In the early 1960s, Britain didn’t have the roaring music scene that you might expect. There was only one commercial television network online, and the airwaves were owned entirely by the British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC).
Unfortunately for those in search of fun and frivolity, the BBC was committed to delivering some of the tamest transmissions it could find.
Tuning into the BBC “Light” and “Home” channels would give you a reliable, but often bland stream of news, playful entertainment, and children’s programmes.
In other words – we weren’t anywhere near the rock and roll revolution that was happening in the United States.
Fortunately, there were plenty of rebels in the UK, ready to shake things up.
A group of rock-loving disc jockeys refused to be held back by the legislation and regulations of the early 1960s. Many ambitious DJs decided that if they couldn’t do what they wanted with British broadcasting on land, they would take to the seas instead.
Anchoring on the Eastern coast of England, the pirate radio revolution was born, defined by the enigmatic hosts that committed themselves to broadcasting songs from illicit bands like the Rolling Stones.
This is where the history of Radio Caroline began.
The Radio Caroline pirate ship was probably one of the best-known “unofficial” radio stations in Britain. By sticking to off-coast locations, the boat ensured that it could remain outside of the legal reach of the British authorities.
Without any broadcasting laws to hold them back, the DJs on boats like Radio Caroline gave their listeners the raw, authentic music and entertainment they were looking for.
These rock-and-roll pirates changed radio forever.
Radio Caroline history
The pirate radio revolution
So, when did Radio Caroline start? In the early 1960s, music fans weren’t exactly spoilt for choice with their selection of radio stations. There were two primary broadcasting stations to choose from – the BBC, and Radio Luxembourg.
BBC’s Radio Light was a relatively simple affair, hosted by “presenters,” rather than people you could call DJs or disc jockeys.
These suave men included people like Pete Murray and David Jacobs, who played a handful of new records from artists like Cliff Richard, heavily interspersed with jazz and classical music.
For some people, the radio offered by the BBC INTERNAL LINK TO BBC ARTILE at the time was enough to suit their tastes. However, the vast majority of the nation’s youth wanted something more, and entrepreneur Ronan O’Rahilly was determined to give it to them.
Ronan was a savvy businessman who had already taken the UK by the storm at the young age of 25. He ran a club in the Soho district of London called “Scene,” and worked in PR for actors, pop-singers, and models.
O’Rahilly also had a close relationship with the male model, George Lazenby who played James Bond during “Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”
Ronan’s musical connections included Georgie Fame – an eclectic keyboard player known for jazz and blues. When Fame struggled to have his music heard, O’Rahilly formed a new record company to place his songs on a disc and delivered the result to Radio Luxembourg, and the BBC.
When neither station would broadcast his client’s music, Ronan decided that he would create a radio station of his own – and he wouldn’t go to the government for a licence to do it.
Before the history of Radio Caroline began, offshore radio was already a well-known concept. The BBC owned the monopoly for the British airwaves, and various stations decided that the only way to gain their own piece of the broadcasting environment was to go into national waters.
Scandinavia had begun to make the idea popular back in 1958, followed by Dutch stations like Radio Veronica in Holland.
Of course, launching something like the Radio Caroline pirate ship wasn’t easy. For one thing – you needed a boat to get started. Fortunately, O’Rahilly’s father was the owner of a port in Northern Ireland, where they had access to a passenger ferry named the MV Frederica.
With a little help from his record company and various investors, O’Rahilly raised the funds required to transform the MV Frederica into a pirate radio ship.
He anchored the newly-named Radio Caroline on the Northern Sea near Essex and put the word out that he needed disc jockeys.
On Easter Sunday, 1964, the voices of Chris Moore and Simon Dee introduced Radio Caroline to the world with the song “It’s All Over Now” by The Rolling Stones.
Who was Radio Caroline named after?
One of the biggest questions in Radio Caroline history is: “Who was the ship named after?”
According to tales from the DJs that previously broadcasted on the station, the name “Caroline” was chosen by the founder of the station, Ronan O’Rahilly. He was inspired to give the ship the same name as President John F Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy.
In a story about the Radio Caroline pirate ship, Ronan revealed that he was inspired by a picture that he saw of Caroline crawling around under her father’s desk in the Oval Office.
Instead of asking his daughter to leave the crucial business meeting, Kennedy stopped the conference entirely so he could have a few moments to play with her.
