© Copyright Lindsay (2013)
The London Pirates
by Lindsay Kerr
The arrival of Hip Hop in the UK coincided perfectly with the early 80s boom in pirate Soul stations specialising in playing black music that commercial radio either ignored, under-represented or overlooked. On any weekend the FM frequency was alive with scores of illegal stations attempting to transmit quality music to London, and when Hip Hop began to filter through the clubs and onto the radio the pirate stations were the first to play it. Pirate DJs were regarded as having a musical edge over the commercial stations by dint of their regular club nights and being at the forefront of the latest musical trends. The illegality of unlicensed radio also added to the perceived ‘underground’ feel of their shows.
However, it could be said that Hip Hop was a musical genre which Capital Radio actually did cater for well on the shows of Mike Allen. Allen’s decision in September 1984 to play mostly Hip Hop was just at the right time to capture an eager young audience, and his easy humour, presentation style and enthusiasm were crucial to the show’s success. If he lacked a certain ‘street’ image his professionalism and the wide range of records he played more than compensated for it. Here was a DJ having fun and enjoying the music as much as his listeners did. So how did his shows differ from the competition? To answer this it is necessary to understand the difficulties faced by the pirates in their efforts to broadcast to the capital.
Many of the pirates Hip Hop shows predated Allen’s, but the fact that they were so frequently taken off air meant that from one week to the next there was no guarantee of hearing the same DJ or station again. In this respect Capital’s main advantage was that from 1974 to 1990 it was London’s only legal commercial music station and therefore enjoyed uninterrupted transmission. This allowed Allen to properly establish his shows and build up a regular weekend audience. By contrast DJs on pirate stations worked under the constant threat of DTI* raids which often led to criminal prosecutions, crippling fines, and the seizure of expensive audio and broadcasting equipment. In 1985 alone there were 136 prosecutions and 135 convictions of ‘unlicensed broadcasters’. Ironically, the biggest threat to a pirate station would often be from another pirate, who might resort to the theft and sabotage of equipment to remove a rival from the air.
Faced with an increase in pirate stations and the ineffectiveness of existing legislation the Government brought in the 1984 Telecommunications Act, thereby granting the DTI’s Radio Investigation Service the power to enter a property, seize all equipment and arrest suspects without the need of a warrant. From Monday 16th July 1984 any person convicted of involvement with a pirate station could be fined up to £2,000 and face three months in jail. The stiffer penalties had an immediate effect and caused all but three stations to close down voluntarily before that time. Later that year a number of new stations began to appear, undeterred by the harsher legislation and determined to be heard. It was said that at one stage there were more pirate stations than legal ones.
In July 1985 the Government launched its long awaited national Community Radio Scheme and announced that five broadcasting licenses would be made available for London, with a deadline of 30th September ’85 (later extended to November) to apply for one. It received 180 applications for London alone, including JFM, Solar and Horizon, demonstrating how much it had underestimated demand. However, rather than grant additional licenses the Government - to the amazement of all - simply shelved the whole scheme in June 1986, citing amongst other reasons the lack of a regulatory body to supervise the new stations. The result was a hardening of resolve on both sides, with the pirates vowing to carry on broadcasting to an eager public and the DTI increasing its manpower and frequency of raids.
Over the next two-and-a-half years the war of attrition continued until suddenly, on 2nd November 1988, the Home Secretary approved the creation of twenty-two new community radio licences. Applicants were invited to bid for them by submitting ‘letters of intent’, outlining the sort of broadcast service they wished to provide. The transmission cut-off date was 1st January 1989, after which time any person convicted of broadcasting illegally would be excluded from holding a license for five years and being employed by a licensed station. The new legislation was deemed harsh, and designed to silence as many pirates as possible, but 24 smaller stations ignored the deadline and carried on broadcasting regardless.
The announcement took many by surprise, and bids were quickly drawn up in order to beat the application deadline. Among those applying were Kiss FM, LWR, and Solar, who faced a seven-month wait to find out the results, during which time they could not broadcast. With three of the biggest stations voluntarily removed from the airwaves a new generation of pirates soon began to appear in their place.
*Department of Trade & Industry, the government body responsible at the time for radio regulation and the prevention of unlicensed broadcasts.
