In a small business office somewhere in East London, sandwiched in a rented space behind a betting shop and a photocopying business, congregates a small band of young men and women. They are participating in an activity the traditions of which stretch back to the birth of the printing press.
Just as Wynkyn de Word set up his newfangled press outside London’s City walls in a small street by the river Fleet in order to escape the crushing censorship of the medieval English Church, today’s media rebels are using new technology and their fleetness of foot to dodge the authorities.
But are they a threat to legal advertising or simply filling-in the gaps “big media” has left behind? It’s a cold, drizzly winter’s day at Waterloo.
Outside the station at a coffee shop on the thunderous Waterloo Road, DJ Millie (a nom de plume which may or may not reflect his real name) is explaining the pirate radio operators’ side of the story. His station is called House FM.
It’s easy to form a caricatured impression of the pirate radio DJ. Listen to any of the 50 or so pirate stations in London broadcasting of an evening and, likely as not, you will be baffled by the insider language and the huge variation in music. Everything from jungle music, through gangsta rap to bhangra is played – although it is fair to say you won’t hear much Beethoven.
This is a street medium, almost always aimed at the urban youth.
DJ Millie would confound most preconceptions about pirate radio owners. He is an articulate, educated black man in his 30s. The only thing that marks him out from any other person streaming out of Waterloo’s concourse is the fact he carries two mobile phones. One of them buzzes constantly as we talk – requests for songs during that evening’s programming coming in from his numerous fans.
The pirate House FM – or, as Millie prefers to call it, community station (“Using the word pirate has overtones of criminality,” he says) – has been broadcasting for several years in East London.
His view is that pirate stations fulfil a need.
“I counted 50 community stations on my dial the other night. The blatant fact is that there’s a pent-up demand not being met by the mainstream radio stations. They don’t play black urban music – the legal stations don’t cover it,” he says.
He explains how the stations survive.
Finding the right audience “We get revenues from club promoters, sometimes the actual club, urban record labels. At the end of the day, the core listeners for community stations are the ones these guys want to get to.”
Taking off his black skull cap and stirring his coffee, DJ Millie goes on. “I’ve lived in East London all my life and it’s been the capital of community stations for many years. Maybe it’s the combination of economic depravity and tower blocks that makes it a good place to run a station,” he notes with irony.
But what about the charges that pirate stations interfere with emergency services and air traffic control? “There are some stations that let the side down, but I’m sure it’s only a minority that’ve done this. Other stations run a very tight ship and make sure they have a good clean signal.”
That tight ship can mean laying out thousands of pounds on broadcasting equipment.
“But we feel there’s a reason to do it because of the music – clubs and advertising can just cover the costs.”
He says it can cost around £2,000 to set up a pirate station. You will need record/CD decks, a transmitter, microwave equipment to send the signal from your location to the aerial, which might be miles away. He adds: “An aerial you can get from B&Q.”
Most pirate stations, especially in London, operate a rota system of DJs allowing people to moonlight in shifts. Some stations have as many as 40 DJs on constant rotation throughout the night. Some broadcast all night and every night, all week – others broadcast just in the evenings. Finding them is easy – just set your radio to scan.
DJ Millie continues: “These days, there are too many stations to make money any more, but in the early ’90s there were only four stations in East London so there was the ability to make money during the early rave scene. They could get 10,000 people to an illegal. It can’t be done now, there are too many genres and stations.”
Why go illegal, though? Why not just get a short-term licence, as is available? “If there were licences going, and they were not prohibitively expensive, then I’d apply for them. Besides, I’d restrict myself if I worked in the mainstream. Mainstream stations have playlists. I get Music Week every week and I know what all the mainstream stations are going to play.
“But if you want to hear Masters at Work or Underwater Records or Africanism you can’t find those labels being played in the mainstream.”
The economics of pirate stations are pretty obvious, DJ Millie outlines. An advert on Kiss FM may costs £150 for one 30-second slot, but the same sum on House FM might pay for a week’s run.
Advertising on pirate radio stations can well be cost-effective – but be prepared. Anyone involved with pirate broadcasting, even if they advertise on a station, technically commits an offence, which could carry a jail term.
Among the forces ranged against the pirate radio station is the Commercial Radio Companies Association. It intends to “bring further mass actions against pirate radio stations in 2004,” according to its latest annual review.
The CRCA estimates that, in London alone, there are about 85 mainly dance-based pirate stations. Its main beef with the pirates is that they pay no copyright or licence fees, yet they divert revenue away from commercial stations, which do pay the fees, taxes and provide jobs, among other things.
