We catch up with ICA curator Sumitra Upham to discuss the heyday of pirate radio, captured in a new London exhibition, “Shout Out!”
Launching this month at London’s acclaimed Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), “Shout Out!” explores a revolutionary moment in British musical history. Dubbed “pirate radio,” the phenomenon of unlicensed broadcasting rose to its heyday in the ’80s, and indelibly transformed the way music was consumed and discovered forever. Tower blocks became home to hastily formed stations, and both new and established DJs brought their love of underground music to the airwaves. While commercial radio churned out the same generic sounds, DIY stations filled the gap with the latest tunes from homegrown and overseas talent. Breaking the rules, these illegal set-ups played a game of cat and mouse with authorities who were determined to shut them down. Those caught and taken off the air would invariably find a way to return, resourcefulness being essential for any successful pirate.
Though illegal, pirate stations opened up a new world of musical possibilities to listeners. Carefully tuned radios caught the latest in soul, reggae, electronica, R&B, hip-hop and everything in between. And with over 600 pirates in operation at its peak, this powerful movement would pave the way for the explosion of the rave scene in the ’90s. Pirate radio’s impact is still felt today, and this traveling exhibition takes us back to its beginnings through a number of firsthand accounts.
“Shout Out!” curator Sumitra Upham took some time to talk to us through the context and content of the show, which undoubtedly highlights a seminal moment in Britain’s cultural history.
How did the idea for the “Shout Out!” exhibition first come about?
The idea for the exhibition came out of a conversation with a colleague about forgotten underground musical movements. We have a rich history of pirate radio in Britain and we wanted to explore its wider impact on culture and society. Pirate radio history tends to be centered around the offshore stations of the 1960s (the “Radio Caroline” heyday), or the more recent outbreak of Drum ‘n Bass, Jungle and Grime pirates. We felt that the history of early tower block pirate radio was an important story to be told.
What prompted the 1980s explosion of pirate radio in the UK?
In the ‘80s there was a thirst for new music in the UK. DJs and radio listeners were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the limitations of music played on the BBC and other licensed mainstream stations. Many ethnic minority communities felt that there was no platform to represent or cater to their culture and musical demands. Subsequently, pirate stations that were exclusively dedicated to Afro-Caribbean music across reggae, soul, funk and hip hop emerged to compensate for the lack of diversity on the airwaves.
Who were the key players on the scene?
There were lots operating across the UK. In London, stations like Dread Broadcasting Corporation (1980-1985), although only on air for a few years, were key advocates of reggae music in the UK. Their musical rostra across reggae, soca and R&B served the Afro-Caribbean communities of West London. They were hugely influential to other reggae pirates operating in places like Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham.
Radio Invicta was Europe’s first-ever soul station. It actually began broadcasting in 1969, and throughout the 1970s to 80s, it was the station to hear blues, gospel, jazz, R&B and electro-funk. The station is also credited as being the first to have begun FM broadcasts at the top of tower blocks. Their dedication to soul music was unprecedented, and their style and approach informed many of the leading soul stations in the 1980s including Horizon, JFM and London Weekend Radio (LWR).
The scene outside of London was equally vibrant, particularly in the West Midlands, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester. B.A.D in Bristol and the People’s Community Radio Link (PCRL) in Birmingham were the stations of choice for many black communities in those cities.
Can you tell us a little about the process of putting the exhibition together?
There is a wonderful online archive called AM.FM.org.uk carefully put together by a man called Stephen Hebditch who has dedicated a large part of his life to documenting the pirate radio scene in London during the ‘80s. The site was a great resource for me when researching the era, and in fact, lots of the ephemera featured in the exhibition is loaned from Stephen’s personal archive. I spent a lot of time meeting key players from the era who shared stories about running the stations, their motives for setting them up, and the various challenges and hurdles they had to overcome.
The narrative behind the exhibition was born out of these conversations. Everyone I made contact with was enthusiastic about the exhibition and delighted that the scene was being marked and remembered in a positive light. They were all very generous with their time and in sharing personal archives of memorabilia. We actually ended up having too much material which made the selection process really difficult.
How did those early stations help support and grow the rave and garage scenes?
Pirate stations are a vital source for new music. Historically they emerge when licensed stations fail to accommodate alternative music. This model, revolutionalised by the early stations, is exactly what drives the pirate scene today. When stations like Invicta, Horizon and LWR were operating in the 1980s, they provided a platform for soul, jazz and funk, which mainstream charts didn’t acknowledge. A similar scenario happened in late ’80s, when a new generation of pirates (including Fantasy, Centreforce and Sunrise) emerged to cater for the rave and acid-house community. By the time the Drum’n’Bass, Jungle and Garage scenes came to the forefront, a new wave of stations again surfaced to champion this sound.
How would you describe the legacy of pirate radio?
The 1980s generation argue that the demise of pirate radio came about with the introduction of the Broadcasting Act 1990, followed quickly by the Internet. The number of FM pirates today are diminishing at a rapid pace and the Internet has obviously had a large role to play in that. However, it can’t be ignored that online has also opened up a whole world of opportunities for independent broadcasting. We are fortunate in the UK to have such a diverse field of music available to us and this is largely down to the multitude of DJs and musical entrepreneurs embracing the digital wave as a vehicle for disseminating new music.
The flip side is that these new platforms become a threat to the pirates. They were once the only means of hearing new and culturally diverse music, but now with so much available to us, there is less of an urgency for them to exist. It is important to remember and value the role that these early pioneers played in making our radio stations and musical communities what they are today.
Do you think there was something uniquely British about the pirate radio scene?
Pirate Radio exists around the world in various forms, but I think Britain’s history of it is significant and has helped to shape public perception of its potential. For example, it’s remarkable to think that DJs like Tim Westwood, Trevor Nelson and Gilles Peterson all started out on pirates in the 1980s and were then headhunted by Radio One and other commercial stations and given their own shows. This says something about the calibre of these DJs and the demand for the music they were championing at the time.
There are many countries around the world where pirate radio wouldn’t have survived due to social and political regulations, but in Britain (despite its knockbacks) it did, and continues to do so.
What can visitors expect from the exhibition?
A mix of ephemera from the era including station club flyers, posters, press releases, newspaper articles and other paraphernalia. Also on display: a set of 12 beautiful photographs by David Corio that document the cultural diversity of the era and the symbiotic relationship between nightclubs, record shops and pirate stations at that time. And of course some authentic music and sound bites from the era.
What are your personal highlights from the exhibition?
Matt Black and Jonathan More met on Kiss 94 FM in the mid-to-late ’80s and joined forces in 1988 to become Coldcut prior to Kiss shutting down, whilst applying for legal status at the end of that year. In the exhibition we have a selection of jingles produced by Coldcut in 1990, the year Kiss went legal, which marks an important moment in British pirate radio history.
As well as being a lot of fun, the distinct sound of these jingles – electronic jittery synths mixed with old soul and funk samples – marks the end of the Soul Boy era and hints toward the electronic age that followed and would dominate the 1990s.
Does the ICA have any involvement with radio itself?
The current ICA programme is actively engaged with radio and broadcasting. NTS, the London-based independent live radio and music platform, is our current artist in residence and recently we have teamed up with Boiler Room on a number of live broadcasts from the ICA. It seemed timely to devise a show that explored the roots of independent and experimental broadcasting.