Radio Piracy On The High Seas: Commercial Demand For Taboo Music

The true story of pirate radio is a complicated fight over the airwaves. Maybe you have a picture in your mind of some kid in his mom’s basement playing records, but the pirate stations we are thinking about — Radio Caroline and Radio Northsea International — were major business operations. They were perfectly ordinary radio stations except they operated from ships at sea to avoid falling under the jurisdiction of a particular government.

Back then many governments were not particularly fond of rock music. People wanted it though, and because people did, advertisers wanted to capitalize on it. When people want to spend money but can’t, entrepreneurs will find a way to deliver what is desired. That’s exactly what happened.

Of course, if that’s all there was to it, this wouldn’t be interesting. But the story is one of intrigue with armed boardings, distress calls interrupting music programs, and fire bombings. Most radio stations don’t have to deal with those events. Surprisingly, at least one of these iconic stations is still around — in a manner of speaking, anyway.

Why a Ship?

In 1964, Ronan O’Rahilly decided there was a market in the United Kingdom for rock music. O’Rahilly — an Irish musician manager — was frustrated he could not get airplay for artists he represented. The major record labels had control of the limited amount of rock programming allocated on government-sanctioned stations. His solution was to start his own radio station. However, in the UK only the government — the BBC — were permitted to broadcast radio programs. Britain didn’t open up the airwaves to domestic competitors until 1973. If O’Rahily were only going to do shortwave, he might have opened a station anywhere, but the first broadcasts were on the AM band (1520 kHz) so the transmitter needed to be close to the intended audience.

The solution was to put the transmitter on a ship and keep it in international waters near the intended audience. This wasn’t a new idea. Stations operating outside the law sprung up almost as soon as there were laws. Radio Mercur was the first known case of high-seas broadcast radio, operating off the coast of Denmark in 1958. Even some legitimate broadcasters — like the Voice of America — used a ship to put transmitters near the Eastern Bloc as early as 1952. Anchored off the coast of Greece, they had the Greek government’s permission to be there. So despite Moscow’s feelings about the matter, they were not technically pirates.

However, the situation in the UK was even more complex. The government required, at that time, a license fee for a radio receiver. Part of that license prohibits the licensee from listening to unauthorized — well, perhaps unauthorised, since it is English — broadcasts. So, in theory, just listening to a radio station in another country like the popular Radio Luxembourg, was technically against the law. This wasn’t really enforceable. As an aside, the radio set license ended in 1971, but there is still a license required for TV sets today.

O’Rahilly wasn’t the only one who noticed the gap between public demand and the radio monopoly. Radio Atlanta was struggling to beat O’Rahilly to be the first on the air.

The Ships

O’Rahilly took on six investors and bought a 702 ton passenger ferry, the Fredericia. It was fitted out for radio service, rechristened the MV Caroline, and anchored off Felixstowe in 1964 to begin broadcasts. Project Atlanta was working on the MV Mi Amigo. However, the two ventures merged and the Mi Amigo started broadcasting as Radio Caroline South while the Caroline became Radio Caroline North, moving to the waters off the Isle of Man. This allowed coverage of most of the UK. The two stations sometimes played the same prerecorded programming.

The audience for Radio Caroline quickly topped 10 million. After merging with project Atlanta, Radio Caroline South was losing audience to Radio London, another pirate station launched by a Texan, Don Pierson, after reading about Radio Caroline and Atlanta. Radio London operated from MV Galaxy, a former U.S. Navy minesweeper. You can watch a movie short from around that time where a film crew visited the Caroline below.

The merger between Caroline and Atlanta had left O’Rahilly with a co-director, Allan Crawford. O’Rahilly bought out Crawford and set out to regain audience from Radio London. An increase in power and change of frequency succeeded, and Caroline’s audience exceeded 23 million.

When the movie cameras arrived a year later, there was no doubt that radio Caroline was a success. You can see the video below, which oddly reminded us of a Beatles movie.

Pirate Violence

So far, the story just sounds like some slightly shady business dealings. However, a pirate station, Radio City, operating from a marine fort off the coast of Kent caused the first real legal problems. Radio Caroline wanted to acquire Radio City and one of Caroline’s directors — Oliver Smedley — made a deal with Radio City’s Reginald Calvert to upgrade the station’s transmitter. However, the transmitter didn’t work out and the deal fell apart. Smedley sent ten men to recover the transmitter. Calvert went to Smedley’s home to demand the men leave. A violent struggle ensued leaving Calvert shot dead.

Initially, Smedley was charged with murder, but this was eventually reduced to manslaughter and at trial, a jury acquitted him.

Politics

In 1967 the UK made it illegal to supply or purchase advertising from the illegal pirate broadcasters. Reasons cited included interference to other ships, not paying royalties to record companies, and violation of international agreements.

