Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ofcom takes on the pirate

Pirate radio. It's still a major problem, as far as Ofcom's concerned, in this world of iPods and digital and streaming music leaking for every pore. Ofcom insists its actually getting worse:

"In 2006 Ofcom's field operations team responded to 70 safety-of-life cases (a significant increase from the 41 such cases reported in 2005)."

These, we'd guess, include pirate radio pumping from emergency service radios and cutting into tower-to-plane communications. Curiously, though, while Ofcom has these seventy violations, there's no evidence so far that anyone has actually had their life terminated by pirate radio.

The regulator paints a picture of modern pirates as cash-hungry, gun-toting thugs - in much the same way that the record labels insist the people who don't play by their rules are outlaws who'd cut your throat soon as look at you - which might well be true in some cases, but seems a bit far-fetched. Ofcom's response is to call for more stringent punishments, although you might have thought that if there's a demand for these programmes, it might make more sense to supply them legally than pour resources into trying to close down a dangerous, shifting, lucrative illegal operation that will always return while there's a profit to be made.

In effect, this is like the argument that you'd be better off legalising hard drugs, but without the awkward 'won't the government then be selling heroin' ethical problem.

Of course, ancestor-regulator the Radio Authority tried to do just this - legalise pirate formats, not sell heroin - by cutting a deal where pirates could apply for a full-time, proper licence in return for no longer popping up illegally. Unfortunately, the RA dropped the ball awfully after taking this brave step, and failed to protect the new, legal stations, with the result that former pirates XFM and Kiss both got swallowed up by conglomerates, ridden into the middle of the road and abandoned their key audiences. Thereby creating demand for the new pirate stations.

How about - instead of issuing licences - creating a radio service where you can buy airtime? The chances of a pirate turning itself into a successful, legitimate 24-hour a day radio network competing for advertising with the big groups seem slim; the chances of hundreds of DJs being able to pull together the wherewithal to hire three or four hours a month on an FM transmitter (or even DAB) seem much happier. It's worth a try.

They could fund it by selling heroin.