by Robin Bell
The burst of pop music that exploded in England in the early sixties revealed the scarcity of radio stations catering for the youth culture of the time. The government owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had very little appeal to the young population hungry to hear the latest ‘hits.’ The Home Service played mainly classical music and radio plays. The Light Programme, still airing such shows as Mrs. Dale’s Diary, Workers’ Playtime and Desert Island Discs could only offer Top of the Pops on Sunday afternoons and Saturday Skiffle Club on Saturday mornings.
The only consolation for the teenagers was Radio Luxembourg, on frequency 208MHz, which, due to atmospheric conditions, could only be picked up in the evenings, albeit still with interference and fading.
It was a breath of fresh air, then, in Easter 1964, that listeners on the east coast of England first heard the signature tune of Radio Caroline beaming in from an ex-ferry, the Fredericia, moored just outside British territorial waters. A young and nervous Simon Dee then announced “This is Radio Caroline on 199, your all day music station.” The tone for the station was set as the Rolling Stones’ ‘Not Fade Away’ blasted from the two ten kilowatt transmitters.
A second ship, MV Caroline, calling itself Radio Atlanta, moored nearby and began competing with Caroline, but soon a merger was announced which saw the original Radio Caroline move to the Irish Sea as Radio Caroline North, while Radio Atlanta, renamed as Radio Caroline South, remained off the Essex coast.
With tens of millions of listeners, the two Carolines were able to broadcast and kick start the careers of many of the new British artists who had been denied exposure by the Government monopoly and Radio Luxembourg, which mainly catered for the American larger record labels.
Of course, the success of the Carolines brought competition from such stations as Radio London and the ire of the British Government. But with only mutterings of illegal use of frequencies and possible interference with emergency services, the Government could take no action. They were seen as killjoys and anti-youth.
However, it was one competitor which spelled the end for the pirates. In the Thames Estuary were the relics of many war-time defence forts and one of these was converted by the one time pop star David “Screaming Lord” Sutch and became Radio Sutch. After a while, Sutch sold the station to his manager, Reg Calvert, who renamed it as Radio City.
A business rival, Major Oliver Smedley, hi-jacked Radio City and in a fit of rage, Calvert broke into Smedley’s home. Smedley, fearing for his life, took out a shotgun and killed Calvert.
This was the excuse the Government needed. Portraying the radio stations as nothing more than murderous gangsters, they proposed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act to silence the pirates. Despite protests, the Act finally became law on August 14th 1967 and one by one the pirate radio stations fell silent. Radio Caroline marked the demise of fellow pirate Radio London with a minute’s silence.
Radio Caroline defied the Government by moving operations to Holland, despite the horrendous expenses of supplying the ship by tenders from Holland. However, costs mounted and finally on March 3rd 1968, with unpaid bills mounting, tugs from Holland cut the anchor chains and towed both Radio Caroline North and South to Holland. The dream was over.
But the pirates had caused a major shake-up in British radio broadcasting. Now the public were no longer content with the previous offerings from the BBC and demanded better programmes for listeners, particularly the youth. Many of the pirate station dee-jays such as Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Kenny Everett, Dave Cash and others joined the BBC on the new station BBC Radio One, launched on September 30th 1967 as a direct response to the pirate phenomenon.
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