On this day in 1964, on the good ship MV Caroline, anchored three miles offshore from Felixstowe on the British coast, Radio Caroline emitted its first-ever test broadcasts. It was Good Friday and the day after, Saturday, the station started broadcasting its regular programming of rock music.
Radio piracy is as old as radio itself, and amateur DJs, political activists and others have managed to transmit outside of regulations for years. 1960s Britain, in particular, gave raise to many popular yet unlawful transmissions, and the advent of the ingenious offshore station. Leading the way was Radio Caroline–set up by Ronan O’Rahilly to offer an alternative to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s monopoly of the airwaves, and to the dominance of the major record labels.
O’Rahilly was a music promoter but he wasn’t able to convince conventional broadcasters to play any of his new acts on the airwaves, and so he took matters into his own hands. As the project was unlicensed it was effectively a pirate radio station, and to avoid immediate prosecution it was set up outside of British territorial waters, exploiting a short-lived legal loophole. O’Rahilly and his team acquired a former Danish ferry–the Fredericia–renamed it the MV Caroline, and set sail for a safe mooring just off the Suffolk shoreline.
Radio Caroline was operating at the dawn of the rock and roll era, and it specialised in tracks–including more obscure rarities and album tracks–from bands that were rarely heard on the radio at the time, like Uriah Heep, Humble Pie, and the Beatles. Its success kick-started a wave of alternative pirate radio stations, and at the height of their success 20 to 30 stations were broadcasting to a daily audience of 15 million (over a quarter of the UK population at the time).
O’Rahilly’s station took its name from Caroline Kennedy, daughter of JFK and Jackie O, as he was entranced by newspaper photos of the Kennedy administration. Although Radio Caroline referenced the USA’s most illustrious Democrat dynasty, in the UK the station had all sorts of conflicts with the incumbent Labour government, and even broadcasted pro-Conservative messages at the time of the 1970 election (which the conservatives won). On 14 August 1967 the passing of the Marine Offences Act effectively outlawed pirate radio boats, but Radio Caroline transferred its operations to the liberal Netherlands to continue broadcasting.
For the next couple of decades, Radio Caroline continued to operate one way or another–on different ships in different locations, both in the UK and Europe–although its best days were behind it. The station coped with all sorts of setbacks, including government raids and running aground and even a shipwreck, and despite all this it still continues to broadcast as a 24-hour radio station. In retrospect Ronan O’Rahilly’s invention of pirate radio was, without a doubt, an important precursor for the vast variety of music and radio programmes available to us today, especially on the internet.
Credit: © Daily Mail/Rex / Alamy
Caption: The current home of Radio Caroline is the Ross Revenge, a 1000-tonne trawler.