Offshore Pirate Radio

On 27th March 1964 Radio Caroline began broadcasting from a converted Danish passenger ferry the M.V. Fredericia, renamed 'Caroline'. The ship was anchored off Felixstowe, this was the beginning of the era of British offshore pirate radio which was to last until 1991, when Radio Caroline's last ship the Ross Revenge left the high seas. Radio Caroline still broadcasts today via the internet, details are here . Radio Caroline has at last been granted a Medium Wave license, they will return this year (2017) on 648kHz with a power of 1kW ERP. The arrival of Radio Caroline was reported in the Daily Herald on 8th April 1964, they closed for the first time in 1968,

Roger “Twiggy” Day talks to Ben Cree about his time on Radio Caroline:

In November 1966 Radio England closed down and Roger returned to disco work, working for, of all people, boxer Billy Walker at a new club he'd opened at Forest Gate. Then one day he dropped into the Radio Caroline offices and asked them for a job. "They were really a bit short of people, because it was coming up to the Marine Offences Bill, and most of their big name people were leaving to try and get themselves in with the BBC. So there I was, and I joined Caroline South about a month before the Bill came in." On board at that time were DJs Robbie Dale, Johnnie Walker, Steve Young, Keith Hampshire and Mike Ahern. When the Bill came along Roger, along with Robbie and Johnnie decided to stay put. "We had a choice - we could have left. They said we can't guarantee anything, but if you stay on we would appreciate it. I felt very strongly on the subject and still do. It was suppression of freedom and so I thought you've got to take a risk now and then, and they might clap us in jail - but it's something I believe in so it's worth taking a risk. Besides I thought someone's got to do it, or the listeners will be without a station that they love, and they did love Caroline - more so after we carried on. So I stayed and it proved to be the best thing I ever did because we all got on well together and had a really fantastic time.

"Fantastic or not, the story of the final demise of the two Caroline ships was to come. Roger was on board at the time. What were his recollections of that fateful morning? "It was sad - oh so sad. It's very hard to explain the feeling. But the tug came alongside and I was up to do my breakfast show - I started at 5.30 am. It was a Sunday morning and I heard this boat alongside. I was worried because we had heard a rumour that students from the University of Essex were going to capture a DJ for a Rag Week stunt - so we were on our guard. So I went up on deck and there was this big tug from Wijsmullers, which was the company that tendered us. I saw one of the Dutch crew and asked what they were doing here because they often called in for a chat if they were passing, and he said 'They have come to tow you off to Japan'. So I just laughed and went off to the washroom, then went and collected my records and went to the studio.

The Captain then came in and said, “Off with the transmitter”. I hadn’t actually started broadcasting yet- we played continuous music for half an hour to warm up the transmitter. So I was waiting to go on, and I said, “Well can I say anything?” and “Why are we going off?” To this he replied that we were going to Amsterdam for repairs, and that I had two hours to clear all my stuff out of the studio. So then we realized that we were going in- and so we threw masses of documents over the side in case the wrong people got them. These were documents referring to “paid” records – because we had been existing on “paid plays” and we felt it would be wrong if people knew which companies had been supporting us illegally- so we got rid of all the stuff and threw it over the side. I woke Johnnie up to tell him that we were being towed in. At first he thought I was joking, but when we passed one of the lightships he knew I wasn’t. We just mooched around all day – we didn’t know what to do. There was a depressed feeling about the whole thing, because although they told us we would be back in three weeks- we all knew that it was the end. And that was before we knew that the Caroline North ship had been seized as well.

What made Roger and the other DJs have this feeling? “It was literally just a feeling, because we knew that once we were in port there would be lots of hassles- you know like the British Government could have put pressure on the Dutch government to stop us going out again – that sort of thing. We all had these feelings and it was very sad – a few tears were wept I don’t mind admitting. The thing that annoyed me most was that we weren’t allowed to say anything to the listeners. I thought that for the tremendous loyalty they’d shown us, we weren’t allowed to give something back- and I mean they wouldn’t know it wasn’t our fault.

