1964 – There Are Pirates Off the Coast!

Like many people, I have two conflicting view of pirates.  On the one hand, they’re law breakers, ruthless thieves, responsible to no-one but themselves.  On the other, they’re swashbuckling heroes, fearless, colourful, often righting wrongs while pursuing their own ends.  As a child, I was captivated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  Stevenson knew how to grab an impressionable boy.  There are two characters at the centre of the story, Jim Hawkins, an innkeepers son, and Long John Silver, a one-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder.  Jim is somewhat impetuous, brave, the thoughtful witness to the unfolding drama, in which he plays a key part.  Like millions of boys, I identified with Jim.  Long John Silver is the perfect ‘bad’ hero, selfish, dishonest, charismatic, and at the same time a friend to Jim.  Stevenson manages to pull off what seems impossible:  by the end of the book, we are on Silver’s side, hoping he will get away, preferably with some share of that hidden treasure.  Perfect  escapist adventure, suitably enhanced by Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary illustrations in the edition I read, sufficiently scary that some images haunted me for years.  It was only many years later I realised there were no women in the story!  Somewhere packed away is my childhood copy of Treasure Island, alongside Ballantyne’s Coral Island, both much loved, both woven into my pre-teenage life.

Piracy’s power of attraction never dissipates.  I am not referring to modern derivatives of stories like Treasure Island, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  Rather it’s the image of trickery combined with righting wrongs, and, Robin Hood-like, exploiting the rich for the benefit of the poor.  However, today’s pirates use computers, running programs designed to download albums and videos free of charge, justifying their illegal actions on the basis of ‘I know I’m breaking the law, but’.  Piracy thumbs a nose at the proper way to do things, leaving a lingering sense that what they are doing is really okay.  Betraying my ethnocentrism, it seems so British:  piracy upsets the structured and stuffy world of the affluent classes, the clumsy police, the rigid law courts, and parents, and all those rules and expectations.  Surely piracy can’t be that bad!

If there was one element of British life that exemplified the heavy hand of being good, it had to be the British Broadcasting Corporation in the 1960s, at the time when pop music, rock-and-roll, and dreams of rebellion were exciting youngsters across the country.  The BBC was the bastion of propriety, with its upper-middle class accents, worthy programs and ‘good’ music.  It was more than that.  Back in 1922, the British government gave a monopoly broadcasting licence to the BBC (initially a company, it became a non-commercial corporation five years later).  It operated under a Crown charter (in effect, an independent government agency).  What that meant in practice was the BBC’s exclusive licence prevented any risk of commercial broadcasting in the UK.  Despite this, overseas stations could and did aim their transmissions at Britain.

Exploiting that opportunity had a long history.  In 1924, François Anen built a transmitter in his Luxembourg home, ideally located to broadcast across Europe and even as far as the UK.  Watching some local stations broadcast English-language programmes, Anen set up the Luxembourg Society for Radio Studies (La Société Luxembourgeoise d’Études Radiophoniques) to pressure the government for a commercial broadcasting licence. In 1929, Luxembourg gave a monopoly licence to operate a commercial radio broadcasting station to Anen’s group, the Luxembourg Broadcasting Society, or, better known by its on-air name, Radio Luxembourg.

By 1932, Radio Luxembourg began experimenting with improved transmission to Britain, discovering that the long-wave band was very effective.  Battling international pressure, and a new agreement on wavelengths, by the beginning of 1934 Radio Luxembourg had started a regular schedule of English-language transmissions from 8:15 am to midnight on Sundays, and at various times during the rest of the week.  It was an immediate hit, and within a couple of years surveys suggested 11% of the UK  listened to Radio Luxembourg during the week, preferring it’s light music and variety programmes to those of the BBC.  Some English-language programmes were recorded in the UK and flown to Luxembourg, and by 1938 many British companies were advertising on Radio Luxembourg.  Offshore, commercial broadcasting was established.

Then the Second World War intervened.  In September 1939, the Luxembourg Government closed down Radio Luxembourg to protect the country’s neutrality. That was short lived, as German forces invaded the (tiny) country, and took over the station and its transmitters.  Now they were used for English-language propaganda broadcasts.  That lasted until 1944, when the Allies took over Luxembourg, and the station was used by the US Army – for its propaganda!

