From the Archives
FEBRUARY 1994: PIRATES ON PARADE
Words: Jane Headon
Published in Mixmag February 1994
It’s about freedom of choice. You want hardcore all day? There’s Pulse or Format. You want solid soulful garage? Here’s Rhythm FM. You want full-on ambient and dripping tap noises from midnight Saturday to midday Sunday? With Chill Out FM, you’ve got it.
Originally pirate radio was about getting black music and dance music on the air where it wasn’t being heard. In the case of Leeds’ super-organised Dream FM, that’s still the case. In London, with stations like Choice FM and Kiss, itʼs not that simple.
But itʼs now clear that the last wave of legalisation that saw Londonʼs Kiss FM gain its legal license hasn’t shut the pirates up. Just a few weeks ago London saw the launch of Quest FM on 98.2FM, yet another pirate station. The penalties get tougher and the scene gets rougher, but pirate radio, in all its diversity, is still out there. Here are three stations.
I’ve never seen anything illegal look this, well, legal. Dream FM, Leeds premier pirate, has a glossy press pack, a neat timetable of DJs slots, an exhaustive set of rules and has just launched a tidy little sideline in promotions.
Dreamline’s 0891 number offers you a choice of three services. You can listen to DJ Tony Walker telling you about the latest releases, you can hear DJ Havoc’s ‘essential guide to club binge across the Yorkshire region’ or you can select the competition line and try your chances at winning a year’s course at Manchester’s School Of Sound Recording. You can almost hear the collective clicks of the transporters phones.
But considering that Dream refuses to take any ads that legal radio local Radio Air would take, that most of its advertising is reciprocal and that Julia who has been working there hasn’t yet earned a penny, Dreamlike has got to be good news for the some 38 DJs who staff it
Dream is a mere toddler. Barely two years old. Last April, its owner, Chris made the ambitious decision to broadcast full time. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. lt’s ambitious because of the policy Chris has of monitoring his shows. As he says, “l don’t want to hear people swearing or a bad record or a bad mix.”
Because of this Chris was attempting to monitor 50 shows a week, both for the practical reasons – “when we go off air – there’s a click and nothing – I’m up on the roof in two seconds,” and to ensure that the DJs don’t swear on air, use their time as a message service or play records with offensive mixes. This aside, they are given freedom.
The transmitter for Dream is on the roof of Chris’s ﬂat, one room of which also serves as the ofﬁce for the mail out service of DJ tapes. But the station itself is in another ﬂat, the address of which is apparently highly classiﬁed.
“I’ve had a guy threatening me with a gun ‘cos his girlfriend couldn’t get in the studio,” Chris explains. “I’ve had my windscreen smashed and my tyres slashed. I’ve had people lying on the floor screaming because they couldn’t get into the studio. Security is important. I have at least four locks before you get into the studio.”
So I was expecting a more impressive sight than a sparse room in an even sparser flat. It comprises a desk with two decks and a mixer, a set of shelves and an empty soft drinks machine. This, after all, is still pirate radio.
The Walker Boys are ﬁnishing their three hour Saturday afternoon slot. It’s been a mellow garage and house time; they tell me that they’re too old for anything much harder although neither of them looks past 20. It’s been a smooth afternoon apart from one of them being a couple of hours late and the other running out of records. They only carry a bag each.
At 6pm DJ Shock takes over. Itʼs a smooth transition but a bit of a shock to the music. Shock plays hardcore. He smiles when I ask him if he plays anything else, I think this means no. Five minutes into the show the phone rings. Yes, Dream has listeners. Yes they phone in to make requests. What did they request? “He asked if we could turn this shit off!”
The most outstanding feature to Dream’s studio is the plethora of rules and warnings posters that plaster the walls. I had already seen the official ‘Studio Rules’: “The number of people allowed in the studio is not to exceed three”; “The use of drugs… will result in instant dismissal”; “Records containing blatant bad language or drug-related lyrics are not to be played. No exceptions!”
The posters on the wall have other rules, about not making phone calls, reminders to play the ad tape once a show and so on. But there was a recently added rule, a more puzzling one. All over the studio it is requested to “limit requests from Armley to one per show.” Armley is the local nick.
“Paul Taylor is one of our DJs who has a Sunday night spot,” Chris explains. “This must have coincided with recreation time and they all started ringing and writing with requests for their girlfriends. It became the prisoners show. Paul got into the habit of calling it the 11.00 shout spot when he’d encourage them to shout. They’d all rattle their bars and bang walls. It built up and frightened the authorities so much so that they had the police helicopters on stand-by.”
The prison connection and the attention it focused on Dream has provoked some shaky feelings. They previously enjoyed a pretty relaxed relationship with the DTI. Apparently their man in the department used to pop round for cups of tea and politely request that they take Dream off the air on the odd weekend when they were having a crackdown. But all that has now changed.
“The Armley jail connection came to a head about three or four weeks ago,” says Chris. “The new guy at the DTI is giving us a lot more attention and they said ‘Can you curtail this show ʻcos itʼs causing bad vibes upstair.’ We turned it off completely for the weekend in good faith. They know we’re not bad people. There’s nothing dodgy funding the station. We’re not violent people. We’re not a threat to authority.”
Chris says he doesn’t have a fuck you attitude towards the authorities as he believes they are only fulfilling their job. According to Chris, the police have been in and taken a thousand pounds worth of equipment – twice. A couple of neighbours who bore a grudge against him accused him of being a racist and got the race relations board onto him. When he parted company with his original partner, his original partner burst into the studio while it was on air. In possession of a baseball bat and a sword stick, he nicked £600 worth of equipment and re-arranged a few things.
Yet Chris has only words of comfort for any of the Dream DJs who worry about the risks. “People say ‘What if they take my records?’ I say -you can have every damn record in the office. No one can come to any harm, a lot of them don’t see.”
