A Brief History of the Pirate Radio Stations (UK)

Written by Cameron K
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In the early 60s Ronan O'Rahilly was a nightclub owner in London's Soho district and managed a number of pop music artists including Georgie Fame.

He quickly realised the record industry was controlled by giants like EMI and Decca and the BBC were restricted to the amount of records they could play by agreements with the Musicians’ Union and other organisations. He was constantly frustrated by not having his artists’ works heard and took the unorthodox step of setting up a pirate radio station which would broadcast outside the territorial waters of the UK. He founded Radio Caroline (named after Caroline Kennedy) which did not hold a government licence and hence the title pirate radio station. Radio Caroline was the first station to broadcast all day using the English language and commenced transmissions on March 28th, 1964 from an ex-passenger ferry named MV Frederica, anchored in international waters off the coast of Felixstowe, (Suffolk, England). Simon Dee was the first DJ to broadcast and Caroline was on 197.3 metres (1520 kHz) at the high end of the medium wave band. To avoid direct competition with the established Radio Luxembourg, which started broadcasting in the English language from 6pm, the new station ran from 6am to 6pm daily under the slogan "Your all-day music station." The station’s demographic was initially UK housewives who had access to wireless and transistors at home. Obviously Caroline could be picked up in Western Europe and for the first time since World War II, listeners could hear English broadcasts and pop music during the day. Within a very short period of time Caroline established a substantial audience. Keen to attract the young teenage audience the station broadcast after 8pm up to just after midnight. This was a clever move because it avoided peak TV times and its music ensured teenagers’ interest. The Fortunes recorded the song "Caroline" in 1964 which became the station’s theme song. The first broadcast was a Thelonious Monk composition entitled “Round Midnight” sang by Jimmy McGriff. This later became official close down song. Chris Moore presented the first programme and many of the Pirate Disc Jockeys like Tony Blackburn, Roger Day, Simon Dee, Tony Prince, Spangles Muldoon, Keith Skues, Johnnie Walker, Emperor Rosco, Robbie Dale, Dave Lee Travis and Andy Archer would become household names. The eclectic mix of music was the primary attraction of the pirate stations and many syndicated shows from the US, as well as pre-recorded religious programmes, were broadcast. What records were played depended on financial arrangements between record companies and whilst many stations stuck closely to the Top 40, Radio London left their playlists to the actual DJs. This gave an unprecedented exposure to dozens of new acts, including: The Honeycombes, PP Arnold, Unit Four Plus Two, Keith West, Chris Farlowe and Procol Harum, all of whom enjoyed immense success with one hit. Most of the call signs and jingles made for the pirate stations were produced in the US at the Fun Factory organisation in Austin, Texas.

Pirate Radio Stations Radio Atlanta 1.Caroline was not the first offshore station, that honour goes to the casino ship Rex, moored off California in the 1930s. Nor was it the first in Europe as there were several offshore radio ships anchored off the coasts of Denmark and Sweden in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However Caroline’s success saw other pirate stations follow. Alan Crawford was an Australian music publisher and had the idea of starting Radio Atlanta. He purchased the MV Mi Amigo and fitted it with broadcasting equipment. Radio Atlanta began test broadcasts after 6pm on 197 metres in 1964. This was the same frequency as Radio Caroline, with the intention to steal Caroline's audience, but the station later changed to 201 metres. Most of the broadcasts were pre-recorded in London and transmitted from the ship. When audiences and advertising revenue failed to support the commercial venture, Radio Atlanta closed in July 1964 and Alan Crawford, somewhat reluctantly, joined Radio Caroline. When Caroline merged with the competitor station, Radio Atlanta, this allowed broadcasting from two ships. Together they were able to cover most of the British Isles and the western-most parts of continental northern Europe. The original vessel, MV Frederica moved to the Bay of Ramsey, Isle of Man, to become Radio Caroline North and the MV Mi Amigo, the ex-Radio Atlanta ship remained anchored off the Essex coast and took the name Radio Caroline South.

