Texting to pirates

pirate radioI found an article about London pirate radio stations first published in Sunday Times magazine in September 2003. In it the author, Matt Munday, tells how phones and are being used at Xtreme FM to keep contact with listeners:

A show is in progress, the DJs taking turns to mix records together and exchange banter in a cockney pirate patois. The music veers from chunky hip hop to saccharine R&B – like most contemporary pirates, Xtreme champions “urban” sounds, a term that originated as a euphemism for black music. When not DJ-ing, they fiddle with their mobile phones: texting, reading texts, taking calls. Everyone has a top-of-the-range handset.

There is a studio mobile too. It vibrates every few seconds like a faulty alarm clock, as listeners call and text. Scrolling through its inbox, I notice scores of “missed calls”. Big N explains that this is how pirates gauge a record’s popularity. If listeners like a tune, they call in and then ring off, so the studio mobile registers a “missed call”. This costs callers nothing. If Xtreme receives over 20 missed calls from different numbers before a track ends, the DJs play it again. This is why teenagers listen to pirate radio: it’s interactive in ways legal stations can’t match.

Below is the full article, found at http://amsterdam.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0309/msg00107.html

7th September 2003 – Sunday Times Magazine
Criminal Records
Report by Matt Munday

Pirate radio is illegal, dangerous – and taking over the airwaves of Britain. But without it, stars like Ms Dynamite might never have been heard

So here I am, lost and blindfolded, being hurried along a north London street by my captor. Subtle pressure from a hand on my shoulder helps me weave a trajectory around lampposts, past oncoming pedestrians. The man’s other hand propels a photographer, who, like me, has had a baseball cap jammed onto his head, the peak yanked below eye level.

We met our “guide” 20 minutes earlier in the West End. He calls himself “Big N” and his appearance fits his name – built like a pocket Tyson, in a hooded top and baggy jeans. I wonder how passers-by are reacting to our plight; it must look as if we are being kidnapped.

Fortunately, we aren’t. Of the three of us, only Big N is on edge. He runs an unlicensed radio station, Xtreme FM, and, if caught, could face a two-year sentence for contravening the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949. Big N remembers the fate of another pirate station, Freek FM, featured in a national newspaper two years ago and, days later, raided by police. Hence the makeshift blindfolds, ensuring that Xtreme’s location remains secret.

We’re ushered through a doorway, up some stairs. We’re in a large old house, possibly a squat. Through another door, and – caps off – welcome to Xtreme FM’s studio. This turns out to be a spartan room, not much bigger than a student bedsit, and only slightly less grotty. A sheet is pinned across the window, the room lit by a bare bulb. The walls are peeling, there is a torn carpet underfoot and, in one corner, some rickety chairs.

In another corner, six sportswear-clad youths cluster around some basic sound equipment: turntables, a mixer, a microphone and, on the floor nearby, a hi-fi and a small black custom-made “link box”. The link box sends Xtreme’s signal, via a cable, through a tiny hole in the wall and up onto the roof. From here, a microwave “LNB” link – a hand-sized transmitter, “liberated” from a satellite TV dish – beams it to the main transmitter, “the rig” in pirate parlance, which is located on some high point, usually a tower-block roof, and could be anything up to five miles away. The rig is connected to an aerial that beams Xtreme onto the FM dial.

A show is in progress, the DJs taking turns to mix records together and exchange banter in a cockney pirate patois. The music veers from chunky hip hop to saccharine R&B – like most contemporary pirates, Xtreme champions “urban” sounds, a term that originated as a euphemism for black music. When not DJ-ing, they fiddle with their mobile phones: texting, reading texts, taking calls. Everyone has a top-of-the-range handset.

There is a studio mobile too. It vibrates every few seconds like a faulty alarm clock, as listeners call and text. Scrolling through its inbox, I notice scores of “missed calls”. Big N explains that this is how pirates gauge a record’s popularity. If listeners like a tune, they call in and then ring off, so the studio mobile registers a “missed call”. This costs callers nothing. If Xtreme receives over 20 missed calls from different numbers before a track ends, the DJs play it again. This is why teenagers listen to pirate radio: it’s interactive in ways legal stations can’t match. Some tune in on their mobiles – on the bus, in the high street, even at school.

