How Black Pirate Radio Stations Revolutionised London's Music Scene

By Kyra Hanson Last edited 39 months ago
How Black Pirate Radio Stations Revolutionised London's Music Scene
The original Kiss FM team in 1987

During the 1980s pirate radio was the only means of hearing new and culturally diverse music. It was a period of creativity and technical innovation, one where Black British musicians were carving out a space for themselves on the airwaves. We caught up with radio presenter Lindsay Wesker who joined then-pirate radio station Kiss FM in 1986.

Wesker who helped legalise the station and became head of music recalls what it was like when he arrived on the scene: "The UK Black music scene was absolutely buzzing," he says, "there were tons of pirate radio stations, the clubs were full, the record shops were doing brisk business and the UK acts were really starting to make noise."

Black communities who felt their musical tastes and interests weren’t catered for by the BBC and commercial stations turned to pirate radio stations like Kiss to disseminate Black culture and music.

Not only did stations likes Kiss give a platform to British Black music makers, they reinvigorated the careers of American soul legends. Says Wesker: "An act like James Brown actually thanked Kiss FM DJ Norman Jay for his enthusiastic support. It allowed James’s career to last through the nineties and into the noughties."

Legalising the station, explains Wesker, took a lot of work as racism was still rife in the industry: "We were told by the IBA [now the Radio Authority] that, firstly, we would have to prove that there was ‘demand’ for a station like Kiss.

"That involved much correspondence, documentary evidence, a press campaign and petitions, but we finally convinced them that a Black music radio station could be successful."

Even then the station had to come off air for a year before they could obtain their license.

Today's music scene would sound drastically different without many acts that got air time in the 80s, "You can hear traces of sounds from Sade, Roachford, Aswad, Loose Ends, Soul II Soul and Massive Attack in so much of the 90s and 00s pop music that followed," says Wesker,  "Nellee Hooper’s work on Soul II Soul and Massive Attack took British Black music to new levels. Something like Unfinished Sympathy will be around forever."

Dread Broadcasting Corporation (DBC) was Britain’s first Black-owned radio station which responded to the lack of diversity on the licensed stations with a mixture of reggae, soul, calypso, funk and hip-hip. Other stations that, according to Wesker, gave some vital exposure for Black acts included Invicta, Solar, Horizon, JFM, LWR, Starpoint and Kiss.

Reggae stations in particular were hugely influential in supporting Black musicians, says Wesker: "On Harlesden High Street, there were three reggae pirates within a 100-yard stretch. All of these stations played their part and many Black acts got their first play on these stations."

By the end of the 1980s there were 600 pirate stations operating nationwide and 60 in London alone, but the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) who regularly raided stations, kept them on their toes. "Pirate radio was in all four corners of London," says Wesker, "in tower blocks, disused shops and in rooms in very innocent-looking terraced houses, but everyone had to keep moving to keep the DTI off their trail."

On top of raids, inter-station rivalry meant occasional sabotage. Kiss even had to hire security to protect their rig at one point, though Wesker maintains that despite this all of the DJs knew each other and socialised at clubs, parties and in record shops.

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With many of the venues no longer around to tell the story of the Black music scene Wesker's memories are crucial: "It's a real shame that a space like Phoebes on Amhurst Road is no longer there," he says, "I remember doing some great club nights there with Tim Westwood and, down in the basement, I got the chance to experience the mighty Jah Shaka sound system.

"Places like Phoebes, Four Aces and The Cue (Q) Club in Paddington were Black-owned clubs, created for the Black community, and gave people of colour somewhere to go when other doors were not open. The young people of today now rave and socialise in much more integrated venues — thankfully!"

The spirit of pirate radio is still alive if you know where to find it, and Wesker has hope for pirate radio's longevity: "As long as there is an audience, they will thrive. Not even internet and DAB radio stations have affected them!"

Lindsay Wesker and Dave VJ both have weekly radio shows on online and on DAB all over London.

Last Updated 04 January 2021