Swashbuckling sounds: The history of pirate radio stations
These days, it’s easier than ever for musicians to reach thousands, even millions of listeners.
Whether you’re looking for an outlet for your brand, or you’re just trying to see how people respond to your sound, you can submit music to online radio stations, post videos on YouTube and more.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s not difficult to become a famous musician in 2019. The difference is that struggling artists can find the opportunities they need to get their voice heard.
In the 1950s, 60s and beyond; however, it was far more challenging to make your way into the industry. Countless musicians were beholden to record companies and radio stations who refused hundreds of demo tapes every month.
In the UK, the British Broadcasting Corporation maintained a monopoly over the radio for many years. With the support of the British government, the BBC determined exactly what radio station listeners could tune into each day.
Enter the dawn of pirate radio.
Pirate radio stations are a crucial part of British music culture. The history of pirate radio stations is inextricably linked with the development of countless genres, including hip-hop, garage, punk, and grime. What’s more, pirate radio stations gave us access to some of the most pivotal figures in UK music history.
So, where did the original pirate radio ships come from?
How did the rebellious radio revolutionaries behind pirate radio get their start?
Let’s find out.
Hoisting the flag: The history of pirate radio
The history of pirate radio spans several decades.
However, for many experts, the golden age of “offshore” broadcasting was the mid-60s. During this time, there were at least a dozen stations floating in the seas around the UK, transmitting unregulated radio signals to the UK.
The British Broadcasting Corporation did its best to keep listeners happy with traditional tunes and gardening tips. However, in the meantime, countless music lovers and teenagers across the UK were fiddling with their radio stations, trying to find the pirates that would bring them the rock-and-roll music and unfiltered conversations they were looking for.
Today, “pirate radio” generally refers to modern radio freebooters. However, back in the 60s, offshore stations were defined by actual pirate radio ships. Companies took to the seas to avoid the legislation of the UK government and the BBC.
UK pirate radio history was inspired by groups in Denmark and Sweden, who also broadcasted shows from the sea through stations like Radio Mercur or Radio Nord in the late 1950s and early 60s. The first well-known pirate radio ship in the UK was launched by a man called Ronan O’Rahilly.
Determined to launch the career of musician, Georgie Fame, PR expert O’Rahilly conspired to create his pirate radio station. Radio Caroline was named after the daughter of President John F Kennedy, and it began on a Danish passenger ferry (Frederica). With financial backing from a handful of investors, O’Rahilly rigged the boat with AM transmitters and a considerable mast, so that the team could broadcast from 6 am to 6 pm every day.
Radio Caroline earned a cult-like following of dedicated listeners. By 1966, the company had more than 23 million listeners across London and the UK. What’s more, the well-known pirate radio ship also inspired countless other organisations to launch their own off-shore stations too. Pirate radio became the site of some of the most important musical innovations in Britain. It introduced pop to the airwaves in the 60s, launched the career of countless hip-hop, R&B, and other underground genres, and even changed the way that the BBC broadcasted eventually.
Unfortunately, though pirate radio stations have always been popular with listeners, they were constantly battling the scrutiny of government bodies. In 1967, the British Government passed the Marine Broadcast Offences act, which made it increasingly difficult for organisations to broadcast from the water.
Stations that made UK pirate radio history
For many avid fans, the history of pirate radio stations started with Radio Caroline in the UK.
However, Caroline was far from the only offshore station bringing music to listeners who didn’t appreciate the gentle approach of the BBC. Inspired by “the boat that rocked the world,” Radio Caroline, countless new organisations began to make names from themselves out of repurposed rigs. Radio Atlanta, Radio Invicta, Radio 270, and Radio London (Wonderful Radio London) all emerged over the years.
Let’s take a look at 3 of the best-known pirate radio ships in British history:
1. Radio Atlanta
Radio Atlanta (the station that eventually merged with Radio Caroline), started as the brainchild of Alan Crawford, an Australian music publisher. Crawford purchased a boat named the MV Mi Amigo in 1964 and fitted it with some of the best broadcasting equipment on the market. Atlanta ran on the same frequency as Caroline at first, intending to steal its audience. Eventually, however, the group changed its rate from 197 metres to 201 metres.
Most of Radio Atlanta’s broadcasts were recorded in London and transmitted from the ship. When advertising revenue and audiences couldn’t keep Atlanta afloat, the company decided to join forces with Radio Caroline.
2. Radio London
Otherwise known as Wonderful Radio London, or the “Big L,” this well-known pirate radio ship broadcast on 266 metres, and played some of the most well-loved music of the day. The organisation started in 1964 and ran every day until 1967. Radio London was managed from a former US minesweeper ship called MV Galaxy, and it was anchored at Frinton-on-Sea, near Essex.
