Feature: pirate radio (2023)

It has been described as a new studio, a nerve centre, and the headquarters of Essex's top pirate radio station, and admittance has been granted only after a rigorous vetting procedure. I have been quizzed at length. ID has been demanded. The Guardian's photographer has been accused of spying for the government: "I'm sorry about that, mate," says our guide, a 19-year-old who bears the fitting pseudonym of Stealth. "But he looks exactly like an inspector from the DTI - he's even driving a Ford Mondeo." Finally, though, Stealth has agreed to drive us to the secret location. On the way, the car stereo blares out Soundz FM. It plays chirpy UK garage topped not with patois-heavy rhymes about guns, "haters" and inner-city violence, but rap of a distinctly Essex strain. "Big shaaht aaht to the XR3i crew," says the MC. "Buzzing abaaht in the rain on a Sunday afternoon."

The screening procedures are so exacting, it's difficult not to be slightly disappointed when you arrive. You can call this place a studio until you are blue in the face, but there is no getting around the fact that we are standing in the middle of someone's garage. The turntables nestle on a workbench amid cans of de-icer and Hammerite. The DJs and their friends sit on piles of stacked-up garden chairs, their baseball-capped heads nodding in time to the beats.

A DJ called Mr Y2K is hunched over the turntables, while his fellow DJ Softmix chatters into a microphone, taking requests and demands for "shout outs", and reading text messages. The mobile phone rings. He hands it to Mr Y2K, and a brief, animated conversation takes place, just audible over the beats. A listener is criticising Y2K's choice of records. "Yeah, I know, mum," he mutters. "I didn't really want to play it myself." He pauses and looks momentarily pained. "Will you stop interfering?" he asks, plaintively. "Big up Mr Y2K's mummy!" cries Softmix. Stealth rolls his eyes. "Sometimes his nan rings up as well," he says.

Soundz FM is far removed from the popular image of a pirate radio station. For a start, we are not in a crumbling Hackney tower block, nor is the atmosphere fugged with marijuana smoke. Judging by the litter on the floor, Soundz runs on nothing stronger than junk food and cigarettes. The atmosphere is cheery with the added frisson of illicit behaviour. It is somewhere between a youth club and a house party being held while parents are away. Everyone is friendly, if startled by the arrival of a national newspaper in their midst. "Shout going out to the Guardian posse," cries Softmix, by way of introduction. "Checking out the studio, writing an article on Soundz FM!" He then decides to conduct an interview of his own. "What do you make of it?" he asks, thrusting the microphone into my hands. But I have neither the voice nor the vocabulary for pirate radio. "So far it seems very impressive," I say, sounding like the winner of a competition to find Britain's most middle-class person. Aware that Soundz FM's street credibility is threatened, Softmix takes the microphone back. "Wicked," he says.

From Radio London in the 60s to So Solid Crew's Battersea-based Delight FM, pirate radio has traditionally been a London phenomenon. Two years old, Soundz is one of a new breed of suburban pirates, uncomfortable with the gangster posturing and occasional bursts of violence that have become associated with illegal radio in the capital. Although Soundz reaches London, the majority of its audience comes from the suburbs: Essex, Surrey, Kent and Hertfordshire. The "staff" of Soundz FM are curiously prudish. Swearing is banned on air. "Some stations use filthy language, you know," bridles one DJ indignantly. "They're asking to be taken off the air, no question."

"In London they want that rude boy attitude," says Stealth. "In certain parts of north-west London... well, there's a pirate station there that's actually based in a crack den, so that gives you an idea of some of them. But we're not all like that. We're referred to as polite people from Bexley. We're a friendly, community station. We're from the suburbs, we don't bother trying to get non-suburb listeners."

There's a musical distinction as well, albeit one of those infinitesimal sub-generic shifts that anyone not completely immersed in the dance music world has no hope of understanding. DJ L-Dubs attempts to explain it to me. "Shady garage", he says, is to be avoided at all costs, whereas "happy garage" attracts "uplifting people who want to be uplifted". The latter, he informs me, is what Soundz FM is all about. I nod knowledgeably, but have no idea what he is talking about.

Equally bewildering is the station's co-founder, Master Control. Portly and middle-aged, he cuts an incongruous figure amid the sportswear-clad teens. He was a teenager himself when he first got involved with pirate radio. Now it has completely taken over his life. During the week he makes "rigs" - radio transmitters - that he sells to other stations. At the weekends he careers around the Essex countryside, checking Soundz's aerial, ensuring that the signal is not causing interference to television or the emergency services. Ask him what the appeal of pirate radio is and he looks completely mystified. "I don't know. I find it... I don't know. I can't really do anything else. It's the only thing in my life that I can do. I make rigs that work, I do it properly. You get a sense of achievement, I suppose."

