Forbidden radio station on a ship

FROM A FIELD on my friend’s farm in Essex, I could see the mid-morning sun glistening on the water of the estuary of the River Blackwater. Moored out on the water, there was a trawler with a red hull and white superstructure. A tall aerial mast, just about visible through the heat haze, was mounted on its deck in front of the bridge housing. When my friend saw me taking a photograph of the vessel, she mentioned what it is, and this caused distant memories to surface in my mind.

When I was a child in the early 1960s, I had a Phillips radio in my bedroom. I was a keen listener and enjoyed exploring the various stations broadcasting from all over the world. It was during this period and with this radio that, for example, I was able to tune into the propaganda-rich programmes transmitted from Albania by Radio Tirana. Less exotic than this was Radio Luxembourg, which unlike the few rather straightlaced, advert-free BBC stations, pumped out a stream of non-stop ‘pop’ music, punctuated by commercials for products, which were not aimed at audiences in little Luxembourg but instead at consumers in the UK. In those days, I was not much interested in pop music, but I enjoyed the commercials. The only one that I can remember was for a particular football pool company.

Radio Luxembourg was founded in 1933, long before I became one of its listeners. Located outside the UK, it was not subject to any of the legislation that ensured the BBC had a monopoly as a broadcaster in Britain.

In 1964, the Irish businessman Ronan O’Rahilly (1940-2020) and Alan Crawford came up with the idea of broadcasting to the UK from a ship moored in international waters. This way both the restrictive laws that protected the BBC, and the record company’s control of pop music broadcasting in the UK, were overcome. Radio Caroline was born and began broadcasting non-stop pop music from beyond Great Britain’s territorial waters. Caroline was soon followed by other radio stations, such as Radio London, which all made use of the same wheeze to get around the restrictive legislation in the UK. Radio Caroline has had a long and sometimes difficult history since its formation. This is described in great detail on the company’s website (www.radiocaroline.co.uk).

Our friend in Essex told me that what I was photographing is the boat from which Radio Caroline transmitted. I was surprised because, for no good reason, I had believed that Caroline was a thing of the past. The boat moored in the Blackwater is the Ross Revenge, formerly used as a fishing trawler. It was not the first boat to house Radio Caroline; it served this purpose between 1983 and 1991. A radio station bearing the name Caroline still functions. What is important about Radio Caroline and other so-called ‘pirate’ stations is that their existence had some considerable influence in causing the BBC to commence broadcasting pop music. Radio 1, which replaced the BBC’s Light Programme, was started in 1967 in response to the popularity of the pirate stations amongst the listening public.

I am glad that we were shown around our friend’s farm and that I spotted that boat in the estuary. Although I did not often listen to Radio Caroline, seeing the vessel made me recall my early radio receiver (‘wireless’) and the joy it gave me during my early teens.

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