Pirate Radio: A Visual History

by Owen James Burke

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Above: Ronan O’Rahilly’s MV Ross Revenge, home of Radio Caroline and her impressive 300-foot “mast,” or radio tower if you like. This was one of the last of Radio Caroline’s ships.

The concept of offshore broadcasting for entertainment was first explored by the Royal Crown in the early 19th century, but decades went by before Radio Caroline established itself and the term “pirate radio” was coined.

But long before there was Ronan O’Rahilly and Radio Caroline in the 1960s, there was the S.S. City of Panama, a cargo ship hired by the Panamanian government to promote U.S. tourism to the country. Instead, it began broadcasting popular music under the call sign “RXKR” off the California coast in 1933. Within just three months, the station was shut down at the request of the U.S. Department of State.


 Beginnings

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Above: H.M.S. Andromeda in Weihaiwei, China, c. 1904, years before her historic offshore radio broadcast.

The first offshore radio broadcast of music (for entertainment purposes) was ironically transmitted from a Royal Navy vessel, the H.M.S. Andromeda, in 1907. Twenty years later, the British government came to recognize the power of mass communication and established the state-controlled monopoly that is British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).Unlike the The Andromeda, which played songs like “God Save the King,” broadcasting from international waters would eventually be used to circumvent authority.

In May of 1933, Panama purchased the HMS Mistletoe from the British Navy, renaming her La Playa and then the S.S. City of Panama. The idea was that the vessel was to station itself off the California coast while advertising for Panamanian tourism. The ship was registered in Panama and sent up the coast, but the City of Panama remained as the casino and speakeasy she had been before registry. By August, Panama had caught wind of the party, shut the ship and station down and had her towed into port in Los Angeles. She then, presumably under new ownership, returned to Santa Monica Bay where she would no longer broadcast but, continuing in her same spirit, became a bordello.

The very same year saw the beginnings of Radio Luxembourg, a land-based station which bore the most powerful privately owned radio transmitter in the world (blasting 1,300 kW on medium wave) and offered one, if not the only alternative to the BBC. Though, naturally, the British Government thoroughly disapproved, there was no international law preventing the programming. Radio Luxembourg offered popular entertainment that the BBC did not, captivating a large audience in the UK, and paving the way for pirate radio as it came to be known in the 1960s when there was a huge, young generation eager for the revolutionary music of the era and no one feeding it to them.

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Image: Modesto Radio Museum/Courtesy of Fred Haney, VOA Engineer on board the USCGC Courier.

Pirate radio did not go on to make much noise in the waters off the United States; there were few other countries within reach, and any syndication with enough money to purchase a boat were just as able to buy their own legal station instead.

In fact, the concept was most notably implemented by the US Department of State and the Coast Guard between 1952 and 1964 off Rhodes, Greece as a way of transmitting information to those caught behind the iron curtain of the USSR. Some have argued that this ship, the USCGC Courier, was the greatest influence on the European pirate radio stations that sprung up toward the end of her service overseas.


 Radio Caroline and Pirate Radio into the 1960s

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Still from the 2009 film “Pirate Radio,” starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman

Some might say that England was at the epicenter of the cultural explosion of the 1960s. Yet early on, the BBC only broadcast 2 hours of popular music per week, hosted by the driest announcers you could imagine. Artists didn’t make much money in those times, and royalties broadcasters–including the BBC–were forced to pay to record companies were sky-high.

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Pirate radio vanguard Ronan O’Rahilly aboard Lady, one of many of Radio Caroline’s vessels. Photo: Radiocaroline.free.fr

Then in 1964, under the influence of Radio Luxembourg, came Ronan O’Rahilly, the son of a wealthy Irish family whose desired breaks in the film and recording industries never came. Finding that he could get airtime for the artists he’d recorded, he came up with the idea of transmitting this music, which would have otherwise never been heard, from a ship. While in Texas purchasing transmitters, he was browsing through Life Magazine when he came across a picture of John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline in a meeting, interrupting the important business of the government. Then, at noon on Easter Sunday, 1964, came the announcement from the MV Mi Amigo transmitting at 1520 kHz, “This is Radio Caroline on 199, your all day music station,” and Radio Caroline was born.