According to O’Rahilly, that’s precisely the kind of personality and atmosphere he wanted for his radio station. He wanted Radio Caroline to be playful and disruptive.
At the time, John F Kennedy was the most powerful man in the world, and Ronan was inspired by his decision to stop a crucial meeting in favour of his daughter. Additionally, the Kennedys were an attractive family to Ronan too.
They were also Irish outsiders, just like him, who represented a challenge to the existing state of things.
Who were the DJs on Radio Caroline?
Any station, including the Radio Caroline, would be nothing without its disc jockeys.
According to Johnny Walker, one of the best-known DJs on the Radio Caroline pirate ship, the jockeys on the station were united by their love of music. They all wanted to hear the music that the BBC refused to play on the air.
Most recently known for his position on BBC Radio 2 before he had to take a break this year for a heart condition, Johnnie Walker was one of the original DJs on Radio Caroline. Before working on the ship, he had been a car salesman, and then a disc jockey on the “Swinging Radio England” station.
When he moved to Radio Caroline, Walker was known for his compelling conversational topics and his commitment to playing the latest rock and roll tunes.
Alongside Walker, Radio Caroline employed about 38 disc jockeys, most of which spent time on both the North and South stations. Many of them found employment with BBC Radio 1 and other stations after the pirate radio movement was shut down.
The first programme hosted in the history of Radio Caroline was delivered by Chris Moore, a man who subsequently entered the Radio hall of fame. The first programme was also sponsored by Simon Dee, a disc jockey that eventually moved into a career with the BBC and Radio Luxembourg.
So, who were the DJs on Radio Caroline? There were plenty, including:
Dave Lee Travis.
And many more. There were also plenty of DJs that visited the Radio Caroline from the USA and overseas, including Emperor Rosko, Graham Webb, Keith Hampshire, and Colin Nicol.
One DJ, Tom Lodge, even took his long-term partner on board with him, who apparently used to walk around the boat wearing see-through negligee. Soon after that, women were banned from the ship, except for short-term visits.
Eventually, the crew and DJs on the Mi Amgio—a competitor pirate radio station—joined with the Radio Caroline pirate ship, leading to even more presenters and DJs on the air.
According to fans of Radio Caroline, no matter who the presenters were, listeners felt as though they were tuning into a secret club every time they listened to a programme on the station.
Every day, teenagers would fiddle with their radio dials until they heard the sounds of their favourite presenters, who broadcast away from the restrictions and demands of the BBC and other on-shore regulations.
Radio Caroline even inspired the birth of new pirate radio stations who also docked on the shores of the UK. For instance, Kenny Everett found his memorable voice on the Radio London ship, while John Peel introduced the world to the initial idea of progressive rock.
Where was Radio Caroline anchored?
It’s easy to forget that Radio Caroline wasn’t just a broadcasting station, it was a sea-faring vessel too. To avoid the laws of the UK, the Radio Caroline pirate ship was initially docked just outside of Essex.
However, the MV Caroline frequently sailed around the coast of Great Britain, from Felixstowe, to the Isle of Man, broadcasting music and zany shows as she went. Sometimes, the only broadcasting staff on board were Jerry Leighton and Tom Ledge.
Thanks to the movability of Radio Caroline, the ship and its sister vessels were able to cover most of the British Isles, throughout the North and South. At the same time, rivals were appearing along the coast.
Australian businessman Alan Crawford created the “Mi Amigo,” which had initially begun as a part of the radio station for Sweden, Radio Nord. Crawford began broadcasting as Radio Atlanta on the 12th of May – the same year that Radio Caroline was born.
Eventually, Crawford and Ronan decided that they had a “common cause” to share music with the world, and they decided to join forces. The Atlanta and Caroline Radio companies merged in 1964, with both O’Rahilly and Crawford acting as joint directors.
Radio Atlanta closed and became “Radio Caroline South,” while MV Caroline was broadcasting as Radio Caroline North. The original Radio Carolina sailed to anchor at the Isle of Man, while Mi Amigo stayed offshore from Frinton.
In October 1965, Ronan O’Rahilly purchased Crawford’s share of the Mi Amigo, and asked Tom Lodge to come on board the Caroline North, and make programme changes that would engage the Radio London audience.
New DJs were hired, and by 1966, the group discovered that they had successfully acquired an audience of 23 million.
Radio Caroline even tried to arrange a merger with Radio London, before it started transmissions, but the deal was unsuccessful.
