Pirate radio in the United Kingdom

UK Pirate Radio Stations
Offshore stations
Land based stations
Former pirate radio stations (Now licensed)

UK pirate radio, unlicensed illegal broadcasting, was popular in the 1960s and experienced another surge of interest in the 1980s.[1] There are currently an estimated 150 pirate radio stations in the UK. A large proportion of these pirate radio stations operate in London, with significant clusters in Harlesden and the wider London Borough of Brent, Crystal Palace, Stoke Newington, the London Borough of Southwark, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and London Borough of Lambeth.[2]


The MV Mi Amigo, c. 1974, which had been used as the home of Radio Caroline South from 1964-1968 and 1972-1980

"Pirate radio" in the UK first became widespread in the early 1960s when pop music stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London started to broadcast on medium wave to the UK from offshore ships or disused sea forts. At the time, these stations were not illegal because they were broadcasting from international waters. The stations were set up by entrepreneurs and music enthusiasts to meet the growing demand for pop and rock music, which was not catered for by the legal BBC Radio services.[3][4]

The first British pirate radio station was Radio Caroline, which was launched by Irish music entrepreneur Ronan O'Rahilly, and started broadcasting from a ship off the Essex coast in 1964. By 1967 ten pirate radio stations were broadcasting to an estimated daily audience of 10 to 15 million. The format of this wave of pirate radio was influenced by Radio Luxembourg and American radio stations. Many followed a top 40 format with casual DJs, making UK pirate radio the antithesis of BBC radio at the time.[5] Spurred on by the offshore stations, landbased pirate stations took to the air on medium wave at weekends, such as Radio Free London in 1968.[6]

By 1965 pirate radio had a British audience of 10 to 15 million, and by 1966 sold almost £2 million worth of advertising a year to customers including the government-funded Egg Marketing Board. Radio Caroline's audience was one third the size of the Light Programme in the parts of the country where it could be received, but the Light Programme's audience did not decrease, indicating that pirate radio appealed to an audience that the BBC did not serve.[7]

In reaction to the popularity of pirate radio BBC radio was restructured in 1967, establishing BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4. A number of DJs of the newly created pop music service BBC Radio 1 came from pirate stations. The UK Government also closed the international waters loophole via the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967, although Radio Caroline continued to broadcast (with some sizable off-air periods between 1968–72 and 1980–83) until 1990.[3][5]

1970s and 1980s

The 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences Act officially outlawed offshore stations, but unlicensed radio continued, moving from ships and sea-based platforms to urban areas in the latter part of the 1960s (they were already illegal under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949).[5] During this period, home-made medium wave/'AM' transmitters [or sometimes short wave] were often constructed inside cheap, expendable biscuit tins.

The main method employed by most medium-wave or short-wave pirate stations during the 1960s and 70s involved programming played back on cassette recorders (often powered by a car battery), with a long wire antenna slung up between two trees. Around this time, VHF/FM transmitters were being built by more adventurous builders. A surge in pirate radio occurred when cheap portable transmitters became available and by the mid-1980s a 50 watt radio transmitter could be obtained for around £200, or could be built for less. The operation of a pirate radio station required a good quality cassette recorder, a transmitter and a high roof, with tower blocks providing the ideal transmission site for pirate radio stations. A 40 watt transmitter broadcasting from the roof of a fifteen storey tower block could reach a forty-mile radius. Radio shows were often pre-recorded at home, with the pirate radio station operators setting up temporary transmitters on the roof of tower blocks.[8]

The 1970s and 1980s saw a wave of landbased pirate radio, broadcasting mostly in big cities. These included community-focused local stations such as Sunshine Radio in Shropshire and Radio Jackie in south west London. In London pirate stations emerged that, for the first time in UK radio broadcasting, focused on particular music genres such as Radio Invicta (92.4 FM) Europe's first soul station, started in 1970. Kiss FM (dance), Solar Radio (soul), Raiders FM, Radio Amanda and Radio Floss(Rock) and Dread Broadcasting Company(Reggae).

