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Circumventing the Law: Pirate Radio Stations and the Spread of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 60s

Imagine sitting on a humid deck, with your hands salty and sticky. The sun is setting as the night starts to paint the sky: light blue at first, and then darker and darker, until it’s black. You feel lonely, almost like you’ve been abandoned in the middle of the sea, but you know it’s an ephemeral feeling. Because really, you’re anything but invisible. On the contrary, you’re in the eye of a storm. You know that millions out there want to hear your music, and they are tuning in. All of a sudden, you are conscious of being the source of an infinite number of dreams, hopes and even revolutions.

The children of the 60s were a new kind of generation. In the United States, they did not only provoke and witness major social and political changes, but also questioned post-war morals and stereotypes. In particular, discussed and challenged were themes of racial discrimination, sexual freedom, social equality and personal independence, with Bob Dylan as one of the main advocates. In the United Kingdom, the Beatles led an authentic cultural revolution of rejection, rebellion and change. Music became the most effective channel for spreading the revolutionary spirit, with the British and American scenes being the major driving forces. However, the mainstream media were far from progressive: they still carried the voice of a largely vanished generation and broadcasted dying rhythms.

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Radio Caroline started broadcasting off the coast of Felixstowe, Suffolk in late March 1964. Until then, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Radio Luxembourg had maintained full broadcasting monopoly in the United Kingdom. Radio Luxembourg was one of the earliest multilingual broadcasters in Europe, and one of the first commercial radio stations to reach the United Kingdom and Ireland. In fact, even though it was based in the   country of the same name, Radio Luxembourg regularly managed to bypass foreign broadcasting legislation. As a result, listeners could enjoy its programmes from most nearby countries. For this reason, Radio Luxembourg is often considered a pirate radio pioneer. Nevertheless, the growing demand for pop and rock music was matched neither by BBC’s “Light Programme” and “Home Service”, nor by Radio Luxembourg’s agenda. New music genres carried strong political messages, and were therefore deemed  by the ruling media as immoral and subversive. But pirate radio soon became popular in the United Kingdom, with Radio Caroline being the first “official” offshore radio station.

Ronan O’Rahilly, Irish musician and founder of Radio Caroline, used a medium wave transmitter to broadcast from the outskirts of British territorial waters. Consequently, despite being unlicensed, Radio Caroline was legal. O’Rahilly’s station was the first pirate radio in the United Kingdom, but not the first in Europe. Radio Mercur was the one to have inaugurated the era of the “modern” pirate radio, having had briefly broadcasted from a small fishing boat off the coast of Denmark in 1958. Radio Mercur was joined in 1960 by Radio Veronica, just off the Dutch coast. Radio Atlanta was established later in 1964 and merged with Radio Caroline a few months later. The outstanding success of Radio Caroline, which by the end of 1964 broadcasted from two different ships, made imitation inevitable. Radio London started broadcasting on 23rd December 1964, and became Radio Caroline’s main competitor.

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The increased presence of pirate radio stations in the 60s is attributed to several factors, the most prominent arguably being business opportunities, market competition and some sort of rock ‘n’ roll evangelism. According to Radio Caroline’s official website, by the autumn of 1964, the pirate station had more listeners than three BBC networks combined. As John Lennon affirmed in 1966, rock ‘n’ roll was more popular than Jesus Christ amongst teens and young adults. As a result of its competition with Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg gradually abandoned pre-recorded sponsored programmes, and shifted its agenda towards greater compliance with public demand. In other words, pirate radio stations massively contributed to the spread of pop and rock music in the United Kingdom, as well as to the liberalization of individual and market behaviour. In 1967, the British government enacted the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, which led to numerous pirate radio stations facing broadcasting difficulties. However, by that point, music had changed forever: the word had been spread, and nothing could have ever been the same.


Lara Dal Molin is a writer, aspiring journalist and software engineer based in Winchester. She is currently an undergraduate at the University of Surrey, where she studies Liberal Arts and Sciences.

 

 

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