For 3 years, until 1967, the DJs on the Radio Caroline pirate ship broadcast their music and shows 24 hours a day and sold advertising space to make money. With the exception of Radio Luxembourg, no other station had ever sold advertising spaces before.
The Caroline station set the pace for the chatty and harmlessly playful radio stations that would come after them – changing the way that we all thought about radio entertainment.
Unfortunately, as the popularity of pirate radio and Radio Caroline continued to grow, so did the demands from various sources that the government should act and shut down off-shore broadcasts.
Caroline was claiming enough listeners to take up half of the UK, and the explosion of popularity scared the government, according to Johnnie Walker. In 1967, the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act was officially introduced by the Harold Wilson Labour government.
The act aimed to officially stop pirate broadcasting, denting the pirate movement and forcing some DJs to go back to working on-land.
Various popular names found themselves searching for employment on the newly-launched Radio 1 station from the BBC – which was designed in part as an acceptable alternative to pirate stations.
The Radio Caroline pirate ship was forced to move its base to the Netherlands, while other stations like Radio London fell silent. Eventually, the law continued to grow, and a Dutch version emerged in August 1974, pushing the Caroline further out to sea.
Despite this, the history of Radio Caroline continued, with various transmissions going out across the world. There was even ongoing noise from the Ross Revenge ship, docked in Santander of Spain.
What happened to the Radio Caroline ship?
The Radio Caroline ship was affectionately known as the “ship that rocked the world.” However, even the most beloved ship in history wasn’t invincible.
Eventually, the Mi Amigo ship known as Radio Caroline South sank into heavy seas after it broke away from its moorings near Southend. The 107-foot ship sank in 25 feet of water and had to be towed by the British Government.
According to DJ Tom Anderson, who was on board at the time, the boat wasn’t in an excellent state by this point in time.
The engine didn’t work as it should, and the rudder was a mess. When the ship began to sink because of incoming waves, they had no wheel to steer the vehicle with. All the boat had was a radio station that worked.
Interestingly, after one of the Radio Caroline ships ended up going to its watery grave, O’Rahilly did find a replacement option that he thought the team should paint completely pink.
Despite issues with the boat, Caroline continued to broadcast, using satellite radio for the most part, instead of the traditional AM brand. Another on-land radio station was even established in Kent, and Caroline became a legal broadcaster in part.
The other Radio Caroline pirate ship (the Ross Revenge) is still alive and well today. It’s spent most of its time hidden on the backwaters of Kent and Essex or hosted on the Tilbury Docks.
At times, the boat opens to the public for special events and tours, and it’s sometimes used in conjunction with Manx Radio on the Isle of Man. Visitors to the Ross Revenge can access the Bridge and check out the record library too.
In the hull of the ship, you’ll find radio stations still equipped with technology from the 1970s.
Where is Radio Caroline now?
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Radio Caroline. The history of Radio Caroline has been a complicated one, with sinkings, seizures, numerous wavelength changes, and other issues to contend with.
However, somehow, despite everything, the name and the station lives on.
Radio Caroline is now officially headquartered in Kent, and it’s available on the internet, or through Sky wavelengths. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the same waves and choppiness in the background.
In 2018, the new manager of Radio Caroline, Peter Moore successfully applied for a full-time AM broadcast license. Moore announced that he wanted to broadcast from the Ross Revenge ship again, from the River Blackwater in Essex.
More than 50 years after the Marine Broadcasting Offenses act emerged, Radio Caroline is going back to the waves, and Moore hopes to broadcast to the same people that used to receive Radio Caroline in its original days.
The vessel will be used as a “living time capsule,” according to Moore.
The pirates behind the Radio Caroline station are still huge names today, broadcasting on the BBC, or other more conventional channels. Keith Skues is now 70 years-old and presenting on BBC Radio Norfolk on Sunday Nights.
On the other hand, Johnnie Walker has a show on Saturday nights that’s stationed on Radio 2. They both play hits from their pirate days and discuss the rise and fall of radio.
On the official Radio Caroline website, Ronan O’Rahilly revealed that he was once told by a close friend that he had wasted most of his life working on Radio Caroline.
However, Ronan feels differently. He believes that creating something capable of delivering free enjoyment for millions of people was a positive thing.
For more than four decades, he transformed the airwaves, and O’Rahilly describes Radio Caroline as the most “useful” way he could have spent his life.