After the war, Radio Luxembourg began to resurrect its services.  For the next five years, it operated on a shoestring, and slowly but surely, sponsorship of the English service began to grow.  In 1950, much of its English long-wave service was back, and a second service, Radio Luxembourg II began on the less powerful medium wavelength.  Post-war discussions on radio services led to an agreement which allocated Radio Luxembourg two high-power frequencies, one long wave, the other on medium wave. In time, all English programming moved to medium wave, (the long wave frequency was allocated to French programmes – why, I don’t know!).

Those days must have been fun.  Radio Luxembourg and the BBC never acknowledge the existence of each other, although many famous names and media stars performed on both the stations.  Radio Luxembourg offered better pay, and contracted with well-known performers, as well as taking over shows previously heard on the BBC but with which the BBC had fallen out for one reason or another.  The list included Vera Lynn, who had wanted to extend her repertoire, and, amazingly, the popular comedy Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, which the BBC had dropped after 6 years (although the BBC was to grab it back after another two years).

For teenagers like me, Radio Luxembourg was the only station!  Initially with a crystal set, and later with a proper radio, I would often listen.  However, the medium wave was problematic.  It only worked well in the evenings (after dusk), and then storms or other atmospheric problems could reduce or obliterate listening.  Funnily enough, that made it even more desirable.  It was sort-of illegal, challenging to stay tuned to, and, without doubt, it was the station for teenagers.  We listened to Radio Luxembourg in bed while our parents were watching television!

Everything changed in 1964.  Ronan O’Rahilly, an Irish businessman, bought a decommissioned passenger ferry, and converted it into a ‘radio ship’.  O’Rahilly was as entrepreneurial and as offbeat as his name suggested.  Fundraising in the US, it is said he saw a photograph of Kennedy and his children in the White House, apparently dancing in the Oval Office as JFK looks on.  True or not, O’Rahilly’s ship was named Caroline, and Radio Caroline began broadcasting in March, initially on air from 6 am to 6 pm, and then returning at 8pm, avoiding clashes with Radio Luxembourg’s popular programmes and prime time television.  Given its daytime focus, it initially targetted women at home, but soon moved on to teenagers.  I didn’t pay much attention, as it had started operations at just the wrong time for me:  I was married, a child just born, and trying to study at university.  However, although I didn’t tune in, I certainly heard about it, and the succession of other pirate radio stations based on ships and even abandoned oil platforms.

Pirate Radio took off.  Radio Caroline was joined by Radio London, an American initiative, set up by a successful commercial broadcaster in Texas.  By 1967, several pirate radio stations were broadcasting to around 10-15 million listeners.  BBC research suggested its own Light Programme audience was unaffected; the Caroline and London stations appealed to teenagers seeking pop music, an audience for whom the BBC programmes had little relevance.

This same period also saw the launch of several presenters who were to stay popular for years.  I used to listen to Kenny Everett and Dave Cash, joint presenters of the Kenny and Cash show, and to Tony Blackburn.  Kenny Everett’s later career was with the BBC, commercial radio stations and television – a wonderful and somewhat crazy individual;  Dave Cash followed a similar career, but most of his career was at Capital Radio.  Tony Blackburn went to work with the BBC for many years, drifting in and out of various roles.  At one point, in 2016, he was sacked following the Jimmy Saville sexual abuse revelations.  However, he hadn’t been involved, nor helped cover up Saville’s actions, and was cleared and reinstated later that year.

Radio broadcasting could best be described as crazy between 1964 and 1967.  However, the BBC knew they had to change.  Responding to the success of pirate radio, it restructured into four separate broadcasting arms, Radios 1, 2, 3 & 4.  Of these, Radio 1 was targetted on the pirate radio station audience, aimed at teenagers through to 29 year-olds, while offering positions to many presenters from the competition.  That was made much easier when the government stepped in to outlaw broadcasting from international water (the loophole that had allowed Caroline and others to operate).  Once passed, the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act ensured most stations closed down immediately, although Radio Caroline continued up until 1990.

Being a pirate off the coast was no longer attractive.  However, changing technology and a hungry audience saw the piracy game continue.  Illegal, unlicensed radio moved from ships and sea-based platforms to land based operations.  Pirate stations during the 1970s recorded programmes onto cassette recorders (often powered by a car battery), and simple transmitters, some a long wire antenna slung up between two trees.  Robin Hood would have been proud.

