Arrrgh! ’Tis Pirate Radio My Friend!
England. 1964. Rock-N-Roll is a teenager growing from the Do-Wopp ’50s bands to Elvis, and now to England’s own Beatles. Beatle-mania is sweeping through Europe and heading toward the United States. Yet, you can almost never hear a song from the Beatles on the radio in England. The BBC holds a monopoly on the British airwaves, and, due to their longstanding agreements, will only play recordings of artists for a few hours a week (and at very odd hours). Do not worry, the BBC can, and does, use its own orchestra to play renditions of Beatles songs. Oh, boy!
Enter Radio Caroline. Ronan O’Rahilly secures an ocean trawler, outfits it with studio equipment for a radio station, and adds a 100 foot high transmission tower. O’Rahilly anchors the vessel three miles off the coast of England in international waters and blasts Rock-N-Roll. The DJs live aboard for two or three weeks at a time and appear as early forms of some crazy radio crew with different, outlandish personalities and cult-like followings. Being in international waters, no radio license is required. Hence, Radio Caroline is considered Pirate Radio.
Radio Caroline is an instant hit. In fact, it is so successful that two boats are deployed with the Caroline North and Caroline South. Full radio coverage for England! Let the Beatles, Stones and all their friends rock on. Other ships from different companies join the mix and soon the BBC is challenged by the Carolines, Radio London, Radio 270, and Radio Scotland. Being operated by DJs and musician types, keeping a radio station afloat while on the high seas was not always easy. In one instance, the Caroline North lost power for half a day when someone plugged in a toaster which was one too many amps for the electrical system.
Radio Caroline had no problem attracting advertisers as their audiences, while not official, numbered in the millions. The Pirate Radio stations also saved substantial sums as they played music royalty-free in international waters. Instead of outrage in not receiving royalties, record companies and rock artists themselves sent their works directly to the Pirate Radio stations and requested that their songs be added to the playlists. In fact, a number of record companies offered additional “encouragement” to have their artists’ music played on air. The blatant bribery practice became known as “Payola”. Many artists saw it as a badge of honor to support Radio Caroline as no support was forthcoming from the BBC. These artists made cameo appearances on the Carolines.
The stodgy BBC could not help but take notice of the upstart Pirate Radio stations. Yet, the BBC made no changes in their own programming or approach until 1967. The BBC played the “If you can’t beat ‘em, destroy ‘em” card in 1967. The BBC lobbied Parliament alleging that Pirate Radio stations posed a threat to shipping interests. The Pirate Radio signals might interfere with emergency shipping radio frequencies. Ah, the good old BBC worried about the safety and well-being of shipping so much that it lobbied for new maritime laws. That sounds right for the business of the BBC.
In addition, the BBC argued on behalf of the Rock-N-Roll artists, the very same artists the BBC refused to play on its stations, claiming it unfair that these artists did not receive royalties. As noted, these artists and their record companies voluntarily sent their music to the Pirate Radio stations and enticed the stations to play the music. It appears that this newfound “moral outrage” for the benefit of others drove the BBC.
Parliament passed the Marine Broadcasting Offenses Act in 1967 making it a crime to broadcast radio signals into England which could possibly interfere with emergency shipping frequencies. The penalty for any broadcaster, including the DJs themselves, was 400 Pounds and two years in jail. The Act would take effect on August 15, 1967. In response, Radio London, Radio 270, and Radio Scotland ceased broadcasting on August 14, 1967. Place those stations in the “beat ’em” category. At the stroke of Midnight, Radio Caroline proudly announced that the Carolines remained on the air and continued with Rock-N-Roll songs. For a number of months, Radio Caroline continued with no enforcement action against the owners or the DJs. Radio Caroline, the sole remaining Pirate Radio station, became more popular than ever.
Within the next year, the BBC then played its “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” card. BBC launched its own full time Rock-N-Roll channel. The BBC reached out for the Pirate Radio DJs and offered substantial pay for a job with no legal risk and not having to live of a ship for weeks at a time. Many DJs left for the BBC. At that point, O’Rahilly could have declared victory, claimed that he forced the BBC to change formats, and folded up his operation with a nice profit. Unfortunately, O’Rahilly refused to let go and watched as he lost his DJs, and then lost sponsor after sponsor as the audience continued to shrink. A few years later, the Carolines were sold off for scrap by the creditors. An inglorious ending, but somehow fitting for a Rock-N-Roll story.
In later years, when asked how he came up with the name Caroline for his ships, O’Rahilly told the story of a photograph of a very young Caroline Kennedy playing under JFK’s desk in the Oval Office. Caroline wore a wide smile while all the grown ups had to pause with the business of running the United States government while a child played. That is what O’Rahilly wanted: have fun while totally disrupting the business of radio. Perhaps Pirate Radio off the coast of England became a shipwreck of sorts, but O’Rahilly got his Caroline moment.