Fifty years ago this month, a 35-year-old former Scandinavian passenger ferry was being secretly equipped with a 165-foot radio mast in the privately-owned Irish port of Greenore, in Carlingford Lough, County Louth. The historic, ivy-clad Ballymascanlon Hotel in nearby Dundalk was crowded out with strangers who spent their days mysteriously working down the road at the former ferry port which – like its neighbouring railway station and one-time grand hotel – had been been disused for years. Fading holiday posters and the mosaic-floored booking hall reminded the denim-clad outsiders that Greenore had – until 1951 – been a thriving rail-sea link to Holyhead in Wales.
While Swedish and British broadcast technicians were busy installing radio transmitters on the ship, others were buying up the entire stock of a small record store, and large quantities of baked beans, track shoes, and copper wire from bemused local shop-keepers.
The Dutch crew and English and Canadian disc jockeys took turns in painting the ageing ship and building an onboard studio. Inquisitive visitors were kept away by security guards who told them it was a maritime research vessel whose tall mast would help it find deep-sea sponges! But local pubs were full of speculation about spies, smuggling and even the terrorist Irish Republican Army whose violent revival was still five years away.
The rumours were stoked by the ship’s “discreet” night-time test transmissions which managed to interrupt television reception in the sleepy Greenore village and even once had the harbour lights blinking comically in time to the music. It soon became a race to get the ship ready before local journalists worked out what was really happening at the old port that even locals had almost forgotten about.
Three months after it had docked, the freshly-painted radio ship left Ireland and sailed south through stormy seas and gale-force winds to take up an anchorage in international waters off the port of Felixstowe on the UK’s east coast. The stormy voyage was punctuated by cat-and-mouse exchanges with UK coastguards who were trying to understand why a ferry whose captain claimed he was bound for Spain had turned “left” into the English Channel. Some of the crew were enjoying the evasive ship-to-shore radio conversations, while the would-be broadcasters were being sea-sick. But the rough 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.
It was the first of an armada of ‘pirate’ radio ships which shattered the BBC radio monopoly in the 1960s, the decade when almost everything in Britain seemed to change after almost 20 years of post-War austerity.
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, David Bailey, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton, Tom Jones, David Frost, Doctor Who, Carnaby Street, the E-type Jaguar, Mini-Cooper – and the newly-portable ‘transistor radio’.
Celebrated journalist Bernard Levin said: “We saw an old world die, and a new one come to birth.” But, until March 1964, the record-selling Beatles-led pop music which was thrilling the whole world had – for British teenagers – been confined to a few hours each week on “The Light Programme”, on the stuffy State-owned BBC radio netwwork.
Britain’s sole exposure to commercial radio – and to something other than posh BBC voices on the airwaves – had been a few hours of erratic nightly broadcasts beamed from RTL’s Radio Luxembourg, hundreds of miles away in the tiny, land-locked European state. In retrospect, the 1962 insistence by the UK government’s Pilkington Commission that there was “no demand” for all-day music radio seems almost satirical. But Radio Caroline came along and changed everything.
Experienced broadcasters from Australia and the US – and learn-as-you-go DJs from UK discos – rushed to join offshore stations whose booming audiences were thrilled by the sheer novelty of commercial 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. The inevitable storms, rough seas, drifting radio ships, lifeboat rescues, and needles sliding across record turntables added to the excitement of listeners and broadcasters alike. Day after day, pirate radio was the biggest story in British newspapers.
Years later, Paul McCartney would recall how The Beatles loved the radio ships which gave them so much exposure: “Pirate radio, and in particular Radio Caroline, was a really exciting part of all our lives in those days and summed up the spirit of the times culturally and musically.”
But it had all begun quietly enough at noon on Easter Saturday, 28 March 1964. A 23-year-old Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly, in his best suit and with a fresh hair-cut, was nervously trying to tune a bulky Zenith radio while journalists waited impatiently in the 300-year-old picture-book British pub “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese” on London’s Fleet Street, historic home of the country’s national daily newspapers.
The hard-bitten reporters had come to hear about a promised ship-board radio station which had taken up its anchorage in the North Sea some 24 hours before. Test transmissions had been heard at 6pm the previous evening. But O’Rahilly, who was involved in London music clubs and artiste management, struggled to get any kind of radio reception in the pub. His restless audience were soon muttering into their beer glasses about whether the story was all “blarney” when, suddenly, he led them out onto a cold Fleet Street.
The radio crackled into life, repeatedly playing Ray Charles songs – planned so O’Rahilly could be sure of identifying his station’s test transmissions.
