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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » 60s’ Pirate Radio Revolutionised British Popular Broadcasting

60s’ Pirate Radio Revolutionised British Popular Broadcasting

Radio Caroline South on Mi Amigo - Albertake
Ship-based pirate radio was so successful in the Swinging Sixties, it forced the BBC to create Radio 1 & Parliament to legalise commercial radio in Britain.

Offshore radio was part of the burgeoning 50s/60s pop industry. It satisfied a thirst for music from increasingly affluent, independent teenagers, who wanted to buy singles and albums, and carry music around as transistor radios caught on.

The BBC provided a mere hour a week for new music on the Light Programme, but only from established artists; record companies tightly controlled music performance. Teenagers relied on Radio Luxembourg, only available at night and often crackly. From 1960 they had Radio Veronica, a ship off Holland that provided pop music with Dutch DJs.

Radio Caroline, 199 in the Medium Wave

Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly landed in London as a young man determined to break away from his wealthy family shipping business background. He got into managing bands, and Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated was his first. He had the then unknown Rolling Stones playing in the interval.

Determined to get more music to more people, he acquired a ship and began to equip it, aware that the Government would not permit a land-based radio station playing pop. He went to Dallas to buy materials, and came into contact with American stations and their commercials and jingles.

He also hit on a name for his project. Reading a magazine, he saw a picture of President Kennedy on the floor playing with his three year old daughter, Caroline, while important people waited patiently to talk to him. Radio Caroline was named in that instant.

Starting broadcasting at Easter 1964 moored in international waters off the Essex coast, Caroline became the first offshore radio station, the UK’s first all-day music station. It was an instant hit. In the beginning programmes were recorded in London with tapes shipped out for broadcast, but the famous ferrying of DJs for two week stints on-board, one week off, soon got under way.

The station eventually became two ships, Caroline North and South, and gave starts in their radio careers to Tony Blackburn, Robbie Dale, Johnnie Walker, Keith Skues and Dave Lee Travis. The ships pioneered in Britain making money from radio ads, station ID jingles, sponsoring live concerts and running a fan club.

Big L: Radio London

Caroline was joined off Frinton by Radio London, which became even bigger in terms of listening audience. The whacky comedian Kenny Everitt started on Big L. John Peel launched his UK career on board, most famously giving airtime to new, experimental bands through his Perfumed Garden. He continued this from 1967 when BBC Radio One launched, until his death in 2004.

A flotilla of twenty one ships and disused marine towers in the Thames estuary soon jumped on the floating bandwagon, and by 1968 boasted 10 to 15 million daily listeners. The Government had been monitoring the development of the industry closely. They decided it could not continue. Radio ships paid no taxes, no royalties on the records they played and their signals could be a hazard to shipping.

The popularity of the pirates just grew and grew. The Labour Government avoided making radio an election issue until they had a bigger majority in Parliament, which they gained at the General Election of 1966. Then they set about dealing with ‘the radio problem’.

Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967

A vigorous campaign failed. It was free (commercial) radio against the Establishment. The 2009 movie The Boat That Rocked attempted to portray something of fan loyalty, the anarchic life on board, the fascination with the music and the romantic notion of life at sea. It is not entirely a full picture of the reality of station closures.

At one minute past midnight on 15th August 1967 the law came into force. It outlawed broadcasting from ships, aircraft, marine structures; facilitating such broadcasting; providing supplies or equipment for such broadcasting; making programmes elsewhere for such broadcasting and even listening to such broadcasts.

Suddenly the airwaves were silent; the seawaves empty. Only Caroline continued; a lone, truly illegal voice. Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale were the first DJs to break the new law.

At 7am, on 30 September 1967, the BBC launched Radio One. It employed many of the former pirate DJs, who the Corporation had worked long, hard and secretly to undermine. It now specialises in current music during each day and offers other genres in the evenings to a target audience of 15-29 year olds.

Later came RNI, Radio Nordzee International, which was subject to Government jamming on the signal in early 1970. The anger of young people made free radio an issue in the 1970 General Election campaign, won by the Conservatives who introduced the licensing of commercial, land-based commercial radio, which we still have in Britain today.

Without the pirates, we would not have British radio as varied as it is.

First published on Suite 101, 7th April 2010.

Photo: Radio Caroline South on Mi Amigo – Albertake

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