Pirate radio in the United Kingdom

Pirate radio in the UK has been a popular and enduring radio medium since the 1960s, despite expansions in licensed broadcasting, and the advent of both digital radio and internet radio. Although it peaked throughout the 1960s and again during the 1980s/1990s, it remains in existence today.[1] Having moved from transmitting from ships in the sea to towerblocks across UK towns and cities, in 2009 the UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom estimated more than 150 pirate radio stations were still operating.[2]

UK pirate radio stations
Offshore stations
Current and former Land based stations
Former pirate radio stations now licensed


Pirate radio in the UK first became widespread in the early 1960s when pop music stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London started to broadcast on medium wave to the UK from offshore ships or disused sea forts. At the time, these stations were not illegal because they were broadcasting from international waters. The stations were set up by entrepreneurs and music enthusiasts to meet the growing demand for pop and rock music, which was not catered for by BBC Radio services.[3]

The first British pirate radio station was Radio Caroline, which started broadcasting from a ship off the Essex coast in 1964. By 1967, ten pirate radio stations were broadcasting to an estimated daily audience of 10-15 million. Influential pirate radio DJs included John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Kenny Everett, Johnnie Walker, Tony Prince, Emperor Rosko and Spangles Muldoon.[4]

The format of this wave of pirate radio was influenced by Radio Luxembourg and American radio stations. Many followed a top-40 format with casual DJs, making UK pirate radio the antithesis of BBC radio at the time.[1] Spurred on by the offshore stations, land-based pirate stations took to the air on medium wave at weekends, such as Radio Free London in 1968.[5]

Radio Caroline's audience was one third the size of the BBCs Light Programme in the parts of the country where it could be received, but the Light Programme's audience did not decrease, indicating that pirate radio appealed to an audience that the BBC did not serve.[6]

In reaction to the popularity of pirate radio, BBC radio was restructured in 1967, establishing BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4. A number of DJs of the newly formed Radio 1 came from pirate stations. The UK Government also closed the international waters loophole via the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967, although Radio Caroline would continue to broadcast in various forms right up to 1990.[1]


The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act officially outlawed offshore stations, but unlicensed radio continued, moving from ships and sea-based platforms to urban areas in the latter part of the 1960s despite being already illegal under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949).[1] During this period, home-made medium wave (and sometimes short wave) transmitters were often constructed inside cheap, expendable biscuit tins.[7] The main method employed by most medium-wave or short-wave pirate stations during the 1970s involved programming played back on cassette recorders (often powered by a car battery), with a long wire antenna slung up between two trees.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a wave of land-based pirate radio, broadcasting mostly in larger towns and cities, transmitting from flats and tower blocks. These included community-focused local stations as well as stations emerging for the first time to specialise in particular music genres. One of the earliest was Radio Jackie originally broadcasting in south west London.[8]

Soul music stations would start to appear in the 1970s. The first of these was Radio Invicta, regarded as Europe's first soul music station first broadcasting in 1970. The station would launch the careers of Pete Tong, Gilles Peterson and a number of the shows were presented by what was then known as the "Soul Mafia" - DJs such as Chris Hill and Froggy.[8][9]


Entering the 1980s, transmitters capable of FM broadcasting were beginning to be picked up reasonably cheaply, with the ability to transmit over a forty-mile radius from a 15-storey tower. Engineers such as Pyers Easton would build them for stations such as London Greek Radio and Kiss FM.[9]

In London, a notable moment would be the launching of Britain's first black owned music station Dread Broadcasting Corporation (DBC) in 1980. DBC played reggae and soca as well as other black music and would be instrumental to the later development of black community broadcasting as well as launching the career of BBC presenter Ranking Miss P.[8][9]

Soul stations would become prolific in the early-mid 1980s, with Invicta joined by Horizon Radio, and JFM in 1981. Both of these would broadcast until 1985 when they were followed by Solar Radio and Starpoint.[9] London Weekend Radio (LWR) would start life in 1983 playing contemporary pop music during the day with more specialist shows in the evenings and weekends, however having briefly closed-down, management of the station was handed to club promoter Zak Dee and in 1984, LWR rose again as a dedicated soul, hip hop, jazz-funk, and reggae station, launching the career of Tim Westwood.[9][10] LWRs biggest rival would arrive in the form of Kiss FM, first broadcasting in late 1985. The station was formed by George Power who had previously ran another pirate station London Greek Radio, along with DJs Gordon Mac and Tosca Jackson. By 1988, Kiss would boast a line-up of top DJs including Norman Jay, Jazzie B (of Soul II Soul), Colin Faver, Trevor Nelson, Judge Jules, Danny Rampling, Paul Trouble Anderson, and Coldcut, playing soul, jazz-funk, reggae, hip hop and the emerging sounds of house music.[11] A 1987 Evening Standard readers poll placed Kiss in second place behind Capital Radio and ahead of Radio 1.

