Street lights flicker nearby, but round the back, among vents and fire escapes, it's pitch black. Silent too, but for the gentle crunch of tresspassing trainers on wet grass and heavy breath in the night. "The police were ramming the door. Banging it. Trying to get through," says a disembodied voice. "I felt like a criminal".
This is a scene from Drowned City—a gripping and intimate portrait of the pirate radio scene in London. For the last 20 years pirate radio DJs have been under the watchful eye of the law—the government is continuing to crack down on people who broadcast illegally, demonising the pirates as gangs and drug lords, rather than the influential pioneers they've become. They won't stop until every pirate is destroyed.
Drowned City, which covers everything from how the pirates set up their stations, following them on to rooftops and dodging police, recently won best UK documentary at the Independent FIlm Festival. I caught up with the creators of the film—director Faith Millin and producer Andrea Gelardin—a few weeks after the festival to get the lowdown.
Noisey: Was it hard filming in this covert world?
Faith: I grew up in North London surrounded by people listening to pirate stations. The idea for the film started when my brother was arrested for running a pirate radio station. It escalated into a two-year trial, which put him on bail for two years. When we were approaching people for the film, they had already heard of him and his court case. It made them understand that even though we were outsiders we weren't looking in from an authoritarian point of view. They understood that we just wanted to tell their stories.
But weren't they worried the film would get them in trouble with the law?
Andrea: It took some time for them to build up trust with the pirates—for them to trust us and then our cameramen. The pirates had to take our word that we wouldn't get them in trouble or reveal their identity. The scheduling and time management went out the window pretty early on—the pirates usually showed up about four hours late to everything! I didn't get offended or angry when they didn't show up at all. It was much more a feeling that I had let the rest of the crew down. Most of the cameramen, production assistants and equipment hires were all helping us out for free and had kindly offered to give up their time late at night and when the pirates didn't show up, I'd feel really bad for them.
Faith: We had to balance making a film during the night and going about our job during the day; it was absolutely exhausting. We basically filmed during the night and worked commercially during the day for two years.
That sounds sort of like what the pirates do—work all day and then get involved with pirate radio at night.
Faith: Yeah—my brother told me about bank managers working during the day and djing on pirate in the evenings. Some of the pirate engineers that set up the aerials and things work as electricians through the day, using their skills for paid work. During our filming we met club promoters, nightclub owners, cab drivers, dance teachers, plumbers, office secretaries and even a funeral pallbearer! It's very time consuming for the people that run the stations; it's really all-encompassing. But DJ's can often dedicate time to their one show a week.
Why do you think they go down the pirate radio route? They spend a lot of their time trespassing and hiding from the police but they could also be trying to make it big and get picked up by a record label.
Andrea: Yes and that's exactly what some of the pirates are trying to do. They are hoping to get noticed by labels and club promoters. It's obvious that the legal stations look to the pirate radio scene for guidance on the next big tunes and music genres.
Faith: It also goes a little further than that too—many of the pirates we met seemed to feel really quite safe within their station, often referring to it as their family. Being part of a pirate radio station means that you belong because you are entrusted with secret locations, equipment and so on.
Ofcom [an independent communcations regulator in the United Kingdom] wants to ban pirate radio. Do the pirates reflect an anti-establishment attitude?
Faith: Subconsciously, yes. The pirate lifestyle is very much about fighting the establishment and, in a way, outsmarting the system. They are usually one step ahead of the authorities, finding new and innovative ways of keeping on air.
Andrea: It is important to note that minority community groups, which we don't focus as much on in Drowned City, are also big drivers in pirate radio. There is a spirit of lets hijack the airwaves and either play great grass-roots music or talk about the ways in which we are being oppressed by the government.
What is Ofcom's official reasoning for cranking down on pirate radio?
Faith: Pirate stations don't pay to have a licence and therefore there's the financial aspect to it. There are loads of other reasons, for example Ofcom says the frequencies interrupt with emergency services. In our experience that is not the case at all. Pirates would not be transmitting if there were an interruption. Ofcom talks about pirate radio like it's gang culture. They claim it's a way of drug dealing, that the pirates talk in code to arrange drug meeting points. It's completely ridiculous.
Andrea: The fact that these people can be put in jail just for playing music is really quite shocking. They are put on the same level as drug dealers, gun crimes, and so on.
Do you reckon Ofcom were onto you while filming?
Faith: I assume so. Ofcom knows pretty much everything and I wouldn't be surprised. They made an example out of my brother to scare other pirates. They spent a lot of money on that case. They were following him around for a long time to see where the station was. We never knew the full names of the people we filmed or where they lived. We purposefully did it this way to protect ourselves and the pirates. Even if Ofcom were to come to us we wouldn't really be able to tell them anything.
The pirates don't want to be seen as criminals, but most would refuse a license and all that comes with it. How would you describe the relationship between illegality and the essence of pirate radio?
Faith: That's the interesting bit. The pirates would like to be recognized for what they do and the amount of time, money, and effort that goes into it. Yet at the same time they don't want to be caught and they don't necessarily want to be legal. The illegality is obviously very much a part of pirate radio. If there was a platform on which the pirates could go legal, while keeping the essence of pirate radio, then that could work. Rinse FM is kind of a middle ground. They were given a licence and now they are a community station, which is like the legal version of pirate radio.
What kind of equipment do the stations work with? What does it take to set up a station?
Andrea: You need a portable FM transmitter, which is cheap and easy to find or build. You need a high roof—tower blocks are ideal transmission sites. A 40 watt transmitter broadcasting from a tower block can reach a forty mile radius! Get some amazing DJs and station managers and you are more or less good to go.
There were around 600 UK pirate stations at the end of the 80s. Now there are around 150. What happened?
Faith: Dance music and UK urban music has fought it's way into mainstream music via the pirate stations. Legal stations started to pick up that music and started to tap into pirate stations, playing those tunes and also taking DJs off of pirate stations and putting them onto legal stations. So now UK urban music is really popular. You now have legal stations such as BBC 1XTRA and Capital XTRA. If you wanted to listen to that kind of music in the nineties you had to listen to pirate radio—you had no other choice. Now you have the internet and new ways of listening to that music. The advancement in technology kind of killed off a lot of that pirate radio culture.
Has your brother seen the film? Was he happy with the end product?
Faith: Yes, he is. He was very much part of the process, seeing some work in progress, and giving us feedback. He is a very critical person with a very strong emotional connection to pirate radio for obvious reasons, so we discussed the edits in depth together. At the same time, it was important to put our relationship as siblings aside and do my job as a filmmaker looking as objectively as possible at the stories we were trying to tell.