WHILE Richard Curtis probably isn’t someone you would turn to for stark social realism, the story of pirate radio deserves a slightly more serious appraisal than that found in his latest happy-go-lucky comedy, The Boat That Rocked.
Curtis’s Sixties-set tale of high-jinks on the high seas has received mixed reviews – “fine if it were funny, but auto-pilot Curtis prevails”, said one reviewer; “I am going to email Richard Curtis and tell him I hate him and ask for my money back,” said another – but unlicensed radio remains a staple of British culture to this day.
In The Boat That Rocked, much is made of the fact that a hopelessly out-of-touch BBC played just 45 minutes of the new-fangled pop music per day, meaning that pop-hungry teenagers had no option but to tune into stations that took the music they loved more seriously.
In reality, despite attracting daily audiences of up to 25million people, the pirates’ brash and breezy US-style of commercial radio was anathema to Harold Wilson’s Labour government – although the official line was that pirate radio broadcasts had the potential to blot out the signals of legally-sanctioned stations, as well as emergency services and air traffic control communications.
The then-Postmaster General Tony Benn declared war on the pirates in 1965 with the promise, “the future does not exist for them”.
Although the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967 sank the pirates anchored just outside British waters, and a couple of years later Radio One (fronted by many former pirate DJs) soaked up their audience, unlicensed radio never really went away.
A couple of decades later, an equally clueless corporation ignored the lessons of the Sixties and limited its output of the dance music which came out of the rave explosion of 1988 to a paltry two hours a week. Once again, there was an enormous disparity between supply and demand.
In the early Nineties, the gap was filled by stations like Dream FM, a hugely popular Leeds-based pirate.
“There was nothing around like it,” remembers Dream FM stalwart, DJ Shock, who flew the flag for drum and bass throughout most of the station’s four-year history. “There was no Galaxy or Kiss. Radio One had one specialist show for a couple of hours a week. That was your lot.
“People wanted to listen to the music they were into at any time of day or night. And on Dream, they were hearing the latest cutting edge music, played by local people they could relate to. It was a local station aimed squarely at the local youth. I think that’s what made it so special.”
“House music was its staple,” agrees Rachel Fox who, along with a friend, DJed on Dream FM under the name Daisy & Havoc. “And that music was huge in Leeds at the time. The other pirates had one or two shows where they played house music. The legal stations, well there was Pete Tong and that was it. It fulfilled a huge market need, if you like.”
Pirate radio had moved from the high seas to the high-rises. The man behind Dream FM – known by various names, but we’ll call him the General – was a radio-obsessed northern soul freak from Wakefield who made a bit of money promoting the Dream all-night raves at Leeds Trades Club and sank it into his own radio station.
In a Mixmag feature on Dream FM in 1994, the General said:
“There’s an aura about it. A lot of it is love of music. Dream is about giving 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 whenever they want.
“I’ve got five transmitters and I won’t let the radio go off air”.
“He had a hard job,” remembers Fox with a laugh. “He loved it, he had a passion. Obviously you’re up against the odds. You’re up against the law, you’re up against other stations, you’re up against the DJs. When you look back on it, he did a big thing. A lot of people got a lot of pleasure out of Dream FM.”
At its height, Dream FM broadcast to area which stretched from York to Barnsley, and from Huddersfield to Hull. West Yorkshire’s burgeoning club scene, with some of the UK’s biggest club brands – Back to Basics, Kaos, Ark, Orbit, Hard Times and Vague – was right on our doorstep.
With Manchester blighted by worsening gang violence, Leeds was pretty much the place to go out in the north of England. Hundreds of listeners phoned in requests for shout-outs and favourite tunes each day.
Having a lot of time on their hands, the inmates of HMP Armley were some of the station’s most avid fans – but one particular show really caught their imagination.
Paul Taylor presented a Sunday evening show of tried-and-tested dance classics based on his Retro club nights. Taylor would read out an enormous list of names and shout-outs in a kind of rave ‘Our Tune’ for incarcerated local lads and their friends and family. At the end, he would invite the boys in the Big House to “rattle their cages”, which they did with gusto, banging out their appreciation on their cell doors with cutlery, crockery and whatever else was lying around.
The way I heard it from the boss, an alarmed prison governor got in touch with the Home Office. They talked to the Department of Trade & Industry – the government department responsible for dealing with pirates at the time – who then sent down its local man to tell the General that Her Majesty’s government would prefer the item to be dropped from the show.
Nothing if not a responsible broadcaster, Dream FM boasted an exhaustive list of rules and regulations, cautioning the DJs against putting any swearing or drug references out on air, reminding them what adverts needed to be played, what events needed to be plugged.
