The first British pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, was founded by Ronan O’Rahilly in 1964.
Having persuaded five City millionaires to back him, he acquired a ship, a crew of disc jockeys and engineers, two 10-kilowatt transmitters (£50,000 apiece) and a stack of records.
The station started broadcasting on 29 March 1964, when DJ Simon Dee uttered the words, “Hello everybody. This is Radio Caroline, broadcasting on 199, your all-day music station”.
He was speaking from a small studio onboard the 702-ton former passenger ferry Frederica, known to its listeners as Radio Caroline.
As was the case with most European countries, British law only prohibited commercial radio broadcasting on land. By basing itself in the North Sea, Caroline was able to exploit this legal loophole, providing British teenagers with all-day rock & roll fun, while simultaneously providing O’ Rahilly with all-day profit from advertisers.
The DJ’s on Caroline took their shore leave in Holland and Dutch boats carried their supplies and records to the ship.
All British offshore pirate radio stations were silenced by the government’s Marine Offences Act in Autumn 1967. The banning coincided with the launch of Radio One by the BBC – which was created as a carbon copy of the pirate stations.
Caroline continued to broadcast for six months, but the lack of advertising, failing morale of the DJ’s (who were all now exiles from the UK) and the huge distances over which supplies had to be transported, gradually wore the station down.
Their continued broadcasting, though, was an embarrassment to the Labour government which had vowed to sink the pirates.
Both Caroline ships went silent in early March 1968 and were towed from their anchorages to Holland, where they gradually deteriorated as they were looted and vandalised. The MV Caroline eventually went to the scrapyard, but Mi Amigo was rescued and was ultimately taken back to sea. Radio Caroline was back.
For a while the station broadcast Dutch language (and style) radio during the day and English Caroline programmes at night, before the Mi Amigo was towed to a desolate anchorage in the Knock Deep at the mouth of the Thames Estuary visible from neither the Kent or Essex coasts.
At this location – and ostensibly operated and supplied from Playa De Aro in Spain – Radio Caroline and the ship commenced their next six lonely, difficult but remarkable years.
Rather than compete with Radio One, Ronan O’Rahilly decreed that Caroline should now play only album music. Listeners were now subjected to a diet of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Jethro Tull, Yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Barclay James Harvest and their ilk.
On 19 March 1980 Mi Amigo broke anchor and – lifted by the rising tide – was pounded on the seabed, with many leaks springing up in the engine and generator rooms at the stern. After struggling for eight hours with portable pumps the crew admitted defeat.
Tom Anderson and DJ Stevie Gordon told listeners “It’s not a very good occasion really, we have to hurry this because the lifeboat is waiting. We’re not leaving and disappearing, we’re going into the lifeboat hoping that the pumps can take it, if so, we’ll be back, if not, well we really don’t like to say it. I’m sure we’ll be back one way or another. For the moment from all of us, goodbye and God Bless”.
These were the last words spoken on air from the Mi Amigo‘s transmitters. A few minutes after the crew were rescued by the lifeboat Helen Turnbull, the ship’s lights went out as seawater engulfed the generator and Mi Amigo sank.
Radio Caroline was relaunched in 1983, now broadcasting from an ex-trawler called MV Ross Revenge. The station continued broadcasting until the horrendous storms of 1987 destroyed the 300 foot aerial on the ship. This was replaced by two more modest aerials, but on On Saturday 19 August 1989 the unthinkable happened.
The large Dutch vessel Volans (with armed officials on board) and the British launch Landward closed in on the Ross Revenge and boarded and took control of the ship as disc jockeys relayed a blow by blow account of events to the astonished listeners.
Once the transmitters were silenced, the Dutch stripped the ship of all broadcast equipment while the British attempted to interrogate the crew under threat of arrest. All this happened in International waters where the boarders had no official powers, and the raiders eventually left, taking with them all of the records, studios and transmitting equipment and leaving behind some vandalism and deliberate damage.
Using land-based studios leased in Kent in the late 1990s, Radio Caroline began broadcasting via satellite. These analogue transmissions ended and a full digital service started in February 2003.
The station has been streamed on the internet for many years, accessible via the station’s website at www.radiocaroline.co.uk