Britain's pirate radio stations are not going down without a fight

If you climb through a certain gap in a hedge on the crest of Somerset's Blackdown Hills, you'll stumble on a crime scene. Tied to a branch in the canopy of an old birch tree is the transmitter for Rage FM, Taunton's only pirate radio station. Owning it could get Alfie, the proprietor, two years in prison.

The former BBC Devon employee and self-styled community broadcaster, 35, isn't too worried about that. Pointing out local landmarks around the ripe green fields that undulate into the valley below, he looks and sounds like a posh West Country farmer surveying his lands. But to the station's 3,000 listeners, he's their favoured supplier of political polemic, flood warnings and jazz music.

"Sometimes I let my daughters do the weather," he says, gesturing towards the clouds gathering over a distant tor. "But you've got to make sure to pick an easy day. No showers or high pressure banks or anything."

Rage FM is one of an estimated 100 stations in the UK, of which a handful lie outside London's tower blocks and well-established music scene. Illegal broadcasting, previously a mainstay of European counter-culture, has long been on the decline across the continent – with the exception of the thriving pirate scene in the Eastern Netherlands – as digital and internet radio have risen in popularity.

The death of pirate radio, consistently predicted since Radio Caroline first transmitted the Kinks and the Beatles from boats off the Essex coast just over fifty years ago, has so far refused to come.

Now, government plans for a complete "digital switchover" could see the end of FM radio, and with it the pirates who hijack its airwaves, within two years. It's an issue that has made an unlikely alliance of change-averse countryside conservatives and anarchic pirates. For the first group, the swap to digital is an intrusive attempt by the government to destroy tradition in favour of ill-advised "progress". For the second, it will destroy their way of life.

Communications minister Ed Vaizey, the political driving force behind the wildly unpopular campaign, has repeatedly pushed the switchover date further away under pressure from MPs and the public. But with Ofcom reporting that in 2014 48% of radio listeners had a digital radio in their household, the tipping point of at least 50% that ministers have argued must be reached before the switch can be initiated isn't far away.

Pirates, however, have refused to go quietly, instead racing to repopulate the FM dial as traditional stations continue to close down.

Unfortunately for them, the government forces charged with hunting unlawful broadcasters have proved just as tenacious. Broadcasting regulator Ofcom, the pirate's traditional enemy, is determined to continue policing the airwaves and stamp out illegal stations once and for all.

Last year alone, Ofcom conducted 154 operations against 69 pirate stations. It also responded to 318 complaints about pirate radio, of which 100 were from licensed stakeholders, such as legitimate stations, in London. In 48 cases, they claim, the signal from pirate stations interfered with critical services such as ambulances and fire engines. The fervent illegal radio activity around the council estates of east London, Ofcom says, came close to shutting down City airport last year.

Alfie, who is unemployed and devotes his time to keeping Rage FM on the airwaves 24 hours a day, categorically denies it affects emergency services, most of whom run on Airwave, a digital communications system that isn't affected by FM frequencies.

"It's just not true," he says, sipping on a cup of tea in his tiny studio in a run-down B&B a few miles outside of Taunton, where the station broadcasts from behind dusty net curtains. "I can confidently say we've never interfered with anyone. Our rig has been tested by a qualified BBC engineer. Emergency services are on a digital frequency. Ofcom just say that we interfere because they don't want anyone on the airwaves unless they've approved them and can make money off them."

Rage FM, he says, provides a much-needed service to the community. During the floods of 2013, Alfie broadcast updates on road closures in the Somerset levels.

He recently announced that a local woman had lost her dog in a dangerous part of Taunton.

Ofcom is not amused. Clive Corrie, the regulator's head of enforcement, believes the severity of the crime matches the stiff sentences if they're caught: two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.

"Pirates actually have a feeling they're doing something for the right reason, that they're giving a service to the community and promoting fresh talent," he says.

"But that really isn't the truth of the matter. It's illegal to do what they do. It's illegal for a good reason, and that's because the interference they cause can actually have a severe impact on public safety."

As we drive past the location of his first transmitter, the second-floor window of his old room near the centre of Taunton, Alfie doesn't appear too worried about the risks of being caught.

His station has been raided by Ofcom four times in the past three years but always manages to get back on air.

This is because the internet has made it harder to track down pirates. In the days of Radio Caroline, DJs broadcast right next to the transmitter, sitting ducks for officials who could triangulate their signal and catch them.