However, the CRCA admits that the criminal courts have proved “no real deterrent” to pirates. The civil courts have proved more effective, with the CRCA applying for civil injunctions against repeat offenders, prohibiting their being involved in any way with pirate radio in the future. The CRCA has successfully argued through the courts that pirate stations are a public nuisance as they threaten public safety through the interference with emergency service and air traffic control radio services.
In 2003, the CRCA brought its first mass action against six different pirate broadcasters involved in running stations such as Groover FM in Dudley in the West Midlands and KB FM in Leeds. All six are now under an injunction which means that to breach this would put them in contempt of court and make them liable to immediate committal to prison.
Paul Brown, chief executive of the CRCA says: “In the criminal courts, not a great deal was being done to discourage pirates. So it occurred to us to go for civil courts. It’s cheaper and more cost-effective to wait for a group of offenders and then bring a mass action. It’s the small radio stations that can be obliterated by pirate broadcasts.”
But although the CRCA defends the interest of commercial broadcasters, sometimes those broadcasters benefit from the pool of talent the pirates throw up.
Until Ofcom took over its activities, the other main body to take an interest in pirate stations was the Radio Communications Agency. It has, in the past, come down hard on legitimate radio stations running competitions to recruit DJs from pirate radio stations.
Fine, prison and a five-year ban The penalties for running a pirate station are an unlimited fine and/or two years in prison.
Additionally, anyone convicted of an offence is barred from working on a legal station for five years.
Pirate radio stations share one thing in common with fly-posters. Both are operating illegally.
But there are also links involving the people who promote the clubs, music acts and events.
The paths of pirate stations and fly-posting companies will often cross.
But can you work with illegal operators and integrate their activities into a traditional media schedule? Mary Anne McNamara, new business director with Diabolical Liberties, the agency that offers youth marketing and “street media” in London, says illegal or not, it is not just about fly-posting.
“There’s loads of different stuff we do, such as posters, stickers, even fridge magnets for Levi’s, across Europe,” she says.
She is keen to point out that Diabolical Liberties is as much concerned about the legal implications as clients are.
To that end, it launched a print and web magazine last year highlighting the issues of the ownership of public spaces. Your Space or Mine? looked at the issue both of public and private access to using the urban environment for commercial and community media.
Minimising the risk “We want to minimise the client’s risk and the problems that might occur during a campaign.
We advised against doing stickers and worked with BBH and Starcom Motive to come up with outsized fridge magnets for Levi’s. We don’t just tell clients to get some posters and stick them up.”
She admits that fly-posting is a significant part of what the company does, but says that creating authorised sites for fly-posting has been a successful strategy pursued by councils in Leeds, Liverpool and across Europe, adding that there are pilot programmes in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
“In Leeds, a scheme which provides circular drums throughout the city centre was adopted. If you provide some space for posters, you don’t get the problems associated with fly-posting.”
McNamara says postering over someone’s billboards – as happened to a Jaguar advert last year with the Ishaggedhere.com campaign for Mates/Ansell – was not something Diabolical would ever condone.
“We reiterate this time and time again and go to lengths to make sure it doesn’t happen,” she says.
One source with a mainstream media agency who declined to be named, says: “It’s unforgiveable that the Jaguar ads were pasted over, but, at the end of the day, fly-posting is a cheap medium and people should take a relaxed view about it. You can make a brand edgy quickly by using fly-posting. And at 60p a cost-per-thousand impressions, instead of £15 for press, it speaks for itself.”
Stevie Spring, chief executive of Clear Channel UK, disagrees about fly-posting’s effectiveness. “There’s no accountability, no ability to track if the campaign is successful, so you can’t argue it’s an effective medium. If our posters get covered we always write to the advertiser and charge a billboard rate. It works pretty well,” she says.
McNamara says the nature of fly-posting involves many companies and individuals who don’t work directly for Diabolical and she admits that they can be difficult to control.
I ask her for some phone numbers of the people Diabolical deals with.
“I don’t know them. We use ‘distribution networks’. There’s various different people who deal with that side of things,” she says.
Who are they?, I ask. If they are legitimate businesses, then surely they publish their phone number.
Accusations of criminality “They don’t want to talk to press. That’s why they use us to broker their deals. Some have had bad experiences with journalists. Every single journalist tries to accuse them of criminality.”
I try to explain that I just want to put their side of the case. But to no avail.
