Shout Out: Pirate Radio of the 80s at the ICA

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Shout Out! Pirate Radio of the 80s is a travelling archival exhibition that’s currently on show at the ICA, London but ending this weekend, so make sure you visit the exhibit that profiles and pay tributes to a part of British culture that hasn’t been well acknowledged before.

Though the offshore pirate radios of the 60s has been well documented in pop culture, the 80s’ part in the scene has, for the most part, failed to be acknowledged. Though the stations of the 60s transmitted from boats just outside British territorial waters, those producing pirate radio in the 80s transmitted fearlessly on home terrain, often from the top of city tower blocks. On record there were 600 nationwide pirate radio stations during the era, with 60 of them broadcasting from London alone.

The scene developed from the growing dissatisfaction DJs and listeners had in the music that was being played by the BBC and licensed radio stations, including the lack of representation of the voice and music of Britain’s ethnic minorities. These pirate radio stations almost exclusively played reggae, soul, funk and hip hop and acted as platforms of representation for Afro-Caribbean talent and influence in a conservative society menaced by Margaret Thatcher.

This underground music rebellion represented a form of escape from the racial division and economic marginalization that mainstream culture and media alienated British ethnic minorities from. Though the locations of the broadcasts remained largely undercover, nightclubs and record shops became the physicalised locations of the radio themselves, acting as places for safe and welcome social interaction and creative exchange. On display are event flyers hosted by the stations, such as WBLS launching at Limelight, 136 Shaftesbury Avenue and events held at Brixton’s Fridge.

A selection of David Corio’s photographs of Black British youth culture are on display, and show how these pirate stations were physicalised within these nightclubs and record shops; inside a night at Gossips, Dean Street; the exterior of Groove Records, Soho and Rhythm records, Camden; flyers for club nights at the Fridge, Brixton and a crowd gathered round a radio in Victoria Park, Hackney. The photos aren’t just a testament to the community imbued by a new found dissemination of universal music, but too are evident of the lack of centrality to the movement across London as the scene exists from Soho to Clapham. Pirate radio was a subculture without a centralised stage such as the Punks’ King’s Road and the Carnaby Street of the 60s, it was as accessible to communicate and socialise as far as the transmissions lended.

The DIY and small focused nature of illegal radio transmitting meant that ethnic minorities could give themselves an easily accessible voice for those around them; in the only pirate radio magazine, Radio Today (or TX)’s schedule, there are stations for London’s Greek and Turkish communities. There’s also a listing for Girls FM, the ‘pirate FMinists on air’.

Pirate Radio wasn’t always London focused, the scene away from the Capital was equally as exciting and important; B.A.D in Bristol and Birmingham’s People’s Community Radio Link (PCRL) acted as the voices and the sounds of black communities in their areas.

Despite the enforcement of the Telecommunications act of 1984 that allowed forced entry and detaining of equipment used for illegal transmissions, many of the stations just started elsewhere after being shut down, under another addressed guise, undeterred by the law (a Network 21 flyer states ‘the pirates are back, the pirates are back, the pirates are back’ as the name of their renaissance night at the Fridge). It wasn’t until the Broadcasting Act of 1990 that the demise of these stations begun; it prohibited advertising and offered stations with sizeable followings the opportunity to become licensed. One of such stations was Kiss FM, the now infamously commercialised mainstream network. Then came the internet, the digital vehicle for the dissemination of music reaching beyond the end of the radio wave. Diffusing sounds and messages became unrestricted by location and the internet offered the opportunity of the universal.

Shout Out! UK Pirate Radio in the 80s documents a resistance scene that well raised the profile of British Black culture in a society of racial and economic marginalization. Through political and entertainment purposes, these pirate stations are shown to have acted as the voice and the platform of a culture that deserved to be represented and universally enjoyed. Through a collection of personal ephemera and beneath the sounds of some of these shows, the exhibition is an intimate and arresting portrayal of a subculture found.

Shout Out! will be at the ICA, London until 19th July and at the Phoenix, Leicester from the 23rd July-24th August

More information can be found here. 

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