Pirate stations like Xtreme are proliferating. According to the Radio Communications Agency, the government organisation that polices the airwaves, there are 209 UK pirates, 181 of which are in London. They have more than doubled in the past 15 years. It’s an increasingly lucrative game. Advertisers pay around £120 a week each, and stations can gross up to £3,000 a week. But the rewards don’t stop there: everyone at Xtreme knows that if you’re good enough, and play your cards right, this is a stepping stone to a champagne lifestyle, a media career, a No 1 record, fame and fortune. This is Pop Idol, ghetto-style.

“This is the best way to make a name for yourself,” says Big N, scrolling through his texts. Now 28, Big N has been a DJ since he was 14. “I couldn’t get a gig, but I knew that if I could get onto a pirate, clubs would eventually try me out. You’re aware it’s illegal, but you’re equally aware that once you start getting gigs, things can snowball.”

Ms Dynamite is the best-known beneficiary of this “snowball” effect. Currently the nation’s favourite female pop star and the £1m face of Pepsi-Cola, Dynamite was risking arrest every week on the ill-fated Freek FM barely three years ago. It was a calculated gamble. Her slots MC-ing on pirate radio helped establish a substantial teen fan base. Her debut single, Booo!, gatecrashed the top 40 on the back of heavy pirate rotation, which led to an album deal with Polydor and the coveted Mercury music prize; from there, her career went supernova.

Pirate DJs played a fundamental role in creating UK garage – the hybrid of house music and Jamaican dancehall from which Ms Dynamite, and several other chart stars, such as Craig David and Daniel Bedingfield, have emerged. There were pirate stations whose entire musical oeuvre was devoted to garage long before national radio woke up to it – but the pirates’ musical agenda moves at such a velocity that garage is already old hat.

What keeps the kids tuning in is the DJs’ ability to stay one step ahead. So garage is undergoing a transitional phase as DJs create a bewildering rash of new subgenres: bashy, 8-bar, tech-step – each, possibly, the next big thing. At Xtreme, a new style is in the offing. “But we don’t have a proper name for it yet,” says one of the DJs, Caspa C. “We just call it ‘bass’.”

Major labels know that if they sign an artist that is big on pirate radio, they also acquire a guaranteed fan base. BMG, whose roster includes the urban superstars the Neptunes and Whitney Houston, has courted pirate stations for 10 years. “We were among the first to set up ‘street teams’, whose job is to find out what is going on on pirate radio,” explains Mervyn Lyn, BMG vice-president of European marketing and promotion. “Now all the majors do the same. Pirates are simply too influential to ignore.”

The music industry isn’t the only business sector after a slice of the action. Blue-chip brands are becoming involved too – where kids with disposable income go, advertising will follow.

“These pirate kids are early adopters and they’re trendsetters,” says Rooney Carruthers, a partner at the advertising agency VCCP, whose clients include Coca-Cola and the mobile network O2. “They spend virtually all their disposable income on clothes, mobiles and text-messaging; they’ve got this must-have-the-right-label attitude, and if a brand can tap into that, it could be worth millions.”

“Brands are having to be more savvy, and understand that this world exists,” agrees Yusuf Chuku, a strategist at Naked Communications, a consultancy for brands such as Honda and MTV. “It’s getting harder to reach cool kids through conventional media channels. Kids rarely watch TV or read magazines en masse – the things that are cool in their world start closer to home. They listen to pirates where the DJs are friends of friends; they can text them and almost feel as if they have part-ownership of the station.”

There are, of course, manifest problems with this, not least the question of legality. And how do brands and agencies more used to dining at the Ivy than stumbling around north London wearing blindfolds make the necessary inroads?

In the Xtreme studio is a tall, calmly spoken, bald-headed man who says he has the answer. His name is Steve Gordon, and his club, Twice As Nice, has itself evolved into a global brand – from its London base, it now entertains over 25,000 people a week in summer months at venues across Europe.

Gordon is well connected in this world. The DJs he uses all come from pirate backgrounds. When called upon, he acts as a consultant to brands wishing to target the urban market. He claims to have helped at least three advertise directly on pirate radio – though, of course, he won’t say which. However, he does admit to helping brands including PlayStation, O2 and Warner Bros permeate the culture virally, in ways that stop short of breaking the law.

“In the case of Warners, we’ve collaborated on compilation albums,” he says, “while PlayStation and O2 sponsor our events.”

And although said companies haven’t paid to advertise directly on pirate stations, the chances of a Twice As Nice club night or album being plugged on air by pirate DJs are all but assured.

