Hundreds of men slept in her beds, some of them famous household names. In the 1960’s she was discussed at length in the House of Commons, forcing a change of the law. Some believe her actions altered the result of the 1970 general election. At times of distress, men have risked their lives to save her homes from ruin. Volunteers still work for her, painting her rusting former home, treating it like a national treasure. Now the naughty young revolutionary of the 1960’s is celebrating middle age in her new home in Kent with a team of unpaid men and women tending to her every need. Caroline was born 28 March 1964.
Radio Caroline started broadcasting from a ship off the coast of Felixstowe at Easter, starting a change in British broadcasting we still see the effects of today. The pirate radio revolution was part of the huge changes in youth culture taking place in the 1960’s. The BBC had failed to offer a service to the young listeners who wanted to hear everyday, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and The Animals and other new young bands releasing records. Teenagers loved the new tiny portable radios made possible by transistors, but there was no radio station playing “pop”.
The BBC’s services were made up of the “Home Service” a mainly talk station, the Radio Four of it’s time. The “Light Programme” was a mix of entertainment including a live variety show like “Workers Playtime”, comedy with Tony Hancock, and a radio soap “Mrs Dales Diary”. There were music shows, but mainly light orchestral and requests shows, which did not include much “pop”. The “Third Programme” was a classical music station (now Radio Three). There was no equivalent to Radio One.
With no commercial radio or local radio the only current pop music radio was from the distant Radio Luxembourg, which broadcast record company sponsored music shows to Britain in the evenings. Their signal faded badly and the sponsored programmes played only parts of tracks to promote sales. You might hear just a minute of a current single with announcers talking over much of the track.
At the BBC the programme controllers were tied by a limit on the amount of “needle time”. An agreement with the Musicians Union meant that relatively few record programmes were broadcast. Any pop music programmes would include a BBC orchestra playing the latest tunes. The BBC Northern Dance Orchestra playing the Beatles and the Stones music was not what teenagers wanted!
Presenters too were of the wrong generation. The few popular music programmes were presented in a patronising, head master to pupils’ style. It was all very old school BBC.
Twenty-three-year-old Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly picked up on an idea, which had worked off the coasts of Holland and Scandinavia, to fit a ship as a radio station, which could operate outside the British territorial limit of three miles. He was managing young bands and could not get his record releases played. Radio Luxembourg was tied to sponsorship by the big record companies and the BBC would only play established artists on their one programme a week of popular music.
With powerful transmitters and generators the huge audience of London was in reach of commercial radio by transmitting from the North Sea.
He had seen pictures of Caroline, the young daughter of American president John Kennedy playing in the Oval Office at the White House. The idea of this cheeky little girl playing amid the power of the American government appealed to him and this inspired the name of his planned radio station.
The first track played by Simon Dee by Radio Caroline on Easter Saturday 1964 was “Not Fade Away” by the Rolling Stones. The station’s management and backers were not sure if the Royal Navy would be called to tow them away or if anybody was listening. Within day’s sacks of mail from listeners arrived on board. The station was an instant hit with listeners. The sheer cheek of it was part of the appeal.
Although young presenters, with a relaxed style and all day music staffed the station, the station in its early days stuck to a very British format. There was music for housewives and workers in the morning, pop music at lunchtime. Music from films and shows in the afternoons. More top twenty tracks for students returning from school and college late afternoon followed by a request show.
A second station off Essex, Radio Atlanta joined the station within a few months. Within weeks the stations merged and the original ship the MV Caroline sailed to Ramsey Bay to broadcast to the North West of the UK. The Mi Amigo stayed off Frinton-on-Sea broadcasting to the Southeast.
By Christmas 1964 the idea of broadcasting pop music to Britain from just outside the control of the authorities had started to spread. A powerful American financed station “Radio London” on board a former America Navy minesweeper dropped anchor close to Caroline. For the first time Britain had top forty format Radio staffed with largely more experienced DJ’s, some from America and Australia, where commercial top forty stations were well established.
Felixstowe, Harwich, and sometimes Ipswich ports, were used to supply the stations with crew, and supplies. The radio staff usually worked two weeks on board and one off. Liverpool Street to Ipswich station was a regular run with a taxi ride to the tender at Felixstowe Dock
The Labour government was preparing legislation to stop the broadcasts. By December 1964 the Postmaster General Tony Benn said he would try to arrange for legislation as soon a possible.
Tony Benn said in a debate in the House of Commons in May 1965:
“Whatever future there might be for local sound broadcasting in this country the pirate stations have no part of it. These stations, which started last year, were designed to force the hand of Parliament on the future development of sound radio. That has been made crystal clear many times. As I have said time and time again in the House the stealing of copyright, the endangering of the livelihood of musicians, the appropriation of wavelengths, the interference with foreign stations, the danger to shipping and ship to shore radio make the pirates a menace”
By August 1967 The Labour government of Harold Wilson, had passed a law which prohibited the supplying and advertising in an attempt to stop the broadcasts from as many as twelve radio stations on ships and disused World War Two anti-aircraft forts around the coast.
