May 24 2016

Is pirate radio a problem in the digital age?

Dr Angus NurseDirector of Programmes in Criminology and Sociology at Middlesex University Dr Angus Nurse is working with his colleague Dr Robin Fletcher to examine the phenomenon of pirate radio in the 21st century.

The news last year that 400 pirate radio stations had been shut down brought the subject of pirate radio back into the public consciousness. For those of a certain age, the term ‘pirate radio’ evokes nostalgic ideas of counter-culture radio programming and a challenge to the stuffy monopoly of the BBC, recently celebrated in Richard Curtis’ film ‘The Boat That Rocked’.  In some respects, the contemporary reality of pirate radio builds on this legacy as modern day pirate operators continue to provide music that is often neglected by mainstream radio and serve music scenes that might otherwise be ignored.

At Middlesex, Dr Robin Fletcher and I are currently examining the modern-day phenomenon of unlicensed ‘pirate’ radio in the UK.  The aim of the research is to, so far as is possible, examine the extent to which pirate radio remains a contemporary social and regulatory problem. We are examining why ‘pirate’ radio persists despite the existence of legal alternatives to unlicensed broadcasting.

The research, which was commissioned by the regulator Ofcom, also aims to assess both why people continue with ‘pirate’ broadcasting on FM radio, as well as the reasons why audiences continue to consume ‘pirate’ radio broadcasts.


MV Ross Revenge, home of Radio Caroline from 1983, photographed in 1984 at anchor in the Knock Deep channel of the southern North Sea (Photo by Third Ear via Wikimedia Commons). Today, pirate radio is often broadcast from urban properties in London.

Pirate radio in the 21st century

The term ‘pirate radio’ can be contested. In our research, pirate radio is an umbrella term that refers to any unlicensed radio broadcasting. In looking at the available information on unlicensed broadcasting, including material from Ofcom, it appears that ‘pirate’ radio problems are most pronounced within London. While there are pockets of pirate radio in other major cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, and isolated pirate problems in other parts of the UK, London has historically been a hub for pirate radio.

At its most basic level, a lack of available broadcast space on the FM spectrum, the number of high rise buildings suitable for transmitter installation and consumer demand for non-mainstream radio create the conditions for unlicensed radio broadcasting. Pirate radio offences can be found in the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006, which basically makes unlicensed broadcasting unlawful. However the question of whether pirate radio causes harm and the nature of that harm might be seen differently by audiences, broadcasters and regulators.

A spectrum of opinion

Our research is currently looking at the reasons why people listen to pirate radio and is exploring how far pirate radio reaches, particularly in London.  The extent to which an activity like pirate radio is seen as a ‘crime’ may well vary within and between communities. Where a pirate radio station plays music that can’t be heard anywhere else or offers specialist news or language service that benefits the community it might well be supported. By contrast, allegations have been made that some pirate stations cause disruption and damage to legitimate stations. This point has been raised in the work we have already done.  There have also been reports of pirate radio interfering with aircraft and emergency broadcasts. This is likely not an everyday problem, but should it happen it could be serious.

It is important to note that not all pirate radio stations are the same.

Those involved in pirate radio are often aware that it is illegal but continue anyway for various reasons.  For some the illegality and underground nature of pirate radio may itself be attractive, for others pirate radio is an essential route into the legal radio industry. However, the evidence suggests that pirate radio is more than just ‘simple’/’pure’ criminal activity. Instead a range of social explanations exist for illegal broadcasting offenses. It is important to note that not all pirate radio stations are the same.

We are now looking in depth at the reach of pirate radio and the reasons why people listen to it – especially in London. An anonymous online questionnaire we published last year has been updated to try to gain more information from listeners and the public and we would like to hear from as many listeners and members of the public as possible.

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Is pirate radio still a problem in the digital age? | dxerhamnews (26/05/2016 18:35:16)

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Rog Parsons (26/05/2016 00:33:32)

