It has been twenty five years since the introduction of the 1988 Wireless Telegraphy Act and the licensing of legal independent radio. The 1988 legislation was designed to wipe pirate radio off the airwaves with stiff penalties and strict enforcement.
Throughout the May Bank Holiday Monday, I listened and visited pirate radio stations across Dublin. These were not stations confined to the internet but broadcasting openly on an already cluttered FM band. Unlike the early 70s when pirate radio stations began to develop and would only broadcast for a couple of hours late or night or a Sunday afternoon for fear of being raided and closed, today’s pirates are broadcasting 12 to 18 hours per day every day despite the possible €10,000 fine that can be imposed.
Across the band listeners could tune into NRG, Ministry, Easy, Play and Tonik, all pirate radio stations but why after a quarter of a century are pirate radio stations still on air?
It is hard to judge how many people are listening to these pirate operations but at one station judging by requests received from callers and texts over a three hour period the numbers listening was well into four figures. But why is a listening demographic between 15 and 25 not being catered for by the plethora of Dublin legal stations?
Having spoken to a number of callers to these stations I was quickly aware of patterns at each of the stations. The above named stations apart from Easy broadcast dance, trance and house music. While Spin 1038 would be the closest in music policy to the pirates they are a commercial operation and programming is driven by ratings and advertising revenue. The two main reactions to the pirate stations were that young listeners felt connected to the music they wanted to hear and that the pirates played music they could not hear on any other radio station.
The following is the list of reasons why listeners were tuned into the pirate stations.
1. They felt a connection with the station.
2. They liked the sound of DJ’s their own age. Some of the DJ’s were only sixteen on the day I visited.
3. The pirate stations played the music they were dancing to in the clubs, especially young dance music orientated venues.
4. The stations played extended dance tracks especially remixes often 10 minutes long something rarely played on licensed radio. The stations often play non commercial tracks.
5. The stations were ‘clutterfree’ or advert free. When I asked how the stations paid their way such as electricity bills, I was told that stations organised ‘event nights’ where they would use the door money to pay the bills. The overheads at pirate stations are low as DJ’s are volunteer and the stations do not pay the legal requirements of PAYE, PRSI, PPI or IMRO.
6. The stations take requests and play them. One listener told me that ‘making a request to FM 104 is like a privilege when it should be a right’.
7. The pirate station is giving a young local DJ to learn the skills of operating a radio studio. The stations are often very locally based despite their signal covering much of the city. There was a strong loyalty to the local station but listeners were able to identify other pirates who broadcast a slightly different music policy i.e one station played house while another specialised in trance.
8. ‘They don’t air the boring news’. Pirate stations by their nature of illegality were not subject to the restriction imposed on licensed stations by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
9. Young listeners liked the irreverence of the DJ’s sometime using bad language but the DJs seemed to be more in tune with the listeners than their legal counterparts.
10. Stations were giving opportunity to DJ’s who were creating music in their bedrooms and garages and providing outlets for small record labels on the fringes of the Irish music scene.
Rules are made to be broken and as long as people feel that they are being ignored by the establishment, pirate radio stations will remain on the air.