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How West Midlands radio pirates paved the way for British radio in Asia

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One of my distinct childhood memories is my grandfather playing Radio XL on our car trips. Although I never paid attention to the music, the happy ‘Radio XL!’ jingle is permanently etched in 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 the BBC Asian Network.

I had no idea Radio XL was the first 24 hour Asian radio station to broadcast in the West Midlands. And who were they to thank for that?

Pirates.

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Not the kind of thieves wandering the ocean. Rather pirate radio stations created by British Asian broadcasters in the late 80s and early 90s to broadcast the best of Asian vocals and music.

One of those original pirates was Anjum Rafiq, a radio host who witnessed the birth of pirate radio stations and was one of the first fighters for Asian representation on the air.



Anjum Rafiq at the Sangam Music Shop in 1992. All of their music was bought here and the store was a focal point for DJs. A recording studio was in the attic.

Now launching a new radio station in the West Midlands (the station previously operated in London), Club Asia, Anjum aims to preserve the art of Asian radio by attracting audiences of all ages and introducing seasoned broadcasters to whom listeners can really identify with.

He said: “Since I was a kid I wanted to work in radio. I love music, I love to entertain people, and I love the arts and culture.

“I was listening to Steve Wright on BBC Radio 2, Muhammad Ayub from the BBC who was a real inspiration, and Ray Khan.

“At that time, as Asians, we didn’t have a lot of representation. The BBC stations only gave our music and entertainment a few hours here and there. There was always a real appetite for music. Asian music and culture. “

And so, in the late 1980s, people started broadcasting illegally to set up Asian radio stations in Birmingham; unlicensed broadcasters used lofts, studios, attics, sheds and even rooms above taxi bases. Some of the early stations included Asian Air, Sangeet Radio, Sangam, and Sina Radio (now Sunrise Radio).



Anjum Rafiq today, Club Asia breakfast presenter and former radio pirate

Anjum got his first glimpse of illegal broadcasting as a teenager.

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

“Suddenly the DTI (Department of Commerce and Industry) raided the house after tracking down the radio signal, they didn’t arrest anyone but took away all the equipment. I was petrified! They were doing that. regularly.

“A few days later, however, the broadcaster bought new equipment from the Birmingham Rag Market and rebuilt it again.”

This is when hackers started to get smart. They would set up studios in towers so DTI would have a hard time finding them among the many apartments inside.

Studios would use many transmitters to broadcast their frequency, so if one was taken away by DTI, another would replace it.

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

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



Imran Mahmood at the time of the pirates in 1988

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

He said: “We didn’t know it was illegal because we were doing something that needed to be done. We were broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer, religious holidays and even messages from locals to our loved ones in Pakistan, because phones were not available at the time.

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

“We were broadcasting from a tower and they were sealing it, so we came down from the balconies.”

The birth of Radio XL

According to Imran, the DTI gained some respect for the hackers knowing that they were broadcasting for the benefit of Asian communities. They urged them to set up a legal radio station which they discussed in meetings. Eventually, Radio XL, Asia’s first 24-hour radio station, was born.

Asian pirate radio stations slowly died out as more and more legal stations appeared.



An old 150 watt radio transmitter covering most of the West Midlands

Imran continued, “We wanted to bring the community together because at the time we didn’t have a global connection. South Asians worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but had no entertainment at home, we wanted to bring that light into them. life.

“Our listeners really enjoyed it and some businessmen who liked our station even offered to help us with DTI. We didn’t give up.”

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



Popli Rehman, another radio host of the pirate station

Anjum sums up their purpose as radio pirates by saying, “As pirates we fought to make our voices heard. We want to maintain this legacy and leave something for our young people.

“We think the radio level has gone down. It’s supposed to promote arts, culture and personality, but now it’s very commercialized.

“Our heritage is so rich in color and culture. The audience complained about it, they just want to hear Asian music and a presenter they can relate to.”

Anjum’s new radio concert, Club Asia, features popular Asian music and celebrity-hosted radio, providing audiences with an enjoyable listening experience. Formerly broadcast in London, the station now broadcasts in the West Midlands.

The team consists of well-known names including presenter Ray Khan (former BBC), COO Ishfaq Ahmed (former BBC and BBC Asian Network) and presenter Priya Matharu along with other members.



Look how far we’ve come. From left to right Ray Khan (presenter), Priya Matharu (presenter), Anjum Rafiq (breakfast presenter) and Ishfaq Ahmed (head of operations)

They invite young people to work with them and learn the art of radio, also with the aim of working with local universities and media students. The station offers first-hand mentorship in broadcasting, production, screenwriting, and other skills needed for a career in broadcasting.

You can download the app to your smartphone or visit the site to hear the best of Bollywood, Pakistani, Punjabi, Bhangra, British British, Ghazal, Qawalis and Sufi music.

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