Thursday, June 09, 2005

Digital pirate material

The feature below was first commissioned for The Guardian's Online section in autumn 2002, and published in Deuce magazine in spring 2003, when the first discussion of the analogue-to-digital radio switch over was suggested.

While everyone else was talking about if/when, of more concern was what would happen to pirate radio - the lifeblood of British urban culture. If they had sold off the analogue FM band then to mobile phone operators, who then jammed the frequency with other services, they would have killed off the nacent grime-to-be scene. Thankfully they didn't, but the question remained in my mind - where was pirate radio going?

In the last few months I think I've found an answer. Yousendit. Combined with online streaming, broadband connections and willing uploaders, Yousendit allows grime and dubstep to suddenly spread way, way beyond Bow and Croydon. Funny how things evolve.

Digital pirate material: what is the future of pirate radio culture?

In a dingy council flat squat a DJ releases the record from underneath his hand. The groove hits the needle and a signal shoots from the pirate radio station across urban Britain. Despite the authorities’ best efforts, it’s a very common event. Unbeknownst to the DJ however, he’s standing at a crossroads in British radio culture. It’s where international corporations meet determined amateurs, cutting edge digital technology finds D.I.Y. graft, the internet reaches the streets and the present looks towards the future.

Pirates have been either the thorn in the radio industry’s side, or an exciting explosion of grass roots UK culture - depending on your viewpoint - for the last 15 years. Many key artists, like So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite and much of the specialist Radio 1 DJs, honed their craft on the medium. Up to 100 UK pirate stations broadcast illegally each year. There’s a few anarchists and the odd anorak, but the vast majority are commercial enterprises, promoting club ticket sales. Digital radio, by contrast, is a brand new way to broadcast clearer and with extra multimedia services. Its dominance, when the analogue to digital switch over happens in a decade or so, will be a landmark in British radio. But what will happen to pirates when the switch occurs? What is the future of pirate radio?

Looking from 2003 there seems three obvious eventualities: to go online, to stay analogue or to switch to digital. Each will change pirate radio culture as we know it.

Although the conditions should alter massively in the next ten years, digital pirate broadcasting appears difficult at this point. Currently the technology is hard to acquire, complex to use and expensive to buy. According to the director of engineering at the Radio Authority Mark Thomas, running a legal analogue station costs “a low five figure sum” per year. Upgrading that to a digital station converts it to “a high five figure sum.” He leaves us to make the illegal radio comparisons, but this cost is sure to be a significant barrier to pirates.

In the current market, there are very few suppliers of the required digital broadcast equipment and so market prices are high. With digital receivers expensive, the current audience remains small. But both these barriers should shrink over time, with encouraging news like Ford announcing digital radios in cars from last January. Also the way legal stations have to share the digital broadcast equipment called “multiplexes” works against pirates too. “Pirate stations are very much go-it-alone, chuck-up-anything-that-you-think-will-work merchants. That whole mindset is really quite different to the organised and collectivist approach that is inherent with [legal] digital,” explains Thomas.

Finally, because of the properties of digital, there are less numbers of frequencies for pirates to broadcast on. Most the available slots are now assigned. “Your only options as a pirate in London is to use a frequency in Kent, and interfere with that or use one in frequency in Southend. And how many pirates will be able to do that without interfering with each other?” asks Thomas. “The [digital] frequency planning environment is much more difficult.”

However it would be foolish to underestimate the determination and resourcefulness of pirate engineers. “You can never say ‘never’. 20 years ago you would have said they’d never get on FM,” remarks an Area Manager for the Radiocommunications Agency. “I’ve got to say I have a professional respect for what they’re capable of achieving, these pirates.”

When the commercial stations vacate the analogue FM band, could the pirates could just stay put? Analogue radios don’t suffer a lot of wear and tear, so a loyal audience might remain. But would they hear anything? As the 3G licence auction testified, spectrum is a valuable commodity. Some industry experts speculate that it could be sold off for other services to companies like mobile phone operators. Could the pirates broadcast over such a din? Technically it is possible as, according to Mark Thomas, broadcast transmitters tend to be at the upper end of the power range on the airwaves.

Why don’t pirates just broadcast online? Given artist royalties are collected by the Performing Rights Society, netcasting is a legal proposition and one some currently chose to take. have most successfully taken the pirate model online, suggesting it is viable.

Bandwidth costs might increase per user, unlike conventional radio, but they’re still smaller than the costs of running a legal digital radio station. The main drawback is that pirate radio broadcasts to a dense and compact local audience. Internet radio broadcasts to a disperse global audience – which is of no use if your core revenue source is ticket sales to raves in Hackney.

“Really the future of online radio is down to how available the internet becomes in day-to-day life,” explains DJ SL, who simulcasts London’s leading pirate station Rinse FM, over the internet. Penetration of broadband, 3G mobile phones and even in-car internet access will all determine the future of online radio. But for now it’s still a minor influence on the audience pirate radio tries to reach. “We are probably talking at least another 5 years before we see these [technologies] implemented and about another 5 years beyond that until these products are both available and cheap enough.”

Still it is a fruitful option for many artists and one DJ we spoke to had just recently switched from pirate radio to “Whilst we were on pirate only Londoners could hear us and it wasn’t even like we could be heard over the whole of London,” explains a representative of the Frequency collective. “Since being on the internet the interest in us and the offers have been immense ... We feel like the hard work and sacrifices we've made are starting to pay off.” Now the collective are getting offers of work from Malaysia, Australia and Sweden.

As broadband and wireless internet access increases, European webcasters could yet gain ground over US counterparts. Given recent the effect of recent Congress developments on the US market - favouring big corporate players over grass roots providers - niche homegrown EU talent might be just what the world’s music fans are looking for. These are exciting times.

First published in Deuce magazine (RIP) spring 2003


fusion01 said...

Fascinating article - thanks.

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