Pirate radio stations are illegal and one would have thought the last place on which one would hear gospel music. But James Attlee has discovered differently.

Pirate Radio
Pirate Radio

If you twiddle the FM dial on your radio in a major city in the UK for any length of time, the chances are that sooner or later you are going to pick up a station that does not appear in the listings of the radio page in your local paper. You have encountered a pirate station. It could well be playing reggae or House or 24-hour rave music - but if you were to tune in between the hours of six and 10 am or a Sunday morning, at least in London, you could well pick up a black gospel programme.

Successive governments have been plagued by illegal broadcasters for the last quarter of a century. In the 1960s a loophole in the then broadcasting laws allowed stations on ships moored in international waters like Radio Caroline and Mi Amigo to fill the airwaves with the kind of music that the staid old BBC wouldn't touch (notably records by - gasp - black artists.) More recently the pirates have moved right into our inner cities. Wherever there is a musical style, or a section of the population not being catered for, DIY enthusiasts have set up their equipment and broadcast from secret locations in tower blocks and council estates, constantly moving to avoid the attention of the officers of the D.T.I.

On the first of January this year the new Broadcasting Bill came into effect, and it has serious implications for the pirates. The maximum fine for broadcasting without a licence has been increased from £2000 to "an unlimited sum", and the possible prison sentence increased from three months to two years. Alongside these somewhat draconian measures, they hope to starve the illicit stations out by making it illegal for anyone to advertise on a pirate; it is even illegal for any publication to publish the frequency on which they broadcast. Together with granting licences to a limited number of community and special-interest stations like Jazz FM, Kiss, Choice and WNK in London, the government and the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) hoped these measures would have cleared the FM airwaves of pirates for good.

Not so. Apparently there are those who are prepared to risk the penalties and keep broadcasting, for a variety of reasons. Of particular interest to this magazine are those who do so because they are convinced that there is a massive need in our inner cities that can only be met by gospel programmes. I met three such people in London recently, who are involved in trying to set up a 24-hour "pure gospel" pirate station. All of them are either currently, or have in the past, broadcast gospel shows on other pirate stations. What has, as Christians, persuaded them to break the law and face possible imprisonment and financial ruin by getting involved in pirate radio?

Reverend B. has a thriving, mainly black congregation at his East London Church. At present he broadcasts from seven until 10 am every Sunday and from six to seven every weekday morning on a pirate station that the rest of the time plays reggae and soul music. His colleague spins the records, which are mainly in the traditional black gospel mould - artists like James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar are featured heavily. Reverend B. delivers a tape of himself speaking for the station to broadcast and then retires home to man his phone. His number is given out on air between records as "the prayer-line" for people to call if they need help or prayer. Given that the station reaches around a 50-mile radius, his telephone is constantly ringing. It is this response that has convinced him that broadcasting is worth the risk. He told me about some of the contacts that had been made through the phone-in.

"We get calls from listeners of all nationalities - we've had Greek Orthodox, African, West Indian and English people phoning in. We get calls from North London, Camberwell, Peckham, across the water into Kent as far as Abbey Wood, to the East as far as Dagenham and Romford, so it's a big radius.

"One who rang was an English sister from Tottenham who was suicidal. She'd been involved in a terrible accident a few years back which left her with 15 metal pins in her legs and also affected her hands. What I do is ask the callers if they would like me to visit and she said she would, so I began to share the Word of the Lord with her and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ and is power to deliver and to heal. I asked her to the church - she was a bit dubious but she came and we began working with her, praying with her and building the word into her. Slowly God began to heal her physical body - the doctors had said she would never be able to kneel as her kneecaps had been shattered, but now she can kneel and she doesn't need her walking sticks any more. On Sunday she was testifying of the emotional healing she'd received, the tremendous love she was receiving from the Lord and both she and her husband are now committed Christians." The radio show and the phone-in give Reverend B. a unique opportunity as he sees it to minister to people who are normally beyond the reach of the local church. He gave me many other examples of phone calls he had received from people involved in witchcraft to people whose children had drug problems or whose relatives were having difficulties with immigration documents. All pressing needs, often from people on the point of despair. "It's amazing, my brother. I could show you the pad with all the names and the problems... Sometimes the phone will ring and all you can hear is a voice saying 'Is that Reverend so and so?' and when I say yes that's all they can say and you can just hear that man sob his heart out - all he can do is cry and you know it's God. Multiply that need by a million - it makes you realise that you need a thousand hands and a thousand radio stations."

