Air On A Shoe String

Whilst there were numerous Free Radio publications available in the seventies, land-based pirate radio rarely got any coverage in the national media. There were some exceptions, my own station Skyport was reported in a typical Daily Heil (Mail) "reds under the bed" article and the following article appeared in Timeout Magazine;

Air On A Shoe String (Timeout 1979)

There are more pirate broadcasting stations operating today in defiance of the duopoly of the BBC and IBA than there were in the heyday of the legendary ships and forts. After a period of comparative stagnation, with stations coming and going depending on the respective levels of determination of the operators and the Post Office engineers whose job it is to track them down, there is now a new feel to the scene.

Radio Jackie celebrates ten years of consistent broadcasting on March 18, specialist music stations appear regularly to cater for minority interests, there is a farseeing experiment in very local community access radio, and political propaganda stations, long a feature of France and Italy, are poised to make a major impact.

Land-based piracy started as soon as the Marine Offences Act 1967, took away the viability of the ships and forts like Radio City, Big L, and Radio 270, transmitting just outside territorial waters. The ships and their owners needed advertising revenue, and when that was denied they all eventually disappeared. Some deejays went on to become national figures on legit radio, as the small fanzines that still circulate to celebrate the brief period endlessly tell you.

Apart from creating demand for what became the commercial and BBC local networks, and totally changing Auntie's national programming, there were other effects. Whilst for some protagonists 'free radio' meant commercial radio, there were those who weren't in it for the money. An echo of this could be seen in the philosophy of the latter-day Radio Caroline with its Loving Awareness messages. (Caroline, just 15 years old this month-it was the first and last-has been off the air since October but claims to be coming back at the far long end of the medium wave band.)

The First Raids

The free radio enthusiasts, not bothered too much about finance, set about learning transmitter construction and studio work and went on the air from the land. There, the full weight of the Wireless Telegraphy Acts and the Post Office Act applies and when the first raids started the operators were peremptorily reminded that unlike other natural resources, the radio frequency spectrum is in the gift of the Crown, to be dispensed with as little openness as a paternalistic Civil Service can manage.

Pirating means endless problems dodgy transmitters, unsocial hours, damp days acting as lookout, lack of money, and internal squabbling. The early land-based stations were medium wave, but soon VHF technology was mastered by enough operators to form a network, the London Transmitter of Independent Radio, going out four evenings a week in around 1971-73. Today there are roughly the same numbers on VHF as medium wave. Some stations haven't been able to handle the more sensitive VHF technology; others say VHF's more sophisticated equipment gives it an essentially middle class bias. Since about 1975 there have also been some short wave stations in operation, which benefit from vast but uneven coverage and suffer from the fact that only a small percentage of the population tune around the short wave bands, even if their receivers can pick them up.

You have to come back to the motivations for getting on the air in the first place to see how stations operate and to understand why some of them survive and others don't.

Politics: In France and Italy there have been hundreds of political pirate stations. The Cuban revolutionary Guevara said: 'The radio is a factor of extraordinary importance ... It explains, teaches, fires, and fixes the future positions of both friends and enemies ... ' Ironically the loudest political station is called Radio Enoch and 80% of its output is right wing extremism. At present it is on short wave. Two other short wave stations, Corsair and Skyport, intersperse left wing material between the music. The phenomenon is new, and what is astonishing is that it did not happen a long time ago. It is obviously only a matter of time before politics appear on medium wave and VHF, where many more will hear it. Approaches to existing music stations have been made by sections of both the National Front and the Communist Party. (This is not true, at least for the CP. no approaches were ever made. Ed.)