Interestingly, unlike many of its rivals, Wonderful Radio London quickly became a legitimate operation, with primary offices on Central London. However, most of the programmes shared by this station were recorded and presented live from a ship-based studio.
3. Kiss FM
Kiss FM might not have had its own pirate radio ship, but it wasn’t any less of a buccaneering broadcaster in the eyes of its fans. The organisation launched in October of 1985, long after the original Marine Offences Act was first introduced. The show broadcast on 94FM and was founded by Gordon Mac McNamee.
Across Greater London, Kiss FM achieved a dedicated following with nearly half a million listeners – all while operating as a pirate radio station. The show became the best place to go for urban music and hip-hop content before it was rebranded in 1998.
The history of pirate radio was so significant in the UK, that the company at the very top of UK broadcasting – the BBC eventually started to replicate the pirate style. BBC Radio 1 launched in 1967 in response to the growing demand for pirate radio stations. The programmes were designed to emulate the experiences of pirate radio, with some of the most famous DJs from pirate stations on the air. People like John Peel, Tony Blackburn, and Kenny Everett joined the BBC to broadcast popular music and shows to the masses.
The DJs that made British pirate radio history
There were many things that made the pirate radio station so popular in the UK.
Offshore radios gave listeners the chance to hear music that they would never encounter on the BBC and other government-approved shows. It was the home of rock-and-roll, punk music and songs from black artists who were generally ignored by popular radio stations at the time.
Many pirate radio stations in the UK showcased top 40 music from around the world and gave up-and-coming artists a chance to shine on the airwaves. However, it wasn’t just the music that made pirate radio different.
The witty, comedic and often shocking nature of pirate radio DJs also earned the love of countless listeners who had never experienced anything like them before. Some of the most popular disc jockeys of the age even earned positions on legitimate stations after the pirate airwaves were shut down. Well-known names include:
It’s hard to find a household in the UK that hasn’t heard of Tony Blackburn. Since 1964, Blackburn has been a major part of the British radio scene, and he seems to be mentioned consistently in pirate radio history. Blackburn first achieved fame on pirate radio ships Caroline, and Radio London, before he joined the BBC and hosted its first breakfast show.
Tony earned the respect of his audience by showing that he was always ready to be at the centre of ridicule. Honest and endearing, Tony still has a thriving career hosting Radio 2 shows for the BBC today.
Kenny Everett is a name that’s seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years thanks to his connection with Queen and the Bohemian Rhapsody movie. Kenny was one of the few radio presenters to support Queen’s most famous and epic song, which makes him a considerable part of UK music history in its own right. However, Kenny got his start in Pirate Radio, with the broadcasting ship Radio Luxembourg. He was also one of the very first radio DJs to appear on the BBC’s newly-created Radio 1.
Everett earned a reputation over the years for his shocking behaviour, zany characters, and unique approach to presenting. After being diagnosed with HIV, Kenny, unfortunately, seemed to lose a lot of his passion for radio broadcasting. He died at the age of 50 in London but remains a household name to this day.
Robbie Vincent rose to fame through a programme on Radio London in the early 80s. It was the only show in the UK at the time dedicated almost entirely to dance and soul music. Vincent opened the door for countless black musicians and artists to make their debut on the English music scene. Robbie was also a phone-in host during the week.
When Vincent eventually joined BBC Radio 1, he led the first-ever soul show on national radio. Without this amazing disc Jockey, English listeners might never have heard of people like Trevor Nelson, Pete Tong, or even the Ministry of Sound.
What happened to the pirates of the UK?
Contrary to popular opinion, the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act didn’t spell the end of UK pirate radio history. Both of the Radio Caroline ships on the oceans at the time remained on air for more than 6 months after the new rules were enacted.
New forms of pirate radio continued to evolve, although the pirate radio ship gradually began to die out. By 1989, there were about 600 radio stations classified as “pirates” in the UK – although they didn’t have the tradition ship rig of the 60s. These stations broadcast across London and the rest of the UK from hidden stations, attempting to stay one step ahead of the government at all times. For a while, conventional and pirate radio stations seemed to exist in harmony – at least, as much as could be expected.
In the early 1990s, British pirate radio history saw a slight decline in response to some tougher penalties imposed by the Department of Trade and Industry. The new Broadcasting Act of the early nineties encouraged diversity in radio and introduced a new era of commercial radio. The most popular pirate radio station of the time, Kiss FM briefly shut down and restructured, so that it could apply for a legitimate license.
Though Kiss FM was successful in earning its license, the organisation also lost a lot of its original followers because of a change in its approach to urban and black music. Other pirate radio stations began to earn licenses at the same time, such as KFM Radio, Sunrise Radio in London, and FTP in Bristol. Most became significantly more mainstream as a result. Rather than serving the niche and under-represented genres that made them famous, these pirate radios turned legit by serving a broader range of audiences.