Our time at Xtreme is up. Four more DJs have arrived and it’s getting crowded. Before we leave, one of the DJs saunters over and unwittingly illustrates how little time today’s pirate generation devotes to conventional media channels. “So you’re from The Sunday Times?” he inquires. “I don’t think I’ve seen that. Is it anything like The Sun?”

Pirate DJs know that aside from lucrative nightclub work – where top earners charge £200 to £400 an hour – they can also be scouted by legal stations, a tradition dating back to the advent of Radio 1. In the 1960s, the first generation of sea-based pirates such as Radio Caroline attracted audiences of millions with their rock’n’roll programming. In response, the government outlawed marine broadcasting in 1967 and formed Radio 1 as a sop to pop fans, poaching the pirates’ most prolific presenters, such as Tony Blackburn and John Peel.

In the 1980s, growing demand for soul and rap led to a new wave of pirates springing up in big UK cities. Unlike their marine forebears, who could reach large swathes of the UK by broadcasting on medium wave from converted fishing boats, second-generation pirates such as London’s LWR and JFM broadcast on the FM dial; their audience wanted to hear the music in stereo, and FM transmitters have a smaller range. This forced the pirates inland, where they hid within council estates and derelict buildings. Several presenters from these stations, including Pete Tong and Tim Westwood, are now Radio 1 mainstays.

In 1990, Kiss FM rolled up its skull and crossbones, having won a licence to broadcast to London legally. With over 30 specialist music shows a week, it was able to showcase the myriad new genres of dance music spiralling out of rave culture faster than mainstream radio could cope with. Radio 1, worried it was no longer down with the kids, began ditching greying ex-Caroline presenters and poaching Kiss’s rising stars, who were replaced at Kiss, itself desperate to retain street credibility, by up-and-coming pirate DJs.

According to one of Kiss FM’s founders, Jazzie B – who won a Grammy in 1989 with his band, Soul II Soul – the rise of the land-based pirates is synonymous with black self-empowerment.

“We switch on and we hear the nucleus of what black Britain has to offer,” he says. “And it will remain that way until we are properly included. It will end when the BBC has black people in positions of power and when record companies and mainstream organisations have enough black people in place. Until then, there will always be pirate radio.”

Whenever they broadcast, pirates know that the Radio Communications Agency is monitoring them. The agency’s radio specialists stake out stations from inside unmarked vehicles, moving in to seize transmitters and enlisting the police for raids. A few days after visiting Xtreme, I join a pair of radio specialists driving up Brixton Hill in a Ford saloon. Like their pirate nemeses, neither gives his real name. Most pirates acknowledge they are just doing their job, they say, but on occasion things have turned nasty. Their car’s tyres have been slashed and its windscreen shattered. One of the pair has been threatened with violence.

Their car’s glove compartment contains a small rectangular box with two dials, which lock onto whatever frequency the radio is tuned into. A flickering needle on the first dial monitors the signal strength; the second has a circular, compass-like face, on which a vacillating red blob indicates the signal’s direction. We’re on the trail of a local pirate radio station, Bassline FM. Halfway up Brixton Hill, the blob veers left, and we turn off the main road into a council estate. Bassline instantly cuts out. One minute we’re listening to a reggae breakfast show; the next, there’s just a dull crackle. Somewhere, in one of the blocks looming above us, someone has recognised our car and pulled the plug.

Coincidentally, we trace another signal, Lightning FM, to a block just two streets away. Lightning’s aerial is housed inside a 40ft scaffold pole, clearly, almost brazenly, visible from ground level. Also on the roof is a small, horn-like microwave link that receives the studio’s signal and is connected to the biscuit-tin-sized rig. The specialists are after the rig. When they remove it, the station will be off air.

As we park, however, Lightning’s signal also cuts out. The specialists decide to head for the roof anyway, up eight flights of stairs. A padlocked hatch leads onto the roof from one corner of the highest walkway. As we arrive, a man in blue workman’s overalls is halfway along the walkway, strolling towards the stairs at the other end. He carries a sports bag. As he disappears down the opposite set of stairs, he sneaks a look back at us. There’s no point giving chase: the radio specialists have no powers of arrest. Sure enough, when we ascend to the roof, the rig is gone.

The cat-and-mouse game continues. Two more specialists arrive with a microwave tracer – a bulky, typewriter-sized machine that one of the men straps to his chest, before slowly rotating on the spot, holding aloft a funnel-like receiver. If the station is still broadcasting from its studio, the tracer will pinpoint the signal’s direction, narrowing the hunt down to two or three blocks of flats, which will then be placed under surveillance. This morning, however, the specialists are out of luck: their tracer remains silent.