Pirate radio met with increasing opposition, especially from the authorities in the form of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) Radio Regulatory Division (and later the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) after it became responsible for radio regulation) which had claimed since the late 1960s that pirate radio caused interference to licensed broadcasters and could interfere with frequencies used by emergency services. Nonetheless the growth of pirate radio in the 1980s was so rapid that at one point pirate radio operators outnumbered legal broadcasters. Pirate stations such as Radio Invicta, JFM, and London Weekend Radio continued to gain popularity and increasingly operated openly.[5] Pirate radio targeted music communities ignored by mainstream broadcasting, such as reggae, hip hop, jazz and rhythm and blues. Stations like London Greek Radio, which broadcast to the Greek and Greek Cypriot community, also catered to ethnic minorities.[9]


By 1989, there were about 600 pirate radio stations in the UK, with over 60 in London. In the 1990s, a new wave of rave pirate radio stations emerged, such as Radio Sunrise, Radio Centre Force and Radio Fantasy. In the early 1990s, pirate radio briefly declined in response to tougher penalties, an intensified crackdown by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the leading dance pirate radio station Kiss FM responding to the Government's offer of amnesty for pirate stations that closed down voluntarily and applied for an official license. But Kiss FM failed to satisfy the rising rave audience and pirate radio resurged in 1992 and 1993. The new pirate radio stations abandoned the mainstream pop radio format and moved to a "raves on the air" format with strong emphasis on audience participation, enabled by the spread of mobile phones. Pirate radio stations would frequently lose transmitters worth several hundred pounds due to DTI raids, redirecting to backup transmitters on the roof of another building to maintain broadcast continuity.

Pirate radio stations would gain revenue from advertising raves and specialist record shops, as well as DJs who paid a fee for playing. At this stage, some stations such as London Greek Radio had huge followings, and LGR were broadcasting with an aerial on the roof of a store.Other stations such as the Sunday Station Rock FM were broadcasting live from home studios linked via wireless links to their main tower block transmitter. RFM DJs each had their own microwave links to the transmitter from their home studios in New Cross, Hertford, and Hainault to name but three locations. Unlike stations playing Rave music, and taking advertising, RFM had no advertisers and built a significant following, helped by write-ups in Time Out and other culture magazines and a mailing address. On Saturdays, London Rock also built a significant following, broadcasting from a transmitter atop Simla House near London Bridge. As with RFM, the station played rock music and was not aided by advertising or the rave scene to which these stations had no connections. The ethos on both stations was about the music - They shared DJs on occasions.[10]

The Broadcasting Act 1990 led to the brief decline of UK pirate radio by encouraging diversity in radio and opening up the development of commercial radio. Many pirate radio stations such as the London-based dance music station Kiss FM applied for licenses to the new Radio Authority and went legitimate. However, the number of unlicensed broadcasts has since increased, partly because many non-licensed broadcasters believed that the 1990 Act had actually undermined community-based stations and small scale radio entrepreneurs.[9] Of the pirate radio stations that gained a license in the 1990s, such as Kiss FM, FTP in Bristol, WNK Radio in Haringey and KFM Radio in Stockport, only a few, such as Sunrise Radio in London, remained in the hands of the original owners. Most have become significantly more mainstream and target a broad audience as a result of commercial pressures to achieve greater audience numbers and a particular audience type sought by advertisers.[11]


There are currently an estimated 150 pirate radio stations in the UK. A large proportion of these pirate radio stations operate in London, with significant clusters in Harlesden, Crystal Palace, Stoke Newington, Southwark and Lambeth.[2] Set-up costs for pirate radio stations are minimal with a transmitter generally built by the engineer of the station. In days gone by these were powered by car batteries, but when the Pirates moved to tower blocks, the power came directly from the block room. Pirate radio stations may receive income from advertising and publicising events at nightclubs. DJs may pay to broadcast on pirate radio stations to gain public exposure.[2]

