Daily Archives: April 27, 2010

Pirate Radio

Our current freedom to enjoy just about any type of music available today via a multiplicity of channels has not come easy.  Ironically, any freedom, it seems, comes with a price.

Here’s an example. Back in the 1960’s, in some parts of the world, Pop music could be heard only by listening to an “underground” movement known as Pirate Radio. If you didn’t live in the UK or Europe you may never have heard of this.

The governments of the day controlled what was allowed to go over the airwaves. In England, for example, the BBC was regulated such that they could carry only certain “wholesome” radio shows.

I think I read somewhere that Pop music was only to be aired for about 2 hours on a Sunday evening in some places. Needless to say, a lot of young people, were longing to hear “their” kind of music, Rock n Roll, R&B, Blues, jazz, but this was not what was going over the air.

At that time, radio licensing was limited to physical land boundaries, so some enterprising individuals got the bright idea of transmitting from stations based offshore, and they set up ships in international waters just beyond these jurisdictions.

In 1958, Denmark started receiving signals from offshore Radio Mercur. Then there was Radio Veronica.

For the UK, starting around 1964 there was Radio Caroline, broadcasting from two ships at 50,000 watts each vessel to 8 million people.

One of the essential differences between Pirate Radio and “authorized” stations was that their early radio format had the freedom to play what they wanted. They didn’t even have playlists. They played what their audience wanted to hear.

According to my friend, Keith Hampshire, who was a DJ aboard Radio Caroline who hosted “Keefers Commotion”,

“There were no rules, no guidelines, no nothing! I honestly believe it was the greatest radio the world will ever know. It is what radio was meant to be – all things to all people, but above all else, communication.”

With these stations dishing out non-stop Pop music from international waters, more than 65 % of young audiences were now moving away from the BBC.

Here are some sample audio clips:

Sample sample of "Keefers Commotion" from Radio Caroline
(thanks to Thule Thulesen in Denmark, Aug.10)

Sample of Keefers DJ Theme "Sidewinder"

Sample of Mike Raven's Theme "Liverpool Drive"

Sample song - Petula Clark
"I Couldn't Be Without Your Love"

But as time went on…

With uncompromising government pressures, e.g. in the UK the passing of the Marine Offences Act (MOA) in 1967, one by one these stations were sadly dismantled.

Here’s a snippet of one of Radio Caroline‘s last broadcasts:

If you think about it, today in a lot of ways we are still limited in what we can hear on commercial radio. Playlists abound and content is dictated to a large extent by revenue dollars, demographics, big name artists, and some not now so big record companies. There are syndicated radio formats geared to advertising packages and formulae.

So what impact do you think Pirate Radio may have had on our music?

Hampshire says:

It changed musical history. It changed the radio industry! Back then you may never have had the chance to hear The Rolling Stones, Tom Jones, The Animals, The Kinks, Gerry and The Pacemakers. The BBC was playing only Andy Williams, Shirley Bassey, and other middle of the road stuff. Every week on the boat we’d get stacks of records to review for airplay. We’d turf out most of them, but I can remember one time we got one by ‘Procol Harum’, who, at that time were virtually unknown. Yet, one of our DJs could tell that this was special and he had the courage to give it some rotation. The rest is history… In 1967 ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ became a huge hit, going to #1 for weeks. Meanwhile in USA, “#1” was “My Baby Does the Hanky Panky!”

What impact?  With powerful transmitters, The Pirates introduced a ton of American music to the UK (and close Europe). I think they also proved that where there’s a will, there’s a way… a way for entrepreneurs and music producers to fly in the face of adversity and stick to their guns about having freedom of choice. Ultimately, due to public pressure, the UK government changed their stance and belatedly set up BBC Radio 1 (for teenagers!).

Today the music industry continues to evolve. With computers and the Internet, we see today a lot of Indie artists now producing their music without going through major record labels. Record companies are fading away or having less influence over the way music is distributed and sold. Internet-based revenue models are taking over. Free downloads, Internet radio and podcasts are just a few examples of new freedoms that we take for granted.

Just imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have such things as the gutsy spirit of Pirate Radio and other ways of “thinking outside the land“. How free would our music really be?

On the other hand (there’s always another hand, right?) – what about the musicians that missed getting royalties from this type of airplay? Hmmmm… the saga continues…

– Russ Strathdee © Apr 2010


For more information, you can check out these links:
1. Radio Caroline

2. Pirate Radio Hall of Fame