Around the UK, the West Midlands and Birmingham would see a large number of stations forming including the likes of Peoples Community Radio Link (PCRL) which started in 1985, and Sunshine Radio.[8]

Despite being better catered for by legal radio, there was still space for stations playing alternative rock and indie music which was struggling to get mainstream airplay. In London, stations such as RFM (Rock FM) and London Rock, and in Manchester KFM Radio would spring up to cater for those music genres during the mid-late 1980s.[9] In 1989, a London pirate radio station Q102 would become a short-lived but hugely influential station in the breaking of early 1990s indie and Britpop bands. This station would be the roots of the later legal XFM.[12]

Pirate radio met with increasing opposition, especially from the authorities in the form of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). It had claimed since the 1970s that pirate radio caused interference to licensed broadcasters and could interfere with frequencies used by emergency services. Nonetheless the growth of pirate radio in the 1980s was so rapid that at one point pirate radio operators outnumbered legal broadcasters and in popularity.[9]

Twice in the mid-late 1980s, the UK Government had floated plans to tackle pirate radio by offering new licenses, particularly in London.[13] In 1989, new licenses were advertised but stations would have to commit to closing down voluntarily and come off-air as part of bidding for them. London's Kiss FM was one of those that duly did so, yet despite strong backing and support, would lose out to Jazz FM. However, further licenses were advertised subsequently and Kiss would win one on its second attempt and become the UKs first legal radio station specialising in black and dance music in September 1990.

However, even as this unfolded, a new wave of pirate radio stations emerged as the acid house scene exploded. Particularly in London, stations such as Sunrise, Fantasy and Centreforce became the "seven day rave stations".[9]


The Broadcasting Act 1990 led to the brief decline of UK pirate radio by encouraging diversity in radio and opening up the development of commercial radio, whilst bringing in tougher penalties for those caught in unlicensed broadcasting. However, the number of unlicensed broadcasters would soon begin to rise again, partly out of the belief that the Act had undermined community radio and small scale broadcasters.[1] As stations such as Kiss would increasingly discover that advertising revenue and market share became as important as the music it played, new pirate stations once again sprung up to cater for underground music scenes that were developing. The biggest of these would be the rising rave music scene, with stations moving to a "rave on the air" format with back to back mixing and listener participation through 'shouts' - enabled by the growth of pagers and mobile phones. In London, such stations included the likes of Rush, Kool FM, Pulse FM, Innocence, Don FM, and Defection.[14]

For those ill-served by mainstream and legal radio, pirate radio filled the void especially for the black community. In London, stations as Galaxy Radio, Genesis, Station, and Vibes have mixed black music with phone-ins and cultural programming: "We are trying to bring a balance into the community - to introduce culture and history and to inform people" as one of those involved in Galaxy.[15][16] These stations still broadcast today.

Across the UK, the picture was similar, with notable pirate radio stations including: PCRL, Frontline, and Sting in Birmingham; Buzz 88 FM and Soul Nation in Manchester;[17] Dance FM, Fantasy FM, and SCR in Sheffield; Passion Radio, Ragga FM, For The People in Bristol; Fresh FM in Leicester; Z100 in Liverpool, and Dream FM in Leeds.[18]

By the mid-late 1990s, genres such as happy hardcore, jungle/drum'n'bass and UK garage saw a new generation of pirate radio stations emerge. In London, Kool FM and Don FM were joined by Rude, Flex FM, and Dream FM in championing jungle music/drum'n'bass, and the latter also happy hardcore.[19][20] UK garage was being pushed by stations such as Deja Vu, London Underground (notably the Dreem Teem), and Freek FM (notably DJ EZ).[21] The now legal Flex FM and Rinse FM would make a transition from jungle to UK garage during the course of the 1990s.

