The Cultural Relevance of Pirate Radio Stations

*This is my final term paper for the History of Broadcasting course I took at Slippery Rock University. I think I got an A, but maybe it was B+*

Zeb Carbaugh

History of Broadcasting

April 23, 2015

The Cultural Relevance of Pirate Radio Stations

            The United Kingdom’s pirate radio of the 1960’s helped spread not only rock and roll but commercial radio. They inspired approximately 20 million British, nearly half the population and helped push the format for radio that is now predominately used in today’s radio (Barker).

In the late 1950’s the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had a well-established monopoly over the UK’s airwaves and had very little competition. This monopoly kept the popular songs out of reach to the public that craved them so much due to the thought that rock and roll was evil and would taint the fragile minds of the youth of the United Kingdom. The people were not happy.

The British Broadcasting Corporation had only been playing popular music hits for about two hours a week. Even though the BBC had a very tight grasp on all of the airwaves and didn’t have to listen to what the people wanted, they still had limited competition. According to the Modesto Radio Museum, “Pop music on BBC radio was limited to short presentations of the music on weekends only and with straight laced announcers (no DJs). Most of the British listeners turned to Radio Luxembourg, (*2) the only cross border broadcaster able to get back on the air after the war. Radio Luxembourg could only be heard at night in Britain. Despite the inconvenience the long signal fading periods, Radio Luxembourg was extremely popular” (Radio). Radio Luxembourg also helped inspire the pirate radio stations to tap into the market of playing what the people actually wanted. Stations like these helped keep rock and roll alive.

America’s rock and roll genre of music was growing like wildfire. The people of the United Kingdoms wanted rock and roll but they had no access to it. “While Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard were electrifying the U.S. with this new form of youth music, Britain remained doggedly resistant to it. Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t on the radio, and it wasn’t generally in the record stores either. ‘Teenagers didn’t have any outlet but their own clubs,’ said Lodge. ‘It was American sailors who brought into London and Liverpool Chuck Berry and B.B. King and other records’” (Baine). Illegally smuggled records were the only source of the much sought after rock and roll records. There was a passionate need for a product and a very scarce resource for this product. So eventually someone smart was bound to take advantage of the situation and find a way to make money out of it.

Ronan O’Rahilly was a man who saw the opportunity to make money for himself. O’Rahilly was a manager for musicians who weren’t allowed to have airtime due to the UK’s current government regulations. He decided to broadcast his clients’ music over the airwaves from a vessel just three miles off the coast of London in international waters. “O’Rahilly then set out to fund the project. While in the Dallas, Texas to buy transmitters he was reading an article in Life magazine and was captivated by a photograph showing president John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline playing in the Oval Office of the White House and disrupting the serious business of government. This was exactly the image he wanted for his station. The name had to be Radio Caroline” (Radio). Radio Caroline was the name of the most influential station from the Pirate Radio era.

The ship itself was found and converted by Ronan O’Rahilly himself into the broadcasting vessel he needed. He did this over in Ireland. He found the ship that would carry on the ideas proposed by the Danish business men who founded Radio Mercur. “The original transmitter power of the Caroline was almost 20,000 watts, which was achieved by linking two 10-kW Continental broadcast transmitters together. Broadcasting hours were initially limited from 6 am to 6 pm daily under the slogan ‘Your all-day music station’, because Radio Luxembourg came on the air in the English language at 6 pm and direct competition was avoided. With finance in place, Ronan purchased an old ferry boat named ‘Fredericia’ which he promptly renamed ‘MV Caroline’ and took it to the east coast port of Greenore, Ireland for conversion” (Radio).They started Easter morning of 1964 off the coast of Essex which is southeastern England.

The disc jockeys that operated the rebellious stations were viewed as pop sensations themselves. They played mostly rock and roll tracks selected from the America’s top 40 stations which ironically played British rock bands (Barker). They played the music that was being enjoyed by the rest of the world for the folks at home in the United Kingdom much to the dismay of conservative British Broadcast Corporation.

Radio Caroline had only been broadcasting for a few days and the British government started to make plans to make it officially illegal. The broadcasting became so influential and so serious that Britain had to implement a law to stop them. “In 1966 the British Postmaster General, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, introduced a law that proclaimed the so called ‘pirate’ stations illegal. The law, called the ‘Marine Offences Act’, became effective on August 14, 1967 but the two Radio Caroline ships continued to broadcast from international waters” (Radio). So there were over three years of pure rock and roll glory throughout the United Kingdom where it was still legal. But Radio Caroline wasn’t the first pirate radio in Europe.