This law shut down at least two stations, Radio London and Radio 270. Radio Caroline just moved their supply operations to the Netherlands which didn’t pass a law prohibiting commerce with pirate broadcasters until 1974.

The law had two other effects, though. Radio Caroline started going by Radio Caroline International. In addition, the BBC hired most of Radio London’s DJs and started BBC Radio 1, which had a similar format to Radio London.

Under Attack

Radio Caroline was getting resupply from the Netherlands, but they apparently failed to pay some of their bills. Early 1968, the ships were boarded and towed to the Netherlands because of non-payment, causing the station to go silent. At about the same time a few land-based pirate stations without the reach of the large ship-based transmitters began using the Radio Caroline name.

The real drama, however, came aboard another pirate station: Radio North Sea International (RNI). RNI started as an attempt to use the Galaxy (the old Radio London ship) to start another radio station. That project didn’t make it, but it did lead to the building of the Mebo II which by 1970 was anchored in international waters near Clacton. She could broadcast on four different frequencies at once, including FM and shortwave. The huge transmitters were capable of 105 kW, although typically ran at about 60 kW. You can see a 1970 news report about RNI, below.

During the 1970 general election the UK government, controlled by the Labour party at the time, started jamming RNI. RNI briefly changed their name to Radio Caroline International (with O’Rahilly’s support), and started a vigorous political campaign for the Conservative party who supported commercial radio. After the election, RNI changed its name back, but jamming continued. There was some innuendo that RNI was broadcasting coded messages to East Germany, although that’s far from certain.

But it was late 1970 when the attacks went beyond the electronic. A failed deal with a nightclub owner named Manders went very wrong. It isn’t clear exactly what caused it, but Manders showed up with a tug boat. He approached the Mebo II in a launch, reportedly carrying a woman and a child to deter attacks.

DJs for the station made breaks in programming to report they were under attack and asked listeners to phone their main office to report it. Remember, there were no satellite phones in 1970. The tug threatened to spray water on the antenna until the Mebo II crew told them it would electrocute everyone on the tug. That seems unlikely, but it did deter them from trying it. Eventually, the tug departed, but a Dutch Navy frigate came alongside.

Mayday!

Radio Veronica, another offshore station which was popular in the Netherlands, were afraid all this drama would lead to the Dutch government shutting them down. Their solution was to pay off RNI with about 100,000 pounds to shut down. That deal lasted for four months and then RNI resumed in both English and Dutch. But that wasn’t all the drama in store for RNI.

Have you ever been listening to music and the DJ stops the song to call mayday? Me neither. But that’s what happened on May 15, 1971 if you were listening to RNI. A small boat came alongside Mebo II and threw a bomb which started a fire.

Mebo II was abandoned overnight and required repairs at sea. Three men were arrested in Amsterdam in relation to the bombing, with two subsequent arrests of people associated with Radio Veronica. Apparently, Radio Veronica had paid to force Mebo II out of international waters, where the crew could be arrested or the ship seized by creditors. This led to a year in prison for the perpetrators and also a law preventing the supply of pirate radio ships from the Netherlands.

RNI operated through most of 1974, but finally went off the air for good. The ships were eventually sold to Libya where they continued to broadcast until the 1980s when the Libyan Navy sank them for target practice.

Radio Caroline Today

So was that really the end of pirate radio? Not exactly. Radio Caroline survives today as an Internet stream, and they have dabbled in satellite radio. You can read their version of their history on their web site. In 2017, Radio Caroline went legit with a real AM radio license. If you aren’t close enough to pick up Bradwell-on-Sea with your transistor radio, there’s always Radio Garden.

The adjoining photograph shows the MV Ross Revenge, one of radio Caroline’s later ships that still serves as a pirate radio museum, broadcast studio, and occasional low power longwave transmitter.

There’s also a current website for RNI, although it looks like it is really just an homage started by Garry Stevens in 2008. As of 2016, the station is now run by Zhang Yong in China. You can listen to it streaming, and apparently in some parts of the world on AM and FM. If you are interested in shipboard broadcast stations, you can find a comprehensive treatment on the Broadcast Fleet website. It even includes legal ships.

Photo credits:

32 thoughts on “Radio Piracy On The High Seas: Commercial Demand For Taboo Music

    1. It was called the Voice of Peace in 1975 and I do recall hearing it quite well on an inexpensive portable radio in Jerusalem. I believe the owners of the operation were Israeli and would transmit the Israeli news on the hour.

      However, they weren’t confined to the Mediterranean Sea. They did make a trip through the Suez Canal to broadcast toward Akkaba and Elat.

      FMI: https://thevoiceofpeace.co.il/about&supportus.php

    2. You still can hear the Voice of Peace on 100FM in Israel, the Radius 100FM application or 100fm.co.il every weekday at 18.00 local Israel time on the Israeli radio station Radius 100FM

  1. I remember both Caroline and North Sea International well and years layer would end up working with Caroline DJ John Foster and be shown his photos of the transmitter and studio and his tales of the night he was on board and the fire started and their rescue.

