Currently showing at the ICA, Shout Out! UK Pirate Radio in the 1980s (26th May – 19th July 2015) is a visual exploration of the tower block pirate radio movement that radically transformed British popular music culture and listening habits in the 1980’s. Shout Out! documents the emergent and progressive unlicensed broadcast scene through the considered usage of archival material and ephemera from the period. The timely adaptation and re-purposing of authentic content enables the audience to engross themselves in the excitement and creativity of the new wave of UK pirate radio.
Pirate radio is re-emerging as an artisitc interest due to a legacy of cultural activism during the politically turbulent years of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. At the time, the BBC and other licensed commercial stations were offering limited access for voices within marginalised communities and alternative forms of popular music. Often broadcasting with makeshift antennas from the roofs of residential tower blocks, pirate radio circumvented traditional restrictions on breaking innovative new sounds to potential audiences. The now practically institutionalised Kiss 94.5 FM was among other stations such as Dread Broadcasting Corporation (DBC), Alice’s Restaurant, Radio Invicta and London Weekend Radio (LWR) making a noise in the first wave of UK pirate radio stations. Whereas the previous incarnations of pirate radio tended to broadcast from offshore locations such as ships and rigs, this new generation defined itself by commandeering the rooftops of inner city tower block buildings for broadcast. With the now ubiquitous rallying cry of ‘lock down your aerial’, these stations were critical in allowing exposure for black and alternative music, blazing a trail for the explosion of rave, jungle, garage and house that followed shortly thereafter.
No cultural scene is complete without public spaces to distribute information and frame discussion. As music releases proper had the NME and Melody Maker to get word out about new independent releases, so pirate radio enthusiasts found imaginative ways in which to reach audiences. TX, a magazine dedicated to offering insider information on the pirate radio scene, was one such publication whose ascendancy and eventual prohibition very much mirrored that of the subject matter it reported upon. TX began life as the project of Stephen Hebditch, who became interested in the pirate radio scene after leaving university. TX‘s first run was as a free fanzine. Its popularity would steadily grow until Hebditch was able to get limited copies in some London based record shops and newsagents. TX ran for 18 issues before the time constraints of returning to university forced Hebditch to withdraw from print publication and move towards a telephone hotline format, where he and other enthusiasts were able to continue getting the most up to date insider information about pirate radio out to an eager public. Hebditch’s own website AM/FM chronicles the history of TX and offers an online version of its published output.
Here at Goldsmiths Library’s Special Collections and Archives, we are lucky enough to hold three physical print issues of TX. These are housed within the Terence Kelly collection. Terence Kelly was a broadcast specialist reporter for the UK Press Gazette – Britain’s trade magazine for journalists. He amassed a unique collection of cuttings, papers and reports during research and writing of his weekly articles. As someone covering the inside detail of the radio broadcast world, it is understandable why TX would be of interest to Kelly.
Leafing through TX reveals a goldmine of insider information about running a pirate radio station. The layout was composed on Hebditch’s own Sinclair Spectrum with a rough and ready 8-bit aesthetic. The DIY feel of TX absorbs readers into an alternative version of 1980’s subculture as it reports breaking news and new trends in the pirate way radio community. All the issues held with Special Collections and Archives date from 1986 and vividly illustrate the fast paced lifestyle and sense of camaraderie that underpinned pirate radio at the time.
As well as monthly briefs on individual stations activity, there is also plenty of logistical advice on how to best place a broadcasting UHF aerial and the cheapest and most mobile equipment to use in case of a police raid. Included in the August issue is an interview with an anonymous activist group in the process of a plot to jam the signal of Capital radio and other commercially licensed radio stations, intended as a dadaist inversion of the governments own attempts at the time to block broadcast signals. Amongst all this are a liberal amount of swipes at the DTI (Department of Trade & Industry), the government organisation aimed at bringing down pirate radio stations in what must have felt like a perennial game of cat and mouse to all parties involved.
As the guerrilla aesthetic of TX elicits, the history of pirate radio has been one of sourcing new modes of transmission met with swift responses of censure. The Telecommunications Act of 1984 allowed the Radio Investigation Service powers to enter properties without a license and detain equipment suspected of being used in illegal broadcasts. Ironically, this only served to inspire broadcasters to adapt and develop alternative strategies to outmaneuver the authorities. The glamorous peril of pirate radio and move towards more easily mobile equipment ended up adversely increasing the number of pirate radio stations and heralded a new wave of stations with over 600 stations nationwide by 1989, with 60 in the London area alone.
The implementation of the Broadcasting Act of 1990 sounded the death knell of the TX era of pirate radio by prohibiting advertising and offering the more popular stations the opportunity to obtain legal broadcasting licenses. The excitement of the period can be revisited through the Shout Out! exhibition and TX magazines held in Special Collections and Archives. The Kelly collection of which TX is a part of contains further official radio industry documentation and applications by some of the radio stations that would go on to become legitimate broadcasters, such as the now pervasive Kiss FM.
Stephen Hebditch recently published a personal account of UK pirate radio in the 1980’s London’s Pirate Pioneers: The illegal broadcasters who changed British radio (2015), and is highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the subject.
To learn more and arrange possible viewings of the TX magazines and other items from the Kelly Collection, visit us in Goldsmiths Library, email us here, or alternatively call on +44(0)20 7717 2295.
Shout Out! UK Pirate Radio in the 1980s is currently on at the ICA in London till 19th July and tours to the Phoenix in Leicester, 23 July – 24 August 2015.
By Jack Mulvaney