Radio Mercur was the first ship to broadcast in international water around Europe. Mercur was anchored outside of Copenhagen, Denmark and was operated by Danish business men. Mercur helped inspire other radio stations to set sail into international waters because of its success. “On 11th July 1958, a small German fishing boat, ‘Cheeta I’, was fitted out for broadcasting at sea and left port to anchor south-east of Copenhagen, where it started transmissions on 93.12 MHz FM with an ERP of around 20 kW. The station used a directional aerial, kept pointing in the right direction from the control room on board” (Bishop). Radio Mercur found a loop hole in Danish law. The law only kept people from broadcasting from land. Radio Mercur people decided to have on land offices that recorded certain shows and then send the show’s content out to international waters to be broadcasted from the sea. Mercur being one of the pioneers of pirate radio had some difficulties. The ship even lost the anchor and sail and ran ashore once.

One of Radio Caroline’s on deck technicians Ove Sjöström was asked to be a part of Radio Caroline by Mr. O’Rahilly himself. Ronan O’Rahilly went to Sweden to research and to get an idea of how pirate radios worked. He was visiting Radio Nord and the men there told him about Mr. Sjöström and his talents as a technician. Sjöström was in Liberia when O’Rahilly visited. Mr. O’Rahilly also learned that Sjöström had given professional advice to Radio Atlanta but was not paid for his advice. This made Mr. Sjöström quite bitter towards Radio Atlanta. Radio Atlanta was Caroline’s competition. So O’Rahilly saw another good opportunity to get his radio up and running. Sjöström says “’One thing I never told anybody, when Atlanta came to about a kilometre away me and some other Swedes took out a lifeboat to Atlanta and told the crew there that we had been working on that ship. ‘They said to come aboard. What I did, because I was quite sore at Crawford and Atlanta, I went down to the transmitter room and cut off a couple of things so they would blow up the tubes. That’s why they didn’t come on the air and that’s why Radio Caroline didn’t have to bother about the competition. That was my revenge’” (Cawley). Sjöström stayed with Caroline for two years until his wife became pregnant. He also was the person to flip the switch that started Radio Caroline for the first time on March 29th 1964 Easter Morning.

During their heyday, the Pirate Radio stations off the coast of Britain collectively had about 25 million listeners. They became extremely popular because their competition was the bland boring monopolized stations on land. They also became so popular because they introduced a style to Europe that they weren’t used to, an American style. “The common ingredient of most pirate stations was American Top 40 music, which was otherwise unobtainable over national public-service radio systems in Europe. The fastest way for a pirate to achieve success with both audiences and advertisers was to develop (or import) American-style disc jockeys and their fast-paced music-and-talk formats” (Skretvedt). Playing the top 40 songs of American charts is still to this day widely accepted by most other countries today. Most other countries’ top 40 are almost a mirror image of ours with the exception of a few local songs and some countries have slightly older songs of ours. There was one experienced British DJ that really enjoyed America’s top 40 tracks.

“Johnnie Walker made his name in the 60’s with the pirate ship Radio Caroline. His night-time show was essential listening for 86% of the night-time audience, which increased to over 20 million Europe-wide on the night of 14 August 1967, as Walker and ‘Caroline’ continued in defiance of Government legislation which silenced all the others” (Radio). Johnnie Walker’s quick paced and quirky style made him stick out from the rest of pirate radio’s DJ’s. He was sort of a leader for the rest of the DJ’s and he was a symbol for the entire revolution. When it became illegal for the pirate radios to broadcast Radio Caroline kept going as long as they could and Walker was one of the reasons why. He was a major advocate for the free radio and he had a specific enemy back on land. Mathew Bell from the UK’s Independent writes “For almost 50 years, Johnnie Walker and Tony Benn have represented two sides of a battle that defined British radio. One was a maverick DJ, playing records out of a rusting ship to circumvent a ban on broadcasting pop. The other was the Labour MP and then Postmaster-General, determined to close the loophole that allowed Radio Caroline to thrive” (Bell). This rivalry, as one may call it, lasted so long due to the fact that Johnnie Walker was so passionate about what he was doing and Tony Benn felt he did what he did to protect his country.

The British government and the British Broadcasting Corporation had been working together on trying to ban the pirate radio stations. The government had also been telling BBC what to broadcast in order to boost morale and get the people to like the government, because they had cut off the ships’ support. The British government basically blockaded the pirates making a law that cut off food, water, music, and advertising to the ships in 1967 after they made their broadcasting illegal as well. Once the blockade law was in place BBC started to broadcast a pop station of their own a month later. The blockade turned out to be too much for some pirates to handle. Many ships called it quits and went ashore. Except for a few ships, among them was Radio Caroline, defiant to the end. Ironically, after the pirates had given up, many DJ’s were granted employment for BBC. It took an entire six years after the fall of the pirates for the UK to allow commercial radio broadcasts within their borders.