  2. Great piece of history, I love to read about people fighting against stupid law and government monopolies. Here in Poland there was pirate radio “Solidarność” with non-censored political news in the ’80s and tens or hundreds of hobby or half professional radio and tv pirate stations in early ’90s before government said that it’s too much freedom and only their good friends should have right to emit.

  3. I remember with pleasure listening to Radio Caroline at night in the period of 1976-81 when I lived in the UK. In the daytime, it was Radio Mi Amigo in Dutch, not the same programming but still fun to listen to.

    1. I thought that too, it’s called Dazzle Camouflage which was used in WW1. It makes it hard to differentiate the bow from the stern (thus it’s difficult to provide accurate targetting information). The introduction of radar targetting during WW2 made such fancy paint jobs obsolete. I would be surprised if they found a ship still supporting the WW1 era camouflage and so would say they did this themselves for the psychedelic look and not for the camouflage. As I understand these radio ships were moored in place so there would be no need to disguise your course and direction – Plus your firing out easily trackable high power radio waves.

    1. Interesting. Did you read the article? I missed the part where it was stated, that ignoring the law turned out well, for the anarchists. Respectfully whenever I read comments like your, I to wonder if comments liker yours are posted by those who only care about themselves unconcerned about others Not the merchants are any better, but in regard to the RF spectrum the merchants are unlikely to create an unusable chaos. Anyone wanting to play broadcasting magnate, come out here where the owls get the chickens, many unoccupied FM channels.

      1. I understand and respect the need for organization of the RF spectrum, but the total control the U.K. had on radio broadcasting during the time of the pirates was not about RF it was about freedom of speech, and the pirates, warts and all, forced the government to open the airwaves to legitimate alternative broadcasters (who respected the RF spectrum, licencees and all) and gave the people what they wanted and had a right too. I thought anyone who read my comment would have seen it was obviously about freedom of speech and not errant radio emissions, but I guess the anally retentive brigade has proven me wrong again.

        1. During my attempt to edit my response to your comment to two sentences, my comment was posted without the edit. While it may be anally retentive; it’s a long stretch to interpret your comment as freedom of speech.

          1. Doug, you statist. Go read a book, declaring free speech as criminal activity dosent make everyone who dont comply an anarchist. And restricting the ways and means of free speech is tyranny nevertheless.

  4. Was a major bummer that the NB was able to kill not for profit NBFM broadcasting here in US. Nothing scare merchants more than successful not for profit enterprise. Not that I’m against profit, just don’t like it’s undue influence. Article about tings I learned of before, that’s OK, as it may be news to others.

  5. “The tug threatened to spray water on the antenna until the Mebo II crew told them it would electrocute everyone on the tug. That seems unlikely, but it did deter them from trying it.”

    Actually seems quite likely to me. Sea water is conductive, and actual antennas have been made out of it! RF burns are not much fun, and I’ve only experienced small ones. 60 KW is a lot of power, and a human body wouldn’t last long if it became part of the circuit. Think full body electrocautery.

    1. That’s assuming the water was a good conductor and connected to everyone on board somehow. I would think the resistance of the flowing water would be pretty high and it’s very unlikely that anyone would be in contact with the water or that there would be an electrical path from the water to everybody on the ship. I guess anything’s possible though.

  6. No mention of Mi-Amigo ‘Shipping a lot of water’, Laser558/Hot-Hits 576, Stereo Hits from the MV Nannell (stalled) or Monique, Multi Government raids on the Ross in 1989 etc.
    A potted history, but somewhat incomplete (I had RNI on under the bedclothes c 1972-4) and so miss the mid-eighties broadcasts.
    A whole load of land-based and ship-based recordings of this era are available at AZanoraks.com password free radio, I have hours on my iPhone to listen to on long journeys, think of it as a later day Sony Walkman

  7. “continued to broadcast until the 1980s when the Libyan Navy sank them for target practice”

    I mean, they didn’t sink the Ross Revenge. Your reportage stops a bit short. If you want the real story, read “Shiprocked: Life on the Waves with Radio Caroline” by Steve Conway.

  8. I first started listening to pirate radio when I was 14 it was Radio Scotland, for decades I have built up a massive library of cassettes of the pirates (over 3500) which I have in a room especially converted as a shrine to pirate Radio. Again for decades I swapped recordings with like minded collectors from all over the world. I’m 65 now so there isn’t much in the way of recordings I don’t have. I have supplied recordings to a lot of legal stations over the years to assist in documentaries. Don’t know what will happen to the collection when I pop my clogs will probably donate it the the UK Radio Museum
    Pirates In International Waters on eBay have a lot of my recordings which I have freely provided them with,

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