Fifty-two years ago, on Good Friday, 27 March 1964, Radio Caroline began test transmissions from a ship moored off the Essex coast, on 1520 kHz, announced as 199 metres, and started regular broadcasts the next day. It was the beginning of one of the most lively periods of broadcasting – and music – in British history: the era of offshore stations broadcasting from ships and disused sea-forts around the British coast: the so-called “pirate stations”.
Today on Radio Riel’s Main Stream we relive the days of the pirate stations with the best of the pop music of the 1960s, including artists who were specifically promoted by the stations, such as David McWilliams, liberally peppered with trailers, authentic jingles and “last hour” recordings from the “watery wireless days” – jingles that were often sourced from leading US jingle supplier PAMS in Dallas and may well be familiar to US listeners. Tune in for a day of “blasts from the past”!
In addition, at 1pm and 9pm Pacific Time (20:00 and 04:00 GMT), tune in for one of the first audio documentaries on offshore radio in Europe, covering the 1950s to the early 1970s: The History of Offshore Radio by Paul Harris (recorded in 1970).
And join us at the usual time of 11am and 7pm Pacific (18:00 and 02:00 GMT) for the next two instalments of our classic radio serial, The Fourth Tower of Inverness from ZBS Foundation.
Broadcasting in Britain was characterised by the rather unusual fact that it had commercial television (from 1956) before it had commercial radio. Pressure groups had worked for legal commercial radio over the years since then but had failed. There had been commercial stations broadcasting to Britain from mainland Europe in the form of Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg as early as the 1930s (Luxembourg came back on the air after the Second World War; Normandy did not).
However in 1960 the first attempt to broadcast to Britain from the high seas came in the form of test transmissions from CNBC, the Commercial Neutral Broadcasting Company, from the Radio Veronica radio ship moored off the Netherlands – one of several in international waters around Europe that attempted to break local broadcasting monopolies during this period. This eventually came to nothing, but it gave people ideas, and in 1964 Radio Caroline went on the air, followed by Radio Atlanta. Soon the two organisations joined forces and became Radio Caroline North and South — the MV Mi Amigo, shown above, became the Radio Caroline South vessel. Other stations followed, the best-known probably being the US-backed Radio London (“Big L”, from the MV Galaxy), along with Radio England and Britain Radio; there were also stations based on World War II forts in the Thames estuary such as Radio City.
These stations primarily played popular music, and essentially brought the sound of American-style Top 40 radio to the UK for the first time. Within months they had audiences in the millions, and there was an outcry when the then-government of Harold Wilson decided to ban them – a move which, it has been argued, permanently lost the Labour party significant support in the East of England. The stations closed down on August 14, 1967, with the exception of Radio Caroline, which continued to broadcast and ultimately became a legal satellite, and then internet-based, broadcaster, which it remains today. The era was the inspiration for the movie The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio).
Today’s programme is presented by Elrik Merlin. If you are tuning in from Canada or the United States, please click here. Otherwise, click here to start your player, if your browser is configured to do so.