Britain’s journalists excitedly got their first taste of ‘pirate’ radio, and the young night club manager breathed a sigh of relief as he turned up the volume for the midday debut as DJ Simon Dee said: “This is Radio Caroline on 199, your all-day music station”. Next came the Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away”, dedicated to Ronan. The radio revolution had begun.
It didn’t take journalists long to discover that the smooth-talking Irishman was better known back home as the grandson of Michael Joseph O’Rahilly – a co-founder of the Irish Volunteers, predecessor of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – who had been immortalised as The O’Rahilly in a poem by W.B.Yeats. The wealthy 41-year-old revolutionary hero had been killed leading a charge against an English barricade in Dublin’s 1916 “Easter Rising”. The street where he fell was now called O’Rahilly Parade. The rebellion had led to the formation of the Irish Republic after centuries of hard-fought British colonial rule. Now, almost 50 years later, here was The O’Rahilly’s grandson, leading his own Easter Rising against the British broadcasting establishment.
Ronan O’Rahilly was proud of his martyred grandfather and his Republican roots. But he kept his politics well hidden as he told reporters he had launched Radio Caroline in order to challenge the duopoly of record companies. Most UK records – in the days when vinyl “singles” were the biggest earners – came from EMI or Decca, two companies that had dominated electronics and entertainment in post-War Britain. They even sponsored most of the hazy evening broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg.
O’Rahilly had been involved in the management of musicians, the Scene Club in London’s Soho district, and even a school for budding actors. After the Radio Caroline launch, he said he was just trying to find a way to promote fledgling artistes like Georgie Fame, the Animals, and Alexis Korner. A girlfriend had told him about the Radio Veronica ship off the Netherlands. He claimed he had named his station after the daughter of President Kennedy, assassinated five months earlier, although some friends suggested it was named after his then girlfriend actress Caroline Maudling, daughter of the UK’s Finance Minister. The neat story of the young entrepreneur “trying to give young people what they want” played well in the newspapers but the real origins of Radio Caroline were slightly grittier.
The idea of a floating radio station was not new to Europe. Radio Mercur (later Radio Sud) was broadcasting off Scandinavia during 1958-62, Radio Nord operated there briefly in 1961, and the Dutch-owned Radio Veronica had been anchored in the North Sea since 1960. O’Rahilly knew all about the highly-popular Dutch ship but his detailed plans for Radio Caroline were said to have been copied from London-based Australian music publisher Allan Crawford’s own proposal to launch Radio Atlanta.
In early 1963, the Irishman met Crawford, who was later to make a fortune from producing “Top of the Pops” cover versions of hit records. In between conversations over their shared frustration at the difficulty of getting new music aired in the UK, the Aussie had apparently shared his “secret” plans. Another version of the story is that the two had actually been collaborating on Crawford’s radio station plan – before O’Rahilly decided to go it alone, possibly after meeting the Texas-based owners of the former Radio Nord ship who were preparing to sell it to Crawford.
What is clear is that O’Rahilly suggested the ship could be fitted out secretly at Greenore, which had been owned by his industrialist father Aodhogan since 1958. The former former British Railways ferry port was just inside the Irish Republic, in the shadow of the legendary Mountains of Mourne, but was difficult to get to by road and, conveniently, out of sight of the authorities and journalists.
The young Irishman even suggested his father (who had made a fortune from manufacturing plasterboard) might invest in the new radio station. The Aussie duly handed over a copy of his business plan which included the technical broadcast requirements, international shipping regulations, and a mission-critical barrister’s opinion verifying the legality of a ship broadcasting from outside UK territorial waters. Crawford thought he had struck gold with his new friendship – but so did O’Rahilly.
Next, the Irishman and two close friends, photographer Chris Moore and would-be actor Michael Joseph, were sitting in the Kenco Coffee Bar in London’s fashionable Kings Road. They were leafing through Crawford’s pirate radio ‘bible’, getting more and more excited by the possibilities.
O’Rahilly listened intently as Moore drew on his brief merchant navy experience to explain with mock authority how a ship could be permanently anchored in international waters. They quickly decided to launch their own floating radio station – and to get there first.
O’Rahilly became a man in a hurry. He phoned his father in Dublin to check they could use Greenore to fit-out the ship: he agreed but side-stepped the question about whether he might invest in the project himself. The next call was to Moore’s room-mate (and, later, novelist) Ian Ross whose entrepreneurial, New Zealand-born father Charles Ross lived just outside London. O’Rahilly and Moore squeezed into Ian Ross’s two-seater MGB sports car and raced to his father’s English countryside home later that same day. O’Rahilly insisted on driving. There was no time to lose.