The DTI waged a relentless war on the London pirates, and from around 1980/1 onwards the most well known (some would say notorious) official was Eric Arthur Gotts, who had been zealously pursuing and closing down unlicensed broadcasters since the 1960s. His uncompromising approach inspired a loathing which persists to this day. All of the stations listed here were raided many times by Gotts or his DTI colleagues, and most were forced off the air for extended periods, some permanently. Readers can gain a better understanding of the DTI’s favoured tactics from the TX archives and actual footage of a raid from 1987:
Transmitters and aerials were situated in high places that maximised their range, be it tower blocks, rooftops, above shops or flats. Council tower blocks were obviously ideally suited as they afforded greater coverage, and it has been estimated that a decent 40-watt transmitter could be received over a 40 mile radius. Sometimes a whole show might be pre-recorded and transmitted from a tape deck stealthily positioned on a rooftop without alerting the occupants. Radio detector vans and the police were a constant threat so the pirates had to be ready to make their getaway if necessary. When illegal aerials and masts were discovered the DTI would often remove them with a crane.
Most pirate stations at some stage resorted to broadcasting pre-recorded programmes or operated from multiple locations to reduce the chances of the DTI tracing the main studio and seizing the most expensive equipment. A station could be back on the air and then find itself located, raided and closed down again within a matter of hours. Gotts rapidly became a hate figure for his destructive and heavy-handed methods, though a few people seemed to relish the challenge of outwitting him.
The pirates were financed through self-promoted club nights, one-off gigs, and adverts for local businesses and record shops such as Hitman Records and Quaff Records. They were also crucial to the eventual chart success of many records, and the record companies treated them as equals to the legal stations, often providing free vinyl (and the occasional bribe) in return for advertising slots and airplay time. The infamous ‘powerplay’ (payola) provided a cheap means of promoting a record though constant play, especially of music which the mainstream commercial stations ignored. According to an Evening Standard investigation LWR charged £500 a week for 56 plays. Often this was the only way of guaranteeing a record was heard.
No station was complete without its jingles, and some of the most memorable were provided by the king of voice-overs, the late Bill Mitchell. Mitchell was a Canadian whose distinctive, gravelly voice (maintained through heavy drinking and smoking) was in constant demand throughout the 80s and 90s for film and television adverts. British readers of a certain age will remember him from TV adverts for Carlsberg Lager*. Solar radio capitalised on the familiarity of this advert for one of their jingles (see below). Mitchell could also be heard on jingles for Starpoint FM, Time Radio, TKO, LWR and Horizon.
As well as the usual star jingles and endorsements (e.g. Kool and The Gang on Invicta) there were also some specially written musical jingles. One group who became synonymous with this were The Cool Notes, a talented south London Reggae & Soul band who wrote adverts for Horizon, Kiss FM, Solar, LWR and Starpoint FM. In return the pirates would feature them in their playlists. They enjoyed chart success in the mid-80s, and their track ‘Spend the Night’ reached number 11. The group is still around today, and their work for the pirate stations can be heard here:
Occasionally a jingle would be generic and could be adapted for more than one station, for example JFM and Horizon used an identical musical jingle with lyrics that differed only in the station names and frequencies.
*To this day Carlsberg still use the phrase on their cans.
Our aim is to compile a list of all the London pirate stations that had a Hip Hop and Electro show in the 1980s. To this end we have collated basic information on the more familiar stations, DJs, and show times where known. This has come from many sources* as well as personal recollections and recordings. Some of these stations were the most successful of the London pirates and their impact and popularity lasted far beyond the comparatively short time they were on air. A few, such as Solar and LWR, have been reborn online and continue broadcasting to this day.
The list reads as a veritable Who’s Who of top class British DJs over the past 35 years. Many have gone on to become stars in their own right on legal stations, who eagerly recruited the best of them in order to capture a market stake in the growing popularity in dance music.
Most of the show details and DJs are currently unknown but it is hoped that in time the gaps can be filled and a more complete record of the ‘80s London pirate radio Hip Hop scene will emerge. The majority of the DJs listed did not play Hip Hop but have been included for completeness sake and hopefully to jog memories of those that did. We therefore encourage readers to send us details of any corrections, shows, stations and DJs that we may have missed. We hope also to hear from some of the DJs themselves.
*A detailed account of pirate radio in the 1980s can be found in Grant Goddard’s excellent book “KISS FM: From Radical Radio to Big Business” (pub. Radio Books, 2011).
One of the most useful online sources of information is TX Magazine (http://www.amfm.org.uk/).
To read more details about each of the London pirate stations click on the logos below...
© Copyright Lindsay (2013)