He's not alone in his inability to explain the compulsion to break the law on a weekly basis, endure the endless hassle and expense of having your transmitter impounded by the Radiocommunications Agency (or stolen by a rival station) and risk unlimited fines and two years in prison. There's certainly no financial reward - the DJs pay a £10 weekly subscription to play on the station, which goes towards running costs - and little chance of celebrity. While some of the Soundz staff clearly see the station as a means of breaking through, circumventing the politburo of ageing celebrity DJs who control the dance scene, it is statistically unlikely that they will. For every So Solid Crew, who have converted their pirate notoriety into a more tangible form of celebrity, there are scores of DJs beavering away in semi-obscurity: Dom Da Bom, Miss Giggles, Lukozade, DJ Bangers, the hopefully named Aylesbury Allstars.

It's peculiar, but then pirate radio has always been a bit peculiar. By definition it exists outside the mainstream, attracting strange characters who don't really fit in anywhere else. As befits a criminal enterprise, it regularly changes its identity. It began in 1964, the brainchild of Irish businessman Ronan O'Rahilly, who noted that, in the heyday of Beatlemania, the BBC Light Programme was broadcasting only two hours of pop music a week. Rahilly's Radio Caroline and its competitor Radio London invented pop radio as we know it today. By 1967, however, the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act had made the seafaring stations illegal, and Radio 1 had swiped both the pirates' all-pop format and their biggest DJs: Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis, Kenny Everett and John Peel.

Deprived of both legality and raison d'etre, pirate radio went into decline. By the 70s, it was the domain of crackpots: Radio Nordsee featured a DJ called Spangles Muldoon and broadcast virulent Tory propaganda during the 1970 general election. Radio Enoch, meanwhile, offered military music and plummy voices denouncing immigration.

It took the rise of dance music to revive the pirates' fortunes. Britain's underground soul and reggae scenes grew throughout the 70s, but were largely ignored by Radio 1 or the new commercial stations. Pirates stepped in to fill the void. Invicta, Radio Free London, Solar, Horizon and LWR eschewed fishing trawlers and set up in the centre of London, broadcasting urban music in an urban setting. When acid house was effectively banned from Radio 1 after 1988's tabloid drug exposés, a host of new pirates sprung up: Centreforce, Sunrise and Fantasy among them. It set a pattern that has repeated ever since, in which the pirate stations are the scourge of the authorities and a vital source of new music for the record industry.

When a new dance genre emerges - hardcore, drum'n'bass, and most recently UK garage - a new wave of pirates appear, devoted to the new sound. Virtually every garage or drum'n'bass tune that makes the national chart will have been played on a pirate station first. Occasionally, a pirate DJ finds himself at the helm of a hit. Flex FM's DJ Dee Kline went to number 11 in 2000 with I Don't Smoke, a garage record that sampled Jim Davidson doing his comedy West Indian voice.

Radio 1 repeated the trick it pulled off in 1967, luring DJs Pete Tong and Tim Westwood from LWR, Gilles Peterson from Horizon and the Dreem Teem from Blackbeard Radio. But this time the pirates, attracted by the relatively low cost of setting up a station (estimated by Stealth at around £2,500), won't die away. In 1991, the RA carried out 475 operations against pirate stations. Last year, it carried out 1,438. London's airwaves are currently jammed with a startling array of illicit stations. At the weekend, you can hear anything from the pre-pubescent children of So Solid's Dan Da Man spinning garage on Delight to Ghanian gospel music courtesy of WBLS's improbably named DJ Rabbi.

Stations rise and fall with dizzying frequency - the victims of internal feuding, a lack of suitable studio locations and raids by the DTI's Radiocommunications Agency - but there is always someone to replace them. So far this year, the RA has raided 179 pirate stations in London. Most went straight back on the air. As the RA dolefully admits: "There's no easy victory or cure for pirate radio. You take them down, they put them up again. You can't be sure people won't re-offend. You're just dealing with a specific complaint at a specific time."

According to Stealth, central London's airwaves are so overcrowded that the suburbs are the best option for a new station. "We're doing it as a hobby. There are too many stations in London and they're all doing it for money. When it turns into a money market, you get people using dodgy rigs, employing thick cement mixers to install the equipment." Meanwhile, he says, pirate stations are springing up in locations that make Bexley look like a teeming metropolis: Weymouth, Newquay, Telford, Ludlow, Swindon.

