Pirate Radio Milestone

Radio Caroline
Radio Caroline Photo: ITV Meridian

Precisely 50 years ago this Friday, test transmissions began for a radio station that would help to change the face of broadcasting across the UK. It would shape the laws of our land, and make superstars of the people on air. That radio station was Caroline - an unlicensed, "pirate" broadcaster, transmitting from a ship anchored just outside British waters.

In 1964 the portable transistor radio is as popular with the youth as the mobile phone is today. There's a huge demand for the new sound of pop music. But the BBC was having none of it.

Speaking in 1966, the BBC's Director of Sound Broadcasting said: "I don't think the BBC could do much in the way of providing an alternative. Look what it's doing at the moment, the Light Programme is offering 17 hours a day, and that's a deuce of a lot, of entertainment music of one kind or another."

Radio legend Keith Skues remembers the time well: "The young housewives and teenagers just loved the pop music of the day. The BBC were playing popular music but more often than not you wanted to hear the Beatles singing a particular song, you wouldn't hear it by the Beatles, you'd hear it by some showband or BBC dance orchestra or something. Basically, people at home wanted to hear the real records."

They accused us of being floating jukeboxes...

– DJ Johnny Lewis

Only Radio Luxembourg played the hits; but its signal faded in and out and they played only snippets of each song. With no licence to broadcast in the UK, offshore radio began, outside the Government's jurisdiction. Radio Caroline's first programmes were on Easter Sunday - March 28th 1964 - and millions tuned in.

"They accused us of being floating jukeboxes and that's exactly what we were!" laughs DJ Johnny Lewis. "And that's what people wanted, we were a floating jukebox. There's no need for them now but we were at the time a floating jukebox, we were the only stations playing music 24 hours a day."

The pirates were a revelation and fans such as Paul Graham, later to become a DJ on Caroline, used to queue up for tours to all the pirate ships: "We'd get on board, walk down the beach, get on board, pay our ten shillings. I was 15 at the time, and as I guess most people were all around that age group, and out we went to the ships to see the likes of Johnny Walker and Tony Blackburn and Kenny Everett and all the people that became legends."

Adds veteran broadcaster Roger Day: "When I used to go home to Margate, people just wanted to say we listen all the time and everybody did, everwhere you went they said, "oh you're that Roger Day from the boat aren't you?", it was incredible, it was like being part of a famous group. It was ridiculous really but that's the only radio there'd been, there'd been nothing like it before."

We'd put half a crown on the cartridge...

– DJ Keith Skues

Within months, the first Caroline ship went to the Isle of Man, becoming Caroline North; the Mi Amigo took its place as Caroline South. Supply boats from Ramsgate and Broadstairs kept the DJs going. But playing records on a ship isn't easy, as Keith Skues explains: "Sometimes when the record jumped, which it did with tossing and turning, pitching and all the rest of it, we'd put a half crown coin, the currency we had those days, on top of the cartridge. Didn't do it a lot of good but it stopped the record jumping."

But the British Government wasn't amused. Speaking in 1966 the then-Postmaster General Tony Benn MP said: "The pirate radio ships have no future at all, I'm quite convinced of that. And I think the sooner they're convinced of it the better. They're endangering the ship to shore radio and there's a real risk that distress at sea might not be reported because of the inadequate, fumbling handling of equipment. The pirates are a menace."

The 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences Act made the ships illegal - even if they were in international waters. All closed down - except Caroline to the fury of the authorities. They monitored, blockaded and in 1989 even took direct action.

The Ross Revenge moored at Tilbury
The Ross Revenge moored at Tilbury Credit: ITV Meridian

Caroline's manager since the late 1980s, Peter Moore, says: "The ship was raided by elements of the British and Dutch governments. And they didn't come on to the ship by dint of authority, they came on to the ship because there were a lot of them and the Dutch had guns. So, it's only a pirate radio station, we're not going to have a shooting war so effectively they took the ship over simply by force of numbers and a bit of violence and their intention was to silence the boat simply by stripping it of every item of broadcast equipment that was on it, which is what they did."

By and large, the raids backfired according to Johnny Lewis: "Best thing they ever did because it was like £20m of free advertising. We were on the front page of every newspaper in Europe for months almost. Headline news on the big national news on TV and radio, and we were getting mail from people saying "we thought you'd gone off air in the sixties, we didn't know you were still there" so what effectively the Government did was they gave us a great free advertising campaign."

But it was mother nature that did for Caroline in the end. The Mi Amigo grounded at Frinton in 1966, and sank in 1980. Its replacement, the Ross Revenge, ran aground on the Goodwin Sands off the Deal coast in 1991. It was towed to Dover and ended up in Tilbury.

Says Peter Moore: "Our choice then really was just quit or think of a new way of operating so since then we've sort of evolved into a more conventional radio station but our ideology is the same, we just want to play music to people to make them happy. We're not trying to get careers or get rich."

Radio Caroline birthday cake
Radio Caroline birthday cake Credit: ITV Meridian

Fifty years on and Caroline still has a devoted following many of whom came from all over the world to an anniversary party in Rochester just two weeks ago.

Today, Caroline broadcasts on the Internet from studios above an estate agent in Strood. Meanwhile the Ross Revenge is being restored by enthusiasts.

Radio Caroline record library
Radio Caroline record library Credit: ITV Meridian

Yet although its vinyl record library is fantastic - in a world where you can listen to any band at any time at any place on your mobile phone, is there really a place for Radio Caroline?

"Yes you can get your new music on Spotify and on iPods, that kind of thing but where's the fun?" asks Roger Day. "Where's the linking that makes you want to listen to it? You felt tha if you didn't listen you were missing out on something. Sadly radio now is a a bit dull and boring and so what, you might as well listen to your iPad."

Johnny Lewis agrees: "I think we do, I mean yeah I've got my mp3 player, I've got my CD player but I want to hear somebody communicating between songs. Not saying "that was, this is" or reading another card but actually talking to me like I'm talking to you."

And the final word goes to Peter Moore: "The UK radio industry does a brilliant job of serving its shareholders but it's so corporate they seem to have forgotten that the end product is the listener. Now we don't aim to make money, we're not career building, if we make a surplus over our running costs we'll just expand. All we want to do is entertain the listener and I think that aspect's been rather lost in British commercial radio."

Radio Caroline studio
Radio Caroline studio Credit: ITV Meridian

Six weeks after the Marine Offences Act in 1967, the BBC launched Radio 1. Legal commercial radio came to the UK six years later. Caroline fought then - and continues to fight now. With a new radio tower being installed, the hope is to get a full time legal AM licence. Yes, medium wave. The station's future will hark back to the past.