Media: Pirates remain afloat: Illegal radio stations are continuing to defy tough new laws, says Philip Fergusson

ABDUL used to spend his Saturday and Sunday mornings playing reggae classics, telling youths with 'big chains and small brains' to clean up their act; introducing Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; even giving residents of a Camden housing estate the cockroach spraying schedules.

'It's important to keep the community in touch,' says Abdul, who describes himself as a 'community brother'. But the Department of Trade and Industry thinks otherwise. Abdul's south London station, Galaxy, was a victim of one of the 531 raids on pirate radio stations that the DTI's Radio Investigation Service (RIS) has carried out in the past year.

According to the Radiocommunications Agency's annual report, published in July, there have been 66 convictions, and complaints from listeners are down 41 per cent on 1990/91. That year there were 571 raids and 143 convictions. Convictions do not always follow raids because 'the birds often flew the coop'.

Galaxy Radio broadcasts no adverts and eschews 'gun talk and slack tunes', records with misogynist lyrics or gratuitous praise of violence. Such virtues have cut no ice with the authorities, however. Two DJs were recently fined a total of pounds 350 and had their records seized. The tough laws granted under the 1990 Broadcasting Act mean they will be banned from working for licensed stations for five years. But the DTI's measures do not stop there. They can also prosecute those who advertise on pirate radio, although they have not yet done this.

Fraser Murray, of the RIS, says: 'There have been some successes, although I would not describe the reduction in pirate activity as significant. We are still feeling our way with the new powers from the Broadcasting Act. Inevitably, most of the prosecutions are still of DJs caught with the proverbial smoking gun.'

It is hard to fathom why, despite such severe penalties (which can include imprisonment), the pirates persist. It was expected that in the wake of the Act pirates would be put out of business, put in jail, or given licences. But the choice, quality and fair competition in radio heralded by the Act have not done away with the pirates. Galaxy, Power Jam, Genesis, Raw, Vibes, Elite and many others still sporadically grace London's airwaves.

Motives for this risk-taking differ. Galaxy is funded by the DJs, who have close links with a south London community centre. 'We are trying to bring a balance into the community - to introduce culture and history and to inform people,' explains Abdul.

For others it is an ego trip. 'It's just the buzz. It's the buzz of seeing yourself sitting down doing your stuff,' says a DJ from another station, who has already acquired a five-year ban and had his records seized.

Mr Murray is more concerned about the danger to life caused by pirates. 'They often cause interference on frequencies reserved for the emergency services, which on several occasions have had to switch to standby frequencies.'

Those on the legal side of the industry are generally dismissive of the pirates. James Galpin, an industry marketing executive, says: 'The number of pirate stations is not driven by consumer demand, it's driven by the number of people who want to set them up and run them.'

Yet a south London businessman, who did not want to be named, tells a different story of his pirate radio advertising campaign: 'Ninety-five per cent of the inquirers who phoned up heard the advert on the station.'

He insists there is a demand for pirates: 'Pirate stations are for poor, down-to-earth people and for poor businessmen like myself. None of the listeners lives in the nice little back road in Clapham; most come out of the estates in Peckham, Brixton or Stockwell.'

He argues he can only reach his clientele through pirates: 'If I had a poodle parlour, I wouldn't advertise on pirate radio. If I'm selling Trevor Fox or Bally shoes, I'll advertise on pirates. It's all to do with what your market is. Most people who advertise on pirate radio say that it's working.'

He has not heard from the DTI yet but seems unconcerned by the prospect. For the cost of the adverts - sometimes as little as pounds 20 a week - he gets better results than from classified ads in his local paper or leafleting. And it is a lot cheaper than advertising on the newly legalised stations such as Choice FM, WNK or Kiss FM.

So although the DTI may seem to be winning the battle for the airwaves, it is likely that these dual motives of profit and community service will mean significant pirate activity for some time to come.

(Photograph omitted)

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