We Love the Pirates! – A Tribute to Ronan O’Rahilly

Ronan O’Rahilly, who passed away last Mon­day, April 20th, was a true broad­cast­ing pio­neer. The founder of Radio Car­o­line, the ear­li­est of the off-shore sta­tions to begin reg­u­lar broad­casts to Britain in the 1960s, he launched 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 we are pay­ing trib­ute to, and remem­ber­ing, him and his immense influ­ence on British music and broad­cast­ing — and the sta­tion he found­ed. We also send our con­do­lences to Ronan’s fam­i­ly and friends — and to our friends in the whole extend­ed Radio Car­o­line fam­i­ly.

Broad­cast­ing in Britain in the ear­ly 1960s 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. Oth­er sta­tions fol­lowed, the best-known prob­a­bly being the US-backed Radio Lon­don, 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 Harold Wil­son gov­ern­ment decid­ed to ban them. The sta­tions closed down on August 14, 1967, with the excep­tion of Radio Car­o­line, which con­tin­ued to broad­cast and ulti­mate­ly became a full-licensed com­mu­ni­ty radio sta­tion broad­cast­ing album tracks to the East Coast of Eng­land.

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 — and the odd jin­gle from those days. Tune in for a day of “blasts from the past”!

Art by Anto­nio Lapone


Today’s pro­gramme is pre­sent­ed by Elrik Mer­lin.  Click here to start your play­er if your brows­er is set up to pass streams to an exter­nal play­er or can play audio streams direct (many can).

You can also lis­ten via TuneIn, either with their web site or via the TuneIn App, or on Online Radio Box — with a com­plete playlist for the past sev­en days

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