According to several of the Dream staff Chris has invested thousands of his own money to keep Dream aﬂoat. He says it’s made him cry on occasions. It certainly doesn’t seem to have made a rich man of him. Is it the sheerly of benevolence that keeps him going? For a man who confesses that when Dream started “the only dance record I knew was ‘Ride On Time’ – and that was three years out of date” — what does he get out of it?
“There’s an aura about it. A lot of it is love of music. lʻve met a lot of people who are interesting, and a lot of people who arenʼt all that nice. But Dream is about giving a lot of people a chance. I’ve never intended going legal – that’s just a different ball game. But I believe that people should be able to listen to dance music when ever they want. I’ve got ﬁve transmitters and I won’t let the radio go off air.”
Rhythm FM is another matter altogether. There is no press pack, just phone calls between me and Kenny. There’s to be no photos and when he suggests blindfolding me on the way to the studio, I get the feeling that he wasn’t altogether joking.
The interview has to wait for Saturday evening as the afternoon is the time for visiting record shops and buying in.
“Also people want to know what you’re doing and that- well, it all takes a blot of time.” How was the record buying? I ask Kenny when he comes to take me to this week’s North London location.
“Hurtful.” Hurtful? “lt costs a lot of money. There’s a lot of records and we’ve got to buy everything.”
En route Kenny, the friendliest DJ in the world and not a blindfold in sight, explains Rhythm’s output.
“It’s soulful – house, garage, Euro, US, UK. We play a lot of oldies, a lot of classic stuff, Tears, Frankie Knuckles, Roberta Flack. It’s more in the mix than talking – very spontaneous, nothing’s pre-planned. You can dial in and nine times out of ten hear your request go into the mix.
It’s a warm, ʻhardcore free’ as the listener is reminded user-friendly good vibe station. The week I visit it’s broadcasting from a miniscule attic room on 96.6 although it is shortly to change back to the original 87.65 location as this is no longer being used as a transmission test frequency by the DTI.
The 96.6 frequency has not been without its problems though. Station manager Richard tells me about how they had their wires cut by a South London pirate the week before.
“Another pirate station were bleeding on their frequency Quincy and they came over to cut their wires and cut our wires instead. First of all they took the plug out and we went off the air. So we turned around and came back lust as they were driving off – it was like something out of Laurel And Hardy! Anyway we’ve made the rig more secure now. We want them to get in touch with us to talk about what happened but we havenʼt heard anything yet.”
Richard has a far more serious axe to grind against the DTI. At the moment the station is funded through DJ subs – each DJ pays £35.00 a month, this entitles him to as many slots as he has time to ﬁt in. Richard feels that the quality of Rhythm has improved enough for them to go legal but he wants to go legal on a promotions licence. At the moment there is no such thing but his idea is that rather than stations having to take beer commercials they will be funded through music promotions.
“It’s in order to keep the British music industry in touch with whatʼs going on. Britainʻs getting ripped off left, right and centre. Weʼve got all these artists who are being taken to New York and then their stuff is being sold back to us. You check out the price of those imports! More and more British labels are closing down. I’ve been to the DTI and I’ve sat down with them and discussed the problems. It’s their job to close down pirate radio stations but if they did that theyʼd be out of a job.
“The pirates wonʼt give in and the DTI wonʼt give in or mediate because they haven’t got a reasonable line to mediate on. The DTI say that pirate stations are using drugs. If the DTI take a transmitter, they cost £400 or £500 – where are you going to get that kind of money from? I said to them, you’re effectively promoting drug use. You’ve got pirates putting transmitters in dangerous places – 16 year olds climbing up between tower blocks. One slip and you’re dead. I’ve seen them climbing in the rain. That’s ‘cos the DTI is driving it underground – electrifying metalwork around the rig. And while they’re doing this you’ve got the pirates slashing the tyres of the DTIʼs cars. Thatʼs how nasty it’s getting.”
It’s hard to get hold of a hardcore station. They come and go, and when they do show up, they show up, as do many pirates, in the most amazing places. According to several sources, a ragga station got away with bleeding all over Kiss’s signal for an entire Saturday afternoon! Two hardcore ones who are on air in London are Format and Pulse. Pulse are coy about talking to the press, as it usually brings heat from the DTI.
Pulse mix in stuff like Des’ree and play more recognisable club tracks. I can understand the DJ. He’s smart enough to shut up pretty much altogether during tracks and when he does speak it’s basic information and dedications. No jokes. On 90.6 this is the clearer flavour.
Format on 93.2 is barely there on clarity and not up to much on quality. The music is non-stop. So sadly are the DJs. I’m listening to a woman who has either wrapped cotton wool round the microphone or is eating cake for the entire show. Club info and dedications are passed out over the worst hardcore. And I like some hardcore, but if the amount of dedications are given out, it has enough listeners.
Touchdown, meanwhile, another London pirate, are currently ʻrestingʼ after extensive attention from the DTI. After a brief return to the airwaves over Christmas, they’re considering relocating across London. Their musical policy, says Touchdown DJ Tony J, was strictly hardcore.
“Quite simply, the music wasn’t getting played. There was only one hardcore station and there was a huge demand. People wanted hardcore and the music was better then.”
Tony believes hardcore has declined. “Hardcore now is too dark,” he says, “too fast. Thumping house is what people want.”
It almost seems that stationʼs like Touchdown are rave’s last stand. It doesn’t mean, to Tony, that the scene is dead. “The scene’s just shrunk. There will always be people who listen to it.” Even if they don’t, the DJs have just as much fun doing it.
“It was really good,” says Pieman, another Touchdown DJ. “Each show was like a rave, a radio rave!” enthuses fellow DJ Mags.