Law Enforcement

The reaction of the authorities to these new developments will be interesting. Legal enforcement is carried out by Post Office engineers acting for the Home Office. The Radio Interference Department has a wide brief which includes malfunctioning industrial equipment, unstable and spurious transmissions, illegal use of the business radio bands, rogue amateurs, and, its most recent preoccupation, the 27Mhz Citizens Band subculture (TO 440). The chief enforcer is Eric Arthur Gotts, the subject of many anecdotes among the pirates. Arising from an incident in January 1977 Jackie took out a private summons for assault. Gotts was found guilty and conditionally discharged, and his appeal against conviction failed. Since then, except when Telstar South set up near Biggin Hill and were pounced upon a few weeks ago by 15 Special Patrol Group vehicles who thought they planned to jam the air traffic band, things have seemed very quiet. At least till March 4 when, in the friendliest way, Gotts descended on AMY. Their loss then was around £170, which will somehow have to be recouped. Unlike other stations they run an associated disco; yet others offer modest facilities for demo discs. But pirate radio is a costly hobby. The heavy expenditure items are the studio, records/tapes, batteries and transformers for power, and admin. The average transmitter costs about £50 serious pirates have three or more at the ready.

Taking precautions is part of the lifestyle (and in some cases one of the attractions, to be truthful). It is believed that the direction finding stations are at Ewell, Sanderstead, Brentford, and possibly East Finchley, and so transmitting sites (usually fields or blocks of flats) are chosen accordingly and changed frequently. The raids and prosecutions seem to work on Buggins' turn. The other main preoccupation is a rich proliferation of pseudonyms, which made this story fun to do, particularly as I was using one too-you see, technically it's an offence even to listen.

Short-life predictions

Pirate broadcasting is definitely here to stay-there must be nearly 200 transmitters and one can make the following predictions:

I. There will always be sporadic short life stations.

2. Music stations will survive on consistency and audience response otherwise there's no point in going on. It's a pity that, after all the rhetoric, alternative music stations themselves have so little variety. Top 40 from the legits is challenged by a Golden Oldie/ Album/ Request format ... more Invictas are needed.

3. Community Access is splendid, but AMY has to be seen as a demonstration and experiment, prior to legal acceptance.

4. Political stations will multiply. These days 'free radio' means Radio Enoch along with everything else.

Medium Wave/AM

How to listen: nearly all pirates transmit in a corridor between 215m(1395khz) and 240m(1250khz), which is relatively under-used in the UK during daytime. (At night atmospheric conditions change and continentals can be heard, which is why pirates don't bother then. The best equipment for listening is a good quality portable, which you can twist around for optimum signal. Medium wave/ AM radios use a ferrite bar as antenna which receives most strongly signals arriving at right angles to its length while nulling out those travelling along its length. Hi-Fi tuners often have inferior AM sections and poor antennae. Remember, a number of stations deliberately restrict their coverage area.


(217m/1386khz, 10.00-16.00)

Inventive community access station for six North London boroughs. Good signal in area.

North London Radio or NLR

(221m/1369khz, 11.00-18.00)

Popular top-40 type shows, started in January 1978, off the air for a while earlier this year but now back with a strong signal.

Weekend Music Radio


South London-based pop. Off the air at the moment.

Jackie (227m/1332khz 09.00-17.00) Medium Wave/AM

The Radio One of pirates based on Kingston/South London. Busted many times but reliable. Signal weak in North London.


(230m/1314khz, 1100-1500)

Album/rock format based on American FM style started regularly since March 1977. Off the air at the moment but due back on this new frequency any Sunday now. West/North West London.



New station almost ready to come on. Split off from Celebration. Soft and heavy rock and news items. North West London from May.

Telstar One

(235m/1278khz, occasional)

London's only semi-permanent live pirate with ultra-informal presentation which appeals to some listeners. Sporadic appearances usually from North London. May move frequently.

Edge City

(235m/1278khz, 12.00-15.00)

Sixties music plus new wave. Started February 1979 as a split from Radio City. From North West.

Radio City

(238m/1251khz, 12.00-16.00)

Pure classic rock'n'roll. Consistent station for the last 18 months with welcome individuality. Signal comes from North/North West.

AMY East


Autonomous relative of the original AMY, this one will serve East London from April 8. Frequency may change.

