Illegal broadcasting (pirate radio)

28 January 2021

The operation of an unlicensed radio station, sometimes called ‘pirate radio,’ is illegal.

Illegal broadcasters use equipment which may cause interference and have the potential to disrupt the communications of critical services like air traffic control.

The transmitters are often homemade, poorly designed and obtained through the black market. They are frequently installed on high rise tower blocks. These installations are generally hazardous and may put the health and safety of the public at risk. The cost of removing these installations can run into thousands of pounds.

There have been cases where those involved in illegal radio stations have been linked to serious crimes, including threats and assaults on enforcement officers, caretakers and residents. Raids on illegal radio stations have uncovered both drugs and weapons, including firearms.

Summary of offences

Anyone involved in illegal broadcasting is committing a criminal offence and could face up to two years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both. See sections 36 to 38 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006.

You may be committing an offence if you know, or have reasonable cause to believe, that unauthorised broadcasts are being made, and you:

  • keep a station/apparatus available for its use;
  • allowing your premises to be used;
  • advertise;
  • promote;
  • provide content;
  • or otherwise enable the broadcasting, including managing or rendering any service that will facilitate the operation.

Responsibilities of the person in charge of premises

It is an offence for someone to knowingly permit the use of their premises for illegal broadcasting. It is also an offence for someone to have reasonable cause to believe that illegal broadcasting is taking place from their premises not to take reasonable steps to prevent it.

How we deal with illegal broadcasting

Ofcom has powers to investigate unlicensed broadcasting stations and prosecute those involved. We can enter and search premises and seize evidence, including any apparatus connected to the illegal broadcast installation.

When we receive reports of harmful interference caused by illegal broadcast stations Ofcom will offer advice and assistance and, where appropriate, will investigate. For obvious reasons, we take complaints about interference to critical or emergency services particularly seriously.

Broadcast without breaking the law

Ofcom promotes the efficient use of radio spectrum and can issue various licences to broadcast lawfully.

For more than 10 years we have been issuing FM and AM community radio licences which enable stations to broadcast legally in a local area. Community radio stations can generate funding from advertising.

Over 230 community radio stations are broadcasting in locations across the UK. A station that has previously been broadcasting unlawfully is not necessarily prevented from obtaining a licence, in fact a number of former pirate radio stations are now licensed community radio stations. However, once someone is convicted of unlawfully broadcasting, that person is prohibited from holding a radio licence for five years and other licensees must do all they can to prevent such a person from being involved in activities relating to their service.

For more advice about getting involved or applying for a community radio licence, please see Community radio or contact our community radio team.

Another option is broadcasting (or ‘webcasting’) on the internet which does not require a licence from Ofcom.

Reporting illegal broadcasting

Tell us if you have reason to believe illegal broadcasting is taking place.