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



14 responses to “Pirate Radio

  1. had heard about this briefly before, very interesting write-up, kinda sad to know so many deserved royalties were lost………..

  2. I really enjoyed that post. What did you think of the film, “Pirate Radio.” I enjoyed it, and from reading yourpost it seems that it was fairly faithful to the truth.

    • Hi Keith
      I have not seen the film. A friend said it is kind of a comedy… sounds like it would be fun to watch. When I first heard of this “underground” radio, I was intrigued, as we have not experienced anything like it in Canada. Thanks so much for your comment!
      – Russ

  3. Keefers forgot to mention the most popular offshore station of all – Radio London. But he’s a friend, so I’ll forgive him!

    The original output of Radio Caroline South was fairly staid (although I can’t speak for Caroline North, which being well out of head office earshot tended to do its own thing.) However, at the end of 1964, Radio London sailed in from Miami, bringing the US Top Forty format and jingles, which very quickly cornered the listener market. The Caroline sound had to be revamped to compete. By 1966 (which is when the film is supposed set) most of the stations were Top Forty-based. It’s a tremendous pity the film-makers couldn’t stick to the music of that year for their soundtrack.

    Those of us who love the offshore stations were very disappointed with ‘Offshore Radio’, aka ‘The Boat That Rocked’ as were most of the former DJs. The real story is yet to be told and it’s much more interesting.

    We are developing a musical stage show that tells the offshore radio story. We offered it to Universal pictures for the film’s premieres in North America, thinking it would be good to interest the press in the facts.

    Universal did not want to know.

    • Hi Mary
      Thanks a lot for apprising me of the Radio London presence. I visited your web site… wow!
      You mentioned that Universal Pictures did not want to pick up your offer in developing a musical stage show about the real offshore radio story. I am not surprised. At the risk of getting some nickers in a twist (learned that expression from my dear Scouse wife 😉 I would suggest that North Americans are generally a bit indifferent / elitist? when it comes to recognising significant historical events beyond their myopic horizon.
      When I was preparing this piece on Pirate Radio, a few people thought my time might be better spent on other things. But I find stories like the Pirates so interesting… some might say “far out”. Knowing Keefers, as I do, I can understand what an exhilarating / heady time that must have been for him and others to be on the bleeding edge of free radio back then.
      Hey, does your musical show need a sax player ;-)?
      – Russ

  4. Hi Russ,

    I’m glad you liked the site – around 1600 pages now _ we must be mad! (I hope you found the feature about Keefers and his appearance on DLT’s ‘This is Your Life’…)

    Most of the guys who were aboard the offshore stations describe the experience as one of the best days of their lives. They forget about the boredom and the seasickness because when they came ashore they were members of the ‘in crowd’ and were treated like superstars.

    I’m sure you’re right about the indifference, but we naively thought that the fact that it was Texans who were responsible for bringing Top Forty radio and jingles to the UK, would be of national pride and the story would assist with Universal’s promotion of the film.

    I reckon the band (Caroline 199) could make use of a sax player, but I’m not sure that the pay’s very good! Please tell your wife they are from Liverpool and play regular gigs at the Cavern.


  5. John O'Leary

    We can thank Radio Luxembourg for turning John Lennon & friends onto rock & roll.

  6. Pingback: Last Song on Radio Caroline! « Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

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  8. Pleased to see the comment on Radio London as being the most popular pirate radio station in the UK. I vividly remember “The Big L” as they called it but didn’t quite last 3 years!! Given a choice I always tuned to this station in preference to Radio Caroline!!

    Radio London aka Wonderful Radio London and The Big L featured in The Who’s film “Quadrophenia”. Many Radio London jingles appear on a few of The Who’s albums also.

    The station features in the 1966 film Dateline Diamonds, which includes a few external shots of the Galaxy (the Radio London ship) and a fanciful studio re-creation of its interior.

    Radio London was parodied in the film The Boat That Rocked.

    So given the choice, until their closure, I would have gone to the Big L everytime but I am not taking credit away from Caroline who did a wonderful job.

    In 1967 the BBC introduced its new national pop station Radio 1 (which is still on air to this day), modelled largely on the successful offshore station, Radio London, and employed many of the ex-pirate DJs.

  9. All of this stuff is amazing. I did not know of “The Big L” either. Thanks so much for continuing to edify me, Alan.

  10. If you want to hear the music that was played on ‘Big L’, Caroline and the other offshore stations, listen to http://www.oldiesproject.com.

    Every week, Sundays 1100GMT repeated Wednesdays, 1800GMT they feature a Radio London Fab 40 from the current week, e.g. this week it’s from 11th December 1966.

    Unfortunately, your link to the pirate station maps is broken, but we have one covering the Thames Estuary



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