Roger Day talking to Ben Cree for Deejay and Radio Monthly

Pop Pirates (from the book "Who's Who in Pop Radio" by Peter Alex published in 1966)

By Bob Farmer (Top feature writer for Disc magazine who has seen life on a radio ship at first hand)

To the coastguard at Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, it must have been a highly dramatic early morning on Easter Sunday, 1964. Presumably, he turned on his wireless set, messed around with the metre band, was suddenly deafened by a cacophony of pop music coming from an uncharted vessel, tore to his telescope and there saw a ship sporting a Jolly Roger bobbing cheekily up and down about three and a half miles out to sea. It's also highly ridiculous romanticism to suppose that the above was the way in which the existence of Radio Caroline came to pass—but to hell with official accuracy . . . there's a really romantic touch to the brief but always exciting tale of how a bunch of Carnaby-clad, mid-Atlantic-accented young men proceeded to rob Britannia of her rule of the waves and turn her subjects into slaves of salt-water steamed radio. Having made mockery of our fondest anthem of self appraisal with a musical message of their own, it was only logical that the "pop pirates" could then cock a snook at all Government attempts to get us back to our birthright as Britons—the democratic freedom to listen to whatever we wanted on radio, as provided, of course, by the BBC. The first few days of pirate radio broadcasting were highly chaotic. Simon Dee, now ironically ensconced in Broadcasting House as the new darling among such greying disc jockeys as David Jacobs, Alan Freeman and Brian Matthew, made the initial and epoch-making announcement from Radio Caroline: "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is Radio Caroline broadcasting on 199, your all-day music station." Before the day was over, a big audience had already built up, merely by word of mouth. And as the disc jockeys, or deejays as they've become described, went to sleep, they wondered whether they would be on the air again next day. Not because of mere transmission breakdowns—and in those early days, before storms tossed ships almost on shore, or butch buccaneers raided forts for takeover bids, breakdowns seemed every-hour occurrences--but because they felt very much like the men of the Home Guard who had stood by on the beaches, pitchforks at arms, ready to sound the alarm on the impending Nazi invasion of 1940. Except that these fellows were looking towards the shore for the assault, armed with platters rather than pitchforks.

Richard Swainson, one of Caroline's pioneer pirates who now handles administration for the powerful Radio London station, recalls: "We would literally stand a sort of watch on deck in those early days, awaiting what we thought would be the inevitable Government boarding party." Swainson doesn’t suggest, but the situation seems probable, that had the Government stepped in at that stage with a boarding party they would probably have nipped Caroline and all the future stations in the bud and left prospective pirates thinking that there just wasn't any point in proceeding with plans. it would have been illegal aggression, but history has often proved that the plunderers who fight first and talk later haven't lost out. But no party came to send Caroline's pirates up the plank. Instead, as time elapsed and the most threatening action appeared to be hot air in the House of Commons, the pirates plucked up courage and expanded. Seven million listeners had been claimed by Caroline only three weeks after they had gone on the air for the first time. It was time to join the party and one morning Caroline found themselves faced by a competitor. Radio Atlanta was also on the air. Anchored fourteen miles from Caroline and geographically positioned off Harwich, Atlanta went on the air on May 9,1964. By July the stations merged and the ships parted. Atlanta stayed south and its new partner sailed off to a spot off the Isle of Man. The strangling process had begun—the BBC, who had scoffed, now saw their audience figures facing serious challenge at both ends of England. The merger between Caroline and Atlanta had been mooted even before either ship had begun broadcasting. it was a curious occasion. Pirates, it has since been proved, keep strictly segregated although their respective offices in London all seem to centre on Mayfair, by no curious coincidence an ideal area in which to bump into advertising executives. The pirates, however, tend not to drink together, eat together, talk together. Even as more powerful Parliamentary action has been hoisted, the pirates, by and large, have issued their war-cries without arming themselves jointly against their sea of troubles. Big money was behind Caroline and Atlanta, put there by impressive people like Jocelyn Stevens, rich publisher of Queen magazine. It inspired a lot of lesser businessmen to gamble on the "get-rich-quick" philosophy without sufficient finance or experience. Stationary ships started dotting the North Sea—the most practicable part of the British Isles from which to send air waves pulsing into the country as the coastline is so low lying.