In November 2006 Ofcom commissioned research among residents of the London boroughs of Hackney, Haringey and Lambeth, finding that about 24 percent of all adults aged 14 or older living within the three London boroughs listen to pirate radio stations. The research found that 37 percent of students aged 14–24 and 41 percent of the African-Caribbean community listened to pirate radio. The development and promotion of grass-roots talent, the urban music scene and minority community groups were identified as key drivers for pirate radio. According to the research both pirate radio listeners and those running pirate radio stations thought that licensed broadcasters failed to cater sufficiently for the needs of the public at large. Pirate radio was regarded as the best place to hear new music and particularly urban music. Furthermore, pirate radio stations were appreciated for their local relevance by providing information and advertisements about local community events, businesses and club nights.[12]

Voice Of Africa Radio is a former pirate station serving London's African and Caribbean communities, which has become licensed and is now a community radio station. Rinse FM has also followed suit and is now licensed as a community radio station, who work with children excluded from school and educated in pupil referral units as part of their community training remit.

Luton Urban Radio also known as LUR Live operated for nearly two decades as a pirate radio station in Bedfordshire outside of the UK capital of London, but became a legal not-for-profit entity and a licensed internet radio station in 2015. It now lists among former pirate stations.

Political pirate radio stations

The first political radio station was Radio Free Scotland, which illegally hijacked the sound channels of BBC television after closedown. At the time, the BBC forbade the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru to broadcast. In the 1970s, Radio Enoch, named after Enoch Powell, was set up by people on the right wing of the Conservative and Unionist Party to help re-elect a conservative government. Although Radio Enoch had vowed to return if a Labour administration was re-elected, it failed to do so after Tony Blair was elected in 1997. Other political radio broadcasters are Interference FM,[13] set up by a collective to broadcast on the J18 demonstrations in 1999.[14][15] In 1982, "Our Radio" was broadcasting music, anarchism, and other left wing views to London. Our Radio once evaded arrest by setting up a dummy antenna for the Home Office to find.[16] Another political pirate was the Miners pirate radio station dubbed Radio Arthur by the media, which operated in the Nottinghamshire area during the 1984/1985 miners strike; downloads of some of its programmes are available on www.g0mrf.com. This station transmitted over the top of Radio Trent on both mediumwave using 3500 watts and VHF using 800 watts or more. Mentioned in a House of Lords debate in Hansard as Radio Scargill, it was stated that it had been actively pursued and closed down by the authorities; however this was incorrect and the people involved were never caught. Other recordings of Radio Arthur are on the Pirate Archive website.

Other political stations include the likes of Galaxy FM, founded in the early 1980s and gaining a strong audience by the late 80's after becoming consistent reliable station broadcasting mostly on Fridays, weekends and Monday mornings. Galaxy FM did attempt to broadcast 24 hours on the FM briefly and did advertise for a short time, before returning to broadcasting mostly on Fridays, weekends and Monday mornings after 1992 with no profit making adverts. It was not until June 2012 Galaxy FM attempted to broadcast 24 hours a day on the FM again and deliberately continued to not use profit making advertisements to maintain the station. However, in late September/early October 2012 due to constant attacks from the authorities the station decided to go back to its original schedule, this time with an additional day and a half of broadcasting per week; broadcasting on the FM from Thursday afternoons until Monday afternoons. Galaxy FM encourages the black population to liberate themselves through empowerment and self-reliance.

In 2002, a project conducted by a team of The Evening Standard journalists quoted a presenter on Galaxy FM saying 'black empowerment" against a system "designed to oppress our brothers and sisters".[17] In live phone-ins to mobile-phone numbers, listeners are urged to integrate "not with Europe, but with Africa", and warned against the "Freemasons and illuminati controlling the racist media".[17] Galaxy FM is known for quoting Marcus Garvey heavily and claims to be 'the only DE brainwashing station' and was and still is one of the few stations that does not run profit making adverts[13][18][19][20]

