The Offshore Radio Revolution in Britain 1964 - 2004 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Offshore Radio Revolution in Britain 1964 - 2004

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At the beginning of the 1960s, an event occurred that changed the sound of Britain's radio forever - the growth of 'pirate' radio stations. What started out as a protest for the freedom to play music ended up challenging the British government and the BBC's rather conservative radio broadcast output. If it had not happened it is possible that commercial radio as we know it may not have been allowed to develop.

At the beginning of the 1960s there were only three national radio stations in Britain, all run by the BBC. In the spirit of public service broadcasting, the government insisted that all programmes were respectable, hopefully educational and impartial - hence the BBC was not allowed to broadcast commercials for fear that advertisers or sponsors could try to influence the quality or content of the programmes.

At the start of the 1960s the BBC played very little contemporary or 'youth-orientated' music, partly because those in charge of output were quite disparaging about pop music, and partly due to existing agreements with the Musicians Union regarding the employment of musicians, which limited the amount of recorded music that could be played. So in the evening, if you wanted to hear pop music you'd have to retune to Radio Luxembourg a commercial station that broadcast from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, in mainland Europe. As it was originally granted a low-powered internal frequency and was not licensed to broadcast to Britain, it paved the way for British audiences to appreciate the later pirate radio stations.

At that time a young Irishman, Ronan O'Rahilly, was managing pop singer Georgie Fame, who had managed to get a few songs into the 'hit parade' with only limited airplay on the larger channels. Ronan decided to start his own station - and realised that the best way to get around the restrictive broadcast policies of the UK would be to transmit his programmes offshore.

A radio station broadcasting from a ship may have seemed an odd idea but Ronan O'Rahilly became inspired by Holland's Radio Veronica, which had been broadcasting since 1960. O'Rahilly was fortunate in that his father was a successful businessman who owned the port of Greenore in Ireland. Through his record company, Ronan raised finance for his first ship. Subsequent would-be pirate broadcasters had to form companies to afford the ships, maintain them and pay a crew and DJs. To do this they ran them, as Radio Luxembourg was run, with commercials or sponsors.

1964 - The First British Offshore Radio Stations

Although the station traditionally celebrates its launch over Easter each year, 27 March, 2004 marks the 40th Anniversary of the first test transmission from Radio Caroline. The station was officially opened by Simon Dee two days later on Easter Sunday 29 March, 1964.

The first ship - which was placed in the North Sea three-and-a-half miles from Felixstowe - was the 763-ton former passenger ferry MV Fredericia. On 27 April, 1964, she was joined by a smaller ship, the 370-ton coaster MV Mi Amigo, which was home to Radio Atlanta. Atlanta and Caroline were at first rival stations, though after a few weeks the two stations merged. The Fredericia sailed around the coast into the Irish sea to become Caroline North while the Mi Amigo stayed in the North Sea as Caroline South. In November 1964, the Mi Amigo was joined there by a major rival. The 780-ton American minesweeper MV Galaxy, housing Radio London.

Other ships soon followed, and stations were also set up in the old wartime forts that still stood in the Thames estuary; the result was that the British coast was soon surrounded by music. The young DJs, the majority of them just into their mid-twenties, were admired for their daring defiance of the government and rebellious choice of playlists. They played upon the 'romantic pirate' image, although in reality they were sometimes homesick or seasick. For audiences exposed to our 'Digital Age', it's difficult to explain the spirit of adventure and challenge that the pirates conveyed. Being confined on board ship for weeks at a time they developed a happy camaraderie that they communicated through their broadcasts to the listeners, a feeling of togetherness and freedom that the land-based stations could not capture. It lasted for over three years, until the Government's Marine Offences Act made it illegal for ships to broadcast within British territorial waters. The pirates were forced off the air on 14 August, 1967. All, that is, except one: Radio Caroline continued alone for another seven months.

1967 - Radio 1 and Others

Public reaction and loyalty to the pirate stations had not been lost on the BBC however. On 30 September, 1967, the BBC launched Radio 1 as part of a shake-up of their radio stations and, unofficially, as a replacement for the ships. Many of the DJs who'd made their names on the pirate stations were hired for the new station, as well as some from Radio Luxembourg. These were already well-known to the listeners and were experienced at 'personality' broadcasting. BBC programmes had always been presented by announcers who addressed an audience; the DJs aimed to speak to individual listeners.

Are you Local?

BBC local radio started on 8 November, 1967, with Radio Leicester. At first, all BBC Local Radio broadcasts were on FM only. Currently, the BBC operates all local, licensed non-commercial radio stations in the UK.