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Former anti-aircraft support for London during World War II, the Shivering Sands Army Fort would later host Radio City. Once connected by gantries, the site operated like its own offshore city. Photo: Creative Commons

Eventually, “pirate radio” stations sprung up off the coast of England, where they weren’t subject to the queen’s law. Royalties could be averted and government censorship skirted. Funding came from advertising and sponsorship, and with no overhead fees, the airwaves began to flow freely from ships and abandoned World War II sea forts stationed just off the coast in international waters. Still, though they were protected by law from the British Government, it was dangerous business to undertake in international waters.

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Screenshot from Vice’s documentary “Pirate Radio” (below)

“We were well armed: flame throwers, grenades, we had shotguns…,” recalls Tony Pine, an original pirate radio DJ who held shop on one of the many retired World War II military forts that sit conveniently at the 3-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ,” or the line marking international waters) off Kent. Once a year, he still broadcasts from the same station.

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Above: Home of Radio Mercur, Europe’s first pirate radio station. Photo via Saildream

Across the North Sea, there were several pirate radio ships vying for British exposure and stationing themselves in the waters around northern Europe before Radio Caroline was even a thought, but none as prolific. Radio Mercur established itself off Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958.

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Above: Veronica, an old light ship and host vessel to Radio Veronica which began in 1960 off the Netherlands. Photo via Saildream

Radio Veronica was another early predecessor to London’s many pirate radio stations, but didn’t gain its edge until 1964, in the wake of Radio City and Radio Caroline.

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Still from the 2009 film “Pirate Radio,” starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman

Pirate radio in the North Sea exploded after 1964, and by 1967 ten (known) stations were broadcasting to an audience of 10-15 million listeners, and the DJs who ran them began to attain celebrity status.


THE 70s AND 80s – PIRATE RADIO BECOMES THE DOMAIN OF LANDLUBBERS

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Above: The M/V Mi Amigo, one of Radio Caroline’s vessels, impounded in port after a mutiny aboard over unpaid wages in December of 1972. Photo: The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame/Rob Olthof

Loopholes in British law that allowed for pirate radio broadcasting to take place were officially sealed by the Marine Broadcasting Offenses Act of 1967. In response, stations simply relocated to shore, airing from urban areas instead. For all intents and purposes, this was probably a good thing–call me what you will, but somehow disco music and hoop earrings just don’t seem like they were made to suit the sea as well as the good old raucous of rock and roll.

In 1973, the British Government lifted its monopoly and introduced commercially funded Independent Local Radio. Still, as legal  Radio Caroline continued its operations on the high seas until 1990, despite many prolonged periods off-air.

The 1980s saw a resurgence of pirate radio, this time almost strictly from shore. The decade saw an explosion of black popular music, which was rarely if ever broadcast in England. DJ Lepke and sister Ranking Miss P formed the “Dread Broadcasting Corporation” (the DBC) in 1980, a satirical nod to the BBC orchestrated to influence mainstream media to play black music. Unlike other pirate radio stations, the DBC ran 24/7. Others, including those still afloat, were soon obliged to follow suit.


Pirate Radio Today

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One of many transmitters ingeniously erected by a London pirate radio station DJ/engineer. Authorities are constantly tracking down these devices and dismantling them, only to find new ones almost immediately taking their place. Screenshot from Vice’s documentary “Pirate Radio” (below)

Today, most pirate radio is broadcast from land where DJs build and plant transmitters atop apartment buildings and listeners tune in via internet. There are still over 150 pirate radio stations around London alone according to some estimates, and “border blasters” between Latin America and the U.S. air a good deal of political and religious propaganda, though are hardly in place for entertainment’s sake.

The age of pirate radio as a bacchanalian offshore institution is more or less be over, but despite that it may have strayed from its seafaring roots, it’s still quite alive and well. — OJB


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For a Hollywood history of Radio Caroline, watch the 2009 film Pirate Radio starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (trailer below).

And watch a Vice documentary on how London’s pirate radio legacy continues ashore today:


 Required Reading

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If you’d really like to delve into the extensive history of pirate radio, check out Pirate Radio: An Illustrated History.

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And for an in-depth look at Radio Caroline, read The Ship That Rocked the World by Tom Lodge with a forward by Steven Van Zandt.

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