the story of InterferenceFM
"It's the 0796, the 443, the 291, reaching out to the Deptford ladies locked on, nice and easy..........Increase the pressure.......here we go with wicked mixing inside."
Every weekend London's airwaves are packed with dozens of pirates firing off all over the capital. It's radio that does it, a weekend of collective law defying broadcasting. Radio isn't just about music and it isn't all about hearing someone chat. It's a unique aural experience that connects your environment to a disconnected space.
Given the power and volatile possibilities of this medium, the oldest 20th Century real-time mass communication device, we in the UK, are left with a ludicrously restricted range of legal output. We are of course offered a great number of stations but this does not translate into a huge range of ideas about radio or diversity of opinion.
BBC radio whilst being a unique institution is there to maintain mainstream orthodoxy and uphold critical standards. It's impartiality and integrity is to be admired in an increasingly competitive radio market. But what about the rest of the bandwidth? The Conservative government, true to form, decided to sell off frequencies to the highest bidders rather like ITV local licences. We all know the bland formulaic style of commercial radio that has followed. The situation doesn't even appear to be getting better looking at the savage reshuffling of XFM ("London's Alternative"?) and KissFM.
The pirates broadcasting today in London tell an important story about government policy towards radio. It gets busted from time to time, people are arrested and records seized but this independent dance music scene carries on. Stations can often sit on a frequency for many months and build up a loyal following for local people to have their quick 'hello.' The success of pirate radio is it's ability to show that DIY production values work. People respond to localised, independent broadcasting which is what the pirates thrive on. On a musical note the stations are also responsible for breaking many new genres and for reinforcing club music's desire for constant organic development free from corporate pressure.
What happened to InterferenceFM in June'99 was very different. Planned as an accompaniment to the 'Carnival against Capitalism' on June 18th it broadcast over a large area of London from various locations on and a few days preceding the big day.
The station promoted the day action with adverts and jingles the station played an eclectic mix of music, spoken word pieces of related issues such as the state of radio, third world debt, Gerard Stanley's famous libertarian speech and the ravages of capitalism. The combination was the most refreshing mix heard in years with some great revolutionary groovy tunes along the way. There was no incitement to violence just spreading some, "conscious culture, a sorely needed bit of substance in the soup." What was most striking about InterferenceFM was having this form of counter-culture on a form of mass-media available with quick tune of the dial.
The DTI, who monitors radio activity, responded very quickly by finding and destroying the transmitters during the broadcast period. One has to remember that the first broadcast happened before there had been any whiff of trouble in the city.
What happened to the InterferenceFM pirate demonstrates the Radio Authority's attitude to the pirates. The pirates can be stopped speedily if chosen but are obviously left alone for long periods because of the lack of political content in the majority of them. The radio authority argument against the pirates often heard is that they interfere with ambulance radio and air traffic control. This is really just a smokescreen, if they are such a problem why is the entire London FM spectrum flooded with pirates when the transmitters can be traced and stopped?
The point here is that the government hasn't bothered to define how community radio can be legally incorporated into the FM spectrum that has so much room for small stations. Community radio could go along way in rejuvenating radio and reawakening the apathy in local politics and issues. The pirates currently fill up the spectrum and providing they keep people happy the government isn't too bothered.
The exception to this is black afro-carribean radio which has always been at the forefront of the pirate scene. There has often been a strong political dimension to stations who have given access to advocates of black power and self-determination for example. Stations like Genesis and Black Liberation Radio in London have, in the past, sent out quite extremist viewpoints. As with other aspects of this culture it is representative of it's outspoken directness.
Changing legislation for community stations would be an arduous task. One only has to look at a grassroots campaign like the 'Open Access' one to realise the years of perseverance needed to reach the parliamentary stage. That campaign in particular had a whole national network of people aka The Ramblers Association ready to lobby parliament. Does radio generate that kind of support besides the relatively low-profile Community Media Association?
InterferenceFM briefly re-emerged on the August bank holiday w/e at the Free Spirit Festival in Luton organised by the Exodus Collective. The festival not only shows that a free festival could run successfully but was the biggest party in direct confrontation with the Criminal Justice Bill. At the end of the 90s the Bill hasn't stopped the party.
Thirty sound systems filled up a triangle of land with no real neighbours to disturb except the M1. Broadcasting over Luton from a telegraph pole at the top of the festival it beamed out the good news that the festival was a 'dance with a stance.' More broadcasts are planned for the future in London.
There are other avenues for different radio in the form of the Restricted Service Licences (RSL). These are usually 28 days and are applied for by charitable groups or event organisers who have to raise large amounts of cash for licences, equipment and expenses. They act as a token peace gesture to those who will probably never get their hands on radio again and to the restrictive nature of UK legislation.
A most striking RSL in recent years was Resonance107.3FM. This was a 24hr 28day station broadcasting from the Royal Festival Hall in central London organised by the London Musicians Collective. During the weekdays it acted as an international gallery of radio art hosted by international radio artists. The programming was a greatest hits of radio from it's long and rich history. During the night and at weekends a team of musicians and artists took over and defined a type radio concerned with DIY values and anarchic fluidity.
The results were often a mind bending river of sound on a scale never heard in the UK. Scheduling included real World Music (should that be Majority Music), poetry, field recordings, dinner parties in the studio, 3hr non-stop dj sets and other shows that really defy wordy descriptions but inhabited twilight worlds of music, sound, speech and the ghostly radio ether.
The issues raised were many: why is radio so formalised? why is the musical output so restrictive? why were they given so limited transmission power of 30W when the pirates regularly chuck out 120W? This led to a pitiful broadcast range. Why is radio creativity so hidden in UK radio?
The answer to these frustrating times is, we hope, the web. When the web can be accessed at the flick of a switch then web stations will be free to carry on beyond any legislation. One obvious example is Interface who deliver many forms of dance music from London but the audience is world-wide. It won't exactly be radio, technology will package it differently, but it will free up forms of audio transmissions forever, well let's hope............
the writer has wished to remain anonymous
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