Photograph by: Davide Cepparo
The variety of modern day radio stations is something of a luxury when you look back to the first half of the 20th century to a society of mainly government controlled airwaves, dominated by public service broadcasting.
Radio stayed constricted by the government for a while, excluding popular entertainment in favour of content such as gardening, cooking tips and news, up until the 1960s when a more rebellious younger generation, charged by fresher ideas and a desire for more musical exposure, appeared.
Airtime of music such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones was highly desired, but the BBC just wasn’t keeping up with the public demand for this new music.
In this era pirate radio was born and reformed the airwaves. Radio pirates took to ships armed with vinyl and sailed out to international waters where no British laws were in place, and without a license they broadcast on AM/FM frequencies to the UK with new popular music tailored towards the demand for a more entertaining form of radio.
The only issue was that where they were broadcasting from was completely legal, but where the signals were received, across national borders, it was illegal.
The technology was relatively simple. Broadcast transmitters generated the radio waves that were channeled to an aerial tower on board the ship which emitted the waves. It was extremely effective and popular, with some stations pulling in millions of listeners.
Notable stations such as Radio Caroline, which made its first broadcast in 1964, played new unsigned artists, and had listening ratings bigger than three of the BBC's networks combined.
They veered away from the usual BBC-style DJs, middle class and well spoken, and opted for more regional and amateur people to take to the air.
According to Radio Caroline DJ Mike Ahern: “Listeners could identity with that, because that’s how people spoke, and I think that coupled with the magic of the music, where they could hear the Stones and they could hear the Beatles all the time, and the romance of being at sea”.
New music had never seen better days, with the ships broadcasting popular music that the majority of the public wanted to hear, and numerous new artists, who struggled to get airtime on the mainstream radio, saw massive success from the exposure on pirate radio.
However, by 1967, the British government introduced the Marine & Broadcasting (Offences) Act, which banned advertising on, or supplying a license to, a pirate radio station, and after this the golden years of pirate radio began to come to an end.
Despite this, pirate radio stations did continue. During the 1980s there was a boom in land-based stations, many in cities on top of tower blocks and other secret locations.
Nowadays many pirate stations broadcast online, but their historic influence on music and radio will always be evident. The creation of BBC Radio 1 in 1967, after all, was to combat the popularity of the pirates.
Without the pirates, would there have been such a dramatic reform in radio? Perhaps by now yes, but the beauty of radio technology and the pirates was it showed how accessible and influential radio could be. It doesn’t take a genius to take to the airwaves, with many of the original and current pirates starting off as amateurs, and radio is a type of technology that we should reflect on, and take inspiration from, in an era of increasing technological developments.