Monday, 14 August 2017

Happy Anniversary

Radio Caroline
The UKs first ofshore radio station
began broadcasting Easter 1964 and

changed music radio forever.
There are two significant anniversaries being commemorated this week. The first event is the 70th anniversary of independence for India and Pakistan; the second is the 50th anniversary of the passing into law of the Marine Offences Act 1967.

While the first of the two probably has more international significance, it's the second that most affected me.

If you were a young teenager growing up in the early 1960s, the opportunity to listen to the music of your choice was severely limited. Records were expensive to buy; a standard 45 RPM single cost around 7 shillings (£6.72 in today's money) and an LP would cost up to £2/10 (£42 today). That was quite a lot out of my £4 a week wages. Then the equipment to play it on was equally expensive by today's standard.

The only access to music for most of us was the radio and in 1963 and at that time, there was very little air play of pop music; more or less nothing during the day and just a few programmes on in the evening, maybe a couple of times a week.

There was Radio Luxembourg but that only broadcast in the evening and the quality wasn't very good; it was broadcast from the Duchy of Luxembourg and relied on it's signal being reflected to the UK via an unreliable ionosphere.

"The Egg"
My Philips 834A wireless in 1965.
Suddenly in 1964 there was Radio Caroline. I think I discovered it by accident, trawling the airwaves on my trusty Philips 834A wireless. I inherited it from my Uncle Peter and all my friends called it "The Egg". I had a huge aerial strung the length of the garden plugged into it, (you needed something like that to get a decent signal from Radio Luxembourg) and I would like to spin the tuning dial from time to time and see what else I could pick up.

Anyway, here was a radio station playing non stop music all day; it was only daytime up to 6:00pm to start with, but it plugged the gap while I waited for Luxembourg to go on air.

The Huge popularity of the new (pirate) radio station, as they were soon to be called, brought a number of imitators and eventually there were a several of them bobbing up and down in the North Sea, each with varying degrees of success.

What made it even better was the fact that now, all sorts of bands could get air time as well, as the pirate stations broke the monopoly then held by the big four record companies; at that time these were Philips, Decca, Pye and EMI. If you were an artist and didn't work for one of them, you might as well give up as Radio Luxembourg played nothing else. Even the limited music coverage by the BBC was restricted to this seeming cartel.

It has been argued that this opening up of the air waves by pirate radio paved the way for the tidal wave of independent record companies  and new bands that emerged at this time.

The bad news is that the government really didn't think that people being able to listen to the programmes they wanted to hear was a very good idea and soon set about putting a stop to it. Up to then, radio broadcasting in the UK was governed by the 1949 wireless and telegraphy act which stations like Radio Caroline could circumvent by operating from ships in international waters.

Using a number of excuses including the claim that they caused a hazard to shipping and that their broadcasts interfered with other legitimate radio stations, they set about creating new legislation which would make it illegal for British citizens to service the stations; this would include supplying them with goods or services or advertising revenue. Technically, it would even be illegal for UK citizens to broadcast from them as well which meant that all the DJs would be breaking the law, although this was never enforced. It was even argued that under the terms of the new act it would be illegal to listen to them.

To be fair, some of the people running these new stations didn't exactly cover themselves in glory and there were a number of very nasty incidents culminating in an altercation in the house of Oliver Smedley (Radio Caroline's operator) between himself and Reginald Calvert (operator of Radio City) over a unpaid bill which resulted in Smedley's death.

Eventually, the act became law on 14 August 1967 and most of the stations ceased broadcasting on that day, leaving the original Radio Caroline with the medium all to itself again.

Several of the pirate DJs were recruited by the BBC for it's new station (to be called Radio 1, as it still is to this day) and the format was typically BBC in that their Board of Governors (made up almost exclusively of old white men (as it still is to this day) made sure that it upheld the true conservative traditions of the institution.

Records like "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin, (since used for decades as the theme tune for "Top of the Pops" and "je t'aime" by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, (since used a theme tune in a children's toy commercial) were banned as being not fit for the ears of impressionable youth.

This wasn't the end of the story of course. Radio Caroline continued to operate for a number of years and in fact, still does via the internet. You can find them by clicking here.

There was also a vigorous campaign to get radio deregulated. A number of pressure groups were set up and I remember wandering around Woolwich with a group of friends recruiting support for one of them.

As you know, eventually all that campaigning paid off and young people today have a huge choice of stations to listen to, broadcasting every musical genre under the Sun and no, the sky didn't fall.

WARNING - Do not listen to this record. No! No! No! It will leave you hopelessly corrupted.


  1. Yes, those cheap Japanese ionospheres...
    The trouble with the current situation is that there are so many stations (a bit like '57 channels and nothing on') that there's an awful lot of dross with irritating adverts thrown in out there.

  2. I can still spell K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M from Horace Batchelor's Radio Luxembourg advert for his pools winning advert !