Today, pirates broadcast via the internet to a remote laptop connected to an FM transmitter. Their studios are miles away from the offending signal.

If Ofcom finds the transmitter, it's just a case of replacing it, or switching over to a backup aerial. That makes life easy for people like Alfie, whose station is the only one in its vicinity.

In London, where most stations are based, it's a little less innocent. Ofcom complains the methods pirates use to access their transmitters cause criminal damage to government property.

Tower blocks are the only buildings that provide the height needed to broadcast far enough in the city. Most of these are on council estates, and getting transmitters onto their roofs is a constant battle of hide and seek.

Pirates often hide transmitters inside rooftop ventilation ducts, clamping them in place with car jacks and piling bricks on top to stop them being removed.

Ofcom claims this is antisocial, and disrupts the very communities pirate stations claim to represent. The pirate scene, they say, is inextricably linked to other crimes: firearms and narcotics are routinely uncovered in raids and violent attacks against enforcement officers, caretakers and residents are common.

Back in London, sitting in the back room of a pub with her husband and one of her daughters, Lady Diamond is trying to battle that perception.

The 33-year-old former West End jazz singer turned pirate DJ is incredibly well spoken, with the cut-glass vowels and measured syntax of a Radio 4 presenter.

"I am not a criminal," she says. "And I resent the attempt to make me one. I'm a mother with two children and a normal life."

After graduating from Middlesex University with a degree in media she attempted to make a documentary about the rave scene and was, instead, drawn into pirate radio.

Between performing at late night jazz sessions at the Park Lane hotel in London's West End, she started a talk show on Kool FM, one of Britain's longest-running pirate stations. In a male-dominated scene where politics was a taboo subject, the show was a runaway success.

"We just used to go in, sit down, open the papers and start talking," she says. "I've always loved Question Time, so I'd just watch that and bring something in to talk about. It's not exactly lawless, is it?"

The show closed after her then-partner left the station. Now she has her own slot, where she mixes Etta James, Amy Winehouse and Dusty Springfield with reggae, drum and bass and politics. This year she's running a radio campaign that aims to raise awareness of racial discrimination in the workplace.

Legal radio, she says, does not give the listeners want they want. "You're separated from your audience, you're not engaging them in the way we do," she says. "You're not playing the type of music people want to hear."

She laughs when I ask her if she'd want to play on mainstream radio. "Radio 1? I don't know if I'd take it. There's something exciting about being on here."

Ofcom has tried to find ways to bring the pirates out of the shadows. Ten years ago, it created Community Radio Licensing as a legal way for small stations to broadcast to their local area. A licence costs £800 a year, with £600 startup costs. Stations have to be not-for-profit and provide a social benefit for the community they represent.

A handful of pirate stations, such as legendary drum and bass station Rinse FM, have signed up to the scheme, which is heavily subsidised by government grants. So why doesn't everyone join in?

Alfie says it's the red tape and the costs of setting up a community station that stop him from doing so. For Lady Diamond, who "feels strange" if she's not broadcasting on the FM airwaves, internet radio holds little appeal.

For both of them the subversive thrill and underground cultural associations of playing on pirate radio are part of their fascination with it.

It's a feeling David (not his real name), a pirate radio expert and DJ on a London community station, is well acquainted with. "There's a certain attraction of sticking it to the man, of working under the radar," he tells me on a barge on Hackney Wick. "Being able to broadcast without any bureaucracy, being able to do exactly what you want is obviously a rush."

Logistically, he says, moving to community radio isn't easy. "It's quite a chunk of money, and takes a huge amount of paperwork. Setting up a pirate transmitter is incredibly easy, really, and it's exciting when you manage to broadcast on something that mainstream stations are spending thousands on."

He thinks the restrictive nature of the community licensing is anathema to the real pirates. "On top of all of that, Ofcom have to like what you're doing, which puts a lot of people off the idea," he says.

Stations deemed not to be providing a community service have few choices. For DJ Memzee, who I meet in an industrial estate in Hackney, community and internet radio simply aren't enough.

He wants to make it in legal radio, and is using pirate to get there. Memzee is a smooth operator with the charm and media savvy of a record label executive. Ushering me through the run-down industrial warehouse where the station is broadcast from, he steers me firmly past the peeling carpets and dank fug of marijuana smoke.

Two floors up, we walk into a slick studio that wouldn't look out of place at the BBC. Until he makes it into the mainstream, Memzee is running a professional operation.

