PIRATE radio operators are making a comeback and some of them are being used as a front for drug-dealers, according to the Radiocommunications Agency, which released new figures on illegal broadcasters yesterday.
Last year the agency, the wing of the Department of Trade and Industry that regulates the civil radio spectrum, made 536 raids against pirate radio stations which resulted in 68 convictions. When other illegal use of the airwaves (such as unauthorised citizens' band radio) is taken into account, more than 200 people were convicted.
'There does seem to be a resurgence in the pirate radio scene,' Barry Maxwell, director of the agency's radio investigation service, said. 'And more than three-fifths seem to be operating in London.'
Yesterday, Mr Maxwell displayed a selection of the home-made transmitters and gadgetry seized from illegal broadcasters in the past 12 months. One transmitter was built inside tubing and held with a car-jack in a sewage pipe in a block of council flats. Another was inside a biscuit tin.
The investigation team use sophisticated radio-direction finding apparatus but the culprits are ingenious. The signal from the studio of one pirate was being sent via a primitive satellite dish from one tower block to another from where it was broadcast.
'Pirate stations are crude, they do not stay on one frequency and they cause major problems for other stations as well as for the emergency services, said Mr Maxwell. 'They can be a real danger to safety.'
While he emphasised that his agency was not concerned with the content of the illegal broadcasts he added that there was evidence that some pirate operators were using broadcasts specifically to advertise raves where drugs could be bought.
'Some pirates are definitely linked to crime such as drugs,' Jim Norton, chief executive of the Radiocommunications Agency, said. 'Others are in it for the kicks.'
Another group of amateur broadcasters, he pointed out, regularly made their case to the Radio Authority for a licence.
Following the introduction of the Broadcasting Act 1990, pirate radio operators had been thought to have gone to ground in the hope of being granted licences. A convicted pirate operator cannot apply for such a licence for five years. Some of today's most successful stations, such as the London-wide dance-music service Kiss FM, began as pirate operators. Ironically, earlier this year Kiss FM's listeners started complaining about interference by a pirate station.
Mr Maxwell said that pirates such as Irie, Station, Powerjam, Cool, Elite Radio, Lightning, Pulse and Ragga broadcast every evening in London. The agency raided 55 stations in the capital and nearly 30 outside London.
Although the Radiocommunications Agency was awarded costs and fines totalling more than pounds 50,000 last year, it does not always pursue culprits through the courts, according to Mr Norton.
'If we find an illegal broadcaster is a 17-year-old in his bedroom who has built his own transmitter and his mum downstairs doesn't even realise, we may not prosecute,' he said.
The Radiocommunications Agency also disclosed the launch of its inquiries line (071-215 2150) yesterday for radio listeners receiving interference on a particular frequency. For a fee of pounds 31 local officers will investigate and if the interference is found to be caused by external factors such as a pirate operator or a neighbour's buzz-drill, the fee is refunded.
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