The first British pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, was founded by Ronan O’Rahilly in 1964 – he chose the name of the station in honour of the daughter of the first Roman Catholic President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy.
Having persuaded five City millionaires to back him, Ronan acquired a ship (the 702-ton former Danish passenger ferry, Frederica), a crew of disc jockeys and engineers, two 10-kilowatt transmitters (£50,000 apiece) and a stack of records.
Renamed the MV Caroline, this ship took up position off Harwich (outside the three-mile limit in international waters) on Good Friday, 1964. That same night it began test broadcasting. At noon on Easter Saturday, 28 March 1964, the new transmitter proclaimed her call sign “This is Radio Caroline” and Disc Jockey Chris Moore took charge and introduced, as the first record, The Beatles‘ recording of Can’t Buy Me Love. Britain’s first commercial station was on the air.
Six weeks later, Radio Atlanta sailed in (onboard the 470-ton MV Mi Amigo), dropping anchor some 14 miles from Caroline.
Between them, the two ships aimed at and reached the second-largest English-speaking audience on the planet. On 3 July 1964, both ships began operating under the Radio Caroline call-sign after O’Rahilly and Allan Crawford (the boss of Radio Atlanta) agreed to merge the stations.
And so the good ship Caroline sailed up the Irish Sea to anchor in international waters three miles off Ramsey in the Isle of Man, becoming ‘Radio Caroline North’ (it continued broadcasting on the 199 metres wave-length all the way north).
At the same time, the Mi Amigo continued broadcasting from its existing position, transmitting to the Greater London zone and South-East England in general – but now under the Caroline call-sign, operating as ‘Radio Caroline South’.
As was the case with most European countries, British law only prohibited commercial radio broadcasting on land. By basing itself in international waters, 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.
Early DJs included Doug Kerr, Carl Conway, Tom Lodge, Tony Jay, Jerry Leighton, Chris Moore, Simon Dee, Gerry Duncan, Mike Alan, Jenny Conway and Marilyn Richard.
Within a few months, Radio Caroline was getting more than 2,000 letters every day.
Other Disc Jockeys who joined Radio Caroline included Johnnie Walker, Tony Blackburn, Roger Gale, Tommy Vance, Bob Stewart, Ray Teret, Dave Lee Travis, Tony Prince, Emperor Rosko, “Admiral” Robbie Dale (pictured below), Gary Kemp, Graham “Spider” Webb, Keith “Keefers” Hampshire, Mick Luvzit, Don Allen, Colin Nicol, Spangles Muldoon, Mike Ahern and Tom Edwards.
Operating in international waters wasn’t without its challenges. All DJ’s and supplies going out to the ships were officially leaving and re-entering the UK which meant dealing with HM Customs and Excise, HM Waterguard, HM Immigration, the Ministry of Transport, the Board of Trade, the Port Health Authority, Special Branch CID and the local Harbour Board.
On New Year’s Eve 1964, the Postmaster-General, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, announced that he was seeking legislation to make sure that famine hit the Caroline ships. He intended to starve them out by making it an offence to supply them with food, fuel and advertising.
Unsurprisingly, many of the supply tenders going out to the Mi Amigo and the Caroline came from Holland instead. Meanwhile, the Manxmen were more than happy to defy the English Government and continue to supply the MV Caroline.
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 on 3 March 1968 when the Mi Amigo and Caroline were boarded and seized. They were towed to Amsterdam by a salvage company to secure unpaid bills for servicing by the Dutch tender company Wijsmuller Transport. In Holland, the ships 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
- Radio Caroline online – Listen online
- Caroline Flashback – Pop singles from the 60s and 70s