Charles Ross quickly agreed to support the project and also brought in a financier friend, John Sheffield, chairman of the Norcros building materials group, and celebrated magazine publisher Jocelyn Stevens. They were joined by an O’Rahilly family friend, Dublin lawyer Herman Good, who imitated the complex arrangements made by Radio Veronica whereby the station would be managed by the UK-registered Planet Productions Ltd, variously through Lichtenstein and Switzerland. The ship, which was legally owned in Switzerland, would fly both the Panamanian and Bolivian flags. The young Irishman was able to get the £250,000 funding for his radio ship in a few weeks. By contrast, Allan Crawford had been struggling for more than two years to secure backers.
The reality only dawned on the Aussie music publisher when his Radio Atlanta ship, the Mi Amigo, reached Greenore in March 1964. It had been beaten there by a larger ship, the ice-strengthened former Danish ferry Fredericia, which had been bought in Rotterdam by Chris Moore for £20,000 and was now emblazoned with the name Radio Caroline. Crawford was astonished – and angry.
O’Rahilly was waiting nervously on the dockside, ready to calm down the Aussie by proposing that the two radio ships could work together to reach the whole of the UK. But what became an amiable enough meeting – followed by excited late-night discussions in the bar of the nearby Ballymascanlon Hotel – only signalled the start of sabotage involving cut wires and stolen transmitter crystals and tape decks from the Mi Amigo.
Crawford’s careful planning and his well-equipped ship (which had previously operated as Radio Nord in Scandinavia for several years) was the envy of the O’Rahilly team who repeatedly plundered it. Crawford’s anger at what he described as the “Irish mafia” was repeatedly met by feigned shock and promises to behave. But O’Rahilly’s own role included insistence by the harbour master that Radio Atlanta leave the port during a storm, which almost wrecked the ship and, crucially, delayed its fit-out.
It all helped ensure that Radio Caroline became the first ship ready to sail – and to start the radio revolution that Crawford had been planning for more than two years. It was an instant success with radio listeners. A Gallup survey revealed that it attracted more than 7m listeners in just three weeks, despite an absence of any kind of launch advertising or promotion. The station became famous solely through newspaper coverage and word-of-mouth.
The Caroline launch was the beginning of the end for Allan Crawford’s radio dream. His backers (among them showbiz agent Kitty Black, property developer Max Rayne, and one Major Oliver Smedley) thought he had been mad ever to trust O’Rahilly. But, behind the scenes, Radio Caroline’s very conventional backers Charles Ross and John Sheffield (to whom Crawford had been regularly complaining) were trying to stop the sabotage and push for a merger between the two stations. They were already wondering if they had invested in the wrong venture: O’Rahilly and his inexperienced young team had started to worry them.
Six weeks later, Radio Atlanta arrived at its North Sea anchorage alongside Radio Caroline. Within a few months, the two stations did merge to become Radio Caroline South (the former Radio Atlanta, off the UK’s East Coast) and Radio Caroline North (between the Isle of Man and Liverpool in the North West). But, after months of “shared” management, O’Rahilly took control, amid Crawford’s complaints of being outdone by the “Irish mafia”. Within a year, the merger had become a takeover by the young Irishman.
Eventually, Crawford’s backers got most of their money back – but nothing more. Meanwhile, Ross and Sheffield were shocked by O’Rahilly’s decision to rent an expensive, six-storey office building in Chesterfield Gardens in London’s swanky Mayfair district, which had been renamed Caroline House. They forced the appointment of a general manager, former investment banker Barry Ainley, in a bid to bring the costs under control. But the Ross-Sheffield cautiousness and Ainley’s formal budgets and cash control were brushed aside by the young Caroline team who were being feted by newspapers, pop stars – and a huge listening audience. O’Rahilly’s experienced business backers winced as they read euphoric interviews in which the supposed millionaire boasted of having made a fortune from a radio station that was, in fact, still making losses after 12 months of huge audiences and apparent success.
Journalists filled the media with the people, politics, gossip and even the high seas weather of ‘pirate’ radio. The exciting new station’s influence on pop music was greater even than back-to-back plays of successive hits from The Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Georgie Fame, the Animals and the Moody Blues. Chris Blackwell’s legendary Island Records, which had relocated to London from Jamaica in 1962, was effectively launched in the UK by the ‘pirate ships’, as were The Who whose managers became based in Caroline’s offices. In 1964, Radio Caroline was the epicentre of UK news, media and entertainment.
