Pirate radio stations on offshore ships were only significant for less than a decade but had an enormous impact on broadcasting. In the United Kingdom independent radio had been heard since the 1930s on Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg. These stations were founded by Captain L. F. Plugge and had offices in London. The U.K.’s General Post Office (GPO), the state postal system and telecommunications carrier at the time, refused them telephone facilities to transmit concerts live, so they recorded concerts by touring seaside resorts and recording bands on 16-inch 78 rpm gramophone records that were then shipped to Brussels and taken by train to Luxembourg to be relayed.
Radio Luxembourg had the most powerful transmitter in Europe at the time. British firms were soon paying a total of £400,000 a year for advertising on programs and sponsoring them. One of the most popular was the Ovaltine Show featuring the Ovaltineys and the Ovaltineys’ Orchestra. These first commercial stations were largely lost in World War II when most of the transmitters were destroyed—although the Germans took over Radio Luxembourg to transmit propaganda. It survived after the war and took the new format of the Top 20 series from U.S. radio.
On March 29, 1964, a new development hit the airwaves and captured the imagination and loyalty of the younger listeners. Radio Caroline first broadcast from a ship anchored off the Essex coast just outside British territorial waters. There had been other pirate offshore radio stations before that, broadcasting to Scandinavian and other northern European countries, but Radio Caroline was to become the most successful and long-lived. It was started by an Irish businessman called Ronan O’Rahilly, who had been trying to promote a young singer named Georgie Fame. He was turned down by the main record companies and decided to start his own company. He even took the records to Radio Luxembourg and was rejected by them as their airtime was mostly taken by the large record companies. In desperation, O’Rahilly decided to start his own radio station.
He bought an old passenger ferry and secretly refitted it in a southern Ireland port before mooring it off the coast of Harwich. The first disc played on Radio Caroline was The Beatles’
Can’t buy me love by DJ Simon Dee. Other pirate stations proliferated off the British coast in the coming years: Radio Atlanta, transmitted from the ship Mi Amigo, and later merged with Radio Caroline while the original Caroline ship went north to anchor off the Isle of Man to become Radio Caroline North.
Read the full entry on pirate radio in the Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.
Listen to the opening broadcast of Radio Caroline with Simon Dee on 29 March 1964.