But without the considerable cash needed to finance such ventures, most of their lives were short-lived, even though some cut their costs by leaping aboard the abandoned forts of the Thames Estuary, built on steel stilts and erected as part of the wartime defence programme. The forts were rickety and rather unsafe or so it seemed at the time—but none of those in operation today has actually collapsed. Uncomfortable as they were, they cost less to run. But they had neither the transmission power nor the American-influenced ideas men behind them to boost audience figures and, therefore, advertising revenue. But nobody bothered. It was all a great adventure and as one closed down, another took its place. The fort from which Radio 390 operates today was originally claimed by Radio Invicta who made way for Radio King. Radio City's fort, of infamous character following the shooting of City's owner, Reg Calvert, was originally inhabited by the motley young men gathered together by Screaming Lord Sutch. These, though, were the minnows. Caroline and Atlanta, now known as Caroline South and North had no competition until Christmas of 1964, when the highly-Americanised Radio London ship arrived off Frinton. The new station brought a team of deejays highly experienced in the art of selling themselves as much as the records. They became instant personalities and, with a series of clever, convincing, catchy jingles mode especially by an American firm and contagious catchphrases like "Wonderful Radio London" and "Big L" they soon became bosses of the pirate scene. Today Radio London have the biggest audience although the combined listening figures for the North and South Caroline ships probably exceed them. Even London, however, face a fight themselves with the emergence in their own waters of another ship—Radio England who hosted a party at the Hilton Hotel in July that was held the very evening the Government announced their intended bill to rid the country of the pirates. It was an audacious event for the party cost £10,000 to stage and attracted an impressive guest list that relied not merely on top pop names but on such distinguished actors as Sir Donald Wolfit. No pirate station is going to toss £10,000 away,(paid for in dollars, incidentally) to avoid accusations of flouting the credit squeeze if they think their future is insecure to any alarming extent. And how alarming is the future? At present, ten pirate stations operate around the British coast. Besides Caroline North and South, London, and England—which jointly transmits on the same ship with a soft-music station called Britain Radio—there are two other ships-Radio Scotland, five miles out from Troon, and Radio 270, off the coast at Scarborough—and three forts, Radio Essex, Radio 390 and Radio City.

Despite the inevitable optimism among them, the Government's intended action will certainly scuttle some of the ships (and all the forts) which operate within territorial waters. But it's the big fish-Caroline, London, England-who constitute the biggest threat to officialdom. All are threatening to employ foreign announcers, overseas advertising and get food and supplies from the same sources. The Government Bill, sponsored by the third Postmaster General to try and solve the situation, outlaws broadcasting from ships and marine structures, such as abandoned wartime forts, or from aircraft flying over the country. By early next year (1967), disc jockeys, pirate ship crews, company officials and advertisers, will be liable to terms of two years imprisonment or £100 fines.

It will become illegal to supply a ship or radio equipment for use on pirate broadcasts and to install or repair equipment, to supply goods or carry them to the stations and to transport people to or from the pirates. Supplying records or tapes for use in programmes or taking part in broadcasts is banned. Advertisers are not allowed to use the stations, and newspapers are not permitted to publish programme details. Besides believing that overseas aid will get them round the Bill, due to take effect in the New Year, the pirates protest that this Bill is against the wishes of the 25 million people they claim as their total audience. To believe that the public can save them by protest however, seems somewhat naive. But you don’t spend two weeks on ship and one only on shore for nothing. You don’t slouch around a ship with nothing to do but drink Dutch beer, watch TV, prepare programmes or simply sleep for nothing. The pirates have become a part of Britain. They know it and they wont be easy to drown.

For further reading about offshore radio see The Offshore Radio Guide, Bob Le-Roi Commercial Broadcaster and Radio Caroline