The government and BBC opposed the pirate radio station’s commercial style. No radio airwave advertisement was to be had for the legitimate stations in Europe. “Despite (or perhaps because of) their high-quality programming, Europe’s monopolized public-service radio systems provided little popular music and no opportunity for broadcast advertisers” (Skretvedt). Today’s number one set up for most radio stations is commercial. Commercial radio is the majority and it wouldn’t be as widely accepted in Europe today if it weren’t for these pirates. One may argue that the entire ordeal was more about the commercial side of the controversy. Especially from a financial stand point the development of commercial radio was much more important than the rock and roll revolution. Without the promise of vast amounts money Mr. O’Rahilly most likely would not have started the project and the same goes for the rest of the pirates. The film “Pirate Radio” glamorizes the fight for the right to rock and roll but this wasn’t the main reason for the pirate radio stations. “In fact, the prime motivating force behind the pirates wasn’t some kind of rock ‘n’ roll evangelism; it was good old-fashioned profit: American and Irish entrepreneurs ran the two biggest stations, trying to sidestep Britain’s refusal to grant radio licenses to commercial broadcasters” (Barker). And in reference to the era’s historical significance, one might even argue that basically forcing BBC to accept the commercial format was more ground breaking than allowing America’s top 40 and other British rock and roll bands to be broadcast more frequently.

These pirates, who were just in it to make some good money, operated a radio show in a different way ushered in something great. Their country and entire continent had been subject to listening to stations that were too educational and lacking in desired forms of entertainment since the technology was invented. “Into the void steamed pirate radio, bringing with it not only more choice, but also sponsored shows and slick advertisements. Pirate radio proved that markets were neither being served nor exploited by the BBC, a bad-for-business reality that even buttoned-up Britain had to acknowledge. Although the government succeeded in killing off the pirates with the Marine Broadcasting Offenses Act in 1967—a buzz kill not dramatized in the film—the commercial revolution had already begun. The BBC soon expanded its offerings and added new stations, and in 1973 commercial radio was legalized. Henceforth, English radio stations were free to play whatever style of music they wanted” (Hynes).

In the film “Pirate Radio” the life aboard one of these ships is glamorized to be a sex drug crazed party but that was not the case. The real DJ’s were swash buckling men trying to make a buck while fighting the good fight in the name of rock and roll and the right to sell advertisements. “At sea it was another matter. The acoustics on the steel ships were subpar, the onboard regimen was monastic — no women allowed — and the weather could wreak havoc. During winter storms, the DJs might be stranded onboard for a month or more. Keith Skues, who hosted one Radio Caroline show, said one of the main challenges was the turbulence. ‘The fact that you’re being kicked out of your chair across the studio didn’t seem to matter, as long as the records didn’t jump,’ says Skues. ‘And of course they did’” (Barker). There was no sex and drug crazed parties and most of the captains ran a tight ship so things stayed legitimate. The ships did received visitors though. If a special guest such as an artist or an entire band was going to be on one of the shows that DJ could get them to come aboard, only with the special permission from the captain of course.

These rebellious pirates gave the masses what they wanted and they also implemented the new form of creating revenue when broadcasting over the radio. Ian MacRae worked on Radio Caroline during 1966 and 1967 and after watching the film he had a few words about its inaccuracies but he also was thankful for somethings. “It’s great that a whole generation of British kids will now be aware that it was us broadcasters who were directly responsible for forcing later Governments to legalise land-based commercial radio in the UK” (Deitz). Commercial radio opened the door to the new age of broadcasting, and these pirates had the key. They changed the world of broadcasting in Europe by giving it both commercial styles and the power of rock.





Works Cited

Baine, Wallace. “Tom Lode Lived Real ‘Pirate Radio’ Story.” Santa Cruz Sentinel, 18 Nov. 2009. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

Barker, Vicki. “The Real Story Behind Britain’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Pirates.” NPR. NPR, 13 Nov. 2009. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.

Bell, Mathew. “Johnnie Walker Confronts Tony Benn over Rocking the Boat: How DJ and Former Postmaster General Faced off over Pirate Radio, 50 Years on.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Bishop, Gerry. “Radio Mercur, 50th Anniversary of Europe’s First Offshore Radio Station.” National World. British DX Club, 2008. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

Cawley, Laurence. “Radio Caroline 50 Years On: The Man Who Pressed the ‘on’ Button – BBC News.” BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

Deitz, Corey. “Ian MacRae: Original Radio Caroline DJ Takes Issue with Movie’s Portrayal of Pirate Radio.” About Tech. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Hynes, Eric. “The True, Considerably Less Rocking Story Behind “Pirate Radio”” Browbeat. 13 Nov. 2009. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Leopold, Todd. “When the Pirates Took Over Radio.” CNN. Cable News Network, 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.

Pidgeon, John. “Pirate Radio.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

“Radio Caroline & The British “Pirates”” Modesto Radio Museum. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

The Rave UK, Dave. “OFFSHORE RADIO IN 60’S UK.” YouTube. YouTube, 14 Oct. 2006. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.

Skretvedt, Randy. “Pirates and Public-service Radio.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

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