Fifty years ago this week, a 35-year-old former passenger ferry was being equipped with a 165-foot radio mast in the tiny Irish port of Greenore, while its crew bought up the entire stock of a small record shop in nearby Dundalk and dozens of tins of baked beans from a local store. Within two weeks, the ship had sailed through stormy seas to take up an anchorage in international waters off the UK’s east coast. But the weather was nothing compared with the political storm that erupted on March 28, Easter Saturday in 1964, when the ship began broadcasting as Radio Caroline “Britain’s first all-day music station”.
It was the first of an armada of ‘pirate’ radio ships which broke open the BBC radio monopoly in the decade when everything seemed to change.
Radio Caroline would revolutionise the country’s broadcasting and usher in “The Swinging Sixties”, a golden period of international success for British music, fashion and media. It was the era of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, James Bond, Twiggy, Michael Caine, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, Tom Jones, David Frost, Carnaby Street, the Mini-Cooper – and Radio Caroline.
Until March 1964, the record-selling Beatles-led pop music which was thrilling the whole world was – for British teenagers – confined to a few hours on the State-owned BBC radio and fuzzy night-time broadcasts from RTL’s Radio Luxembourg in the tiny, landlocked European principality.
Then along came Radio Caroline, and the floodgates opened.
Experienced broadcasters from Australia and the US – and learn-as-you-go jocks from UK discos – rushed to join offshore stations whose booming audiences were turned on by the sheer novelty of pop radio. Millions of Brits loved everything from the amateurism and informality of some stations to the slick Top 40 formats and American jingles of others. And the inevitable storms, rough seas, drifting radio ships, lifeboats, and needles sliding across turntables added to the excitement.
But it had all begun quietly enough at midday on that Easter Saturday 50 years ago. A 23-year old Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly, in his best suit, was nervously trying to tune a bulky “portable” radio while journalists waited impatiently in the Cheshire Cheese pub on London’s Fleet Street. They had come to hear his promised new radio station. Hard-bitten reporters were muttering about whether the story of a radio ship was all “blarney” when the Irishman got excited and told them to listen.
As Radio Caroline finally crackled into life (repeatedly playing Ray Charles songs, as planned, so O’Rahilly could be sure of finding the station’s wavelength), the British media got its first taste of ’pirate’ radio – and of the young club manager and music plugger behind it.
It didn’t take journalists long to discover that O’Rahilly was better known in Ireland, as the grandson of Michael O’Rahilly who had been immortalised as The O’Rahilly in a poem by W.B.Yeats. He was a revolutionary hero who had been killed single-handedly charging a British machine gun post in Dublin’s 1914 Easter Rising,
It was a rebellion that led to the establishment of Ireland as an independent republic after centuries of hard-fought British colonial rule. Now, here was “The O’Rahilly’s” grandson, leading his own Easter Rising exactly 50 years later – against the British broadcasting establishment.
The smooth-talking Irishman regaled reporters with stories of how he had launched Radio Caroline in order to challenge the duopoly of record companies. Most UK records – in days when “singles” were the biggest earners for singers and musicians – came from EMI or Decca, two companies that had dominated electronics and entertainment in post-war Britain. The two companies even sponsored much of the airtime on those hazy evening broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg.
O’Rahilly said he was just trying to find a way to promote fledgling artistes like Georgie Fame and Alexis Korner, and a girlfriend had told him about Radio Veronica off the Netherlands. He said he had named Radio Caroline after the daughter of President Kennedy, assassinated four months earlier, although some colleagues suggested it was named after his actress girlfriend Caroline Maudling, daughter of the UK’s then Finance Minister. The neat story of the young entrepreneur “trying to give young people what they want” played well in the newspapers even if the real origins of Radio Caroline were slightly grittier.
The idea of a floating radio station was not new to Europe. There had been radio ships in Scandinavia since the 1950s and Radio Veronica had been anchored in the North Sea since 1960. But O’Rahilly’s plan for Radio Caroline was actually copied from Australian music publisher Allan Crawford’s proposal to launch Radio Atlanta. Crawford shared his plans with O’Rahilly who suggested the radio ship could be fitted out secretly at Greenore, the almost-deserted port owned by his industrialist father in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne.
