Off-shore Radio – A brief history

Off-shore radio is a vital part of the history of broadcasting in this country and in its development. The term ‘pirate’ radio was something of a misnomer, coined by the popular press. By operating in International waters the stations were not infringing any laws, and never have been illegal as such, and many of them were run on highly responsible and professional lines.

In 1964, British radio had not really changed since the immediate post-war years. With the Light Programme, the Third Network and the Home Service, the only concession to “popular’ music was a few hours a week on the light Programme. There were no local radio stations; the only alternative was Radio Luxembourg, in those days only received poorly even in the hours of darkness.

In March 1964, Radio Caroline – a name almost synonymous with off-shore radio – appeared, transmitting from a ship anchored off the Essex Coast, the ideal site from which to reach the prime target areas of London and the South-East. The ship, a former ferry-boat, converted to its new purpose in Fire, housed two studios, a 20-kilowatt transmitter and a 170-feet high aerial mast. Broadcasting continuous music, it was an instant success and had an audience of millions within a few weeks, and soon attracted a large number of advertisers.

Radio Caroline was not, however, the first off-shore radio station. Six years earlier, a number had started operating from off the Scandinavian coastline, followed by stations off the Dutch and Belgian coasts shortly afterwards. Most of these had been very successful, but most of the Scandinavian countries applied great pressure to force them to close, and many did.

Within weeks, Caroline was joined by another ship, Radio Atlanta, broadcasting from a vessel called the M.V. Mi Anigo, formerly used by the Swedish station, Radio Nord. A short while later the two stations merged; the Mi Amigo renamed off the Essex coast as Radio Caroline South, and the M.V. Caroline sailed to a position off the Isle of Man, broadcasting as Radio Caroline North. Their success led other groups into the field and within a year there were over a dozen stations operating from around the British coast. Most of these were in the Thames .Estuary area, but Radio Scotland operated from a lightship off the Scottish coast, and Radio 270 transmitted to the North East from an anchorage off Scarborough. Some groups took over the. Long-abandoned maritime forts in the Thames Estuary and off the Essex coast, but most of these stations were weak and hardly professional. However, Red Sands fort, off Herne Bay, boasted Radio 390, a very professional run station offering middle of the road music instead of pop. The most financially successful of’ the stations was not in fact Radio Caroline, but Radio London (no connection with the present day BBC local radio station of the same name), which operated from a converted minesweeper off the Essex coast with a 75 kW transmitter and an aerial mast over 230 feet tall.

However, the British Government decided to act. They claimed that the stations caused interference to other stations, disrupted emergency services (although there was never any evidence of this), and stated that no frequencies were available. Strange that only a few years later they found frequencies for dozens of local radio stations of similar power. In August 1967, the Marine Offences Act became law. This was imperfect as it could not make the stations themselves illegal, but it did prevent supplies from Britain, and barred British companies from advertising. The last move hit the broadcasters in their pockets, and, with the exception of Caroline, all closed down. This was followed by the start of BBC Radio 1, largely staffed by former D.J.s from Radio London, where incidentally Ed Stewart had been senior D.J.

Caroline defiantly continued, tendered from Holland, and using multi-national advertisers, but in early 1968 it too closed after its two ships were seized by the Dutch Wijsmuller tug company following a dispute over tendering fees.

Despite a number of setbacks, the station continued, now being tendered ( officially! ) from Spain, although in fact some supplies undoubtedly came from Britain and Holland. A few multi-nationals still advertised, but most of the station’s backing probably came from record companies and private individuals. John Lennon is rumoured to have put money into the station, for example.

In early 1980, the inevitable happened. In a severe storm the Mi Amigo, its hull in a shocking state after so many years continually at sea, lost its anchor and sank into the sands of the Thames Estuary, where it still lies, its mast visible at low tide.

By this time, in addition to the expanded BBC. networks, Britain also had dozens of local radio stations, run by both the B.B.C. and the I.B.A, who ventured into commercial radio in 1972. Many of these stations, especially the I.B.A. stations, model themselves on the off-shore stations of the ‘60’s, using an almost identical studio layout, and indeed many D.J.’s from off-shore radio.

In August, 1983, Caroline re-appeared once more and at the time of writing approaches its 20th birthday. With American backing, it has a new ship – a converted trawler called the “Ross Revenge’”, with a hull full of concrete, the largest mast ever fitted to a radio ship, high quality studio and transmitting equipment, a format based on mainly album tracks, and eternal optimism. Advertising is minimal and how long it will be financially afloat remains to be seen, but it remains as a monument to those stations of the 1960s who provided a welcome service to millions of listeners of all ages, revolutionized the stagnant radio situation in Britain, and gave a tremendous boost to the music and recording industry by providing a platform for new artists and record companies. Without them we would probably not have the wide diversity of radio stations today, which help British broadcasting to be probably one of the best in the world.

Late News.

At the time of preparing the article for publication, the “Ross Revenge7’ hat beeNjoined by a second radio ship, the “Communicator”, housing an American-acked and staffed operation called Radio laser. This station will have a Top 40 format and some tests have been carried out using a 350-feet wire aerial held aloft by an 11,000 dollar helium ballooni” Since two of these have been lost, the station is awaiting the erection of a more conventional mast. Also, another radio ship, impounded in harbour in Holland for over two years, has been released as a result of a court case and there are rumours that this ship will set sail for the North. Sea, probably off the Dutch coast.

A recent Gallup roll has stated that Radio Caroline has a regular audience of 4 million in Britain and the Benelux countries.

Mike G4UWF – August 1984.

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