They all closed by midnight on 14 August 1967 except Caroline who defied the law and stayed on the air with Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale braving it out with one eye on the horizon watching for the Royal Navy. With all the other station closed and Radio One still weeks away it was estimated that millions of listeners were tuned in. Caroline North, supplied from the Isle of Man, was not outside the law for a couple of weeks until the Manx Parliament passed the law.
Public opinion had forced the BBC to open its own pop station and Radio One was born in September with many former pirate broadcasters making up the list of DJ’s. Radio One’s first voice was former Caroline and London DJ Tony Blackburn.
Caroline kept going until running out of money in March 1968 and their supply company towed both ships to Holland. In June 1970 Radio Caroline took over the transmitters of Radio North Sea broadcasting off the Essex coast urging listeners to vote for the Conservative party “which supported commercial radio”. The Labour government’s Postmaster General John Stonehouse authorised the jamming of the signal with a powerful transmitter near Southend. This was the only time Britain has attempted to jam a radio station. Even during the Second World War Nazi propaganda broadcasts were not jammed (They came from the Radio Luxembourg transmitters). A Caroline bus with Ronan O’Rahilly and Simon Dee on board toured key marginal seats. Ronan O’Rahilly was threatened with years of imprisonment for major infringement of the Representation of the People Act. The legal threats died away after the election.
The Conservative Party won the election. What effect did Caroline have? It was the first election in which the voting age had been lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. There was a swing of 1.5 % to 2% in marginal constituencies, most in the Southeast of the country and around London.
Ernle Money took the Ipswich seat from Labour for the Conservatives by just thirteen votes. Many would say the station had no effect, but if a handful of Ipswich teenagers were persuaded to vote Conservative then the history of Ipswich politics was changed by Radio Caroline. There was no way of measuring what effect the station had, if any, on the first time eighteen year old voters.
The Conservatives were now in power and the new Minister of Posts and Communications Christopher Chataway said that the Conservatives would keep their promise of introducing local commercial radio. Radio Orwell started broadcasting from Ipswich in October 1975. Three of the first presenters were former pirate radio crew. Andy Archer, Greg Bance, and Keith Rogers.
After the Mi Amigo returned to sea in September 1972 Caroline again broadcast from the ship off Holland before returning to the Essex coast in August 1974 where the ship weathered many storms with both the authorities and North Sea. Supplies were difficult to maintain. One pair of DJ’s, Roger Matthews and Stuart Russell were on board the tiny ship running the radio station for fourteen weeks from October 1977 to February 1978.
The Mi Amigo sunk in a gale in March 1980. The crew was rescued, in a force ten gale, as the ship lay grounded on the Long Sand Bank in the Thames estuary by the Sheerness lifeboat “Helen Turnbull” with coxswain Charlie Bowry in charge.
DJ’s Tom Anderson and Steve Gordon apologised to listeners saying they had to go as the lifeboat was waiting to take them off. Steve Gordon said “Well we are sorry to tell you that due to severe weather conditions and also the fact we are shipping quite a lot of water, we are closing down and the crew are leaving the ship”.
Tom Anderson added, “Yea, it’s not a very good occasion really. I’ll have to hurry this because the lifeboat is standing by. We are not leaving and disappearing we’re going onto the lifeboat hoping the pumps can take it, if they can we will be back if not I don’t like to say it”
Steve Gordon added, “From all of us for the moment, goodbye and God bless”. These were the last words from Caroline on the sinking Mi Amigo.
Over three years of silence was broken when the station was back off Essex with a new home. The former trawler the “Ross Revenge” with a massive 300-foot mast started pumping out music in August 1983 to the legion of Caroline fans in England, Belgium, Holland, and France.
The station was largely funded by selling airtime to Dutch and Belgian station during the daytime with Caroline broadcasting through the night. Caroline also used a second transmitter on board with obscure religious organisations paying for programmes.
The Department of Trade and Industry took a much closer interest when a second station Laser 558 arrived at Christmas 1984. The Suffolk police launch, the Sir Ian Jacob took part in a siege during 1985 to try and starve the ships of supplies. Laser lost the battle and sailed into Harwich with Ipswich skipper Patrick “Salty” Paternoster on the bridge. Caroline kept broadcasting.
The huge transmitter mast fell from the Ross Revenge a few weeks after the hurricane of 1987. The station was finally effectively put off the air when Dutch, and British authorities raided the ship and forcibly removed broadcasting equipment in August 1989.
Low power transmission continued for a while until November 1989 when the ship drifted and ran aground on the Goodwin Sands. The crew was rescued by RAF helicopter and this ship towed into Dover Harbour.
Hundreds of broadcasters started their careers with the offshore stations. Including Johnnie Walker (Caroline), Tony Blackburn (former Caroline and London), Keith Skues, John Peel and Ed Stewart (all Radio London).
The wild child of the sixties, now lives with her friends in a cosy studio in Kent and broadcasts via the Sky Satellite and the internet. Middle age has seen “The Lady” as her friends call her, in a comfortable home although her army of friends still keep the Ross Revenge ship shape at Tilbury. For more information on the station visit www.radiocaroline.co.uk