Music History

How Pirate Radio Changed Things

My family is Dutch and my parents took me to Holland for the first time when I was 12 back in the early 70s. There were a lot of things about that first trip I remember. My dad taking my sister and I through the Red Light District. Seeing Britain’s Top of the Pop for the first time. And I vividly recall listening to Radio Veronica which was a literal pirate radio station. And by pirate I mean offshore on a ship. I thought that was the coolest thing I ever heard.

Time has a piece on how pirate radio changed thing in Britain:

The British pop invasion that took over American airwaves in the 1960s might never have happened, had it not been for a radio revolution in the United Kingdom.
In 1964, there was nowhere easy for British youngsters to listen to rock ‘n’ rollers like The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones. Commercial radio wasn’t yet an option, and the guardians of the publicly-owned British Broadcasting Corporation considered such music immoral, antisocial and unfit for public broadcast. Yet just three years later, on Sept. 30, 1967 — a half-century ago this Saturday — the BBC switched on the transmitters of Radio 1, the country’s first dedicated popular music station.
What happened to change their minds? The answer to that question — and the story of how pop music came to the FM dial in the U.K. — involves illegal offshore broadcasters, a gutsy Irishman and a murder acquittal.

On the beginnings of Radio Caroline:

The Irishman’s name was Ronan O’Rahilly, a small-time businessman who dabbled in the record industry. He realized that a station using a transmitter on a ship anchored 5.5km from the coast would be outside British territorial waters, and therefore not subject to broadcasting laws. He named it Radio Caroline, reportedly after seeing a picture of a young Caroline Kennedy dancing in the Oval Office that, to him, represented a playful disruption of authority. The idea wasn’t original: the U.S.-backed Voice of America had already been anchored in the Mediterranean promoting a westernized worldview to communist lands. But Caroline was the first station to make waves in the music radio industry. On March 28, 1964, the pirate radio station made its first broadcast, unsure of who could hear or who was listening.
One of the first DJs on Radio Caroline was Tony Blackburn, whose experience of broadcasting was limited to his love of Radio Luxembourg, a European station playing pop hits that could occasionally be picked up from within the U.K. He applied after seeing a small advertisement in the New Musical Express, the country’s definitive music magazine, and was invited to come aboard. Being free from the British authorities meant being free from record company and artist rights’ restrictions. Radio Caroline could import the American Top 40 format: playing today’s biggest hits repeatedly and giving tomorrow’s the time to climb. “I remember hearing Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’ for the first time, thinking that it was terrific, that was probably the first pirate radio hit,” Blackburn tells TIME. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks all came after.

And the interest grew:

Not all the DJs were British. Mike Pasternak, 74, a Californian better known on the airwaves as Emperor Rosko, still wears a black baseball cap adorned with a white skull and crossbones. “I saw a floating hunk of rust,” he tells TIME about the first time he set eyes upon the Mi Amigo, the ex-German Navy ship that was home to Radio Caroline. Rosko, unlike Blackburn, had already worked on radio for two years before Caroline, for the military onboard an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. “The poor British guys had the love of it but they didn’t have the technique,” he said.
Both DJs insist that life was wildly different from the booze- and drug-fueled depiction of the boat in Richard Curtis’ 2009 film The Boat That Rocked, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman as Emperor Rosko. “We were allowed two beers a day,” said Blackburn, who later moved to another offshore station, Radio London. “If you’ve got people drunk and staggering all over the place full of drugs and beer you know it’s dangerous. If you fell over the side you’d drown, never survive it.” Entertainment activities were limited to planning the show, watching TV, sunbathing and playing cards. Sometimes boats would bring tourists alongside the Mi Amigo and a few women would come aboard “for a cup of tea,” as Pasternak puts it.

Read the entire, fascinating story here.

Larry Lootsteen

Music is life and I love to write about all things music. Independent music blogger. Writer in general. I am a big fan of alternative and indie music but there's no genre I haven't found something to like.

Larry Lootsteen has 630 posts and counting. See all posts by Larry Lootsteen

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