O’Rahilly even suggested his father might invest in Crawford’s proposed radio station. The Aussie duly handed over his mission-critical barrister’s opinion verifying the legal ‘safety’ of a radio ship broadcasting from outside UK territorial waters. Armed with this, O’Rahilly decided to launch his own radio station – and to get there first.
His first call was to a friend (and, later, novelist) Ian Ross whose father, Carl “Jimmy” Ross, had built the huge Ross fish and frozen food business in Lincolnshire (and was grandfather of David Ross, co-founder in the 1990s, of Carphone Warehouse Plc).
Jimmy Ross quickly agreed to support the project and also brought in a financier friend, John Sheffield. So, the young Irishman was able to get all the funding necessary for his radio ship in a few days, while Allan Crawford had spent almost 12 months lining up backers.
The reality dawned on Crawford when his ship reached Greenore in March 1964 – only to discover he had been beaten to it by another ship, O’Rahilly’s Radio Caroline.
It was the start of some less than friendly rivalry and sabotage which ensured that Caroline was the first ship ready to sail – and to start the radio revolution that Crawford had been planning for almost two years. But, within a few months, the two stations merged to become Radio Caroline South (off the East Coast) and Radio Caroline North (off the Isle of Man in the UK North West). O’Rahilly took control, amid Crawford’s complaints about being outdone by the Irish “mafia”.
The two radio ships were soon attracting more than 10 million listeners, and advertisers were piling in. Radio Caroline was joined by a whole fleet of offshore stations including: Radio London, Radio 270, Radio Scotland, Radio England, Britain Radio, Radio Essex, Radio City, Radio 390, Radio Invicta, and Radio Sutch. The broadcast waveband, which government ministers had once claimed was too crowded to permit any more radio channels, suddenly seemed a lot more flexible.
The UK government started what became a three-year war against the ‘pirates’, encouraged by the record companies which were privately offering to “jam” the offshore broadcasts to “protect” their music. For a time, the stations’ popularity kept the proposed legislation at bay. But, in August 1967, the government finally enacted a law banning Brits from supplying or being employed by offshore radio stations. A month after most of the stations promptly went off the air, the BBC launched its first all-day pop channel Radio One, with many of the DJs who had made their names on the radio ships. But it would be a full five years before the next government permitted land-based commercial radio stations for the first time.
So, the (mostly) delightful chaos of offshore ‘pirate’ radio actually lasted less than four years. But it provided post-war ‘baby boomer’ Brits with the musical soundtrack of the Swinging Sixties. Few of the stations were financially successful, but even this contributed to the romance of the ‘pirates’ and to the sense that it was more than a business. It was a short but momentous period from which sprang many of the broadcasters, media executives, music companies and artistes which were to dominate UK media for the next 25 years.
Beneath the froth, though, UK ‘pirate’ radio was a rich story of drama, comedy and tragedy. It may be best illustrated by seven diverse characters:
1. The aristocrat
John Sheffield’s family had been dukes and earls in the British aristocracy since the seventeenth century. An ancestor, the Duke of Buckingham, had even built Buckingham Palace before selling it, in 1761, to the British kings and queens who have lived there ever since.
Sheffield had rebuilt the finances of his famous family after the UK’s controversial death taxes and the nationalisation of its iron ore mine had all but bankrupted them after his father’s death in 1946. By 1963, when Jimmy Ross introduced him to Ronan O’Rahilly, John Sheffield had made a new fortune from becoming a pioneer of private equity.
His company Norcros (an acronym for Normanby and Crosby, the two Lincolnshire villages that straddled the Sheffield family estate) was said to ”offer an umbrella under which former private companies could remain under the management of their original owners while gaining the advantages of being part of a group that was listed on the stock exchange.”
One of the companies that thrived under this innovative (sort of) private equity ownership was the Jensen car company – owned by Carl Ross. But Sheffield’s stellar reputation as a shrewd judge of businesses clearly played no part in his speedy decision to back Radio Caroline on the back of some sketchy calculations.