Dave P. is of a different generation to Reverend B. In his baseball cap and jeans there's little about his appearance that hints at his secret life as a pirate gospel DJ. Eugene is Irish, one of the very few white faces behind the voices on gospel pirate shows. We talked at Eugene's flat, largely furnished by one of the most impressive record collections I've seen. Both Dave and Eugene, as well as loving traditional gospel, are very keen on the more contemporary gospel sounds around. Names like Veronica Mickey, Mary Love Comer, Helen Baylor and the Sounds Of Blackness are bandied about - names that are more familiar in soul clubs than in Christian bookshops as often they are only available on import in specialist shops. The new BeBe and CeCe Winans' 12-inch is on the turntable and Dave can hardly contain his excitement as Eugene flicks through his collection to find a particular title. It's clear that these men love the music.

"A lot of my love for gospel music has come about because I've heard something over the radio" explains Eugene. "I've been sitting there and I've been stoned out of my brain and I've sat up and I've said 'who's this?' and I've written it down and I've gone to look for it. Great changes have come about in my life through gospel music - personally I put it down to hearing Mary Love Comer in a record shop a couple of years back. I said 'Give us the single' because I've always been into collecting music of all sorts. A couple of weeks later I bought the album and I put it on and then I took it off and said I'm not playing that thing, that's dangerous - ' because of the effect it was having on me. At that time of my life - well, I describe myself now as a recovering addict and alcoholic. I rang Mary Love Comer in the States a couple of times because of the effect her record had on me and she responded with great friendliness. They were amazed anyone had bothered to ring up from England. I met her and her husband a couple of times when they came over to play in Britain. I remember the second time I played the album I was trembling because it was saying to me 'You've got to make a choice.' I didn't want to hear what she was saying!"

Dave is currently doing a gospel show on a London pirate station on Sundays. "The type of stuff I play has to be really riveting stuff that really gets you - up tempo stuff that goes BOOM! and choirs, what I call hard-core choirs, like The Reverend Milton Brunson, James Moore, The New York Community Choir, James Cleveland presents the Workshop Choir, J.C. White, Commissioned, The Winans, Veronica Mickey... I know for a fact that there's a vast audience out there, I've had lots of letters and phone calls. I had a letter when I had a show on one station from a guy who was in prison - the show convicted him. He's still serving his time but I can guarantee he's still listening. It makes me feel good - I can get up on a Sunday sometimes and I'll be tired but as soon as I get behind the mike - I pray first, I close my eyes and pray, then after the adverts I bang on my jingle and start the jingle and then I'm just firing until the end of the show - then I'm drained."

"I know myself that I heard something and it made me sit up and think and brought a change in my life" says Eugene. "I would like to think that by me playing something other people might stop and think for a minute - then you never know what might happen."

"To me, gospel music is so powerful," adds Dave. "God ministers through music. Eugene got saved through that - I got saved through that - I don't know how you got saved."

These three, along with other colleagues, plan to set up the first 24-hour gospel pirate station, playing only gospel music and with opportunity for preaching and telephone ministry. The Reverend B. has applied for a licence which was turned down on the grounds that such a station would not be serving the needs of the whole community. We turned to the inevitable question of legality, and I asked them whether they considered it justified to start such an undertaking when the law stated it was illegal. Many Christians would reach for their Bibles and quote Paul in Romans chapter 13, where he states that the authorities are instituted by God and therefore anyone going against them is going against the rule of God. Reverend B. is aware of the argument.

"I respect the convictions of brothers who feel that way and I wouldn't want them to go beyond their convictions. My personal conviction is that we must reach the nations of the world at all costs. I believe that you must abide by the law, I believe that 100 per cent, but that's when the law is not working contrary to the laws of God or the ministry of the gospel. I believe that the gospel must be preached at all costs - if it entails my life I will give my life. Take brethren like Richard Wurmbrand, or God's smugglers into China, or into Russia before the wall came down ... It was against the law to smuggle Bibles into Russia but they took carloads through Customs and, from the testimony of Richard Wurmbrand, many times when they were searched nothing was found - God protected them. If it is contrary to the will of God to break the law then He wouldn't have vindicated them. In that respect I believe the Word of God overrules the laws of Government that try to suppress the gospel."

"Illegal is it?" asks Dave. "'Go into all the world and preach the gospel.' If they suddenly made a law that said 'Don't you dare open your Bible or pray to God' I'd still do it. The people out there are more important to me. When I get to the station on a Sunday morning it don't worry me one bit. Anyway, we must be doing something good as Christians, helping the police by taking young people off the streets who are taking drugs, getting through to them and saying 'Listen, this is not the way, trust in God, we'll listen to you, we'll be there for you any time.'"

"And anyway" adds Eugene, "I want to tell young people you can dance to God's music, the devil doesn't have all the best tunes."

POSTSCRIPT: I'm well aware in writing this article that it is raising issues that simply can't be dealt with in such a confined space. I spoke to one gospel lover and record shop owner who had considered becoming involved with the station and in the end pulled out for a number of reasons which he articulated very forcefully, again from the standpoint of his Christian belief. Cross Rhythms would be glad to publish correspondence about issues raised by this article, so don't just sit at home and fume, write! CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.