To prove the point, Stealth suggests a visit to his friend's station, Y2K Kent, which broadcasts from Margate. The next weekend, we rendezvous in a lay-by near the Blackwall Tunnel. Stealth arrives in a small hatchback, with a large skull and crossbones flag sticking out of the sunroof.

In Margate I am introduced to Y2K's founder, a stocky 20-year-old who works for a drainage company by day and who calls himself Fraudster. Fraudster has been involved in pirate radio since he was 13. He originally DJed around London before realising the pirate scene was simply too crowded there. "We realised we needed to go somewhere else," he says, "so we packed everything into the car and just started to drive out of London, through the Blackwall tunnel. This was the first place we got to."

Fraudster says that in its year of existence, Y2K Kent has been successful enough to attract complaints from the local commercial radio station. "They said we nicked 1,000 of their listeners, but they play music for over-30s, so I don't see how that works." Nevertheless, it is a modest set-up, located in the box room of a student house. The room is so tiny that three people constitute a life-threatening crush. DJs and associates crowd outside, peering in. It is extremely hot, and the unmistakable stench of bloke wafts down the stairs. The windows must be kept shut, lest anyone notices the noise and contacts the RA. "You have to be careful in Margate," says Fraudster, "because there's no crime, the police have got nothing to do. The front page of the local paper is 'man steals pork pie from Tesco's'."

On the floor, an electric fan cools a tangle of wires and electronic boxes, apparently assembled to plans by Heath Robinson. On our arrival, it breaks down. "Hold tight the massive," says the MC, "as we sort it out inside the place."

Stealth immediately springs into action. "You need a graphic on the mixer," he suggests. "I need another studio," groans Fraudster, looking harassed. In fact, Fraudster spends most of my visit looking harassed. His mobile phone rings constantly, not with shout outs or requests, but irate calls from his girlfriend, for whom the novelty of pirate radio has clearly long worn off. "I sometimes wonder why I do this," Fraudster admits. "I spend my whole week cleaning out shitty drains, then spend all weekend doing this. I'm not in it to earn anything. I suppose it's for the joy of the music."

The RA's spokesman argues that "people suffer as a result of pirate radio. They tune into a station they want to listen to, and find something else blocking it. I take their calls, and they're absolutely furious. If you live nearby they create a noise nuisance. They're anti-social."

You take his point - you wouldn't want to live next door to an illegal radio station, pumping out UK garage or drum'n'bass from Friday evening to Monday morning. However, it's hard not to be impressed by the determined attitude of the pirates. There is little fame and less cash in their world of box bedrooms and converted garages.

Yet still they doggedly carry on, buying new rigs, finding new studios, skulking about in search of suitable transmitter sites. Although most of them are far too young to remember the Sex Pistols, there's something resolutely punk about theirattitude: confronted with a dance scene that has slid into mundane irrelevance, they have decided to do something for themselves. Their ambitions are not commercially driven, yet they extend far beyond anti-authoritarian posturing. At Soundz, there's a lot of talk about digital radio. When legal stations switch to digital transmission, they live in hope that the RA will leave the obsolete FM band to them. Soundz even has aspirations beyond playing music. "We run a show between 8pm and 12am where we do comedy," says Stealth, proudly. "It's absolute chaos. We had a bloke out with a microphone doing wind ups on people in McDonald's in Lakeside shopping centre, and on drivers at the Dartford tunnel. You'd crease up if you heard it." A little corner of pirate radio, it seems, will be forever DLT.

A few weeks after my visit, Stealth telephones. Both Soundz FM and Y2K Kent have gone off the air. Soundz has collapsed due to internal disagreements: Stealth and Master Control have fallen out over music policy. Y2K Kent, meanwhile, was raided by the RA, who found not only their rig, but two station staff standing next to it. For the first time, Stealth sounds bleak about the future of pirate radio: "Fines are going up, more stations are getting raided, things are getting tighter all the time. They're really turning up the heat."

But it's still not hot enough to discourage Stealth and Fraudster. Within weeks, both are back in business with new stations, Fraudster with a station called Essence 105.1 FM, Stealth with Impact 99.7 FM. He has moved out of the garage and set up a studio in an industrial estate. And he has finally nailed pirate radio's unique appeal. "The buzz is when you're driving down your local high street and you hear it playing out of someone else's radio, or you hear people talking about it on the bus," he says. "You realise you're having an effect. If it was going nowhere, you'd soon lose interest."

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