In a similar vein Genesis FM founded in 1985 (broadcasting briefly, mainly playing music). Genesis FM re-launched properly in 1991 and in latter years it began broadcasting 24 hours with various talk and information shows, often extremely politically engaging. One of the founder members of Genesis FM is also the founder of the legendary Reggae Sound System Saxon Sound. The station suffered constant attacks by the authorities, but was still regularly on the FM. In 2005 Genesis FM was one of the first pirate stations to go on the internet and became less consistent and unreliable on the FM, sometimes going months without being on the FM. Genesis FM often used the slogan 'Black power station' and 'the people's station'. Like Galaxy FM, many of the talk shows on Genesis FM are very political and controversial discussions are dealt with. In 2010, Lewisham Lib Dem Councillor Duwayne Brooks, who was present when his friend Stephen Lawrence was killed by racists in 1993[21] urged the police to engage with unlicensed stations such as Genesis FM to help bring community cohesion and crack down on hard crime. Duwayne Brooks also mentioned growing up listening to Genesis FM and described the station as a tool for people to have a platform to speak, where otherwise their voices are silenced or excluded.[22]

In article published by the Guardian newspaper, the community importance of pirate radio was highlighted. Sanjae a young girl at the age of 3 was told she had just weeks to live due to a rare lung tissue disease. It would require at least £50.000 in order to send Sanjae to the U.S. to have a life or death operation. A weekly popular talk show entitled the 'Nubian Forum talk show' which took place on the now deceased radio station, Power Jam FM raised awareness and began raising money. Within days two other pirate radio stations, Galaxy FM and Genesis FM joined forces to help; both of which helped raise thousands of pounds each. With the exception of the Hackney Gazette, no other mainstream media was interested. It is therefore argued that had it not been for Power Jam FM, Galaxy FM and Genesis FM, Sanjae would have died.[23]

In an interview with the founder of DBC (Dread Broadcasting Corporation) considered to be the first black owned pirate station in Europe, Leroy Anderson described some of the present day pirate stations as a joke. He did however acknowledge stations that are doing good things and mentioned Genesis FM as an example.[24]

In 2007/08 Omega FM was established in West London and became actively involved in political discussions. By late 2010 it was clear that Omega FM was following in the footsteps of pioneering black political pirate stations such as Galaxy FM and Genesis FM, adopting a similar format playing information documentaries concerning black history and Pan Afrikan ideologies along with Nation of Islam and The Nuwaubian ideologies as well as alternative approaches on current affairs, while also playing mostly Reggae music with a touch of other genres of black music that is often politically orientated.

Today, operators of non-licensed broadcasting face high fines and prison sentences.[9]

The Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 provides for Ofcom to issue licences to radio broadcasters for the use of stations and wireless telegraphy apparatus. The Act sets out a number of criminal offences relating to wireless telegraphy, including the establishment or use of a wireless telegraphy station or apparatus for the purpose of making an unlicensed broadcast. The financing or participating in the day-to-day running of unlicensed broadcasting is also a criminal offence, as is the supplying of a sound recording for an unlicensed station and advertising through unlicensed stations.[25] The Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 allows Ofcom to take a number of actions against individuals committing these offences, including power of entry and search and seizure of equipment. It is a criminal offence to obstruct a person exercising enforcement powers on Ofcom's behalf.[3] Furthermore, the Broadcasting Act 1990 provides that anyone convicted of an unlawful broadcasting offence is disqualified from holding a broadcasting licence for five years.[3]

Licensed broadcasters may also take legal action against pirate radio stations. In 2000, the Commercial Radio Companies Association (CRCA) for the first time initiated legal action against a pirate station. The CRCA sued the weekend dance music pirate station Scene FM for £50,000 for causing interference to transmissions and a reduction in advertising revenues.[9]

Cultural influences

Black music

Pirate radio stations played a major role in blurring reggae and soul in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1970 Radio Invicta, Europe's first Soul station began broadcasting from and to South London, for one hour Monday to Friday, as The Sound Of Midnight Soul. These broadcasts were soon expanded to Bank Holidays, and then every Sunday on 92.4fm in Stereo. Radio Invicta launched the radio careers of Steve Marshall, Steve Walsh, Pete Tong, Giles Peterson, and many others. The pirate radio station London Weekend Radio (LWR) became the home of hip hop and Tim Westwood, who pioneered LWR, recruited members for the British chapter of the Zulu Nation through the pirate radio station. During that time, JFM, founded by former Radio Jackie DJ Brian Anthony, and Horizon FM broadcast soul and jazz-funk.[26]

