Big shout-out to the Finland crew

Pirate stations are under threat locally, but are going global on the internet

In between the BBC's reliable fleet of schooners and commercial radio's glitzy speedboats lurk the pirates. Illegally transmitted stations, run for the love of music rather than the pursuit of profit, have proliferated on old-style analogue radio, on which the airwaves are relatively easy to hijack. A quick scan of the dial in London gives listeners a snatched sample of the many subcultures coexisting in the capital: True 100.2 plays Essex-boy garage and React 99.7 focuses on new urban music, while other stations are dedicated entirely to Turkish or Ghanaian listeners.

As radio moves into the digital age, the future looks uncertain for such stations, but Rinse FM, London's biggest pirate, is facing up to the challenge of adapting itself. The station, which has been on air for 12 years, specialises in street music and has fostered many of the underground genres that feed into mainstream popular music, including grime, dubstep and garage. It has long been essential listening for fans who want to hear the music that street legends (and Rinse regulars) such as Wiley or Skream have made that morning, rather than waiting 18 months through negotiations with agents, publicists and record companies before the tunes are aired on legal radio.

By moving on to the internet last year, Rinse broke with the old pirate radio model of a local rogue transmitter on the rooftop of a council estate. It is now available to listeners all over the world as Rinse.fm, an internet station, and free podcasts can be downloaded on iTunes. This is the first stage of a campaign to court a legal FM licence from Ofcom.

If Rinse does succeed in winning the licence, it will be interesting to see whether it will be able to maintain the raw, distinctive style that draws its core audience. The DJs on Rinse have a real intimacy with their listeners, coming from a shared passion for music that is viewed with suspicion by the mainstream. This has always been the key to pirate radio's appeal; I have friends who, as teenagers, would drive around desolate bits of Bermondsey just to find the best spot to get clear reception for So Solid Crew's show on Delight FM.

This intimacy has not been compromised by the internet - rather, it has been globalised. The quaintly amateurish banter, DIY ethics, unpredictable schedules and cutting-edge music make Rinse still sound like the soundtrack to a block party in east London; it's just a party with a more geographically varied invite list. Bun-Zero, a Belgian DJ visiting the UK, is guest-hosting the Sunday-night dubstep show, and his presence on a UK street music station says a lot about the internet's power to bring global subcultures together. "Big shout-out to the Finland crew," someone calls out. And why not?

MCs Little Dee and Jammin' perform on a show by the grime DJ VectrA (Sunday, 9pm-11pm; normally Fridays, 11pm-1am) - and for an hour there's a riot on my radio. VectrA plays Skepta's "Match of the Day", a murderous carnival-style reworking of the football show's theme tune; Little Dee lets rip, and the record is rewound in tribute. "It's too much," Dee says in deference to the song as it is cued up again. The second playing gets an even more hyperactive reaction. More records are rewound. The energy is building tangibly. Then all of a sudden their time is up: VectrA mumbles something about "going back to the hood", and they cut to a sober advert for an FE college open day, of all things. There's no doubt that pirate radio keeps you on your toes.

This listening experience is all the more exciting because you know that you will not hear these sounds on Radio 1: as the success of dubstep and grime has proved, Britain's boldest new music needs non-commercial stations that are prepared to take risks. These genres have room to flourish on Rinse.

There are scores of stations like this up and down the country, broadcasting on pirate frequencies and the internet, and each one provides a fillip to fans depressed at the decadence of the music industry. Many of these DJs are risking prosecution and lugging bags of records across town on wet evenings for no money, just to play the music they love into the void. For that, they are to be saluted.

Rinse FM 100.4FM (London). http://www.rinse.fm

Andrew Billen is away

Pick of the week

Armando Iannucci's Charm Offensive
1 September, 12.30pm, Radio 4
More tall tales from the Scottish-Italian genius (Saturday repeat).

Unmasking the English
3 September, 9.30pm, Radio 4
Andrew Marr on Miss Marple.

Logan Sama
3 September, 11pm, Kiss 100
The nation's only grime show on mainstream radio.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?