In the 1980s, a new radio band, FM, was offering yet another path for pirates.  FM transmitters were becoming quite cheap, able to transmit over a forty-mile radius from a 15-storey building.  There was a change in focus, too.  As legal radio offered pop music, the new market was for indie music and alternative rock, as both were poorly represented on the mainstream stations.  Naturally, pirate radio continued to face opposition, especially from government authorities, claiming pirate radio interfered with transmissions from licensed broadcasters and could conflict with emergency services broadcasts.  It didn’t make much difference.  The growth of pirate radio in the 1980s was so rapid that at one point pirate radio operators outnumbered legal broadcasters, and also surpassed them in popularity. [i]  By the late 1980s, the UK government decided to offer new broadcasting licenses, especially in London.  A few pirate stations bid, but had to commit to closing down voluntarily and come off-air as part of the bidding process.  This was at the same time as a new wave of pirate radio stations emerged, based on enthusiasm for ‘rave music’.

Has the issue ever gone away?  As pirate radio persisted into the 2000s, research estimated that, “there are currently around 150 illegal radio stations in the UK. At any one time, it is believed that around half of these are transmitting in London, within the M25 area”.  It found that, “a large proportion of these are operating in London, with notable clusters in Harlesden, Stoke Newington, Southwark and Lambeth”.  [ii]  According to the research, both pirate radio listeners and those running pirate radio stations felt the licensed broadcasters failed to cater sufficiently for the needs of the diverse listening public.  Pirate radio was the best place to hear new and ‘urban music’.  Pirate radio stations were appreciated for their local relevance, too, providing information and advertisements about local community events, businesses and club nights.

While pirate radio started with music, pop music for teenagers, it had not been solely concerned with music.  There have been some political pirate radio broadcasters, too. The earliest of these was Radio Free Scotland between 1956 and 1965.  It’s approach was to use the wavelength of BBC television as soon as the service’s broadcasts ended for the day, hijacking the sound channels after closedown.  That’s what we like to see, revolutionary in two ways!  Similarly, the Voice of Nuclear Disarmament would do the same for a short period in the early 1960s in London.  Political pirate radio was quickly established.  There are many examples:  Radio Enoch, named after right wing extremist Enoch Powell, was set up by the right wing of the Conservative Party to help re-elect a conservative government.  From the other side, Our Radio, established in 1982, broadcast music, anarchism, and other left wing views to Londoners. It was partly successful because it deliberately promoted its role in avoiding the authorities. Our Radio once evaded arrest by setting up a dummy antenna for the Home Office to find.  The politics of the left loved pirate radio.  During the Miner’s Strike, (1984-5), Radio Arthur operated in the Nottinghamshire area to support the miners.  More recently, Interference FM was set up by a collective to broadcast during a ‘Carnival Against Capitalism’ demonstration in 1999

Unlicensed broadcasting addressed other needs.  One example in the 1980s was Galaxy Radio, a pirate station focussed on the UK’s black community.  Part of its mission was to: “de-brainwash the black community”, with musical programs promoting reggae and other, related genres, combined with sessions arguing for “black empowerment against a system designed to oppress our brothers and sisters”.  Pirate stations have proliferated, to the extent there are now at least 80 operating in London alone.  The situation was nicely summarised by David Rowan in 2012:  “At dusk on Christmas Day, the Evening Standard monitored 44 pirates from Waterloo Bridge, mainly playing music – garage, trance, jungle – and ignored by mainstream stations.”  Not just numbers, as pirate stations today often define both performers and genres.  One nice comment from Rowan revealed: “Remarkably, last summer the Metropolitan Police planned to advertise Operation Trident, its anti-gun campaign, on north London pirates – until Scotland Yard lawyers pointed out that this was illegal under the 1949 Wireless Telegraphy Act.” [iii]  Makes you proud!

Way back in 1964, a pirate radio station operating off the coast was something new and exciting, but today they’re no long there:  instead they’re here, all around you!

[i] These figures, and much of the other data quoted, come from Wikipedia’s entry on Pirate Radio in the UK

[ii] Illegal Broadcasting, Ofcom, 19 April 2007

[iii] David Rowan, London’s Underground Pirates, Evening Standard, 12 April 2012