Established in 1981 in west London DBC (Dread Broadcasting Corporation)also known as Rebel Radio FM[27] is considered the first black owned pirate radio station in Europe.[24] The West London-based DBC (Dread Broadcasting Corporation), founded by DJ Lepke, played reggae on Friday nights in a format based on sound systems style and using heavy dub echo and reverb in the links. DBC also broadcast soul music, gospel, jazz, funk, r&b, Afrikan (South African black music) and soca (upbeat calypso). DBC was unique among radio stations in the UK at the time, a black-run station broadcasting black music to a mixed audience. Miss P, who would later DJ the first reggae show on BBC Radio 1, commented: "There's never been a station run like DBC. Our format allows us to play music that would otherwise never be heard publicly. We create movement within the industry."[28]

Throughout the mid-1980s, early '90s and 2000s, a number of black music pirate stations in London, including Vibes FM, Power Jam FM (now deceased), Lightening FM, Juice FM (now deceased), Roots FM, Sweet FM (now deceased), RJR FM, Millennium Supreme FM, Baseline FM (now deceased), Blues FM, Galaxy FM, Unique FM, Genesis FM, On top FM, SLR FM, Time FM (now deceased),Kool FM, Conscious FM and Station FM have established a relatively stable presence on the airwaves. With the advent of internet radio, these stations, particularly Genesis FM have acquired a global audience, while still retaining their local flavor. One of the station managers from Genesis FM said: Our Sunday show gets 2,000 listeners from the internet alone so the radio can be an effective way of getting a message across.[29]

It should be noted also that there were a number of stations in London that played music other than MOBO (Music Of Black Origin), including but not limited to RFL (Radio Free London) RFM (Rock FM) and London Rock. Rock FM broadcast on 94.3FM on Sundays and was regularly featured in listings magazines such as Time Out. London Rock broadcast on Saturdays from the London SE1 area and was in effect a sister station to RFM, though no less relevant for all that. RFM was founded by Dave Fuller and Claire Mansfield and soon established itself as one of the few voices on Pirate Radio that was not funded by or linked to the rave culture. RFM and London Rock took no advertising, but funded the stations themselves, a major difference with the MOBO Pirates who were funded by payola and the promotion of their own rave events. London Rock had DJ's such as Lucien, Dennis and Martin Richards. London Rock and RFM seemed to share DJ's for a while, and both stations operated took requests by phone and mail. There was significant rivalry for frequencies among Pirate stations, fueled by the financial rewards that came from promoting raves, and as a consequence, it was not uncommon for some stations to attack or destroy the transmitters and/or studios of their rivals for airtime.

Contemporary cultural references

A 1966 episode of Danger Man entitled "Not So Jolly Roger" was set aboard an offshore pirate radio station.

In 1966, Season 2 episode 5 of the Thunderbirds featured a pirate radio station orbiting the earth which later suffers a malfunction and begins to crash back to Earth.

The 1967 Album The Who Sell Out by rock band The Who has jingles from a pirate radio station Wonderful Radio London.

In a 1970 episode of their BBC TV series The Goodies, the British comedy trio ran a pirate radio station named Radio Goodies.

In 1987 The Lenny Henry Show also featured a pirate station called the Brixton Broadcasting Corporation a spoof of the BBC where a cafe owner had the station run in the cafe.

The 2003 Family Channel series Radio Free Roscoe focuses on a pirate radio station operated by four high-schoolers from the fictional town of Roscoe.

In the BBC TV series Ideal (2005-2011) the brother of Moz, Troy, runs a pirate radio station named Troy FM.

The 2009 movie The Boat That Rocked (retitled Pirate Radio in North America) is about UK pirate radio and loosely based on Radio Caroline.

The BBC Three TV Series People Just Do Nothing mockumentary is about pirate radio station Kurupt FM.


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  20. British African-Caribbean people
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