The Day That Changed British Radio Forever

Fifty years ago tomor­row, on 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”!

R-4532510-1367581882-5324 In addi­tion, at 11am and 7pm Pacif­ic Time (18:00 and 02:00 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).

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.

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