By Sam Gilder
The ‘swinging sixties’ was characterised by rising living standards, increased sexual freedoms and the emphatic influence of the youth on British culture. Rock and roll had erupted in Britain, with bands such as The Beatles, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones characterizing the new shift in pop music. London was at the centre of these changes, with immigration into the capital resulting in a melting pot of new musical styles such as jazz and soul. Despite this, the BBC largely ignored these new musical influences, having dominated radio since the 1920s they played music that fell in line with a moral and traditional Britain.
Ronan O’Rahilly capitalised on this emerging music market, becoming a successful owner of a nightclub in Soho. The Irish-born 24-year-old had been impressed by a jazz musician named Georgie Fame but knew his sound would not be accepted on the mainstream airwaves. So O’Rahilly took matters into his own hands, starting a record label, recording Fame’s music and creating a studio. In an interview with BBC 2 in 1991, he admitted it was at that moment he decided he wanted to bring this kind of music to the masses in the form of a radio station. He founded Radio Caroline, named after the daughter of U.S President John F. Kennedy. O’Rahilly found that the president symbolised the way times were changing at the start of the decade and was a true representation of hope. He knew that there was a world of music that young British listeners were missing out on due to the BBC monopoly.
On 28 March 1964, Radio Caroline transmitted for the first time. The station broadcasted from international waters, three and a half miles off the coast of Suffolk and offered pop music from 6am until 8pm. The first record played on Caroline was ‘Not Fade Away’ by the Rolling Stones. This set the tone for what was to come, and how tracks would come thick and fast all day. From 1964 to 1967 pirate radio in Britain was the source of brand-new pop music for millions and as the monopoly of the BBC was challenged, Radio Caroline emerged as the most popular and today the most remembered station. DJs stayed on board for around six weeks at a time, and delivered a new and exciting style of radio to those who tuned in. Some were from North America and Australia, for example, U.S DJ ‘Emperor Rosko’ offered an upbeat voice and type of outlandish personality never heard on radio before. Later in 1964, O’Rahilly bought a station called Radio Atlanta and this would be renamed ‘Caroline North’. It was moored off the Isle of Man and meant Radio Caroline could be picked up on transistor radios across the nation.
Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray recalled hearing Radio Caroline for the first time after a school friend recommended it:
“I was accustomed to sitting through an entire, horrible, boring (BBC) light programme comedy show just to hear one guest appearance by a group halfway through. I went home, got my radio, closed the door and found this thing and suddenly there was ‘Martha Reeves and the Vandellas – Dancing in the street’, and I thought YES! Take me there.”
“Pirate radio took the music that London hipsters were listening to out of an elite audience and put them out there where spotty little bozos like me could pick up on them and have our minds twisted by them.”
Accounts like this pertain to how much of a ritual listening to pirate radio was at this time. It inspired the new-found individualism of the age, allowing young people to develop new tastes and move away from conformity to the establishment. Caroline offered exciting music that had previously been ignored on radio. Whilst the BBC tried to combat a growing counterculture fuelled by messages in music, it led those seeking that kind of music to the pirates. The Irish Times reported in July 1964 that signals from Caroline North were being picked up on the east coast of Ireland, with a teen from Dublin insisting other radio was ‘stale’ and that Caroline was ‘absolutely fab’.
The Financial Times reported Radio Caroline’s audience grew from 6.8 million in April 1964 to over 12 million in 1965. The main source of revenue was from advertisements, with DJs marketing items such as breakfast cereals, tobacco and watches. Some that worked for the station argue their weekly audiences were at 20 million. Either way, the rising popularity of Caroline was clear proof of its ability to deliver what listeners wanted.
The BBC conducted a survey of 1,000 radio listeners in Autumn 1964 titled ‘The Caroline Phenomenon’. 200 of the participants were labelled by the BBC as ‘addicts’, merely because they stated they listened to broadcasts ‘often’. It seems obvious the establishment was attempting to alienate these listeners from the norm and that the BBC aimed to marginalise young Caroline listeners, adding to the discourse of an increasingly immoral society that stemmed from shifting teenage behaviours. This report was the start of the legislative ammunition used by the establishment to take the radio monopoly back.
To the establishment and those that abided by it, broadcasts of rock and roll were seen to be symbolic of a youth population that was being misguided by music characteristic of rising permissiveness. The Labour Party opposition to the pirates spearheaded by Postmaster-General Tony Benn, would accuse the pirates with blocking emergency transmissions at sea and therefore putting others at risk. MPs also argued that the pirate radio stations should be banned as none of them were paying royalties to British copyright bodies. Eventually, those in opposition got their way.
The Marine Offences Act was passed into law on 14th August 1967. This banned British companies from having adverts on pirate radio, removing the main source of revenue for all radio stations. Radio Caroline was the only station that did not concede to the new law but because of this lost its main source of income, eventually the original ship was stopped in 1968. Though it was not the end of Radio Caroline, it ushered the end of a revolutionary period in radio broadcasting.
The BBC restructured its service, with BBC Radio 1 first broadcasting on 30th September 1967. Former Caroline DJ Tony Blackburn began the show that day, which is testament to both the impact of Radio Caroline on the establishment and what the BBC knew it needed to do to bring in listeners to appeal to a modern audience. Radio 2,3 and 4 were also formed, bringing a selection of legal channels for millions of listeners under the BBC name.
The end of the 1960s saw the counterculture flourish even further in Britain. Though it may have been largely political by this point it still very much had a musical element. Pirate radio, especially Caroline, helped to bring music that went against the traditional bounds of the establishment to the wider public, and its role as a catalyst in changing the landscape of British music between 1964-67 should not be understated.
On 20th April 2020, the founder of Radio Caroline Ronan O’Rahilly passed away aged 79. The outpour of remembrance on social media reflects how much he changed young listeners lives, as many look back and credit him and his ideas as revolutionising radio in this country. Pirate radio offered an explicit alternative to the establishment and should therefore be credited with adding to the wide musical transformation and the positive consequences this had for British culture during the 1960s and beyond.
‘Founder of Radio Caroline Ronan O’Rahilly dies aged 79’, BBC News, 20 April 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-52362113
Feron, James., ‘British Pirate Radio Stations Thrive’, The New York Times, 3 January 1965, pg.14.
‘Radio Caroline Has Audience of 12.5 million.’, Financial Times, April 13 1965, pg.8
‘Radio Caroline is “fab” with many Dublin teenagers’, The Irish Times, 9 July 1964, pg.1.
Arena: Caroline 199 – A Pirate’s Tale, 00:20 01/10/2007, BBC4, 60 mins. https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/007119D7?bcast=27456512
Chapman, Robert., Selling the Sixties: the pirates and pop music radio, (London, 1992)
Donnelly, Mark., Sixties Britain: Culture, Society and Politics, (Harlow,2005).