Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Reggae Radio in the UK

The book Cut 'N' Mix by Dick Hebdige was first published in 1987, making it out of date now, but very contemporary for early land-based pirate broadcaster in the UK. Today the maritime pirate broadcasters are more famous: Radio Caroline, Radio Laser, and Radio London is even the topic of a feature film.   But in the early 1980s terrestrial pirate radio exploded onto the mainland. There are several reasons but lets start with a quote from Mr. Hebdige.
"Land based pirate stations have mushroomed in Britain in the last few years. In May, 1985, John Hind and Stephen Mosco managed to locate 140 stations, though not all of them broadcast music. And there were many more that they didn't manage to contact. In their list, London alone was host to sixty stations."
There are three primary reasons this was a time of pirate radio expansion  in Britain.
  1. Historical: BBC Radio was state run
  2. Demographic: The "Windrush generation"
  3. Technological: The advent of cheap solid state electronics
The BBC was founded in 1913 by a decree of the General post Office. It was initially funded by the sale of receiving sets. This was received poorly by listeners who subsequently made their own sets, or bought competing units. It was unde-funded initially but grew into an institutional and inflexible agency. They failed to learn the lesson from it's founding funding problems. By the 1960s it's failure to reflect popular tastes [again] had given birth to a generation of maritime pirate radio: Radio Caroline, Radio Laser, Radio London and others. More here.
As a result of the population losses (~450k) during the WWII, the British government began encouraging mass immigration from their colonies. The ship MV Empire Windrush brought the first group mostly Jamaican, African-Caribbean migrants to England in June of 1948. This Windrush generation grew into a permanent population today of  almost 6 million. Three generations later, almost 350 thousand of these people now call London home. They brought with them a musical tradition completely unlike British pop music and in 1980 they had almost zero representation on the airwaves. So being from a poor country, they applied their own tradition of making due and took to the airwaves themselves.  I'll quote Mr. Hebdige on the advent of cheap electronics.
"...the real breakthrough in radio piracy occurred when cheap portable transmitters came on the market. By the mid-1980s you could by an (illegal) 50-watt transmitter for around £200 or build one yourself for less. Soul and Reggae enthusiasts began to plug the gap in the airwaves playing solid funk, soul, and dub. All they needed was a good quality cassette recorder, a transmitter and a high roof."
The first appearance of reggae on British airwaves legally was on the program "Reggae Time" hosted by Steve Barnards which first aired in 1971. It aired on Sunday nights from the BBC Radio London. More here. Tony Williams later took over that program in 1978 and continued for a decade. More here and here. He alternated with David Rodigan who permanent slot at Capital Radio in 1979 to present another reggae program "Roots Rockers", which ran for 11 years. He left in 1990.

But by then and land-based pirates were in full swing.  Radio Invicta was broadcasting R&B, Soul, Funk, Gospel, Jazz and Electro Funk. London Weekend Radio (LWR) broadcast mostly New York hip-hop from South London and Jackie FM (JFM) broadcast Soul from Kingston upon Thames. More here. Dread Broadcast Corporation (DBC) was more dub and reggae-centric and broadcast starting in 1981 from West London. Uniquely DBC was black-run and is often credited as Britain's first black music radio station. The DBC and many others were raided and shut down following the passage of  the Telecommuncations Act in 1984.