Raids are launched on radio pirates

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Pirate radio stations are booming and playing an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities trying to put them off the air.

Pirate radio stations are booming and playing an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities trying to put them off the air.

Pirates are repeatedly returning to the airwaves only days after being fined, according to the Radiocommunications Agency, with seven illegal stations in London alone being raided more than 30 times. And so desperate are pirate DJs to avoid detection that they will base their studio several miles away from their transmitter, which will be positioned on the top of a high rise building.

The number of raids on illegal broadcasters has virtually doubled in the past 10 years, from 127 in 1991 to 222 last year.

There are now an estimated 400 pirates operating in the London area alone, with stations also setting up in Birmingham and Bristol.

A new factor in the the pirate boom are dance clubs sponsoring the stations' illegal airtime to promote themselves. An RA spokesman said yesterday: "There are anecdotal reports that these stations are tied to inner-city music clubs." Hard evidence is, however, difficult to collect.

Andy Roberts, programme director of Kiss FM, which started out as a pirate radio station, said illegal stations earn considerable respect from record companies and are seen as the training ground for DJs. "Pirate radio goes hand in hand with the club scene," he added.

"There is also a respect from the mainstream, including from record companies. The pirates are well organised now and have commercial breaks to sell space to the clubs. It's good to have them - they only get on my nerves when they broadcast over my signal."

"Eastman" is a DJ for a pirate station, which has been broadcasting from a secret location in Hackney, London, for more than nine years. Raided numerous times, the DJ once shared a house with another pirate with one broadcasting from the kitchen and the other from the front room.

"It is mainly the promoters for a particular night at a club who will pay to advertise on the pirate stations," he explained.

"It's more the underground clubs which advertise. They can pay £50 for an advert for a whole weekend compared with £80 for one play on a legitimate station. When you get raided this money helps to pay to set up again."

"Eastman" said that he would like to be a legal broadcaster but blames the BBC for "monopolising the airwaves". "It can cost up to £3m to set up legally - normal people are not going to get that sort of money," he said. "At the end of the day we want to be legal but the stations which are legal are so boring and stuck to play lists. Pirate radio is not a bunch of kids doing drugs and smashing up properties. It's about giving people choice."

It costs just a couple of thousand pounds to set up an illegal station including buying compact discs, decks, transmitters, amps and mixers. The transmitters can be bought over the internet but criminals are also stealing them to order from legitimate radio stations.

Apart from the fact they do not pay licence fees, pirates are unpopular with the radio regulators because their broadcasts disrupt mainstream stations such as Radio 3, Classic FM and Radio 4.

There is also growing concern about their interference with emergency services and air traffic control. A parliamentary answer this month revealed that there have been 40 prosecutions in the past five years for pirate stations interfering with aeronautical equipment.

In June this year, two men were sent to prison after air traffic control at Rochester airport in Kent reported breakthrough from a pirate station. Last year, a man was jailed for 28 days after his broadcasts were picked up by airline pilots who were attempting to listen to air traffic control.