It ended with a terse warning: “Failure to do this will result in immediate suspension!”
I actually met the local DTI guy in the General’s flat on a couple of occasions. He was friendly enough but he never accepted even a cup of tea while he was there – he was probably wary of being spiked – although given the fact that the boss used to spoon sulphate into his tea like it was sugar, that’s probably just as well.
This policy of détente with the authorities fell apart on the rare occasions when, for one reason or another, the DTI had to be seen to be doing something about the pirate menace. After one raid, the boss turned to another radio entrepreneur for help, just up the road in Chapeltown. This time, unlike other bits of equipment he’d previously leased from him, the transmitter wasn’t very good and apparently there was some dispute about payment.
I was just finishing my show one day – playing the very last record, a Todd Terry remix of Bizarre Inc, in fact – when Jo, who used to handle the phone for me, answered a knock at the door without checking the spyhole first. Mr Pirate, who I’d met a couple of times previously in his day job, had come to seize some property in lieu of payment. He walked in, closely followed by one of his business associates.
“Your boss owes me money, so I’m here for this equipment,” he explained.
“Mate, we’re on air here,” I protested, ridiculously. “Can’t you go over and sort it out with him in the office?”
His response was to turn the record deck off and pull out the plug.
Foolishly perhaps, I started to argue the toss once more but Mr Pirate pulled a short Samurai sword – still sheathed – from his inside coat pocket, while his mate pulled out what looked like a rounders bat. I thought again and decided to change tack.
“Do you need a hand with that stuff? Can I get the door for you?”
Dream FM’s presenters (above) were, says Fox, “a mixture of people nobody had ever heard of before and DJs who had a bit more of a reputation, so there were fairly well known people like Paul Taylor and people who had literally been dragged in off the street.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Dream FM did not adhere to the kind of ‘all-lads-together’ sexism portrayed so very amusingly in The Boat That Rocked. Mainly because a good proportion of the DJs were women.
“I just thought there should be some women’s voices on it,” says Fox, who blazed a trail for female DJs on the station. “At that point, nobody else wanted to do it so me and a friend decided we would. We’d never DJed before, so we gathered together what records we had, borrowed a few and did a show.”
“It took a lot of people to keep it going 24 hours a day,” she explains, “so if you were prepared to turn up at some ungodly hour and do your three hours, you’d probably get a show. I think this was in the days before every single person in the world wanted to be a DJ.
“There were so many girls DJing on Dream that I organised a couple of all-girl DJ days. We had bhangra, house, drum and bass, techno, a wide variety of stuff, just to prove a point. I was really proud of that. There weren’t even many female DJs on national radio at the time.”
In 1995, Dream went off the air in the run up to legitimately applying for the broadcast license for West Yorkshire, which was eventually won by Galaxy. Dream FM never returned.
“It was a bit of a let down,” says Shock. “It didn’t go out in the blaze of glory that everyone thought it would. There was this big fanfare, that’s it, we’re switching off and when we come back we’re gonna be legal. A lot of people were left scratching their heads about why it never returned. Nobody knew what was going on.”
“It was a shame,” agrees Fox. “There was a belief among the people at Dream. because it had been the people’s station, it was a part of Leeds and loved by a lot of people, that some of Dream FM would go into whatever station got the license. And that wasn’t really true.”
Despite Dream FM’s disappearance, unlicensed stations are still broadcasting in the big towns ands cities. And they remain, officially, a very bad thing.
“While 1960s pirate stations may stir up nostalgic memories of teenagers tuning into radios from under the bedclothes,” says Ofcom, the body which now polices Britain’s airwaves, “modern day illegal broadcasting can put lives at risk”.
Ofcom estimates there are more than 150 illegal broadcasters in the UK. In 2007, it carried out more than 900 enforcement operations resulting in 37 individuals being convicted of offences related to illegal broadcasting. Pirates face unlimited fines and up to two years in prison.
DJ Shock used his experiences at Dream FM and his own station, Energy, to create Frequency FM. He got caught out when someone from outside of Yorkshire was visiting Leeds and tried to tune into Radio 2, which broadcasts on slightly different frequencies in different parts of the country. Despite operating in an unused part of the spectrum in Leeds, Frequency was, Ofcom decided, interfering with Radio 2’s signal.
The case eventually reached crown court where the judge accepted Shock’s argument that, since Frequency wasn’t actually interfering with Radio 2’s signal in Leeds, and in fact was operating in an unused area of the spectrum that Ofcom had earmarked as a potential frequency for a mooted community station for that very reason, there was no case to answer. He received a conditional discharge.