Its two ships were soon attracting more than 15 million listeners, and advertisers were piling in to what – in a few short months – had become the world’s largest commercial radio station. They were joined by a whole fleet of offshore stations including: Radio London, Radio 270, Radio Scotland, Radio England, Tower Radio, Britain Radio, Radio Essex, Radio City, Radio 390, Radio Invicta, and Radio Sutch. They were variously broadcasting from ships and abandoned wartime forts around the British coast. The broadcast spectrum, which government ministers had once claimed was too crowded to permit any more radio channels, suddenly seemed a lot more flexible.
The UK government then started what became a three-year war of words against the ‘pirates’, encouraged by the record companies Decca and EMI which were secretly offering to “jam” the offshore broadcasts in order to “protect” their music. For a time, the stations’ popularity kept the government at bay. But, in August 1967, the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson finally enacted a law banning Brits from any involvement in offshore broadcasting. August 15, 1967 was marked by emotional farewell broadcasts from Radio London (the station that had bested Caroline in the money stakes), screaming teenagers welcoming their favourite disc jockeys ashore, and brave declarations that the renamed “Radio Caroline International” would continue forever.
A month after most of the stations were legislated off the air, the BBC launched its first pop music channel, the advertising-free Radio One, featuring Tony Blackburn – who had once been Radio Caroline’s youngest DJ – and many others who had made their names on the ‘pirate’ ships. But it would be a full five years before the succeeding Conservative government permitted the country’s first land-based commercial radio stations.
So, the euphoric 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 profligacy contributed to the romance and to a 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 businesses for the next 25 years.
Beneath the froth, though, UK ‘pirate’ radio was an incredible story rich in drama, comedy and tragedy – and, perhaps, best characterised by seven diverse personalities:
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 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 Charles Ross introduced him to Ronan O’Rahilly, John Sheffield had made a new fortune by becoming a pioneer of what has since become known as 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.”
But Sheffield’s stellar reputation as a shrewd judge of businesses clearly played little part in his speedy decision to back Radio Caroline on the back of some sketchy calculations and a sense of excitement.
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. Ross and Sheffield together provided most of the £250,000 launch funding for Radio Caroline and they owned more than 80% of the shares.
They actually paid over most of the investment in upfront cash which, years later, prompted stories about O’Rahilly, Ross and Moore throwing bundles of cash in the air in a wild Chelsea celebration of could-not-believe-their-luck euphoria. Their suitcase stuffed with cash was another sign that the project had caused Sheffield and his friends momentarily to abandon their sharp business instincts. But not completely: while he (like Charles Ross and Herman Good) was a director of the UK company responsible for 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, John Sheffield never commented on Radio Caroline. And he was never photographed with O’Rahilly or the ships. He left that to his publicity-loving son-in-law.
2. The posh publisher
Jocelyn Edward Greville Stevens had married John Sheffield’s daughter Jane. She was “lady in waiting” (a personal assistant) to Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister whose wild times were everyday media gossip in 1960s London. Stevens 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, supposedly 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.Whether true or not, he loved the newspaper column inches generated by such stories.
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, a celebrated photographer who later married Princess Margaret.
When bored with that (Stevens says), he sold the magazine off to a man who happened to be sitting at the next table in 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, had said she was explicitly targeting a reader defined as a young woman with long hair who had left school at age 16, was not highly-intelligent, 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 station’s name.
Stevens played an important role in securing the friends-and-family funding for the radio ship and in giving the buccaneering station an image of cool respectability. Although the posh 32-year-old year old Brit seemed like the perfect partner for O’Rahilly, he stayed unannounced in the shadows as journalists clamoured to hear the first broadcasts in the London pub in Easter 1964. But once it took off, there was no stopping him. Stevens’ influence receded, though, as new investors arrived to replace the original funders who had become disenchanted with Radio Caroline’s erratic profitability.
Initially the radio ship had an unmistakeable aura of success stoked by huge audiences and euphoric newspaper coverage. But the serious-minded investors, who had worried about the ‘piracy’ in Greenore and the pricey headquarters, were now alarmed about racy company-owned cars and (allegedly) missing cash: they thought the team was better at spending money than making it.
O’Rahilly had never been primarily interested in profits – and it showed. With running costs that started at £5k and soared to £10k per week, Radio Caroline made real profits only for two years, 1965 and 1966. Before then, the station’s losses were met from the initial Ross-Sheffield funding. In the two peak years, annual revenues were an estimated £800-900k – more than double that in 1964 – from advertising rates that reached £160 per minute. There were profits too from ‘pay-for-play’ deals with record companies, programme sponsorship, and lucrative £150-a-time late-night religious broadcasts by American evangelists.