This seriously financial man (great uncle to Samantha Cameron, wife of the current UK Prime Minister) probably backed Radio Caroline for the fun of it. It was a break-out investment. Together with Ross, Sheffield provided most of the £250,000 funding for the launch of Radio Caroline and they owned more than 80% of the shares.
They actually paid over most of their investment in upfront cash, another sign that the euphoria of the project caused Sheffield momentarily to lose his sharp business instincts. But not completely: while Sheffield (like Ross) was a director of the wild new venture, he was careful not to be publicly linked with it. Although, he was one of the UK’s best known business chiefs, Sheffield never publicly commented on Radio Caroline. And he was never photographed with O’Rahilly or the ships. He left that to his son-in-law.
2. The publisher
Jocelyn Stevens had married John Sheffield’s daughter Jane. She was “lady in waiting” (a sort of PA) to Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister whose wild times were media gossip in 1960s London. Stevens himself was an arch self-publicist. He let it be known that, as a small child, he was sent to live in his own flat in central London, with his own nanny, priest, cook and maid. He was (he said) driven around Hyde Park every day by a chauffeur in his own Rolls-Royce.
On his 21st birthday in 1953, Stevens inherited £750,000 from his mother, whose family had made its fortune in newspapers, owning the London Evening Standard in the 1920s and Picture Post (think Life magazine) in the 1950s. He immediately bought an Aston Martin and wrote it off the same day. On his 25th birthday, he bought the ailing Queen magazine, and called in two friends to help: the legendary British editor and cartoonist Marc Boxer, and Tony (Lord) Snowdon who was a famous photographer – and became Princess Margaret’s husband.
When bored with that (Stevens says), he sold the magazine off to a man who happened to be sitting at the next table in the swanky Claridges hotel. He once complained he had been libelled by a newspaper that described him as “charming”. At least that’s what he said. It was all part of the carefully-polished Jocelyn Stevens image, which was enhanced in the 1960s by Queen magazine – and by the excitement of Radio Caroline. He contrived to connect them.
The magazine’s editor, in instructions for contributors, said she was explicitly targeting a reader defined as a young woman with long hair who had left school at age 16, was not an intellectual, but “the sort of person that one ended up in bed with”. And named Caroline. The fact that Radio Caroline initially operated from the Queen magazine offices contributed to the legend of Jocelyn Stevens as well as another possible reason for the radio station’s name.
Stevens played an important role in securing the friends-and-family funding for Radio Caroline and in giving the buccaneering station an image of cool respectability. The posh 32-year-old year old Brit was the perfect partner for O’Rahilly. But his influence receded as new investors arrived to replace the original funders who had become disenchanted with Radio Caroline’s erratic profitability. There was an unmistakeable aura of success stoked by huge audiences and euphoric newspaper coverage. But the serious-minded investors were worried about the station’s expensive offices in Chesterfield Gardens in London’s swanky Mayfair and some fancy company-owned cars: they thought the team was better at spending money than making it. O’Rahilly had never been primarily interested in profits – and it showed.
Within two years, Caroline audiences and revenues suffered from strong new competition from the slick US-backed top 40 format of Radio London, anchored a mile from Radio Caroline South, and by the uninsured costs of its radio ship beached in a storm. The Sheffield-Ross money soon ran out and so too did Jocelyn Stevens, on his way to becoming part of ’the great and the good’ in UK public life. Within two more years, he had sold Queen magazine to Hearst UK where it was merged with Harpers Bazaar to become Harpers & Queen.
3. The JFK ‘conspirator’
One of the many ironies of the whole ‘pirate’ radio story is the part played by Gordon Mclendon. The Texas broadcaster had all but invented ‘top 40′ radio in the US, using a repetitive formula of chart records and spikey electronic jingles. He launched the first all-news station and built the major radio group Liberty Network, which eventually became John Malone’s global media group. And, having conquered US radio, Mclendon turned his sights to Europe.