Two hours later we arrive in Plumstead, southeast London, hot on the trail of another station, Flava FM, whose signal is blocking Ministry of Defence radio transmissions. It’s a common problem: pirate rigs are home-made, and sometimes signals “leak” onto other frequencies, scrambling broadcasts by emergency services and air-traffic controllers (who, fortunately, are able to switch frequencies). The worst-affected are tower-block residents: pirate aerials are sometimes anchored in rooftop drains, causing leakage into flats below, and the transmitters can scramble TV reception.

We trace Flava’s signal to another block, and this time the station remains on air – although our progress through the roof hatch is slowed by gloopy anti-climbing paint, courtesy of Flava’s management. One of the team then dons the tracer, and as he swings the funnel round, it crackles to life, a tinny UK-garage rhythm filling the air. The funnel points north across the Thames, at two blocks a couple of miles away. The specialists note the location. Then one saws the rig loose from a bicycle lock holding it in place. Flava vanishes from the FM dial – for now.

In 2002 the Radio Communications Agency completed 1,046 raids against pirate stations, but only a handful were studio raids – the rest were mostly rig seizures. Forty-nine people were prosecuted, though most received fines of around £700, and nobody went to jail. Against 209 pirate stations across the UK, the agency seems like a big-game hunter armed with a fly swatter – although it claims its latest tactic of targeting advertisers, thus hitting pirate revenues, is finally starting to reduce the number of stations.

Pirates know that when a rig vanishes, the culprit is more likely to be a rival station. “All the two-bob stations steal,” grumbles Tony T, manager of the south London pirate Flash FM. “These days every youngster is either a DJ or an MC. They all want to play on the big stations, and they can’t – so they find out how to put a station on, and get out there. But it takes around £5,000 to £6,000 to set up and they haven’t got that much, so they see a short cut and nick the rigs. It’s a big problem.”

A former pirate DJ on a now-defunct station called Upfront reveals how things can escalate. “Our rig was on the roof of some flats in south London, and another station smashed it up,” he says. “They were broadcasting on the same frequency as us. We replaced it, but got word that they were coming again. We waited for them, and it turned into a massive fight. It got out of hand. We didn’t get into pirate radio to spend our time fighting – but people’s livelihoods were at stake.”

In January, things turned nastier still. A 24-year-old man was shot in the leg and beaten with baseball bats at Oldfields Trading Estate in Sutton, south London. Four men were reported fleeing the scene. Police believe that a conflict between the pirate station Flight FM, which broadcast from a rented unit on the estate, and a rival station may have sparked the assault.

With competition turning ugly, some have turned to other, safer and potentially more lucrative methods of broadcasting. I travelled to Brighton to meet Patrick, a pirate operator with a difference: his station, InterFace, exists entirely on the internet. This is entirely legal, although it began life as an illegal pirate, Face FM.

Patrick now runs InterFace from his bedroom, surrounded by computer screens, each monitoring something different: servers, a chat room, listener data.

“Our DJs are based all around the world,” Patrick explains. “They simply upload their shows from wherever they are, and I stream them onto the site.”

Six years ago, Face FM teamed up with the internet security company AL Digital and became InterFace, an online dance-music station with a global audience. At the height of the dotcom boom, Patrick claims InterFace almost hit pay dirt. “A Japanese company offered us £100m for the station,” he says. “They wanted to set up an internet disco. We laughed it away, but they flew over to visit us. They were serious! We also had a similar offer from an American venture capitalist.” InterFace turned down both offers.

“If these money men had come aboard, our freedom would have been completely ruined. They would have turned us into Radio 1.” For £100m, I argue, most people wouldn’t have cared if they’d been turned into Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men – but Patrick remains unimpressed.

It’s no little irony that back in London, Radio 1 is busy running a pirate-style station of its own. A year ago, it launched a digital radio station, 1Xtra, whose DJ roster is almost entirely ex-pirate. And although take-up of digital radio sets has been sluggish, when car manufacturers begin installing them as standard, 1Xtra’s audience is set to rocket.

And so the game continues. For the winners – on both sides of the law – untold riches may be just around the corner; for the losers, a bullet from a rival. Meanwhile, the kids in the middle get on with making and consuming beats, rhymes and “bass” – the soundtrack of inner-city ambition

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