2000s to present

As pirate radio persisted into the Millennium, UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom undertook research into its continued popularity and published its findings in 2007. This estimated that: "there are currently around 150 illegal radio stations in the UK. At any one time, it is believed that around half of these are transmitting in London, within the M25 area".[22] It found that: "a large proportion of these are operating in London, with notable clusters in Harlesden, Stoke Newington, Southwark and Lambeth".[22] As part of this, it also commissioned research among residents of the London boroughs of Hackney, Haringey and Lambeth, finding that: "about 24 percent of all adults aged 14 or older living within the three London boroughs listen to pirate radio stations. The research found that 37 percent of students aged 14–24 and 41 percent of the African-Caribbean community listened to pirate radio". The development and promotion of grass-roots talent, the urban music scene and minority community groups were identified as key drivers for pirate radio. According to the research both pirate radio listeners and those running pirate radio stations thought that licensed broadcasters failed to cater sufficiently for the needs of the public at large. Pirate radio was regarded as the best place to hear new music and particularly urban music. Furthermore, pirate radio stations were appreciated for their local relevance by providing information and advertisements about local community events, businesses and club nights.[22]

An operation by Ofcom to take unlicensed operators off-air in late 2005 would reveal that London's airwaves were still very active,[23] including long established stations such as Kool FM, Point Blank, Bassline, Lightning FM, Deja Vu, and Rinse FM.[24][25] The latter two would be instrumental in the development of then underground grime and dubstep music scenes.

Ofcom responded to a Freedom of Information request in July 2015, that revealed they had raided and seized almost 400 hundred pirate radio set-ups in London in just a 2 year period.[26]

Community radio

Since 2010, Ofcom have promoted the take-up of Community Radio, especially in areas such as London with a concentration of pirate radio stations.[27] As such, a number of former pirate radio stations have made the transition to legal broadcasting through community radio licences, such as Rinse FM, Kane FM, and most recently Flex FM. However, some remain skeptical of the ability of the local community and pirate broadcasters to make the move to legal status.[28]

Political pirate radio

Although UK pirate radio has in the main concentrated on broadcasting music not catered for by the mainstream, there has been some overt political pirate radio. The earliest of these was Radio Free Scotland, which hijacked the sound channels of BBC television after closedown. In the 1970s, Radio Enoch, named after Enoch Powell, was set up by people on the right wing of the Conservative and Unionist Party to help re-elect a conservative government. Although Radio Enoch had vowed to return if a Labour administration was re-elected, it failed to do so after Tony Blair was elected in 1997.[8] In 1982, Our Radio was broadcasting music, anarchism, and other left wing views to London. Our Radio once evaded arrest by setting up a dummy antenna for the Home Office to find. During the 1984–1985 miners' strike, Radio Arthur operated in the Nottinghamshire area.[8] Much more recently, Interference FM was set up by a collective to broadcast during the Carnival Against Capitalism demonstration on 18 June 1999.[29]

Political programming has been a feature of the many black community pirate radio stations that have grown in the UK since the 1980s. For the likes of Galaxy Radio, part of their mission is to: "de-brainwash the black community". The station combines reggae and soca with robust articulation of "black empowerment against a system designed our oppress our brothers and sisters" and live phone-in discussions.[16] Genesis Radio, launched in the early 1990s, follows a similar format. Duwayne Brooks, councillor and friend of Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in a racist attack in 1993, has in the past urged police to work with community stations such as Genesis in order to improve "police engagement with the community" and "run our own appeals for information after incidents".[30] Where black community stations have also been effective is to raise awareness and raise funds for local concerns, often where mainstream media has overlooked them. In 2002, Powerjam launched an appeal through one of its talk shows to raide money to save a young girl from a rare tissue disease.[31]

Internet and pirate radio

The advent of the internet has bought both opportunities and challenges for pirate radio. In the early days, the internet became another communication means in which to advertise and promote stations, with station listings, frequencies, and information starting to be posted.[32][33] Soon stations themselves would use the internet to establish their websites, with some also taking advantage of early radio streaming technologies.[34][35] For the now legal Rinse FM, their website not only streamed shows live but it would also provide them a platform to develop their identity and to promote their events whilst still unlicensed.[36]

By the 2010s, this landscape was changing with increasing use of social media and music streaming services, with research by RAJAR reporting that: "Although 90% of people still listen to the radio each week, the proportion listening to FM and AM stations has fallen from 68% in 2010 to 58% in March".[37]