However, pirate radio saw another resurgence in 1992 and 1993, driven by the new demand for rave music. Stations like Kool FM and Rush FM entered the airwaves, and by the mid to late 1990s, genres like drum and bass, garage, and happy hardcore helped the history of pirate radio to continue. In London, stations like Rinse FM and Flex FM appeared, continuing the heritage of pirate radio, and its ability to introduce listeners to new, and often under-appreciated music.
While the nature of pirate radio has evolved and changed over the years, there are still companies out there that are dedicated to bringing the heart and soul of the pirates to their listeners. When the history of pirate radio first began, the music that teenagers and music fans listened to was powered by transmitters on ships out at sea. Today, pirate radios are powered by the same technology as mainstream stations – they just operate more quietly, from ignored office blocks and boarded-up warehouses.
Experts predict that there are around 150 pirate radio stations in the UK today – with many of them located in London. The government still hosts raids and attempts to seek out broadcasters who are using underhanded methods to get their message across to a niche audience.
Pirate radio in the digital world
Today, the spirit of pirate radio in the UK lives on.
The history of pirate radio responsible for the birth of new music genres and the freedom of expression in the UK has inspired a generation of online and digital stations. Radar Radio, a station in East London, is manned entirely by people who grew up listening to pirate radio and discovering new sounds.
Radar attempts to capture the same energy and atmosphere that the presenters loved in their youth, without doing anything that’s “too illegal.” Stations like Radar stream independently online, attempting to avoid the issues that other pirate radio stations faced over the years. However, although these new digital stations aren’t as risky as their counterparts, they’re still dedicated to the growth of new music and genres.
Because they’re technically broadcasting legally online, stations like Radar and Rinse are building identifiable brands that are popular throughout London and the rest of the UK. The commercial nature of these companies makes it easier for them to earn sponsorship from companies. Many pirate radio stations struggled to unlock the revenue opportunities that came from brand partnerships and advertising.
What’s more, for those who still want the illicit edge of pirate radio that comes from groups broadcasting illegally, there are still stations out there. If you know where to look, you can find pirate stations hidden all across the UK. For most would-be pirate radio stations that broadcast legally today, being a pirate is more about being a “rebel” and delivering what listeners want than it is about being illegal for the sake of it.
After all, the original stations like Caroline and Radio London didn’t take to the seas because they wanted to, they did it to provide the music their listeners couldn’t access through conventional stations. However, some people still believe that there needs to be an “edge” to true pirate radio that comes from operating outside of the law.
Pirate radio history FAQ: What is a pirate radio station?
The history of pirate radio stations in the UK is complex and diverse. We’ve seen pirate radios emerge over the years for several reasons. Some companies simply wanted to compete with the most popular stations of the day. Other organisations felt that it was their responsibility to help the black musicians, unheard artists, and underserved communities of their time.
For the most part, pirate radio was a response to the overly restrictive nature of British radio when broadcasting first began. No matter how you feel about the pirates, it’s difficult to argue with the influence they’ve had on the music scene in the UK.
Q: What is Pirate Radio?
Pirate radio is a form of illegal, unlicensed broadcasting that appeared in the 1960s and remained popular throughout the decades in the UK. Original pirate radio stations were maintained on ships in ports around the UK. Today, most pirate radio companies operate on land.
Q: What was the first pirate radio station?
There are many answers to this question, depending on who you ask. In the UK, the first official pirate radio station was Radio Caroline, launched by entrepreneur Ronan O’Rahilly. O’Rahilly was influenced by Radio Luxembourg, a multi-lingual commercial broadcaster operating from Luxemburg.
Q: How Big was pirate radio?
In the UK, pirate radio was very popular. By 1965, only a year after Radio Caroline first deployed, the stations had an audience of around 10 to 15 million listeners. Radio Caroline had a listenership of more than 23 million people at its peak.
Q: Why were pirate radio stations illegal?
Pirate radio stations were operating without official licenses, which is what made them illegal. The 1967 Marine Broadcasting Act officially outlawed these stations, but pirate radio was already unlawful under the Wireless Telegraphy act of 1949.
Q: Do pirate radio stations still exist?
Pirate radio is still around today in several unique formats. Some broadcasters class themselves as pirate radio stations because of the kind of music they share, even though they operate legally. Other pirate radio stations are still hosting music and programmes illegally – particularly within London.
Q: What is community radio?
In 2010, Ofcom began to promote the introduction of “Community Radio” in areas with high concentrations of pirate radio stations. Some former stations such as Rinse FM and Flex FM moved to legal broadcasting via community radio licenses.
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