How West Midlands Pirates paved the way for Asian Radio

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How West Midlands Pirates paved the way for Asian Radio

Post by Mark » ... s-21297364

A distinct childhood memory of mine is my grandfather playing Radio XL during our car journeys. Though I never paid attention to the music, the cheery 'Radio XL!' jingle is permanently branded into my mind.

Other British Asian millennials may remember their own car journeys with Radio XL, Sangam, Sunrise Radio, Asian Sound Radio, Fever FM and of course BBC Asian Network.

Little did I know Radio XL was the first 24 hour Asian Radio Station to broadcast in the West Midlands. And who did they have to thank for that?


Not the ocean roaming thieves kind. Rather pirate radio stations set up by British Asian broadcasters in the late 80s and early 90s to broadcast the best of Asian voices and music.

One such original pirate was Anjum Rafiq, a radio broadcaster who witnessed the birth of pirate radio stations and was an early fighter for Asian representation on the air waves.

Now launching a new radio station in West Midlands (the station formerly ran in London), Club Asia, Anjum wants to preserve the art of Asian Radio by appealing to audiences of all ages and showcasing veteran broadcasters listeners can truly relate to.

He said: "Ever since I was a kid I wanted to work in radio. I love music, I love entertaining people and I love the arts and culture.

"I used to listen to Steve Wright on BBC Radio 2, Muhammad Ayub from BBC who was a real inspiration, and Ray Khan.

"At that time we as Asians didn't have much representation. BBC stations gave our music and entertainment just a few hours here and there. There was still a real appetite for Asian music and culture."

And so it was in the late 80s people took to illegal broadcasting to set up Asian radio stations in Birmingham; unlicensed broadcasters used lofts, studios, roof spaces, sheds and even rooms above taxi bases. Some early stations included Asian Air, Sangeet Radio, Sangam and Sina Radio (now Sunrise Radio).

Anjum got his first taste of illegal broadcasting as a teen.

"In 1988 when I was 14 I was at a house where someone was illegally broadcasting," he said, "I saw all their makeshift equipment, gadgets and transmitters. The guy looked like an astronaut walking on earth. I was fascinated.

"Suddenly the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) raided the house after tracking the radio signal, they didn't arrest anyone but took all the equipment away. I was petrified! They did this regularly.

"A few days later however the broadcaster bought some new equipment from Birmingham rag market and built it all over again."

This is when pirates started to get clever. They would set up studios in tower blocks so the DTI would struggle to find them amongst many flats within.

The studios would use numerous transmitters to broadcast their frequency, so if one got taken away by the DTI another would replace it.

Then in 1989 Sangam FM was introduced as a new pirate radio station, where Anjum worked from 1991-1994. The station played traditional Asian music, Bollywood hits, Banghara and contemporary music.

A pioneering station in terms of Asian representation, the studio broadcast in Smethwick and Ladywood. Some of the biggest South Asian acts they promoted include: Sahotas, Apache Indian, Malkit Singh, Silinder Pardesi and Brummie band Apna Sangeet.

Imran Mahmood, 51, the founder of Sangam started radio piracy when a friend offered him some hours on his own pirate station. It quickly became popular and soon many local Asians wanted to volunteer.

He said: "We didn't realise it was illegal because we were doing something that needed to be done. We would broadcast the Muslim call to prayer, religious festivals and even locals' messages to relatives in Pakistan since phones weren't available then.

"We used scanners to spot when the DTI were coming and then grab everything and run! They were always after us, sometimes we would jam their radio frequencies for revenge.

"We broadcast from a tower block and they would seal it off, so we climbed down from the balconies."

The birth of Radio XL
According to Imran the DTI gained slight respect for the pirates knowing they were broadcasting for the benefit of Asian communities. They urged them to start a legal radio station which they discussed over meetings. Eventually Radio XL, the first 24 hour Asian Radio Station, was born.

Asian pirate radio stations slowly died down as more legal stations popped up.

Imran continued: "We wanted to bring the community together as back then we had no global connection. South Asians worked 9-5 but had no entertainment coming home, we wanted to bring that light into their life.

"Our listeners really appreciated this and some businessmen who liked our station even offered to help us with the DTI. We didn't give up."

Imran now works on Punjabi radio station Raaj 91.3 FM, community radio and stage and festival gigs across the UK.

Anjum sums up their goal as radio pirates stating: "As pirates we fought to get our voice heard. We want to sustain that legacy and leave something behind for our youngsters.

"We believe the standard of radio has gone down. It's supposed to be about promoting arts, culture and personality but now it's very commercialised.

"Our heritage is so rich with colour and culture. Audiences have complained about this, they just want to hear Asian music and a presenter they can relate to."

Anjum's new radio gig Club Asia plays popular Asian music and personality led radio, giving audiences a nice listening experience. Formerly broadcasting in London the station now broadcasts across the West Midlands.

The team consists of household names including presenter Ray Khan (former BBC), Head of Operations Ishfaq Ahmed (former BBC and BBC Asian Network) and presenter Priya Matharu as well as other members.

They invite young people to work with them and learn the art of radio, also aiming to work with local universities and media students. The station offers first hand mentorship in broadcasting, producing, script writing and other skills needed for a career in broadcast.
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