But even Radio Caroline’s two years of soaring profits were disrupted by extravagance, poor cost control – and fierce new competition from the largest ‘pirate’ radio ship, a former US minesweeper which anchored nearby, in December 1964. This was Radio London, whose audience and revenue overtook Caroline within 12 months on the back of more powerful transmitters and a slick top 40 formula punctuated by the ground-breaking acapella identity jingles (made by PAMS in Texas) which have dominated pop radio ever since.
The new ship and its system of playing a pre-planned mix of hits and oldies had a stunning impact, especially on the pioneering station that, until then, had been way out in front. Radio London was managed by well-connected former JWT advertising agency executive Philip Birch and had all the professionalism and managerial discipline eschewed by the freewheeling Radio Caroline, where DJs chose the music as they went along. In addition to the innovative “Wonderful Radio London” jingles, the new station was the first to broadcast regular news bulletins, to have sponsored programmes, and also to insist its DJs did not talk over the music. Advertisers quickly fell in love with “Big L”, helped by the new station’s lower airtime costs and a sales team that, like its DJs, were highly experienced.
In January 1996, Caroline was rocked further by uninsured costs when its southern ship was beached in a storm and it was forced to rent an expensive short-term replacement from Sweden. But the refurbished ship then bounced back with stronger transmitters, a better broadcasting frequency, new jingles and a bit more on-air professionalism. It was a real fightback by Radio Caroline in its head-head competition with Radio London, and both stations were now next to each other on radio wavebands as well as on the high seas. But the higher costs of Caroline’s two ships prevented it matching its rival’s profits, although the North ship was effectively keeping the whole Radio Caroline organisation afloat because it faced almost no competition for the whole of the North of England. But the pirates were running out of time.
By 15 August 1967, when legislation finally forced advertisers to withdraw from the pirates which would have to be supplied from beyond the UK, it was easy to see that the world’s most famous radio station had made more headlines than profit. By then, Sheffield, Ross and Stevens had quit. They were succeeded by Philip Solomon, the controversial Irish owner of Major Minor Records. He had once managed Van Morrison. But, now, his motley portfolio included the not-so-cool Bachelors, the Dubliners, Karen Young, David McWilliams, and the Raymond Lefevre Orchestra, which were plugged remorselessly by Radio Caroline, despite on-air protests from its disc jockeys.
Solomon also introduced a policy of charging record companies fees to play any music that was outside the top 20. It was less subtle than Radio London’s own money-making approach which had been to own rights to many of the rarely-played ‘B’ sides of hit records (thereby sharing 50% of the royalties of the best-selling songs it was playing).
But, in the run-up to the legislation, Radio Caroline needed the cash. Philip Solomon’s ‘payola’ strategies provoked heated arguments with O’Rahilly who was fighting to stay in control of his brainchild. But he was starting to run out of luck as well as money.
3. The JFK ‘conspirator’
One of the many ironies of the whole ‘pirate’ radio story is the major 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 on the Mi Amigo which later became Allan Crawford’s Radio Atlanta and Radio Caroline South in Britain. He wrote most of the Atlanta business plan with which Crawford had inadvertently prompted Ronan O’Rahilly’s ideas for Radio Caroline. ‘Atlanta’ was even named after McLendon’s home town in Texas.
Later, his ground-breaking KLIF Top 40 station in Dallas became the model for Radio London. He had even, at one time, proposed to replay 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, became an immediate success on its arrival nine months after Caroline – and became the most profitable UK ‘pirate’ of all.
The Texan broadcaster-turned-executive actually invested in many of the UK pirate stations including the spectacularly unsuccessful “twins” Radio England and Britain Radio which operated from one ship. 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 little to show for the time and money he spent in Europe.
The irony of his involvement in ‘pirate’ radio lies in Ronan O’Rahilly’s long-time obsession with the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Irishman’s successive offices had long been dominated by a bronze bust of JFK. Over the years, he has been involved in films and TV shows on the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King. His 1970 hippie film “Gold” even opened, improbably, with pictures of the assassinations – and of Radio Caroline. And, in recent times, O’Rahilly has written and directed a documentary, KingKennedy, which is reportedly being produced in the UK by Howard Goldstein and Valentine Stockdale.
In the 50 years years since O’Rahilly first flew to Houston to seek advice from Gordon McLendon on starting a radio station, the Texan’s possible involvement in the assassination and in conspiracies against Cuba’s President Castro has been widely reported.
McLendon was acknowledged to be a long-time close friend of Jack Ruby, who had murdered JFK’s apparent assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallas police station. The broadcasting mogul himself died in 1986, just before publication of the book “Deadly Secrets” which claimed that he was a key conspirator in the President’s assassination.
