[Originally published Monday, February 13th 2017]
Today is World Radio Day, and although I’m not doing anything specially audio-related today, it’s caused me to reflect on our life-long relationship with the wireless.
Mine and Leigh’s involvement with radio goes back a long way. As a child I listened to my Mum’s radio plays as she stitched, knitted or cooked, getting deeply involved in the imaginary worlds emanating from the speaker. Later, John Peel, Tim Westwood and Annie Nightingale would shape my life-long musical preferences with a mixture of synth-pop, hip-hop, electro and new wave, while Leigh’s listening was laying down the foundations of a love of rap and hip-hop. I was never to be found without music playing, and on Saturday nights and Sunday evenings in particular, the radio was up full while the homework was completed, notes being taken and tracks recorded for listening back and, if pocket money/shop wages allowed, buying later on.
I didn’t even know pirate radio was a thing until discovering some years later that other stations existed which had be searched for along the dial, with poor sound quality and unreliable listening schedules; during a brief period accompanying an ex to the unfortunate Muke’s house on a regular basis (essentially a Trainspotting character who arrived 6 years too early for the film) I would hear these long, rabid acid house tape mixes, with the DNA of jungle just beginning to nibble in at the edges. As an ex-breakdancer who was already hiding a deep love of electronics behind a rocker-boyfriend Led Zep veneer, I was excited to my very core, but somehow felt this needed to be kept a dirty little secret.
As rocker boyfriend departed and new boyfriend and I hung out more, I was finally able to expose my love of jungle, drum’n’bass, ambient and music made by electronic hands. Playing me Public Enemy, Redman, Method Man, Terminator X and the Godfathers of Threatt, NWA, Dilated Peoples, Phjarcyde, KRS-1, Black Sheep and what felt like billions more woke up bits of my listening brain that had lain dormant — the bit that has to tune into the words and stories. And rap lyrics and words would, as you will know if you’ve followed my work for more than the last few years, become a core part of my creative development and core.
We courted to Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky and soon realised we were at the start of a nerve-tingling period in music, having already begun to witness, although we didn’t really know it at the time, the atomic-mushrooming of dance music in all its micro-genres and evolutions. Wanting to be part of it all — from the start, we never liked the sidelines — we reached out by fax to the DJ Food we’d heard on Mary Ann Hobbs’ Breezeblock, and made friends we still have today. When hearing DJ Shadow’s ‘Lost and Found’ on Radio 1, we couldn’t find a copy anywhere, so I just phoned the record label and spoke to the boss (presumably, James Lavelle) and asked for a copy. We were gladly given one — as was the spirit of the time — and promptly played it at the club nights we ran under the name Coma (a hint both to our mutual love of sleep and the relaxed cushions-and-beanbags natured of the club, and a nod to Massive Attack’s Karmacoma).
I’m skimming over so much detail here, and this isn’t about to turn into a list of artists we like — that’s as impossible a task as was ever invented — but so it went: Leigh worked in record shops, and my record collection began growing exponentially at a rate far faster than it ever had before — crate-digging was a thing, and I carried my Notebook of Elusive Tracks heard on the radio with me at all times, sometimes getting to tick one off.
As mainstream radio began to show signs of gently squeezing the more interesting and enriching shows off the air, we discovered my old school friend Solo One (largely responsible for my breakdancing period and penchant for electro) was running an ‘independent’ radio station at the time. We listened, it was tight: jingles, ads, schedules, a solid rota of genres and contributions from his cohorts in graf and music. And there were plenty — this bloke had connections, balls of steel and an insomniac work ethic — but he needed help. Mix FM was beaming straight outta *Midlands town’s name*, and he’d found two willing volunteers.
Leigh began doing shows by himself, making creative little jingles with me helping out on flyer and admin duties, which soon became a regular weekend job running the station diary, looking for ad sponsorship and organising guest slots. Connections we’d already made ensured that blatantly ambitious requests for people to travel up and do a show were often met, resulting in a roll-call of guests and contributors including Beard & Philph from Fused and Bruised records, Skint Records, interviews with The Cherry Stones and Fingathing, an in-at-the-door-early interview with Basement Jaxx and sessions from The Mild Mannered Janitors, Jamie Hombre, DJ Food, Plone, The Freestylers, Meat Katie, Crispin Dior and plenty of others who’ve gone on to poke both ends of the ‘fame & success’ spectrum.
