr Mercer, some use metal masts up to 50ft high, which then have to be taken down by specialist scaffolders at a cost of £1,000 a day. DJs and artists argue that pirate stations, typically offering a steady diet of grime, rave, hip hop, R'n'B or reggae music, provide a breeding ground for new talent and an outlet for music that otherwise receives little exposure.
Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Shystie and Sway are among the British artists who put their success down to the network of pirate radio stations and attendant club nights that criss-cross the capital. DJ G Money, who for almost 10 years ran the south London pirate Bassline and is now a news presenter for the BBC's digital urban music station 1Xtra, said such stations played a vital role. "There is always going to be a kid in his bedroom in east London who has made a CD and gives it to his mate to play that night. There is less of a gap between the street and mainstream than there was, but there's still a gap," he said. But he accepted that pirate stations had become less organised, with more confrontation and less cooperation. "A lot of the structure has gone. We had our own rules that everyone adhered to," he said.
Popular pirate stations include:
94.6 Kool FM (old skool drum & bass) - Wapping based station has been running for 15 years, playing drum and bass music. Had transmitter seized last October.
95.5 On Top FM (grime, eski) Launched a year ago to for growing number of grime DJs, MCs and producers making their own tracks in south London.
97.9 Bassline (R&B, hip hop, ragga) South London station founded in 1993, playing urban music. Co-founder G Money is now a news presenter on BBC 1Xtra.
101.1 Naija FM (African) Mix of African music and talk. Based in Plumstead and Wapping. Had two transmitters seized in past year.
MediaGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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