“It’s really all incredibly dull,” insists McNamara. “They go out in the early hours of the morning – it’s not very pleasant. It’s just someone doing a job.” Implying that they may have links to the criminal world sounds glamorous and seedy, points out McNamara, but “actually it’s quite a mundane job, just like billboard postering.”
McNamara points out that the legality of fly-posting aside, Diabolical Liberties is a legitimate business. “We don’t run drugs at lunch times! We’re dealing with professional companies and we have to deliver a service or they wouldn’t deal with us, and we wouldn’t be growing and expanding otherwise.”
Diabolical deals with large, mainstream media owners like Primesite and JCDecaux all the time, she says. “We’ve booked Super Sixes for clients.”
It’s not just agencies like Diabolical that work in this area. There are also so-called street teams – gangs of young people recruited to popularise their favourite bands through handing our stickers and posters.
Lisa Paulon, of Traffic Marketing, says the company never asks anyone who volunteers to help artists to do anything illegal. “In fact, we actively encourage them not to,” she says.
“Street team members usually help out on projects they’re interested in, in return for free merchandise. The posters that they’re sent are put up, with permission, in shops, bars/cafés, etc, not fly-posting. Our services are very much peer-to-peer/word-of-mouth-based.”
There are, of course, other ways to buy “illegal” media, most without having to deface the environment or interfere with the transmission of Radio 4.
Anna Carloss is managing director and founder of Cunning Stunts, the agency which pioneered “media stunts” as something you could formally buy. It was made famous after projecting a huge image of a naked Gail Porter on to the Palace of Westminster for FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women in the mid-’90s.
Its latest stunt is a campaign for Tango Apple, called The Big Drench.
Delicate council negotiations Many of the activities Cunning Stunts creates are delicately negotiated beforehand with local councils. One example is the water pistol firing ranges set up as part of the Tango campaign, in disused areas of some of the UK’s biggest towns, where teenagers were invited to drench the range and each other.
She says there is now evidence to justify stunt media, which gives some indication of the power of media, especially where it pushes the envelope of what is defined as normal.
Although Cunning Stunts prefers to use other agencies, such as Diabolical Liberties, if it ever engages in fly-posting, Carloss says the activity is increasingly popular. “Fly-posting is becoming normal for the media schedule of many brands,” she says. “Fly-posting used to be the preserve of younger brands, but then other brands started getting fly-posting on their radar, like The Economist and Mini.”
Alan James, chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Association, is worried by this trend. He confirms that “there’s a been a subtle shift over the past few years toward mainstream advertisers using it.” Together with the IPA, Isba and the Advertising Association, the OAA is backing Westminster Council’s latest push to break the fly-posting culture. As incentive, it aims to have any agency involved in flyposting disqualified from any annual media awards schemes.
Jeremy Male, managing director of JC Decaux, finds fly-posting troublesome, but is philosophical: “Fly-posting has been around since God was a boy. I’m not surprised at its growth, given that it’s been proven that it’s easier to target young people outside the home. But any money spent on illegal media is money that’s not being spent on legitimate outdoor advertising, which concerns us.”
The grey area of illegality The normal trade of Cunning Stunts, however, is stunts – and where this becomes illegal is often a grey area. For instance, the police can do everything from arrest you to slap you in irons if the lorry you are about to use to project a picture of a naked woman onto a building is parked on the street. Then there is the projection itself – technically it is an ad, however temporary, and is subject to the normal restrictions.
But if it is there and gone in the space of an hour, with every national newspaper carrying pictures the next day, is anyone going to bother to go to the lengths of involving the law, expensive as it is? Back in East London, DJ Millie is plotting the downfall of mainstream media. House FM is shutting down its radio broadcasting operation in favour of going entirely online. This doesn’t, on the face of it, make sense. Why lose your offline audience in favour of a virtual one? The short answer is that the actions by the authorities are working. “There’s less heat from the authorities online. We can get a worldwide audience for the station, as well as in London, and sell advertising on the site.”
But there is more to this plan than seems obvious. DJ Millie’s idea is to start with the internet and later get the audience to start listening through the next generation of internetconnected phones. Already commuters are listening to the radio on their phones via FM – why not internet radio stations? So what is the future? “Dealing with the youth market, things are changing fast and we have to match the media and the ways people want information,” says McNamara.
“But, at the same time, you still need to look at experiential things. The youth market still wants to have some kind of experience of the product in their own environment and whether that’s embracing technology or not depends on the situations and the brand.”
It looks like the fly-posters and the pirate stations will have a future, yet.