For some, the internet still doesn't replace the need for pirate radio: "Pirate will never stop; it’s cyclical. If you push people hard enough, they’ll find a mode of expression. The internet has been pretty cool for that, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all",[14] whilst others argue that for music like grime, pirate radio continues to be "such an essential platform for emerging voices".[38] For former pirates such as Kool London, internet radio has given them a new lease of life.[39]

The Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 provides for Ofcom to issue licences to radio broadcasters for the use of stations and wireless telegraphy apparatus. The Act sets out a number of criminal offences relating to wireless telegraphy, including the establishment or use of a wireless telegraphy station or apparatus for the purpose of making an unlicensed broadcast. The financing or participating in the day-to-day running of unlicensed broadcasting is also a criminal offence, as is the supplying of a sound recording for an unlicensed station and advertising through unlicensed stations.[22] The act allows Ofcom to take a number of actions against individuals committing these offences, including power of entry and search and seizure of equipment. It is a criminal offence to obstruct a person exercising enforcement powers on Ofcom's behalf.[22] Furthermore, the Broadcasting Act 1990 provides that anyone convicted of an unlawful broadcasting offence is disqualified from holding a broadcasting licence for five years.[22]

Anti-social behaviour orders (ASBO) have also been used in the fight against pirate radio.[40]

Drama and comedy

  • A 1966 episode of Danger Man entitled "Not So Jolly Roger" was set aboard an offshore pirate radio station.
  • In 1966, Season 2 episode 5 of Thunderbirds featured a pirate radio station orbiting the earth that later begins to crash back to Earth.
  • The 1967 album The Who Sell Out by rock band The Who has jingles from pirate radio station Wonderful Radio London.
  • In a 1970 episode of their BBC TV series The Goodies, the British comedy trio ran a pirate radio station named Radio Goodies.
  • In 1987 The Lenny Henry Show featured a pirate station called the Brixton Broadcasting Corporation (a spoof of the BBC) run from a café.
  • In 1994, the ITV police drama The Bill featured an episode on a pirate radio station named Krush FM that was interfering with police radios.
  • The 2003 Family Channel series Radio Free Roscoe focuses on a pirate radio station operated by four high-schoolers from the fictional town of Roscoe.
  • In the BBC TV series Ideal (2005–2011), the brother of Moz, Troy, runs a pirate radio station named Troy FM.
  • The 2009 film The Boat That Rocked (retitled Pirate Radio in North America) is about UK pirate radio and loosely based on Radio Caroline.
  • The 2010 Doctor Who audio story Dead Air sees a villain known as The Hush follow The Doctor on to the fictional Radio Bravo in 1966.
  • The BBC Three TV mockumentary People Just Do Nothing (2011-2018) is based around a Brentford pirate station Kurupt FM.


  • In 1982, Channel 4 broadcast a feature on pirate radio on its Whatever You Want programme, featuring DBC and Breakfast Pirate Radio.
  • In 1987, Channel 4 broadcast The Black & White Pirate Show, featuring 1980s black pirates DBC, JBC, and PCRL.
  • In 1993, BBC Two broadcast the documentary Pirates directed by Nigel Finch as part of Arena Radio Night. This featured London's Rush FM.
  • In 1994, Anglia Television broadcast Rockin' The Boat, a documentary about offshore radio featuring Radio Caroline, and Radio City.
  • In 1996, BBC South East broadcast the documentary Radio Renegades as part of the First Sight current affairs series. This featured London's Kool FM and Dream FM.
  • In 1999, the Discovery Channel broadcast Making Waves, featuring Rude FM.
  • In 2000, BBC Radio 1 broadcast Last Caller Ring Back, featuring 1980s and 1990s radio.
  • In 2010, Wilderness Productions released the Michael Chandler documentary Stay Sailing on Vimeo, featuring Buzz FM, and Itch FM.
  • In 2017, BBC Four first broadcast the documentary The Last Pirates: Britain's Rebel DJs, presented by Rodney P and featuring 1980s radio especially Kiss FM and London Weekend Radio.