In the early 1920’s the British establishment decreed against organising even two separate licensed radio (wireless) companies and forbad any sort of advertising or even sponsored programmes on the British Broadcasting Company stations – no other competing company was allowed . Had other industry been so closely controlled the country would have become uncompetitive in world markets – as it was in every other field full competition was allowed – even the radio receivers the BBC broadcast to …… but not in broadcasting in Britain. An opportunity truly thrown away. In the 1960’s the BBC was still so restricted an entire generation rebelled by tuning to pirate radio coming then from outside territorial waters – so outside British broadcasting laws therefore not illegal in the UK . The government had a golden opportunity to give restrictive licences to the ships on a regional basis with controlled power output and properly authorised frequencies. A Labour government dithered then banned outright all the ship or fort based commercial pop music stations whilst a Tory opposition sat on its hands making almost whispered comment that it would one day allow local commercial radio in the UK. So the BBC regained its monopoly with a token poor copy-cat (Radio 247 hurriedly re-named Radio 1) of a pirate station (without commercials of cause) as ‘cheap tin’ substitute for the golden days of Radio Caroline, Radio London, Radio 390 etc. A film exists of a nervous Tony Blackburn’s first Radio 1 programme with a BBC producer breathing down his neck. Embarrassing to watch.. The Tory’s got back into government but the local commercial stations hadn’t the glamour of the 1960’s sea-going ‘pirates’ and profits were in many cases poor , after a time the commercial stations through take-overs and centralisation of studios became regional contrary to the original intention , and boring . Even the cheap tin BBC Radio 1 re-gained an audience but these youngsters had never experienced the lively and ‘off the cuff’ presentation of Caroline or ‘London riding the waves in more ways than one in the decade when the Americans experienced the ‘British invasion’ of pop, Beatles, ‘Stones Dave Clark Five etc. and D.J’s linking the tracks without a producer hovering over head. Audiences have changed and tastes varied but we are right back with the establishment almost of the 1920’s where entertainment on radio was a dirty word, and it’s not simply the teenagers getting a raw deal, digital or analogue, we have a growing over 50’s aged population who, because producers, presenters etc want to be in charge and are not open to listener advice, are not giving the consumer the product he/she asked for. Would you go into a shop for a lb or kg of apples and be talked into buying potatoes instead – even by the Managing Director or CEO – no you damned well wouldn’t... you’d sooner go to another shop who had the apples . Well, it’s time the studies round board rooms and in offices and high salaries to out of touch officials ended and the public of all ages were asked properly what programmes they wanted – then Ofcom got off its government (tax payer) salaried bum and provided what programmes and allowed what stations were needed – not simply used the law against those trying to provide them.


Mickey Gee (25/05/2016 20:05:16)

I listen to "pirate radio" to hear music that is not played on mainstream radio. Also for the variety of programming. Sadly the established stations have all fallen into a rut by playing the same old things over and over. Radio needs to be rebooted into the 21st century and the audiences need to be listened to. A case in point, I drive a truck the only station that I can receive country wide with a good signal is BBC Radio 2. However this does after a few days start to grind and after a few months, one feels like ripping the radio from the dash and throwing it out the window. They play the same playlist (interspersed with other tracks) every hour all day, 5 days a week. This culminates in hearing the same songs 5 times a day, 5 days a week for up to one month. If that is not overkill I don't know what is. I swear if I hear the Disturbed track one more time I'll personally push it somewhere where the sun don't shine. There is no need to keep repeating any songs (Absolute radio are an example of this) Absolute non-repeat days. Sadly Oftcom omitted to give Absolute a national FM license (when it was Virgin) so it can only be found on AM, which is very week in some areas and very muffled. I am a big fan of Radio Caroline. Their signal when they were on the Ross Revenge anchored in the Knock Deep was absolutely brilliant, clean and clear. Their engineers were of the highest quality, despite what certain people were saying. How many engineers on land based stations could keep a station running at sea for 34/7 365? I hope this sheds some light on why people still listen to pirate radio. Cheers Good luck with you findings, but don't expect anything to change.


Graham Sanders (25/05/2016 17:55:30)

Curious to see you make a value-laden statement such as referring to 'isolated pirate problems in other parts of the country'. Problems? Sounds like Ofcom speaking rather than an objective researcher.


Roger Taylor (25/05/2016 17:09:12)

I listen to the pirate radio stations because they provide a more varied musical output that the licences stations. By contrast the licensed broadcasters have a narrow musical output and you hear the same tracks play over and over again every day. In addition they seem to more adverts than they used to and they have become very intrusive and irritating something which the pirates manage to avoid. By contrast the pirate stations manage to avoid these pitfalls, and in opinion, provide far better and more listenable programmes. In the past the DJs would keep quiet if they had nothing useful to say and play the music but the licenced stations have gone away from this and treat the music as an unwanted interruption to their mindless gabble. The licensed stations and now owned by very few organisations and they now all compete for the same audience rather than try to encompass everyone. Each takeover has had led to a more boring station and we've now reached the stage where their programmes are dreadful. Most stations have gone away from having professional DJs to celebrities who have no knowledge about the music and emit mindless babble. It's no wonder that the pirates are flourishing. The government have not learned their lesson from when Radio Caroline started in the sixties.


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