When pirates ruled the waves

St Albans & Harpenden Review: A young Tony Blackburn A young Tony Blackburn

BEFORE 1964, there was only limited opportunity to listen to your favourite pop records or the latest chart hits on the radio.

There was Saturday Club between 10am and noon with Brian Matthew on the BBC Light programme, and on Sunday afternoon the same station gave you Pick of the Pops, as Alan 'Fluff' Freeman introduced the programme with his trademark "Greetings, Pop Pickers!"

Of course, there was Radio Luxembourg which was at its peak attracting an audience of millions, but those evening transmissions were frequently rather crackly, and it was often better heard under the bedclothes with a transistor and an earpiece.

In the spring of 1964, a wealthy 27-year old Irish entrepreneur, Ronan O'Rahilly, invested the princely sum of £200,000 and fitted up an old coaster with broadcasting equipment.

He named the ship MV Caroline and anchored it three-and-a-half miles off Frinton-on-Sea, Essex just outside the territorial waters limit.

On Easter Sunday, March 29, 1964, disc jockey Simon Dee opened the station with these words: "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is Radio Caroline, broadcasting 199 metres medium wave, your all-day music station."

Thus England's first commercial radio station was born, and within a few short weeks, millions of young listeners were tuning in to hear the rock music sounds that were largely denied on the BBC.

Advertisers quickly followed suit in order to cash in on the big audience. The station was named after the daughter of the late President John F Kennedy, and the song Caroline by the Fortunes, just released on the Decca label, was quickly adopted to become the station's popular signature tune.

A month later, an old Dutch coaster, the MV Mi Amigo, anchored off Harwich about 14 miles from Caroline and commenced a series of test transmissions on May 9, 1964.

Three days later Radio Atlanta took off, going fully operational and broadcasting on 201 metres medium wave.

These spots in the North Sea were favoured by the pirate ships because the coastline off eastern England was low-lying and presented no real impediment to radio signals.

The month of May, 1964, was a busy one for the pirates and this time the location switched to the old Second World War watch-tower forts in the Thames Estuary.

Colourful 23-year-old pop singer Screaming Lord Sutch had already campaigned for the legalisation of commercial radio when he'd stood as the National Teenage Party candidate in the 1963 Stratford-upon-Avon by-election.

Now he put up £5,000 and started his own relatively low-powered station (Radio Sutch) on 197 metres, from the Shivering Sands fort about nine miles off Whitstable in Kent.

Barely a week later another of the forts occupied by the radio pirates as Radio Invicta beamed out from the Red Sands Tower on 306.1 metres.

On July 3, 1964, an agreement was reached between the directors of Caroline and Atlanta which resulted in the merger of the two stations.

The MV Caroline sailed around England, dropped its anchor off Ramsey by the Isle of Man, and was re-named Radio Caroline (North). Meanwhile Mi Amigo remained off Frinton and was re-named Radio Caroline (South).

The station was now broadcasting to homes the length and breadth of the country, and its massive listening audience was making a huge dent in the figures of both the BBC Light programme and Radio Luxembourg.

In October, Lord Sutch sold his station to manager Reg Calvert, and with increased power and a new name, Radio City, it switched to an alternative wave band, 299 metres medium wave. Eventually it earned the nickname the Tower of Power owing to its incredible 200ft-high aerial mast.

Just before Christmas, the slickest and most professional of all the pirate stations took to the air-waves. Radio London, broadcasting on 266 metres medium wave, was American backed to the considerable tune of £500,000, and its presentation, format and catchy jingles like "Big-L" and "Wonderful Radio London" were spot on from the word go, putting it at the forefront of pirate radio.

The ship was the MV Galaxy, a former US minesweeper that had been fitted out in Miami, and it too was moored in the North Sea three-and-a-half miles off Frinton.

The argument against the pirates was that they were stealing copyright, evading royalty payments, endangering ship-to-shore radio and interfering with designated frequencies by broadcasting on wavebands that clashed with state radio stations in other countries.

Not that these concerns particularly worried the millions of listeners who were now right behind them. After all, they were now getting the wall-to-wall pop music that they craved.

Because the subject was so sensitive, politicians wisely avoided making it an issue in the general elections of October, 1964.

Once Harold Wilson and his Labour government were in power though, they made it a priority to drive the pirates from the seas.

Postmaster General Tony Benn was instrumental in this, and by August 1967 the Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act became law, making it illegal for British companies to advertise on the pirates.

Six of the eight stations that were operating promptly closed down, while Radio Caroline defied the ban for several months before moving operations to Amsterdam.

In order to appease an irate British public, the BBC announced a new improved pop-orientated service, and on Saturday, September 30, 1967, Tony Blackburn opened Radio One with the Moves' Flowers in the Rain.

The former Caroline and London DJ wasn't alone though, as many of the ex-pirate 'jocks' now found respectable employment with the BBC.

The pirates though had made an enormous contribution to the freedom of the swinging 60s, and undoubtedly influenced the shape and direction that legitimate radio would go.

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