He financed the Scandinavian Radio Nord whose ship later became Allan Crawford’s Radio Atlanta and Radio Caroline South in Britain. Later, his ground-breaking KLIF Top 40 station in Dallas was the model for Radio London. He had even, at one time, proposed to play KLIF broadcasts to a UK audience as KLIF London. The highly-polished Radio London, with its mix of UK and American disc jockeys, news bulletins, and catchy Texas-made jingles, was an immediate success on its arrival nine months after Caroline; and became the most profitable UK ‘pirate’ of all.
The Texan broadcaster-turned-executive was actually involved in many of the UK radio ships including the spectacularly unsuccessful “twins” Radio England and Britain Radio. But he made little, if any, overall profit from the UK. And, in the 1970s, when Mclendon sold his radio interests for what was then a record $100m, there was nothing to show for his time and money spent in Europe.
The irony of his involvement in ‘pirate’ radio lies in Ronan O’Rahilly’s longtime obsession with the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. The Irishman has been involved in films and TV shows on the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King. His film “Gold”, featuring George Lazenby even opened improbably with shots of the assassinated trio – and the Radio Caroline ship. And, in recent times, O’Rahilly has written and directed a documentary, KingKennedy, which is being produced in the UK by Howard Goldstein and Valentine Stockdale.
In the 50 years years since O’Rahilly first flew to Dallas to seek advice from Gordon Mclendon on starting a radio station – where he visited the site of JFK’s assassination – the Texan’s possible involvement in the death and in conspiracies against Cuba’s President Castro has been openly discussed.
Mclendon was a long-time close friend of Jack Ruby, who murdered JFK’s apparent assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in a police station. The broadcasting mogul himself died in 1986, just before publication of the book “Deadly Secrets” which claimed he was a key conspirator in the JFK assassination.
4. The spy
Those conspiracy theories must have fascinated the UK ‘pirate’ radio operator with the most colourful background of all. Ted Allbeury – like Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré before him – was a genuine spy during the Second World War, decades before he took up writing best-selling novels. But, before he became a novelist, the former British secret agent had owned a successful advertising agency – and a ‘pirate’ radio station.
Allbeury was 48 when he decided to launch a ‘middle-of-the-road’ radio station as an alternative to all the pop music. He chose to broadcast from one of the abandoned, rusting wartime forts in the Thames estuary.
Radio 390 was an immediate success with audiences and advertisers, and included his own weekly programme Red Sands Rendezvous, named after the fort itself. But, even by the standards of ‘pirate’ radio, it was short-lived.
Successive court hearings resulted in the Red Sands fort being ruled to be just within the UK territorial limits, bringing to an end the latest chapter in Allbeury’s extraordinary life. It marked the start of his career as a thriller writer. And some writer: he published more than 40 novels and numerous radio plays between the age of 56 and his death 32 years later, in 2005. Two of his books became successful movies in 1992: “Hostage”, starring Sam Neill and James Fox; and “Blue” with Michael Caine.
His first book, “A Choice of Enemies”, appeared in 1973, six years after the UK government had outlawed the offshore radio stations.
It was written to help Allbeury overcome the pain of the long kidnapping of two of his children, presumed (by fellow novelist-spy Len Deighton) to be by his wartime enemies: “During the Cold War, Ted was running agents across the border that divided communist East Germany from the west. His luck ran out and the Russians left him nailed to a kitchen table in a farmhouse. Practised torturers, they made sure he had a chance to survive and take the story back to his fellow agents. The war never ended for him. His children were kidnapped and he pursued them to South America. Ted never told me what happened after that.”
Ted Allbeury’s career in ‘pirate’ radio was but a cameo in an amazing life.
5. The pop promoter
The faintly bizarre social revolution wrought by the ‘pirate’ radio ships captivated millions of Brits. From 1964 through to 1967, some 50% of the UK population listened regularly to offshore radio.
Its kill-joy opponents were an odd coalition comprising: those who thought radio should remain solely in the hands of the BBC (even though commercial TV had been permitted for the previous decade); those who opposed the very idea of all-day music radio; vested interests from the music industry, especially the established ‘labels’ who feared the loss of their dominance; and those who worried about the toleration of ‘lawlessness’.
