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The Battle for Pirate Gold

PUBLISHED: 15:28 04 July 2014 | UPDATED: 15:28 04 July 2014

A very young Tony Blackburn by Dave Kindred on the Radio Caroline ship Mi Amigo in 1965.

A very young Tony Blackburn by Dave Kindred on the Radio Caroline ship Mi Amigo in 1965.

BBC Essex DJ Ray Clark shares his memories of the pirate battle for the airways in the mid-1960s and how Radio Caroline brought pop music to the masses for the first time in history

The original Radio Caroline ship, which was moored of Felixstowe not far from the Cork lightship in March 1964. The ship was within sight of the seafront until it sailed to the Isle of Man to become Caroline North in May 1964. The Mi Amigo off Frinton took over as Caroline South. Photo by Dave KindredThe original Radio Caroline ship, which was moored of Felixstowe not far from the Cork lightship in March 1964. The ship was within sight of the seafront until it sailed to the Isle of Man to become Caroline North in May 1964. The Mi Amigo off Frinton took over as Caroline South. Photo by Dave Kindred

If you turned a radio on in the UK searching for pop music prior to Easter 1964, the chances are you’d have been disappointed. There were only three radio choices, all provided by the BBC: the Home Service, the Third Programme and the Light Programme. Unless you were tuning in to the weekly Pick of the Pops programme, it was unlikely that you’d hear any song that was in the charts — except for a BBC house orchestra’s rendition of the latest Beatles hit.

The number of recorded songs played by the BBC was strictly limited, by agreement with the Musicians Union, and until the arrival of a radio ship moored off the East coast, this situation looked unlikely to change. The BBC itself was also unlikely to be challenged as a recent Government enquiry had found no need or desire for commercial radio. The establishment had radio sewn up.

Radio Caroline turned radio upside down in Britain. Within days of her first broadcast, an audience of millions had tuned to this ‘pirate’ radio station. The press called them pirates, but in truth, Caroline had just found a loophole in the law, enabling broadcasts of pop records and commercials from a ship anchored outside British waters, without the restrictions of ‘needle time’ and without a licence.

Just a few weeks after Caroline’s appearance, another ‘pop ship’ anchored off the Essex coast, Radio Atlanta. This ship could so easily have beaten Caroline to the pirate treasure as the first British offshore station. Australian Allan Crawford was the man behind Project Atlanta and had been working on bringing his radio station on air for more than two years. In fact, he always claimed that Ronan O’Rahilly, the man behind Caroline, had ‘borrowed’ his idea.

Radio Atlanta was set up to promote music publisher Crawford’s own record labels, offering ‘cover versions’ of the hits of the day which were frequently played during Atlanta’s programmes, whereas Caroline concentrated on the hits from the charts, by the original artists, as well as playing jazz, blues and songs from the shows.

Both radio ships were chasing the same audience and the same advertisers. Operating costs were high, the two radio ships, both anchored off the Essex coast, had to be supplied with all their broadcasting needs from Harwich or Brightlingsea and all of their provisions (including water, fuel, records and personnel) had to be checked by customs and ferried out to them. It was only a matter of time before efforts were made to reduce costs and in July 1964, the two radio organisations amalgamated. The plan was for them to continue operating as two separate companies, Planet Productions for Caroline and Project Atlanta. The original Caroline ship sailed to a position off the Isle of Man, broadcasting as she went, to become Radio Caroline North and the smaller Atlanta ship, the Mi Amigo, stayed in her original position becoming Radio Caroline South.

Radio Atlanta, although a pioneer of British commercial radio, disappeared overnight and was never heard of again as Radio Caroline became a household name across the country. But within months more radio stations started operating, leading to an armada of ‘pirates’ bombarding the nation with a constant diet of music presented by disc jockeys, many of them on the brink of becoming household names. The competition was particularly fierce in the south, with listeners turning to another of the offshore stations, Radio London — Big L, in their millions. Caroline South’s output, still following Atlanta’s middle of the road style, couldn’t compete and was losing listeners and huge amounts of money, whereas the more brash output of Caroline North, playing the chart hits, was raking in the cash from advertisers and building up a huge audience.

At the end of 1965, Crawford and his Project Atlanta team who had been responsible for Caroline South, threw in the towel and sold out to Ronan O’Rahilly’s Planet Productions. Now, with full control of both Caroline stations, the battle to become the pirate queen was on — and with two ships covering most of the country, it was Caroline that took the lead.

Meanwhile, the government was outraged. These radio stations and the disc jockeys that broadcast from them were becoming too popular and there was a feeling that they had to be controlled, a belief enforced by the need to take action when a shooting resulted in the death of one radio station chief in Wendons Ambo, near Saffron Walden, in June 1966.

On August 14, 1967, the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act became law. Restrictions were planned to make it impossible for the pirate stations to continue and all of them closed down, except for Radio Caroline. The future for Caroline was fraught with danger, drama and dedication by those involved with the organisation and the many that became a part of the Caroline family in the years that followed.

Now, 50 years later, a radio station called Caroline, a direct descendant of the original, can still be heard. Its programmes are now legal and online, and she’s joined by a large number of commercial radio stations with many listeners. But I wonder how many of them still remember the ‘battle for the pirate gold’ that was fought 50 years ago off the coast of Essex.

Get the book

Radio Caroline: The True Story of the Boat That Rocked by Ray Clark is published by The History Press and priced at £16.99

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