4. The secret agent
Those conspiracy theories must have fascinated the UK ‘pirate’ radio operator with the most colourful background of all, Theodore Edward le Bouthillier (Ted) Allbeury. Like novelists Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré, he was a real-life spy during and after the Second World War, decades before he started writing best-selling novels. But, between those two careers, the former British secret agent owned a successful advertising and PR agency – and a pirate radio station.
Ted Allbeury was 48 when he decided to launch a ‘middle-of-the-road’ alternative to all the pop music ushered in by Radio Caroline. 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 UK ‘pirate’ radio, the success 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. He was 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 pirate radio.
It was said to have been written to help Allbeury overcome the pain of the long kidnapping of two of his children, presumed (by friend and 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 bizarre social revolution wrought by the ‘pirate’ radio ships captivated millions of Brits. From 1964 to 1967, some 50% of the UK population listened regularly to them. They were big news and big business.
The 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 mixed-up 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 government 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 support for legislation. His task was ultimately made easier by some serious lawlessness that seemed to underline the perils of broadcasters operating in international waters.
First, there were the 1964 deaths of the owner and two of the staff of the fort-based Radio Invicta when a supply boat sank in the River Thames. Nobody knew whether it was sabotage or an accident in a poorly-maintained boat, but 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 rock singer whose fame was based not so much on his music as on his audacious pretend-you’re-serious election campaigns, starting with a headline-grabbing challenge in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s own constituency. His campaigns inspired the “Monster Raving Loony Party” in the BBC’s iconic Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Election night pictures of Sutch alongside the Prime Minister were straight out of Monty Python. But his idea (in a manifesto written by Reg Calvert’s wife) of reducing the UK voting age from 21 to 18 was five years ahead of its time. They launched Radio Sutch from a Thames estuary fort, essentially as a publicity campaign to promote his music. Programmes included the singer reading racy late-night extracts from the then controversial “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. When Sutch went back to performing, Calvert got serious about broadcasting and relaunched the station as Radio City.
The Thames forts were part of a network of structures erected around the Thames estuary during the build-up to the Second World War when nobody cared whether they were inside or outside the country’s territorial waters. In the 1960s, the long disused structures created the opportunity for low-budget radio stations, whereas ships required substantial investment and expensive servicing. Many of these fort-based radio stations had total weekly costs of just £400, compared with more than ten times that for the ships. For Radio City, the entire operating costs were much more than paid-for by a single contract for evening religious broadcasts funded by a US church for £125 per hour which equated to some £800 per week. So, in its heyday, the erratic and relatively weak transmissions of Radio City were coining it.
Calvert’s station (and Ted Allbeury’s nearby Radio 390) were able to make solid profits from relatively small audiences – until court verdicts successively ruled that the forts were, after all, inside UK waters. But, by then, Reg Calvert was dead. His fateful bid to merge his station with Radio Caroline or Radio London led to a violent struggle over the ownership of a transmitter in June 1966. It ended with 38-year-old Calvert being shot at the Essex home of Major Oliver Smedley, a former Radio Atlanta director and would-be politician.
Smedley was charged not with murder but manslaughter. But, even on this lesser charge, he was acquitted. It was, to say the least, a surprising verdict. But Calvert’s death prompted politicians on all sides to tone down their support for ‘pirate’ radio. It seemed to be getting dangerous.
6. The self-styled Prince
It is ironic that the lawlessness associated with the Thames estuary forts (which were ruled to be inside UK waters and, therefore, no longer viable for pirate radio) was less spectacular than on the quite different Roughs Tower fort in the North Sea off the country’s east coast – close to Radio Caroline.
Whereas the Thames forts – built for the British army – consisted of a cluster of seven stilted metal buildings surrounding a central command tower and connected by catwalks high above the sea, Roughs Tower was altogether more spacious, durable – and located (then) in international waters on a sandbar seven miles off the UK east coast. It was one of three forts built for occupation by the British navy.
They were constructed in 1943, primarily for defence against mine-laying aircraft, and comprised a rectangular 51m x 27m pontoon base supported by two 20m 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 allowing it to rest on the seabed. Throughout World War 2, it had been occupied by up to 300 British troops and used as an anti-aircraft base. It was vacated in 1956.
The Roughs Tower fort remained derelict until Radio Caroline took up its anchorage in 1964. On a trip out to the ship, Ronan O’Rahilly visited the fort, saw its potential and started to develop his plans for its future. He constructed a helipad and secretly planned to move Radio Caroline to it. His people were even talking about using the fort as a base for what would have been the UK’s first offshore TV broadcasts.