The coalition came together under the leadership of the late left-wing politician Tony Benn who (in the role of the quaintly named Postmaster General) became the minister responsible for the legislation that eventually outlawed the ‘pirates’.
Benn clearly opposed the radio ships because they represented swashbuckling , unregulated capitalism. But it took him a while to build the political consensus for legislation. His task was made easier, though, by some serious lawlessness.
First, there were the deaths of the boss and two of the staff of the fort-based Radio Invicta when a supply boat sank in 1964. Nobody knew whether it was sabotage or an accident in a poorly-maintained boat. It was ‘pirate’ radio’s first bit of very bad news.
Then, there was the death of Reg Calvert, manager of pop artistes including the Fortunes and David “Screaming Lord” Sutch. Sutch was a distinctly average rock singer whose fame was based not so much on his musical ability as on his audacious pretend-you’re-serious election campaigns, starting with a headline-grabbing challenge in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s own constituency. Election night pictures of Sutch alongside the Prime Minister were something straight out of Monty Python. On Radio Sutch, he read late-night extracts from the then controversial “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. It was all headline-catching stuff but the station only attracted reasonable audiences in the local area of the Thames estuary.
It was typical of the minor broadcasters that sprang up around the UK coast, dotted between the highly-professional stations like Radio Caroline and Radio London.
The wartime forts (constructed during the build-up to the Second World War when nobody cared whether they were inside or outside the country’s territorial waters) created the 1960s opportunity for low-budget radio stations, whereas ships required substantial investment and expensive servicing. But the low-budget, fort-based stations were, in most cases,responsible for poor quality transmissions, few real broadcasting stars – and low advertising revenues.
After Radio Sutch failed, Reg Calvert launched Radio City which he tried to merge with Radio Caroline. A land-based violent struggle over the ownership of a transmitter in 1966 ended with Calvert being shot dead, aged 38, by Caroline director, would-be politician and former army Major Oliver Smedley.
Smedley was cleared of murder, with the court deciding it was accidental death. But it became a clear prompt for politicians on all sides to tone down their support for the offshore broadcasters. It seemed to be getting dangerous.
6. The Prince
The lawlessness associated with the Thames estuary forts (all of which, ultimately, were ruled to be inside the UK’s territorial waters and, therefore, not viable for broadcasting) was less spectacular than on the Roughs Tower fort off the country’s east coast.
The Thames forts consisted of a cluster of seven stilted metal buildings surrounding a central command tower and connected by catwalks high above the sea.
But Roughs Tower on the East Coast, close to the Radio Caroline anchorage, was altogether more durable and constructed in 1943, primarily for defence against mine-laying aircraft. It comprised a floating pontoon base with a superstructure of two concrete and steel hollow towers joined by a deck on which other structures including guns were added. The fort had been towed into position where the base was flooded to allow it to sink to its final resting place on the seabed.
It was spacious and once occupied by up to 300 troops, but then vacated in 1956.
It remained empty and unused until Radio Caroline took up its anchorage in 1964. Ronan O’Rahilly had constructed a helipad on it. There followed a cat-and-mouse fight for possession between rival pirate radio forces involving guns, flame-throwers – and court cases which succeeded in confirming that the fort was indeed located in international waters.
That was what tenacious former Army major Roy Bates – one-time owner of Radio Essex on a Thames fort – had fought for. In 1967 (just as the radio ships were being forced off the air), he proceeded to build a permanent base for what he promised would be a new ‘pirate’ radio station – perhaps one built to last as long as the fort itself. But the 1967 legislation would have outlawed that too.
Suddenly, Bates comically declared it as the “independent principality of Sealand”, the world’s smallest “country” with its own flag, money, stamps – and even, apparently, a football team. He awarded himself the title of Prince Roy of Sealand almost 40 years ago, and died in 2012 after decades fighting the UK government in the courts, and would-be invaders with an array of firearms.
