Pirate radio: How today's rebels have exchanged the North Sea for coffee shops and restaurants

Today, online stations broadcast to huge audiences... and work within the law

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The Independent Culture

No more bobbing about in “pirate” boats on the North Sea or shimmying up urban tower blocks to fix an FM aerial: today’s radio rebels broadcast from coffee bars, record shops and restaurants, commanding global online audiences – and working within the law.

Online stations are now transforming Britain’s radio sector with their specialist knowledge and unique choice of location.

A prime example of the movement is MEATtransMISSION, which operates from the upstairs of a burger restaurant in Hoxton, east London. The station not only broadcasts to diners across the MEATliquor restaurant chain but attracts online listeners from 130 countries and follows rules which might not be recognisable to Ofcom, including: “no bongos”, “no hippies” and “no Coldplay”.

Across London, Soho Radio represents the capital’s most enduring bohemian quarter by broadcasting from a café along the street from the once notorious strip club, Raymond Revue Bar, where the presenters compete with the sound of sirens and whirring coffee grinders.

KMAH is a new station that broadcasts from high above a beauty salon in the centre of Leeds and champions the city’s electronic music scene. Manchester has Fly High Radio, Brighton has totallyradio and, deep in the sticks of Somerset, Folk Radio UK has built a devoted following that includes Tom Robinson and Bob Harris.

The common denominator for the successful online stations is specialist knowledge of music. Gregor Muir, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, said the “curated” output of online stations was filling a void left by commercial radio’s embrace of computer-generated playlists. “What we have seen in mainstream radio is a clearing out of the need to engage – it has become so mechanical.”

It is almost 25 years to the day since tens of thousands gathered in Highbury Fields, London, to celebrate the new legal status of Kiss 100, then Britain’s most famous pirate station and now part of the large Bauer Media group.

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‘World in Action’ making a programme about the pirate radio ship ‘Caroline’ in 1967 (Getty)

Among the crowd in 1990 was a member of the Kiss team, Daniel Nathan. A generation later he runs the Brighton-based online station totallyradio. Clearly, it’s a liberating experience. He talks of being able to broadcast “on-the-fly”, live from record shops, bars, coffee shops, music venues or “anywhere with an internet  connection”.

Having a global audience means the multi-genre station can experiment with marginal sounds,  and promote its relationship with a city known for the arts and liberal politics. One show, Totally Brighton, showcases local artists and bands.

The growth of cheap-to-run and flexible online stations poses a potential threat to the growth of DAB radio, which is being actively backed by Government as the sector moves towards digital switchover.

Their distinct appeal has been especially beneficial to the British-based audio platform Mixcloud, which gives online stations a showcase beyond their own home pages. Mixcloud runs annual online radio awards. The founder Nikhil Shah said the British stations mirror a movement happening in many cities with creative credentials, citing Brooklyn Radio in New York, Berlin Community Radio and Red Light Radio in Amsterdam. “They carry the local brand as a badge of honour but have an aspiration to reach a global audience,” he said.

NTS Radio, which has a following of more than 28,000 on Mixcloud, offers shows from recognised artists and DJs such as Four Tet, Andrew Weatherall and Henry Rollins. It operates from a location in Dalston, east London, and audiences can hear the background bustle of the neighbourhood. “We’re not that concerned about having clean, smooth radio – to us that sounds boring. It’s nice to have that low-fi background element going on,” said Sean McAuliffe, NTS managing director.  

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MeatTransMission radio broadcasts from a raised cubicle accessible via a ladder inside MeatMission restaurant in Hoxton

In four years, NTS has grown to a roster of over 200 “hosts” contributing shows from around the world.

“We can stream from someone’s house next to the beach in LA or from a little island off the coast of Italy,” said McAuliffe.

Online stations often make little in advertising money but some attract sponsorship from brands anxious to reach young tastemakers. They also derive revenue from hosting events and can take subscriptions from their own DJs, who benefit from the profile the station brings.

Soho Radio co-founder Adrian Meehan is not untypical when he points out that he comes “from a love of radio, rather than the business of radio”. His station embodies its locality, carrying shows from DJs with Soho connections, such as Norman Jay and Gary Crowley, and features theatre and interviews with local “working girls”. When Public Enemy passed by as tourists they ended up as on-air guests.

The FM pirates haven’t gone completely, and their spirit lives on in the BBC3 comedy People Just Do Nothing. But MEATtransMission’s studio manager, David Minns, is in no doubt where the future lies. “Just as YouTube channels are taking audiences away from mainstream television, so internet radio is doing the same to mainstream radio.”

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