In so many ways, those plans to move from an expensive-to-maintain ship to a much larger, permanent fort were inspired. But the secret got out. O’Rahilly’s people were ejected from Roughs Tower and found themselves caught up in a violent cat-and-mouse fight for possession with rival pirate radio forces. The tussle became serious and involved guns, flame-throwers, grenades – and court cases which ultimately confirmed that the fort was, indeed, beyond UK jurisdiction.
That was what tenacious former British Army major Roy Bates – one-time owner of Radio Essex on a Thames fort – had been fighting for. In 1967 (just as the UK’s radio ships were being legislated 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 legislation (which targeted UK subjects involved in broadcasting on the high seas) would have outlawed that too.
Suddenly, Bates comically declared that the fort “the independent principality of Sealand”, the world’s smallest “country” with its own flag, money, stamps, passports – and even, apparently, a football team. But he wasn’t joking and awarded himself the title of Prince Roy of Sealand. That was almost 40 years ago. Bates died in 2012 after decades fighting the UK government in the courts, and violently repelling a succession of invaders.
Unlike a neighbouring fort which was blown up by the British government in the 1967, “Sealand” is still there – despite the fact that the 1970s extension in territorial waters brought it within UK jurisdiction. But the authorities have (sort of) ignored Sealand, hoping vainly its occupants would go bust or go away.
The fort 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 the Bates family forcibly ejected the Radio Caroline team, it stands there as a curious sea-sprayed monument to the UK’s ‘pirate’ radio era. It has never been used for broadcasting and (as a result of the extended territorial waters) is now actually within UK jurisdiction. But the British government has learned to leave it alone.
7. The Irish maverick
The story of how a collection of old ships and decaying wartime sea forts managed to break the BBC radio monopoly – and give British airtime to the 1960s pop music that was captivating the world – is a story of its time. The sole survivor among the seven men who shook up British radio is the Irish maverick Ronan O’Rahilly who seized the moment.
Just five years after the 1964 debut of Radio Caroline, Ireland would be plunged into the “Troubles”, which became almost 30 years of civil war. So, O’Rahilly made his splash just a few years before security issues would have scuppered the very idea of the Irish revolutionary’s grandson fitting out a radio ship at a port deep inside countryside that became largely controlled by IRA militia, just few miles south of the disputed border. By 1969, the emerging terrorist activity 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 finally outlawed the UK-based ‘pirates’, left Radio Caroline struggling to survive intermittently for the following 20 years. And it didn’t last. The two ships were forcibly towed away in March 1968 by the Dutch company which had been responsible for supplying them amid stories of unpaid debts. The former Radio Caroline South ship returned a few years later but finally sank in a North Sea gale.
The 1980s saw the station resume broadcasts from a new ship, the Ross Revenge. But the financial torture of working around the UK legislation (by supplying the radio ship, expensively, from far-flung European ports) was all over again by 1991. Radio Caroline has since been revived by enthusiasts, first via satellite and now as an online channel, with plans to revive it as a legally-licensed UK local radio station. But only the name is the same.
The gregarious Ronan O’Rahilly, meanwhile, kept himself busy with a succession of trademark projects. He turned to producing movies including: the 1968 Alain Delon / Marianne Faithfull hit “The Girl on a Motorcycle”, “Two Virgins” for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and “Gold” and “Universal Soldier” starring George Lazenby. He also managed the US rock group MC5 and Irish folk singer David McWilliams whose one successful 1960s record had been promoted heavily on Radio Caroline.
For a few months in 1968, he was an advisor to the Beatles’ Apple Corps business which was dabbling in retailing and electronics as well as music. According to O’Rahilly, he and Lennon spent weeks discussing how the Beatles could help secure the return of Radio Caroline (even down to planning to buy an island from which it could broadcast) but nothing came of it. And fellow Beatle George Harrison too flirted with the idea of resurrecting the station.
In 1970, O’Rahilly announced the July launch of Caroline TV, supposedly to be broadcast from Lockheed Super Constellation aircraft flying over the North Sea. The plans, based on airborne transmissions to US troops then taking place in Vietnam, were later exposed as a publicity stunt – or at least a speculative attempt to attract backers for what would have been the riskiest broadcasting project of all. For a few months, there was regular newspaper and magazine coverage of the project by journalists who were determined not to under-estimate O’Rahilly again. But the stories soon began to pose more questions than answers.
The project probably had secured conditional funding from O’Rahilly’s wealthy friend, Scottish banking heir George Drummond, who had also backed most of his movie productions. The former Radio Caroline sales director Terry Bate (later a leading TV entrepreneur in London) and a New York advertising sales company Edward Petrie did engage in serious canvassing of US advertisers. And a BBC news team was despatched to cover the scheduled July 1 launch.
