Radio Caroline, the Pirate Radio Ship That Rocked the British Music World (1965)

Nowa­days musi­cians can reach hun­dreds, thou­sands, some­times mil­lions of lis­ten­ers with a few, usu­al­ly free, online ser­vices and a min­i­mal grasp of tech­nol­o­gy. That’s not to say there aren’t still eco­nom­ic bar­ri­ers aplen­ty for the strug­gling artist, but true inde­pen­dence is not an impos­si­ble prospect.

In the 1950s and 60s, on the oth­er hand, as pop­u­lar music attained new­found com­mer­cial val­ue, musi­cians found them­selves com­plete­ly behold­en to record com­pa­nies and radio sta­tions in order to have their music heard by near­ly any­one. And those enti­ties schemed togeth­er to pro­mote cer­tain record­ings and ignore or mar­gin­al­ize oth­ers. Pay­ola, in a word, ruled the day.

In the UK, a dif­fer­ent but no less impreg­nable order pre­sent­ed itself to the aspir­ing obscu­ri­ty. Rather than cor­po­rate inter­ests and well-bribed DJs, the BBC and British gov­ern­ment, writes the Modesto Radio Muse­um, “were increas­ing­ly hos­tile toward any com­pe­ti­tion for their radio monop­oly.” (After WWII, the British Broad­cast­ing Ser­vice main­tained a monop­oly on radio, and lat­er tele­vi­sion, broad­cast­ing in the UK.) Enter the pirates.

While the phrase now denotes a class of free­boot­ers who work from their ter­mi­nals, the orig­i­nal music pirates actu­al­ly took to the seas. The first, Radio Mer­cur, “estab­lished by a group of Dan­ish busi­ness­men” in 1958, “trans­mit­ted from a small ship anchored off Copen­hagen, Den­mark.” Mer­cur inspired Radio Nord in 1960, anchored off the Swedish Coast, then the Dutch Radio Veron­i­ca that same year.

Then, in 1962, Irish man­ag­er Ronan O’Rahilly met Aus­tralian busi­ness­man Allan Craw­ford. O’Rahilly had pre­vi­ous­ly attempt­ed to launch the career of musi­cian Georgie Fame, but to no avail. Record com­pa­nies would­n’t record him, and when O’Rahilly fund­ed an album, the BBC refused to play it—he wasn’t on their favored labels, EMI and Dec­ca. So O’Rahilly and Craw­ford con­spired to cre­ate their own pirate sta­tion, Radio Car­o­line (named after the daugh­ter of John F. Kennedy).

They pur­chased their first ship, the MV Mi Ami­go, in 1963, then set about secur­ing funds and rig­ging up the ves­sel with two 10 Kilo­watt AM trans­mit­ters and a 13-ton, 165 foot anten­na mast. Broad­cast­ing from 6am to 6pm dai­ly, Radio Car­o­line man­aged to break the BBC monop­oly (and launch Georgie Fame to… well actu­al, chart-top­ping fame). In 1965, a British Pathé film crew vis­it­ed the ship, and shot the footage at the top of the post, not­ing in their nar­ra­tion that “for over a year,” Radio Car­o­line had “giv­en pop music to some­thing like 20 mil­lion lis­ten­ers,” chang­ing British pop cul­ture “with the con­nivance of almost every teenag­er in South­east Eng­land.”

The sta­tion kicked off their first broad­cast, which you can hear above, on East­er Sun­day, March 1964, with the announce­ment, “This is Radio Car­o­line on 199, your all day music sta­tion.” The very first tune they played was the Rolling Stones’ cov­er of Bud­dy Hol­ly’s “Not Fade Away” (one of the band’s first major hits). In the mid-60s pirate radio, par­tic­u­lar­ly Radio Car­o­line, helped break a num­ber of bands, intro­duc­ing eager young lis­ten­ers to The Who’s first four sin­gles, for exam­ple. (The band returned the favor by attempt­ing to give 1967’s The Who Sell Out the raw sound and feel of a pirate radio broad­cast.)

Learn more about Radio Caroline’s long and sto­ried exis­tence in the doc­u­men­tary seg­ment fur­ther up, Part 6 of DMC World’s com­pre­hen­sive The His­to­ry of DJ. The Modesto Radio Museum’s thor­ough, mul­ti­part essay series, com­plete with pho­tographs, offers a rich his­to­ry, as does Ray Clark’s book, Radio Car­o­line: The True Sto­ry of the Boat that Rocked. “The world’s most famous off­shore radio sta­tion,” is still on the air today (even though the orig­i­nal ship sank in 1980) or rather, on the web, with stream­ing pro­grams and “gad­gets and wid­gets” for Android devices, iPhones, iPads, and browsers.

It’s some­thing of an irony that they’ve end­ed up just one of hun­dreds of online stream­ing sta­tions vying for lis­ten­ers’ atten­tion, but it’s safe to say that with­out their exploits in the 60s and beyond, pop music as we know it—with all its legal and not-so-legal means of dissemination—may nev­er have spread and evolved into the myr­i­ad forms we now take for grant­ed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the 1962 Bea­t­les Demo that Dec­ca Reject­ed: “Gui­tar Groups are on Their Way Out, Mr. Epstein”

David Bowie Becomes a DJ on BBC Radio in 1979; Intro­duces Lis­ten­ers to The Vel­vet Under­ground, Talk­ing Heads, Blondie & More

Jimi Hen­drix Wreaks Hav­oc on the Lulu Show, Gets Banned From BBC (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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