MDX Minds

Is pirate radio a problem in the digital age?

Director 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.