Frequency FM is still broadcasting, but on the internet rather than over the airwaves.
“With mobiles that you can get broadband internet on, internet radio is probably going to be the way forward for a lot of pirates,” says Shock. “You can get it at a decent enough speed to be able to stream audio to your phone. It takes away that little bit of edge, but at the end of the day you’re doing the same things, the same people are listening to your music.”
Legal, limited license community radio stations, such as Preston FM and ALL FM in Manchester, and 1Xtra, which plays as much underground music as any pirate, have further reduced the need for illegal broadcasting. But still it goes on.
Radio Xanadu in Liverpool, for example, broadcasts on the internet 24/7 but every Sunday listeners can tune into 107FM to hear pirate radio as it was meant to be heard.
For veterans like Xanadu’s Steve West, who has been involved in what he calls “free radio” since the early Eighties, the safe certainties of community radio will never compete with the thrills of unlicensed broadcasting.
“Community radio is a good idea ruined by Ofcom,” he says. “No more than 50 per cent of the income needed to run the station can come from advertising – the rest has to come from sponsors. The fee to apply for a license for 5km radius coverage is almost £850, which is unrefundable. I can get three 150 watt pirate rigs for that.
“Unlicensed radio stations are listened to by young people and, run by responsible broadcasters, they can make a huge positive difference in the community. Many stations, including mine, run promotions for anti gun, anti drink driving and cancer charities.
“Have you ever wondered why all radio stations sound the same these days?” asks West. “That’s because they’re all owned by two or three companies who play what they think advertisers want to hear.”
“I prefer to use the name free radio rather than pirate radio because the radio spectrum is natural and belongs to the people.
“It’s not for sale to the highest bidder.”
[This is a longer version of a piece originally published by the Big Issue in the North in May, 2009]
Since Dream FM ended, Shock has got married, bought a house, had kids, become a manager for PC World, developed a crack habit, been made redundant, got divorced, gone through rehab, got clean and reignited his radio and club DJ career.
“I don’t really like the term pirate radio because it makes it all sound very clandestine, and that there’s a lot of stuff going on that shouldn’t be going on,” he tells me. “I prefer to call it unlicensed radio, because that’s the only thing you haven’t got, a license. You’ve got more flexibility. You employ the kids who’ve got their finger on the musical pulse. They might not have the gift of the gab like Chris Moyles, but if you give them the chance they develop their own radio personalities.”
“A lot of the DJs who are around today came from pirates. Tim Westwood, Trevor Nelson, even the old guys like Tony Blackburn. It’s a hot-bed of talent and without it, a lot of people wouldn’t end up on legal radio. I’ve been on 1 Xtra a few times and I think 1 Xtra is about the closest you’ll get to playing on a pirate with a license, to be fair.
“But even then I had a producer flapping his arms about because I played a record which had a bit of patois slang in it which could have been offensive to some people. If it’s something that is outrageously racist or homophobic, fair enough, but I think you’d get more sexual innuendo on Hollyoaks than you would on your average pirate station.”
Rachel Fox concentrated on Daisy & Havoc’s residency at Vague and then Speeed Queen for a while after the end of Dream FM before, utterly disillusioned with club culture, she sacked it all off. After stints working on a variety of license bids and as a freelance journalist, these days she expresses herself by writing lovely little poems.
“Then, I got up at lunchtime, if not teatime, because I’d been up all night somewhere,” she says of her time DJing. “I’d go out for days at a time. I never cooked a meal in years. There was lots of running around and being here and there and everywhere. It was all very city.”
“Now, I live on a small town on the East coast of Scotland and I get up early to take my daughter to school. I cook meals for the entire family. I’m very rarely up after midnight. I don’t think it could be more different.
“I listen to the Mike Harding folk show on Radio 2 on Wednesday night. I’m big into folk now. Folk is the new rave!” she jokes. “I used to listen to Johnny Walker. He was an old pirate, wasn’t he? And I like Stuart Maconie. I can’t bear Radio One.”
I know where a few of the old Dream FM crew ended up – Alice is in BBC local radio, Camaro has a studio in Bradford, Chris Martin is in Stoke, the Microdot boys are down south, Paul Taylor is still doing his Retro nights, Tony Walker is still about in Leeds, as is Leafy, Corby, Simon Scott and Jo Kewley – but I’ve no idea what happened to a lot of the other DJs.
And I haven’t a clue what became of the General. If you have any ideas, let me know.
In the meantime, I have one last question:
When are they going to make a film about Dream FM?