Commercial Stations

The commercial stations tend to be independent of each other, although some have combined after their inception; some larger areas of the country are now covered by companies that broadcast the same program to the whole area. They have been regulated by the Radio Authority, which changed to OFCOM (the Office of Communications) at the end of 2003.

The Isle of Man has been legally broadcasting commercial radio on Manx Radio since June 1964 on FM and October 1964 on AM. It had its own internal government but needed a licence from the British government, which was reluctantly granted. The Republic of Ireland has always had its own different system of broadcasting. The first legal local commercial radio station within Britain - LBC - started on 13 October, 1973, followed a week later by Capital. The first national commercial station, Classic FM, started in September 1992. It broadcasts mainly classical music, competing with BBC Radio 3 for listeners.

Virgin 1215 AM is, at the time of writing, the only national commercial pop music station. It launched on 30 April 1993.

There are, of course, hospital and student radio stations in the UK, though these broadcasts can only be heard inside the buildings or campuses they serve.

Where Did All the DJs Go

Radio London's Ed Stewart currently broadcasts on Sundays on Radio 2.

Johnnie Walker started his radio career with Radio England before he 'jumped ship' to become one of Radio Caroline's most famous DJs. He is now back on Radio 2's Drivetime show, after an eight month break due to serious illness, from which he has now recovered.

The DJ who opened Radio 1, Tony Blackburn, was voted 'King of the Jungle' in the 2002 round of 'reality' TV programme I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here. He spun discs on both Caroline and London. Since 1988 he has been on commercial radio, but is now back with the BBC on local station, BBC London.

Many other DJs from the ships still broadcast on various stations all over Britain. All of them owe a huge amount to Ronan O'Rahilly's dream.

Pirate Radio Ships Through the 1970s and 1980s

Broadcasting from ships did continue at various times throughout the 1970s. Radio Northsea International broadcast off the Dutch coast from the MV Mebo 2, a 630-ton general cargo ship, and Caroline continued on the Mi Amigo, until she sank in the Thames estuary on 20 March, 1980. From 1983 to 1991, broadcasts on 558 FM came from the MV Ross Revenge, a 978-ton Icelandic trawler, 223 feet 4 inches in length, which the Caroline organisation still has and are in the process of restoring. The present plan is to continue occasional broadcasts from the ship for 28-day periods, using a restricted service licence and to arrange tours at other times, but this could change in the future. The 558 frequency now carries Spectrum Radio a local commercial station for London's multi-ethnic community.

Radio Caroline herself is still broadcasting, legally now, via Sky, Worldspace digital and the Internet, still 'Keeping the Dream alive' as it says in the song which became Caroline's theme tune in the 1970s.

'Pirate' BBC Radio Essex

During Easter 2004, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pirate Broadcasting, BBC Essex broadcast a week of programmes from the lightship LV18 half a mile from the Norwich coast. DJs from the 1960s who took part included 'Tatty' Tom Edwards, Roger 'Twiggy' Day, Keith 'Cardboard Shoes' Skues and Mike Ahern 'Your DJ Michael A', all former Radio Caroline DJs, along with Pete Brady (formerly of Radio London) and Dave Cash (formerly of 270 and Radio London).

Most of the Radio Caroline DJs had nicknames. Dave Lee Travis had more than most: as well as 'DLT' he was known as 'your dinner record spinner' on the Radio Caroline lunchtime programme. During his time on Radio 1, he became the 'Hairy Cornflake' on the morning Programme and also 'The Hairy Monster'.

Where Are They Now?

Sadly some of the DJs from the 1960s are no longer with us.

  • Kenny Everett passed away on 4 April, 1995.

  • Stuart Henry lost his battle with Multiple Sclerosis on 24 November, 1995.

  • Radio Caroline DJ Carl Mitchell 'The Weird Beard' who returned to America in the 1970s, passed away in New York in 1991.

  • John Peel OBE passed away on 26 October, 2004, aged 65. He was the last original Radio 1 DJ to still be broadcasting on the station.

  • Tommy Vance 'TV on the radio' appeared on many TV and Radio programmes over the years. His death on 6 March, 2005, came as a shock to many.

For pictures and information on the ships visit The Broadcasting Fleet. For pictures of many of the DJs who worked on them, plus much more information, visit The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame.

For all the main events in the history of UK Radio see the Timeline. The information in this Entry is correct at the time of writing, but stations and schedules are constantly changing.

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