But the launch date came and went. O’Rahilly told some friends he had purchased two aircraft which were in Spain, waiting to take-off and start broadcasting. But in the weeks after the predicted launch date, he said, implausibly, that the planes had been “blown up” by British government agents. Even insiders came to believe the whole project was a fantasy which could have only become reality if high-spending advertisers had emerged to pay what would have been the astronomical operating costs of broadcasting from aircraft. The fact that Radio Caroline itself had been struggling to persuade international advertisers to circumvent the UK legislation (which applied also to aircraft) always made the whole project seem hopelessly unrealistic.
In the event, Caroline TV remained as nothing more than a poster on the wall of O’Rahilly’s London office wall in Hay’s Mews, near the former Radio Caroline headquarters. The reports of test broadcasts, advertising contracts, and trial flights from European airports quickly evaporated. The whole saga somehow seemed to fit with musician Alexis Korner’s mid-1960s view that the fast-talking Irishman “wanted more than anything else to be seen to be successful”. Now, O’Rahilly was struggling to stay in the news.
The former ‘pirate’ radio boss also managed Lazenby, the Australian model-turned-actor and 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 suddenly resumed broadcasts from the short-lived, Swiss-owned Radio North Sea International (RNI) ship. RNI itself became part of the murky folklore of ‘pirate’ radio when, following the 1971 closedown, its electronics firm owners sold the ship to Libya and were – astonishingly – linked by various news reports to the 1988 supply of the timing equipment with which terrorists blew up a US-bound aircraft over Lockerbie in Scotland. But that was all in the future and a world away from pop radio.
RNI briefly assumed the guise of the lamented Radio Caroline as an electioneering stunt to help the Conservatives win the 1970 UK general election, with a pledge to introduce commercial radio. O’Rahilly led a seemingly effective campaign alongside Lazenby and pioneering DJ Simon Dee – whose high-flying TV chat show career had by then ended, having lasted little longer than the radio ship that launched it.
The Radio Caroline boss attacked the Labour government’s decision to jam the station’s election broadcasts, telling a rally in London’s Hyde Park: “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.”
O’Rahilly was enjoying the flirtation with politics. And so, in 1973, the UK got its first land-based commercial radio stations – 40 years after the US and Australia. But the Irishman failed to realise his dream of bringing Radio Caroline ashore as a licensed station. The Conservative politicians who enjoyed O’Rahilly’s support soon stopped answering his calls after they won the election.
He remained an outsider, periodically reviving the radio ship as an album station promoting his hippy philosophy of “Loving Awareness” and funded by US religious broadcasts. But it was a sad final chapter of rusting ships, mounting debts, erratic broadcasting, and a now not-so-young Irishman who just couldn’t let go.
By 1980, when the Radio Caroline ship, the Mi Amigo, finally sank, everything had changed.
Twenty-two years after the 1967 legislation which outlawed the UK ‘pirate’ ships, Rupert Murdoch launched Sky TV as a satellite broadcaster from Luxembourg, to compete with the then official British Satellite Broadcasting – and beyond the reach of UK cross-media laws. But nobody called him a ‘pirate’.
In the decades since, satellites and the web have created a global market for information and entertainment that makes Britain’s legislation against ‘pirate’ radio ships seem 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 the veteran disc jockeys Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker, Richard Park, Emperor Rosko, Ed Stewart, and Dave Cash who started out by playing records in gale-force winds on the North Sea. It will feel a bit like the last hurrah for the 1960s generation which has dominated UK media and much else for the past 50 years.
One former Radio Caroline DJ is Sir Roger Gale, a Member of Parliament for the UK Conservative government, and another is TV celebrity hypnotist Paul McKenna. They will all be reminiscing about the distant few years of British ‘pirate’ radio which seem to fit the 1916 words of Ronan O’Rahilly’s martyred grandfather a few days before he died in a hail of English bullets: “It is madness, but it is glorious madness.”
But two leading characters will be not be contributing to memories of the glorious madness.
Simon Dee died five years ago, having been scarcely visible for more than 30 years. And the 73-year-old Irishman who started it all, is suffering from vascular dementia and being cared for in his birthplace, County Louth, in the Irish Republic. He is sometimes seen playing golf in Greenore, in sight of the port where Radio Caroline was “born”, and which was sold by his family for £14m in 2002 – 44 years after being bought for just £12,500.
This month, millions of Brits will be remembering fondly how Ronan O’Rahilly brought the music alive in 1964.
UPDATE: Ronan O’Rahilly died in Carlingford, Ireland on 20 April 2020, age 79.