To prove his credentials, he shows me his Instagram feed; much of which is devoted to pictures of him with R&B royalty. They're trophies from when he used to work in A&R for Def Jam, the hip-hop label which launched the careers of Kanye West and Rihanna.

He quit, he says, because he wanted to re-engage with the UK underground music scene, making a name for himself on pirate radio until the mainstream took notice.

"Everyone who is big now started on pirate," he says. "It's the only way to make it to the top."

"Legitimate stations go to pirates for talent because we're promoting the underground music that isn't being played anywhere else."

It's largely true: the FM dial provides a huge platform and a ready-made audience for those looking to make it. Compared with that promise of fame, the relative anonymity of internet radio is a pretty lacklustre alternative.

In the 1990s, when the revival of pirate radio was at its peak following a dip in the Seventies after the rock music pioneered by Radio Caroline entered the mainstream, stations such as Kiss FM and Rinse became enormously culturally relevant. Their star DJs, such as Tim Westwood and Danny Rampling, were quickly picked up by BBC Radio 1 to boost their flagging ratings by bringing on new music.

BBC Radio 6 music presenter and record label owner Gilles Peterson, who left his slot at Kiss for Radio 1 in 1998, was another. During the second coming of pirate radio in the Eighties and Nineties, he was at the centre of a rapidly shifting underground music scene that encompassed everything from soul and funk to the club scene.

When I call him to ask what he thinks of pirate radio today, he sounds amazed it's still happening. "I think Ofcom have calmed down. It's a good time to be a pirate, I reckon. They probably just let you get on with it now - not like when I was doing it."

He first started when he was in his early teens, recording shows with a friend in his garden shed. "We'd do half a c-90 cassette each," he says. "Then my dad would drive us up to Epsom Downs and we'd put an aerial on the tree. We'd connect that to the car battery and the tape deck and the transmitter and just press play and broadcast."

After 45 minutes, once they'd flipped the tape deck over, they would run to the local phone box and take calls from viewers. "We'd get one or two phone calls from someone listening in Croydon," he says. "I don't think my mum knew my dad was doing it at the time."

By 1981, the then-17 year old Peterson had a show on Invicta, the first soul station broadcasting in London's still overwhelmingly rock-oriented music scene. In between climbing up onto council estate roofs to put up transmitters – he owned one of a set of four keys that could open any tower block in London – Peterson wanted to give a platform to the new, underground music that wasn't getting any play.

"Mainstream radio just wasn't catering to all the people who wanted jazz, funk and soul," he says. "The reason why you've always get had pirate radio coming up is because satisfies the demands that aren't being catered for by the normal networks. Then, there were all the kids who loved soul music and wanted to hear it on the radio. Now, there are so many different variations of house music that there will be another one that comes out that is even more underground than the next one."

Even now, in a time where social media makes spreading music and building a following easier than ever, many of the biggest names on mainstream radio come from a pirate background. Television presenter and former Radio 1 DJ Reggie Yates learned his trade playing on pirate stations in north London tower blocks before moving to legitimate radio - a path many others want to follow.

This is why spending a few hours with Memzee is to be privy to a ruthless marketing exercise. At 34, he knows he's gunning for the big time, and he's willing to risk prison or bankrupting himself through fines to get there.

He is hustling, promoting his brand in the hope he'll be picked from the pile to make it. Nothing is off-limits in his quest for the big time, not even wearing a T-shirt with his name on it.

In the corner of the studio, his fiancée, a sweet and shy hairdresser, is standing by the speakers. She says she worries about him, but supports what he does.

If the aim is to build a fan base, it seems to be working. He has 17, 300 followers on Twitter. I gained 50 when he gave me a shout out on his show.

Memzee is relentless in his brand promotion. "Get tweeting," he appeals to his listeners. "It's popping off in here. Get on Instagram, get on Facebook, get texting."

Stood in the corner of the studio, watching a five or so people in his entourage stand around taking pictures of themselves, I'm dubious that anything will be "popping off" at all. But a few minutes into the show, one of them shows me the phone listeners are calling in on. The number of missed calls is stuck on 99 and the old Nokia screen is flickering as it's bombarded with more.

A few days later, I call Memzee during my lunch break to talk about doing another interview. "I'm at work," he says. "Got to be quick."

I ask him what he does. "I'm a drug dealer."

"Ok," I say, haltingly.

He cracks up laughing at my shocked tone. "Only joking," he says. "I work for the council."