The Precarious Survival Of The UK’s Pirate Radio Stations:

Which is Britain’s most popular radio station? As the “Media UK” organization has pointed out, that depends on where you live and what you want to listen to. Many people, especially in the mornings, prefer to be informed about news related to their own area – for example, whether there will be traffic congestion on their way to work – and so will tune into a local broadcaster. Nationwide, however, – according to the most recent statistics issued by “RAJAR” (Radio Joint Audience Research Ltd) –  BBC Radio 2 has by far the largest weekly number of listeners (15.5 million ), followed by Radio 4 (11.2 million), Radio 1 (11 million), Capital (7.5 million) and Heart (7.3 million).

In London, it’s a slightly different story: Radio 4 is at the top with 3,025, 000 per week, then Radio 2 (2,389,000), Capital FM (2,389,000), KISS (1,825,000) and Magic 105.4 (1,756,000). The RAJAR data also reveals (as the Independent has noted) that “6% of all radio listening is now on mobile phones and apps, while more than 10% of “in-car listening” is on digital radio”.

This doesn’t, however, answer the query raised on “dollywagon.com” as to why so many of us continue to tune into conventional radio when the alternatives on the Web now offer “customisable music choice, higher quality audio, mobile apps that stream music, advert-free content (or at least, more relevant advertising), social features and many other exciting benefits”.

Both the “Huffington Post” and the “Daily Mail Online” have quoted from a study titled “The Media and the Mood of the Nation”, commissioned by the “Radio Advertising Bureau,” which concluded that “listening to the radio raises people’s happiness levels by 100% , their energy levels by 300%” and makes them feel much better than watching TV or surfing the internet”.

As Michael C. Keith ( an “electronics media” professor at Boston College) told the Huffington Post: “People don’t listen to the radio to be depressed. It’s like ice-cream: You choose the flavour you like best, the one which is going to give you both enjoyment and companionship”. Some respondents questioned during the study “claimed that they experienced ‘a low’ after watching their favourite TV programme, as they were suddenly plunged back into ‘real life’ “. Radio, on the other hand “improves and supports people’s daily activities, like cleaning up around the house, getting ready in the morning or working online”.

Radio , in the opinion of former American actor and composer Steve Allen, is “the theatre of the mind”, whereas television is “the theatre of the mindless”. His compatriot, the disc jockey and music historian, Casey Kasem, once remarked that, when television first came along, “everyone assumed it would lead to the demise of the radio” – which, instead, ”keeps getting stronger”.

That clearly applies to the UK. As Sheena Craig, press officer for OFCOM (Britain’s communications regulator),has emphasized, there is now a wide range of “alternative, legitimate ways to broadcast on the airwaves”. Businesses such as taxi companies, care homes, transport operators and hospitals which need to use a radio system can apply for an OFCOM permit.. Moreover, since 2005, more than 259 “community radio stations”, among them the first one, “103 The Eye”, serving Melton Mowbray and “SFM” in Sittingbourne, Kent”, have been granted licences, thereby (asserts OFCOM Chief Executive Ed Richards) “enabling thousands of people to have a voice and help provide for the needs of their local area”. The fee is £600 for the application and £850 per year. Two of them – “Rinse FM” and “Kane FM”- were previously classified as “pirates” but now have “community status”, are “allowed to make money and have security of broadcasting ”. RAJAR has indicated that 3 million people in the UK tune into “other radio” transmissions each week, representing “a market share of 2.4%.” These include the “pirate stations”, of which Craig estimates there are 65 “active” in London and 37 in the rest of the UK.

“The Economist Magazine”, in an article in its June 11th edition captioned “There’s no money in Pirate Radio”, put the figure for London slightly higher, at 75, and reported that they “tend to fall into two categories: dance music stations and those that serve immigrants”. Both types “typically broadcast from tower-block ‘rigs’ connected to studios with infra-red beams to avoid detection”. Few of them make much money as “its illegal to advertise on a pirate station, though in practice advertisers are rarely prosecuted. On ethnic-minority stations, “the ads are often for money-transfer companies and immigration lawyers”. The Economist considers pirate radio to be “a poor investment with no future”, as the proportion of people listening to FM and AM stations “has fallen from 68% in 2010 to 58% in March 2014”. Furthermore, “hipsters increasingly use online services such as SoundCloud to find new music; gigs and raves are advertised on Facebook”.

One of OFCOM’s main concerns (so they contend) is that pirate transmissions interfere with police, fire brigade, ambulance and air traffic control communications. Ed Baxter, the Director of Resonance Radio, says there are “three different arguments” regarding the pirates. Some are “extremely progressive and provide a lesson in both cultural currency and entrepreneurial astuteness”. Others are “just a pain in the neck, destroy our frequency and are too anti-social to care”. Lastly, “a lot of them are very reactionary, badly programmed, full of ridiculous rubbish, play terrible music and their ads are mainly for hair salons”.

Baxter acknowledges that “the good stations are run by impatient young people who want to make a mark in their locality” and depicts the media as being “a lot about ego. You can’t ask an 18-year-old to be more modest when our culture holds up self-infatuated idiots as role models”. However, the continuing existence of the pirate stations “indicates that radio is still quite exciting and that people still view it as a creative and significant space. It’s the lack of access to the tele-visual media which makes it so boring to young people.

Meanwhile, the pirate radio sector (as portrayed in Faith Millin’s documentary “Drowned City”) remains unequivocally defiant: Their lifestyle is “very much about fighting the establishment and outsmarting the system”. Their objective is to be constantly “one step ahead of the authorities, finding new and innovative ways of keeping on air”.

Filed under: Media | Posted on July 31st, 2014 by Colin D Gordon

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