Credit: Aleks Dorohovich

Remembering Network 21, the UK punk rock pirate TV station that challenged the system

There are countless pirate radio stations transmitting their sound through the airwaves but a pirate television station is a rare thing indeed. Network 21 was a punk rock institution that aired in Britain during the 1980s and challenged the system with every broadcast.

The broadcasts lasted for seven months across 1986 and 1987 and saw the station quickly gain a reputation for its sneering attitude and devotion to avant-garde art. But as well as the artistic expression at the heart of the channel, it also had a political message attached.

Broadcasting for 30 minutes every Friday night may seem trivial, but it certainly shook up the establishment. Not only was the channel providing a platform for art’s finest, including performances from Sonic Youth, Derek Jarman and Genesis P-Orridge, but it demanded that the monopoly ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC held over television rights in Britain be disbanded.

The show was an attempt to smash through that triopoly and highlight a new approach to television pointing toward radio as the example. Radio frequencies had been relinquished to the public for community projects and other public-funded arts projects, Network 21 felt it was about time TV started giving back too.

Claims made by the London Evening Standard suggest the station had 100,000 viewers and that although the ethos of the show was certainly rooted in DIY punk rock, the show was “definitely professional”. Despite using 8mm camcorders to shoot the shows and transmit them on a domestic VCR connected to a UHF transmitter, the content was clearly right on the money.

As well as the pirate TV show, the people behind Network 21 also added on a pirate radio station which broadcast on Friday nights through to the next morning. During the show, DJs played only independent artists and labels or had in-depth art discussions—it was an arthouse dream.

The station received plenty of press attention but was rarely ever raided. Though it only lasted for a few short months, it championed all that was great about punk rock. It challenged the establishment, it championed art, and put people first.

Watch Sonic Youth performing on the show below and find some further clips below that.

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