See also


  1. Fleming, Carole & Wilby, Pete (2002). The Radio Handbook. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15828-1.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. Daniel Emery (3 March 2009). "BBC NEWS - Technology - Pirate radio 'puts lives at risk'". BBC News.
  3. Chapman, Robert (1992). Selling the Sixties: The Pirates and Pop Music Radio. Routledge. ISBN 0415078172.
  4. Chignell, Hugh (2009). Key Concepts in Radio Studies. SAGE Publications. pp. 146–. ISBN 978-1-4739-0360-9.
  5. Colin Morrison (18 March 2014). "How a radio ship and 7 men shook up Britain in 1964". Flashes & Flames.
  6. Crisell, Andrew (1997). An Introductory History of British Broadcasting. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-12802-1.
  7. Breda Hefernan (3 October 2018). "Pirates of the airwaves recall days of radio and raids - and transmitters hidden in Jacob's biscuit tins". Irish Independent.
  8. Hind, John & Mosco, Stephen (1985). Rebel Radio: The Full Story of British Pirate Radio. Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-0055-9.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. Hebditch, Stephen (2015). London's Pirate Pioneers. TX Publications. ISBN 9780993265204.
  10. Stephen Hebditch (1 May 2015). "LWR - London pirate radio history - AM/FM". Amfm.org.uk.
  11. Stephen Hebditch (17 February 2015). "Kiss FM - London pirate radio history - AM/FM". Amfm.org.uk.
  12. Darryl Chamberlain (1 January 2004). "X marks the spot". Transdiffusion.org.
  13. Stephen Hebditch (2 November 2002). "AM/FM - News Radio Today September 1988". Amfm.org.uk.
  14. Alice Nicolov (19 January 2017). "The history of UK pirate radio – and why it's still here". Dazed.
  15. Philip Fergusson (2 September 1992). "Media: Pirates remain afloat: Illegal radio stations are continuing to defy tough new laws, says Philip Fergusson – Media". The Independent.
  16. David Rowan (3 January 2002). "London's underground pirates". Evening Standard.
  17. Patrick Collerton (March 1994). "Moss Side Story". The Ticket.
  18. Jonty Adderley (July 1995). "Ariel Warfare". Muzik Magazine.
  19. Angela Lewis (6 September 1994). "Angela Lewis on pop". The Independent. Archived from the original on 11 June 2015.
  20. Dan Hancox (8 September 2011). "Pirate radio rave tapes: 'You can't Google this stuff'". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 24 August 2013.
  21. Matt Munday (December 1997). "Return of the Pirates". Wax Magazine.
  22. "Illegal Broadcasting – Understanding the issues". Ofcom. 19 April 2007.
  23. "Ofcom tackles illegal broadcasting". Ofcom. 3 November 2005.
  24. Owen Gibson (17 February 2006). "Bouncing the illegal broadcasters off the overcrowded airwaves". The Guardian.
  25. Miranda Sawyer (2 November 2008). "You may think they're a bunch of amateurs..." The Guardian.
  26. Ramzy Alwakeel (3 July 2015). "Four hundred pirate radio setups shut down in London in just two years". Evening Standard.
  27. "Community radio". Ofcom. 4 May 2010.
  28. "Concrete jungle: Hackney's pirate DJs resist rooftop station crackdown". Hackney Citizen. 8 June 2015.
  29. "Concealed Transmissions - the story of InterferenceFM". Urban75. Archived from the original on 10 November 2001.
  30. "Lewisham councillor urges cops to use illegal pirate radio". South London Press. 24 September 2010. Archived from the original on 7 October 2010.
  31. David Rowan (25 February 2002). "Pirate radio station saves child's life | The Observer". The Guardian.
  32. "Alternative Radio List for London". alt.radio.pirate. Archived from the original on 6 October 1999.
  33. "Fused - Illegal Stations". Fused.com. Archived from the original on 5 October 1999.
  34. "Ruudawakening.com". Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on 30 March 2002.
  35. "Award Winning Freeze FM 92.7". Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on 17 October 2003.
  36. "Rinse FM - Coming Soon". Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on 10 August 2007.
  37. "Plank walk - Illegal broadcasting". The Economist. 7 June 2015.
  38. Sian Anderson (21 December 2015). "How Pirate Radio Made Grime Great Again". Fader.
  39. Annalisa Quinn (3 October 2018). "London's Radio Pirates Changed Music. Then Came the Internet". The New York Times.
  40. Matheus Sanchez (15 April 2005). "Asbo bars pirate DJ from the rooftops". Evening Standard.

Further reading

  • John Hind & Steve Mosco, Rebel Radio: Full Story of British Pirate Radio, 1987 Pluto Press
  • Keith Skues, Pop Went the Pirates: History of Offshore Radio Stations, 1994 Lambs Meadow Publications
  • Paul Harris, When Pirates Ruled The Waves, 2001 Kennedy & Boyd
  • Stephen Hebditch, London's Pirates Pioneers, 2015 TX Publications
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