Unlike a neighbouring fort which was blown up by the British government in the 1960s, “Sealand” is still there – despite the fact that the increase in the UK territorial waters to 12 miles brought it within the UK territorial waters. It has sometimes hosted internet server companies, and has been touted as a base for a hotel and health farm. The dreams keep coming. Fifty years after Bates’ family forcibly ejected Ronan O’Rahilly’s team from the fort, it sits there as a curious high seas monument to the UK’s ‘pirate’ radio era. And the government, police and armed forces have learned to leave it alone.
7. The maverick
The story of how a collection of old ships and decaying wartime gun forts managed to break the BBC radio monopoly – and give airtime to the 1960s British pop music that was captivating the world – is a tale of its time. And of the Irish maverick Ronan O’Rahilly who seized the moment.
Five years later, Ireland (North and South) would be plunged into the 30-year “Troubles”, effectively civil war. So the launch of Radio Caroline just a few years later would have scuppered the very idea of the grandson of an Irish revolutionary fitting out a radio ship in a port deep inside IRA territory, a few miles south of the disputed border. It would certainly have given the UK government an easy pretext to stop the ‘pirates’ almost before they had begun.
In the event, the 1967 legislation which outlawed the UK’s ‘pirates’, left only Radio Caroline struggling to survive intermittently for the following 20 years. And it didn’t last. In 1980, the remaining Caroline radio ship sank in a North Sea gale. Ronan O’Rahilly, meanwhile, had produced films including the 1968 Alain Delon/ Marianne Faithfull hit “The Girl on a Motorcycle” and “Two Virgins” for John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He managed the US rock group MC5 and folk singer David McWilliams, and announced plans to launch Caroline TV (broadcast from Super Constellation aircraft flying over the North Sea) which were later exposed as a publicity stunt.
O’Rahilly also managed Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, a one-time-only James Bond, whom he famously advised to decline a long-term contract because, he said, the famous spy films would not survive beyond the 1960s. Ouch.
In 1970, Radio Caroline had resumed broadcasts (from the short-lived, Swiss-owned Radio North Sea International ship) to help the Conservatives win that year’s general election, with a pledge to introduce commercial radio. O’Rahilly led a powerful campaign alongside Lazenby and Caroline’s most famous DJ, one-time TV chat show host Simon Dee whose high-flying career lasted little longer than the radio ships that had launched it.
O’Rahilly attacked the government’s decision to jam the station, telling a Central London rally: “During the War, the government did not even jam Lord Haw Haw <A Nazi propaganda broadcaster> but British lives were at stake. Today, all that’s at stake is a little freedom and pop radio.” He was enjoying the flirtation with politics. And so, in 1973, the UK got its first land-based commercial radio stations – a mere 40 years after the US and Australia. But he failed to realise his dream of bringing Radio Caroline ashore as a licensed station. He remained an outsider, periodically reviving the ‘pirate’ radio ship as an album station promoting his confused philosophy of “Loving Awareness” and paid broadcasts by American evangelists.
By the 1980s, when the Caroline ship Mi Amigo finally sank in the North Sea, everything seemed to have changed.
Twenty-two years after the 1967 demise of the UK ‘pirate’ ships, Rupert Murdoch launched Sky TV as a satellite broadcaster from Luxembourg, to compete with the official British Satellite Broadcasting – and beyond the reach of UK cross-media laws. But nobody called him a ‘pirate’.
Satellites and the web have since created a global market for information and entertainment that makes Britain’s legislation against ‘pirate’ radio ships look, well, very 20th century.
This month, UK media will be awash with nostalgia for that ‘moment in time’ 50 years ago when ‘pirates’ ruled the airwaves. Some of the radio networks which owe their existence to Radio Caroline still feature ageing disc jockeys like Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker, Richard Park, and Dave Cash who started out by playing records in gale-force winds on the North Sea. One former DJ is Sir Roger Gale, a Member of Parliament for the UK’s Conservative government, and another is TV hypnotist Paul McKenna. They will all be reminiscing about the distant few years during which ‘pirate’ radio ruled the British airwaves. But the 73-year-old Ronan O’Rahilly will not be so visible. He is reported to be suffering from vascular dementia, and living within sight of the Irish port where Radio Caroline was “born”. Millions of Brits will be thinking of him – and how he brought the music alive in 1964.