In 1967, concerned at the growing number of pirate stations broadcasting over the UK and the potential interference to foreign radio stations, the British government passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act which made it illegal to advertise or supply an offshore radio station from the UK. All the offshore stations off the British coast closed, with the exception of Radio Caroline, which moved its supply operation to the Netherlands where offshore broadcasting had not yet been outlawed. However, the advertising revenue from overseas sources was not forthcoming and the station was forced off the air less than a year later when the ships were impounded by the shipping company due to non payment. Six weeks after the Marine Offences Act was passed, the BBC introduced its national pop station Radio 1, modelled largely on the successful pirate formulae. Caroline did make a comeback in 1972 and was serviced and operated from the Netherlands. Focus was more on album tracks than the Top 40 with the music of Pink Floyd; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Led Zeppelin; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Barclay James Harvest and Hawkwind regularly broadcast. Initially this proved successful but eventually narrowed the demographic. Combined with an absence of substantial advertising revenue meant Caroline had to share its metre frequency with other (non-English speaking) stations which meant the appeal was less the second time around. Also the establishment of Radio 1 and the new commercial stations based on the mainland meant the death knell of pirate radio as commercial ventures.

Wonderful Radio London (the Big L) broadcast on 266m and played top 40 music (known as Fab 40). It started in 1964 and ran until 1967 from M V Galaxy (a former US minesweeper) anchored off Frinton-on-Sea, Essex. Unlike its rivals, Wonderful Radio London was a legitimate operation with its main offices in Central London although the majority of programmes were presented live from a studio in the ship’s hold. Wonderful Radio London was the brainchild of American, Don Pierson, who after reading about Radio Caroline decided to start his own station. The Big L disc jockeys included: Chuck Blair; Tony Blackburn; Pete Brady; Tony Brandon; Dave Cash; Ian Damon; Dave Dennis; Pete Drummond; John Edward; Kenny Everett; Tommy Vance; Ed ”Stewpot” Stewart and John Peel among many others. Radio London won a rare scoop and got an 8-day UK exclusive on the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which aired on 12 May 1967 and the album was in the shops on 1 June 1967. Despite its 12 million listeners in the United Kingdom and 4 million in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, Wonderful Radio London ceased broadcasting in 1967. This was just prior to the introduction of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act. Some of Radio London’s jingles were used on the Who’s album The Who Sell Out.

Radio Scotland was an offshore pirate radio station broadcasting on 242 metres from the former lightship M.V. Comet anchored at various locations off the Scottish coastline and had to change from time to time to achieve a signal that could be picked up throughout the central extremities of Scotland. The station started broadcasting in 1965 and was the brainchild of Tommy Shields. The headquarters was at Radio Scotland House in Glasgow where the programmes were pre-recorded. The station closed in 1967 after the introduction of the Marine Offences Act 1967 legislation. Many of the Radio Scotland presenters like Paul Young, Jimmy Mack, Richard Park and Jack McLaughlan, all went on to have successful careers in broadcasting.

BBC Radio 1 was launched in September 1967 as a direct response to the popularity of offshore pirate radio stations and broadcast on 242 metres. The programmes came from Studio D, on the first floor of Broadcasting House and featured Tony Blackburn (formerly Radio Caroline and 'Wonderful Radio London') opening the station with "Flowers in the Rain" by The Move and the second single was "Massachusetts" by The Bee Gees. The programme formats were similar to the pirate stations and many of the popular DJs, like Blackburn featured prominently. John Peel, Ed Stewart, Dave Cash, Kenny Everett, Simon Dee, Dee Lee Travis, Emperor Roscoe, Mike Reid, and Annie Nightingale all became firm favourites. Needle time restrictions (a restriction on the amount of commercial music that could be played on radio) prevented it from playing as many records as offshore stations had, and limited finances from the State-run station meant Radio 1 was less successful at first but eventually, thanks to no real opposition, it gained massive audiences. Pick of the Pops presented by Australian DJ, Alan ‘Fluff” Freeman, was compulsive listening and ran from 1967 until 1972 and featured new entries to the top 30 best selling singles in the UK, as well as the complete Top 20. The Radio 1 Roadshow, which started in 1973, drew large crowds and featured many of the live acts of the time. Radio 1’s monopoly ended in 1973 when Independent Local Radio was introduced to the UK. Radio 1’s format has continued to evolve to meet public taste.

Article Kippen C. 2015 Cameron K's blog Retrieved from
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