Fifty years ago the boring world of British broadcasting was rocked to its foundations by the launch of offshore radio stations Radio Atlanta, Radio Caroline, Radio City and Radio London.
As they were broadcasting from outside UK territorial waters the stations were soon branded ‘pirate radio’, a romantic/ironic handle which still resonates among that generation of listeners. Top Pirate Radio Jocks Johnnie Walker (Radio Caroline), Dave Cash (Radio London) and Emperor Rosko (Radio Caroline) will be spinning discs and reminiscing on board our cruise, with maybe a surprise guest or two.
We are also blessed with the expertise and resources of Tony O’Neil, owner of the National Vintage Wireless and Television Museum and curator of the LV18. This last surviving manned lightship in Britain was towed to Portland for a role in The Boat That Rocked, painted with yellow trim and named Radio Sunshine, although cut from final edit. The ship, berthed in Harwich, contains a standing exhibit of pirate radio memorabilia and artefacts, some of which Tony will be bringing on board, along with a display from the Pirate Memories collection.
We hope to be joined by Mike Barrington, an engineer for Radio Caroline on the mv Mi Amigo. After working ashore on Radio Sovereign and Radio Jackie, he returned to Caroline in the eighties aboard the mv Ross Revenge (which has been lying in Tilbury dock, within view of the Marco Polo’s berth). He is more recently found working on Sealand, the former Roughs Tower fort, now a self-proclaimed independent country. Mike will be annotating a navigation chart showing the locations of various ship anchorages and fort locations used by the offshore stations.
Our shore excursion to the REM Island (built in 1964 as an offshore radio and TV station) and to the Radio Veronica ship will be hosted by Sietse Brouwer, the CEO of Pan European Radio BV and the MD of the Lightship Jenni Baynton based in Harlingen which, along with Radio Caroline’s Ross Revenge, is one of only two working radio ships still afloat. It is home to Radio Seagull and Radio Waddenzee, with five AM transmitters, two aerial systems and three studios.
Pirate radio in the UK first became widespread in the early 1960s when pop music stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London started to broadcast on medium wave to the UK from offshore ships or disused sea forts. At the time these stations were not illegal because they were broadcasting from international waters. The stations were set up by entrepreneurs and music enthusiasts to meet the growing demand for pop and rock music, which was not catered for by the legal BBC Radio services.
The first British pirate radio station was Radio Caroline, which started broadcasting from a ship off the Essex coast in 1964. By 1966 pirate radio stations were broadcasting to an estimated daily audience of 10 to 15 million. The format of this wave of pirate radio was influenced by Radio Luxembourg and American radio stations. Many followed a top 40 format with casual DJs, making UK pirate radio the antithesis of BBC radio at the time. Spurred on by the offshore stations, several landbased pirate stations took to the air on medium wave at weekends, such as Telstar 1 in 1965, and RFL in 1968.
According to Andrew Crisell UK pirate radio broke the BBC’s virtual monopoly of radio to meet demand that had been neglected. In reaction to the popularity of pirate radio BBC radio was restructured in 1967, establishing BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4. A number of DJs of the newly created pop music service BBC Radio 1 came from pirate stations. The UK Government also closed the international waters loophole via the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967, although Radio Caroline continued to broadcast (with some sizeable off-air periods between 1968–72 and 1980–83) until 1988.