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Pirate radio in the UK: a retrospective

09 April 2009 ( 10 May 2017 )

In the Sixties, UK music fans could almost smell the briny in their wireless sets. Mary Payne chronicles the history of 'pirate radio'.

Radio Caroline Setup in the Motor Museum at Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire on March 24, 2017 (c) Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB /
Radio Caroline Setup in the Motor Museum at Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire on March 24, 2017 (c) Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB /

In 1964, the new breed of radio listeners called ‘teenagers’ existed in a musical desert. The only oases quenching pop fans’ thirst for the latest sounds were the Light Programme’s Saturday Club, Sunday’s Pick of the Pops and in the evenings, Radio Luxembourg. That same year, the Sixties really started swinging with the arrival of what Kenny Everett was to call “Watery Wireless”.

Australian record label owner Allan Crawford began it all in the UK with Radio Atlanta, on board the Mi Amigo, anchored in international waters in the North Sea and circumventing broadcasting legislation by airing commercial radio via a powerful on-board transmitter. A fellow pioneer, Ronan O’Rahilly, acquired the Fredericia, better known as Radio Caroline, bobbing around in the grey seas off the coast of Suffolk.

Unauthorised broadcasting, carrying adverts, had begun in earnest. MPs were horrified. Who knew what immorality might be fomented by malodorous beatniks operating outside the law? The press swiftly dubbed them “pirates”. Teenagers were thrilled by the notion of swashbuckling young DJs battling the elements and the Establishment from a ship in the North Sea. A “trannie” tuned to 199 became an indispensable accessory.

Months later, a merger saw Atlanta become Caroline South, and the Fredericia sailing to anchor in Ramsey Bay off the Isle of Man, as Caroline North. The music was initially middle-of-the-road, but the boat began to rock with the arrival of Radio London. The former minesweeper Galaxy dropped anchor off Essex over Christmas 1964, bearing US Top 40-format radio and a massive transmitter, all backed by US money. Radio London (“Big L”), changed the face of UK radio, and rival buccaneers were jolted into rethinking programming.

Thames Estuary wartime forts were eagerly commandeered for broadcasting, the stampede led initially by the eccentric pop star and wannabe Raving Loony MP, David “Screaming Lord” Sutch. Radio Sutch, on the Shivering Sands Army fort, became Radio City. By 1966, a huge audience was grooving to pirate transmissions. Radio London and the two Carolines were joined by Swinging Radio England (pop) and Britain Radio (easy listening), both transmitting from the Laissez-Faire, and launched by the Texan founders of Big L. The Laissez-Faire, Galaxy and Mi Amigo anchored within close proximity, in an area christened “Pirate Alley”.

Providing the musical backdrop to the Sixties, the pirates gave life to new acts. Aspiring musicians queued to suffer seasickness and plug their latest releases. Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale (better described as a shade of green) was first aired by Big L. Listeners jammed the vessel’s switchboard, labelling the song an instant hit. The station then obtained a pre-release exclusive of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album, an event that famously reduced a young DJ, John Peel, to tears of joy. The pirate DJs achieved star status.

Inevitably, the British Government decided to end the fun and introduced the Marine Offences Bill, outlawing advertising on offshore stations or supplying them. Most closed down on or before August 14, 1967, the day before the Bill became law. DJs arrived on shore to a heroes’ welcome from a 1,000-strong crowd. The two Carolines soldiered on for a while, but with advertisers and DJs nervous of prosecution and vital supplies having to come from the Continent, they were fatally holed below the water line. In March 1968 both ships were ignominiously towed away by a creditor.

The BBC tried to recreate the pirate sound with Radio One, employing Watery Wireless jocks, but it couldn’t replicate the atmosphere. Millions enjoyed hearing the reassuring bump of the tender coming alongside, then discovering who the passengers were. People wanted to know what pranks the DJs had played – the broadcasters became part of their lives. Arguably, nobody enjoys that sort of relationship with radio any more.

Mary Payne is co-editor of the Radio London website

This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of Saga Magazine. 

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