I would often work on the floor of the station, between making tea, answering the early mobile phone and manning the text requests. Sunday nights for years meant working to the soundtrack of the Drum’n’Bass show, with Mugshot, CT, Will and Nippa, which guaranteed I’d burn through the jobs at a fantastic pace. I wasn’t the most confident DJ, and I certainly didn’t attempt to mix, but it did ignite a love of presenting and talking on the radio which wasn’t to be rekindled till much later in life.
As the station moved from location to location, and the station became more serious and us more and more committed, our Fridays and Saturdays became longer as we both worked in the daytime and did radio at night. We broadcast from the tops of long-demolished tower blocks long on the outskirts of Birmingham, affording us, simultaneously, breathtaking views over the city and an often heartbreaking view of the poverty many people lived in, characterised by their incredible generosity — they’d give you their last tea bag if you needed it to get through the final hour of your graveyard shift — and warmth towards these people carrying records bags and offering home made cake around. Of course, the legends are true — we did get ‘busted’ sometimes, though remarkably infrequently, and with very little drama, as the technical set-up was so sophisticated it was hard to track us down, and we were always back on with decent speed.
Creeping into locked spaces, working in the dark, keeping curtains closed and regularly posting up Dos and Don’ts for station safety and protocol were the norm. So much tea was drunk, so many fags were smoked, and SO many bags of chips were eaten from the legendary Six Ways Chippy in Erdington, with its £1.50 fresh naan-wrapped masala fish chips at the unholiest hours of the night.
Of course my illustration/QuarkXpress/Photoshop skills were called upon regularly, for flyers, posters and ads, and even when not directly for the radio, it was finding its way into my work: 90s radio illustration! Behold, inkpen + mouse…
My archive from this period is massive, and indeed this blog could be a nine-parter with hundreds of photographs and stories. But that’ll have to wait for a less busy day, when I can comb the records without worrying about the hours lost in reminiscing and chuckling. The discipline and hard work which the radio demanded — for what might be seen as negligible return — were excellent training and installed in us a work ethic which has directed us through life. We still don’t like being on the sidelines, if we see something happening that we love, we like to get involved, and the element of risk is still appealing. When the phone was pinging and the shout outs were queuing up, the map on the wall filling up with red dots, one for every listener calling in from a different area, all the baggy eyes, lack of sleep, arguments, team politics, dodgy night missions and petrol spends were worth it: we were making radio for people who needed it.
When broadcasting on FM became too risky and expensive, and with our tech man off the scene, we were a frustrating amount of years too early for online broadcasting. We had a Worldspace Receiver to listen to radio stations around the world and still pined for our own. We were determined — I had several heated discussions with Apple Store people and software makers, insisting that among the existing technology there HAD to be a way to do it — but despite iTunes radio and podcasting being round the corner, there wasn’t a solution for the independent, not without prohibitively large sums of cash. Nonetheless, expensive software was purchased, learning curves were climbed, but we had to concede we were too early to make it happen. When we set up Altar Ego Radio years later, notwithstanding the odd technical brain-boggler it was all there, and online broadcasting can now be done any anyone, almost for free, with online radio stations running into their thousands.
As I write this blog I’m listening to Rinse FM, one of the other pirates at the time who were eventually granted a licence and the rest, as they say, is history — a hugely successful club, record label and station. The same can be said of Kiss FM, again another pirate who went legit — now a household name!
Today’s involvement with radio continues, recently manifesting itself in Cocoa Amore Radio, set up for the Leicester-based chocolatiers, which as part of our creative directorship broadcasts curated sets around the world from the store via its own App (it all feels so easy now!) I’m a regular contributor to BBC Leicester too, taking part in interviews, reviews and news programmes. I feel a healthy amount of pride at being part of pirate radio for so long, but remaining creatively involved with broadcasting and music, and I hope for it to expand into…I don’t know what, maybe something, we’ll see!
Pirate Radio Archive