​new exhibition uncovers london’s 80s pirate radio golden age

Shout Out! at the ICA track the roots and cultural legacy of the UK pirate radio scene.

by Felix Petty
11 May 2015, 11:15am

No License for Kiss FM, Written Word magazine, 1989, image courtesy Gordon Mac

Pirate Radio might've started in the 60s with Radio Caroline broadcasting the new sound of Rock n Roll off the coast of Kent, but its real golden age was the 80s. Originally a way to get around restrictive, governmental control of the airwaves, by the early 80s pirate radio in London was blossoming in a counter cultural soundclash championing the wealth of music bubbling beneath, and being ignored by, the mainstream. London's soul, funk, and reggae scenes were in full force at the time, being pushed forward by the second-generation Caribbean immigrants, who felt excluded from contemporary British life.

Network 21 89.6FM, c. 1980-89, flyer, image courtesy Stephen Hebditch

In a period defined by Thatcher's cultural hegemony, pirate radio offered an escape from the racist police shutting down black events and culture. It was an era that birthed the UK's homegrown black counter culture, of artists like Smiley Culture, Tippa Irie, Pape Levi, and Top Cat, who railed against the racism they found in everyday British life, a feeling that would eventually dramatically come out in riots in Brixton and Tottenham in the 80s.

Inside Kiss 94 FM studio (the day before Kiss 94 FM went off air), 1988, image courtesy Gordon Mac

In 84 though, many stations were forced to close down as police gained powers to enter properties and seize equipment they suspected of being used for illegal broadcasts, although quickly a new generation of pirates would spring up, playing cat and mouse with authorities to continue broadcasting. Soon their were over 600 stations broadcasting across the UK, with 60 alone in London, eventually many of these stations would end up legit, exemplified by Kiss getting a license in 1990, and who champion black british music of the decade.

Aerial Diagram inside Community Development Radio Project Profile, 1989, courtesy Stephen Hedbditch

It helped cement a musical vision, that by the late 80s, with the rise of the acid house and the second summer of love, would eventually take on the mainstream, with Jungle, Rave and Hardcore, and eventually create a world where Rinse and NTS would define a sonic landscape and where Dubstep could rise out of Croydon and take on the world.

Shout Out! UK Pirate Radio in the 1980s is at the ICA Fox Reading Room from 26 May to 19 July 2015, before heading to The Pheonix in Leicester.


SARM 105FM, flyer, 1987, image courtesy Stephen Hebditch

Pirate Radio
shout out
institute of contemporary art
felix petty
uk pirate radio in the 1980s