There are also a large number of occasional's; we've had several reports about the following: Back Street Radio (226m/1323khz) Capital 195 and Radio Clandestine in Tufnell Park, which put out 16 hours of punk-type programmes a day for two weeks before someone put their foot through the transmitter; Elaine (199m/1503khz and 186m/ 1602khz), Bank Holidays only; Music Radio 270 (270m/1107khz) Bank Holidays only; Wonderful Radio Camden (227m/1323khz); Radio Christmas (221/1396khz)-NLR under a another name. You may also hear the occasional QSO (two-way contact) station well past midnight on Friday/ Saturday at around 227m/1332khz.


How to listen: the pirates tend to look for 'holes' in the coverage provided by legit stations. A good antenna is essential, particularly for stereo, but most Hi-fi tuners are attached to fIxed roof top aerials beamed at Crystal Palace/Croydon, whereas the pirate signals can come from anywhere. The ideal, of course is a rotator (you'll get several extra legit programmes and one extra lTV station with the right setup, so don't knock it). However, in most cases, we're back to the good quality portable, this time using a tiltable and rotatable telescopic whip. Reception will be better high up or near a window and any antenna should be horizontal or slanted to the ground, as this is the 'sense' in which nearly all VHF signals are sent, but experiment and see. Some stations change transmitters during a broadcast. All stations are Sunday only.



Very slick pop/rock with competitions. Highly regarded and consistent, this is the nearest we have to US-FM presentation. All over coverage. Signal usually from the West.



Soul over London. Very professional see feature. Switch transmitters during broadcasts but usually all over coverage beamed from South. Some transmissions stereo.

Radio Free London or RFL

(92 or 92.4,15.00-19.00)

Rock/album orientated. Claims link with original land-based pirate; after several raids, back since February 1978. Signal from North Kent, vertically polarised-may go stereo.

Telstar South


1960-74 golden oldies all requests. Started 1975.Signal comes from the East, and is sometimes Dolby mono. Often difficult to hear in West London.



Holiday station only, since January 1978. Stereo.

North Kent


Rock station, but weakish signal except in South East London.

West London


Pop/album station. Stereo, but difficult to hear outside its own area.



Intelligent rock station also based in West London. Stereo but sometimes weak. Believed to be temporarily off the air.

There are also further occasionals and holiday specials. Experimental broadcasts have taken place at about 104Mhz but most experienced pirates regard this as risky.

Short Wave

How to listen: the band used is referred to as 48 meters, which is just high of the legitimate 49 m band. The pirates have occupied a corridor between 6.2 and 6.3 Mhz. There are other European pirates in the vicinity, notably Radio Viking. Short wave broadcasts can be heard either within a few miles of the transmitting site, or, by ionospheric reflection, hundreds of miles away. However, their travel is erratic and without powerful transmitters and directional antennae, reception is a gamble and subject to fading. So you'll have to rely on luck, though a 40 foot long wire and a good earth will help. Frequencies listed below are only approximate. Locations given are usually the believed transmitting site, but with short wave that doesn't matter so much. Just tune above 49m at 10.00 on a Sunday, play about with it and see what happens. There are a few stations, which duplicate transmissions on 41 m/7.35Mhz.

Empire Radio







Free Radio Broadcasting Co



European Music Radio


Surrey, third Sunday in month-see feature.

Sunshine Int


London. First, second and fourth Sunday in month.

Solent City Int

(6.235/6.280, from 12.30 on)

North of England. Second and fourth Sundays in month.



South West London. Noisy programmes with lots of Free Radio propaganda. Leftish.



South West London. Close links with Corsair.


(6.260, 11.00-12.00)

South East England.

Zodiac 49

(6.270, 10.00-12.00)

Sussex accommodation address

Tower Radio

(6.270) Cambridge



West Midlands. Britain's noisiest political pirate right wing extremists, but not NF. Transmissions currently once a month, some of them single sideband and very powerful. May start soon on 4lm and medium wave.

Voice of Britain


Sussex accommodation address. Fairly reliable appearances.

Timeout March 23-29 1979 #466 article by Crispin Aubrey