Ahoy, Pirate Radio

In Richard Curtis' comedy Pirate Radio, rock 'n' roll in Britain was beamed from ships illegally transmitting in the 1960s. But there's more than meets the ear here, according to Simon Frith.

These days, forty-five years on, the idea of pirate radio is irresistible. Those toothy, louche young men, defying seasickness and the law, clambering up the sides of converted forts and ferries, playing young people’s music to young people otherwise ignored or patronised by British broadcasters, have taken their place in the mythology of the Swinging Sixties. Those pirate stations, anchored just outside British waters, provided, it seems, the soundtrack to a social revolution.

The reality was a little different. 60s pirate radio was a European (not just British) phenomenon and it was driven by the familiar logic (and established capital) of US radio. And while it had a significant effect on the subsequent sound of British broadcasting, it had little influence on the history of British music. It’s a great story, but one that needs to be understood in a much wider framework than the pirates’ brief life between 1964-7.

The real story starts when radio starts, in the 1920s, when Europe and the USA chose different models of radio finance and regulation. In the US radio was a commercial enterprise, its history was shaped by private companies competing for a profitable return on their investment. Their income came not from radio listeners themselves, but from the value of these listeners to sponsors and advertisers. Music radio, American style, evolved as a way of getting and keeping an audience for advertisers.  Listeners came to take it for granted that music was always there at the touch of a dial. Their attention therefore had to be grabbed, by deejays and offers and jingles; they had to be cosseted or they would switch their attention to someone else.

In Europe, by contrast, radio was financed directly by the public (in Britain’s case via a license fee paid to entitle one to use a wireless receiver) and radio programmes were provided by state owned monopolies. “Public service broadcasting” meant a way of radio listening that for US visitors must have seemed bizarre. When I grew up there was one broadcasting company, the BBC, with three nationwide stations: the Home Service (talk), the Light Programme (entertainment) and the Third Programme (high culture).  The BBC had no British competition for radio listeners. To meet the perceived needs of all license fee payers it therefore provided different music programmes at different times of day for different listeners. Listening to the radio meant turning it on at the right times. “Youth music” was confined to youth programmes, such as Saturday Club, when, for an hour or two, we were addressed by avuncular presenters faintly amused buy the latest teen fads.

There is no doubt that by the 1960s British teenagers were deprived of what US teenagers already took for granted: radio’s attention. But what was less obvious to us then was British radio’s peculiar relationship with the record industry.  Under British law, broadcasters had to obtain the rights to broadcast records and record companies (in alliance with the Musicians Union) had historically succeeded in restricting the amount of programming using records (as against live performances or radio studio recordings).  The “needletime agreement” meant that the BBC’s broadcasts of teenage music in the mid 1960s were more likely to mean studio bands’ cover versions of the latest hits than plays of those hits themselves.

Even in the 1960s, though, the people most frustrated by British radio regulation weren’t listeners (who didn’t really know what music radio could be) but advertising agencies, which couldn’t exploit what was potentially a hugely profitable medium. Would-be commercial broadcasters had long sought ways around European wireless regulations––plans for an radio station broadcasting from outside British waters were first floated in the 1920s)—and they were quick to seize the opportunities offered in the one or two European countries in which advertising on radio was legal.  Radio Normandie and then Radio Luxembourg transmitted English language programmes from the 1930s.  Radio Luxembourg became particularly significant in the late 1950s as a source of rock’n’roll and other US sounds.

The first of a new kind of unauthorised of offshore radio station also appeared at this time. Radio Mercur, broadcasting into Denmark, was soon followed by Radio Veronica, targeting Holland, and Radio Nord, beamed at Sweden. Radio Veronica started an English language service in 1961, and this inspired Rohan O'Rahilly, a London based music agent, to raise the finance to purchase and refit a ship off the British coast. Radio Caroline was launched on March 29 1964 to be followed by Radio Atlanta (the two services soon merged to become Radio Caroline North and South), Radio Sutch (which became Radio City) and Radio Invicta (which became King Radio), which were sited on old wartime offshore forts, Radio London, Radio 390, Radio Essex and, finally, Radio Scotland. 

Rohan O’Rahilly, blonde, personable, with an ex- actor’s charm and an Irish way with words was a persuasive front for pirate radio PR but his insouciance distracted attention from what the pirates were really about: the Americanisation of European radio. As historian Erik Barnouw has described, by the 1960s: “The music-and-news station, backed everywhere by American advertisers, was a world-wide phenomenon; disc-jockeys calling themselves the Good Guys erupted even on ‘pirate’ stations operating from ships around the British Isles—almost all financed by American capital.  Along Madison Avenue in New York girls in pirate costume drummed up business for this novel form of international freebooting; which for a time earned small fortunes.”

And what pirate radio offered to fascinated British listeners was something we’d never really heard before, even on Radio Luxembourg, the full on noise of Top 40 radio. What defined this was not the records played but the surrounding sounds, the jingles, the station idents, the deejays’ slangy matiness, the sound of people selling things!  Add to this the continuous musical flow, the novel possibility of switching from station to station and public ubiquity of these stations along Carnaby Street and the Kings Road it becomes obvious why pirate radio is remembered as the sound of swinging London.

What should also be remembered though is that pirate radio was illegal.  Its glitzy street front concealed not just American capital but also a very British seediness, a cast of station managers and airtime sellers familiar from post-war Ealing comedies: ex-military men, spivs and chancers.  The 1966 trial of Major Oliver Smedley (founder of Radio Atlanta) for the manslaughter of Reg Calvert (owner of Radio City) provided the public with a seamier account of what piracy really meant. And even as broadcasters the pirate stations often came across as only semi-competent versions of Top 40 radio.  This was in part because of the gap between the freewheeling glamorous life style claimed by the pirate deejays and the actual squalor of their workplace, and in part because none of the ships were run with the discipline of a US station. In his memoirs of working for Radio Caroline, Emperor Rosko, for example, recalls his resistance to the station’s opportunistic play-for-pay deals with record pluggers.  Rosko would intercept the record boxes when they arrived on deck and toss them overboard.

Pirate radio on this model came to an end following the passing of the Marine, Etc., Broadcasting (Offences) Bill in August 1967.  Their legacy was immediate.  The BBC accelerated its plans to reorganise its radio broadcasting, and launched a dedicated pop music channel, Radio 1, which employed many of the same deejays the boats had and, more surprisingly, commissioned programme and deejay jingles from the pirates’ US suppliers.  Radio 1 didn’t carry ads, though, and the needle time agreement, limiting the free flow of record based programmes, continued for years to come.  Commercial local radio stations were soon licensed too, though it was another 30 years before anything like competitive American top 40 radio became a national listening norm. 

In retrospect the pirates had little impact on the mid-60s emergence of British rock.  The Beatles’ success predated the pirates (and was in many ways shaped by BBC rather than commercial broadcasting norms), and the pirates always represented mainstream rather than adventurous pop taste--John Peel would later remark that he was much more restricted in what he could play by the pirates’ than the BBC’s playlist policies.

If, in the end it was the pirate stations’ disc jockeys, rather than owners or backers, who had any sort of long term radio impact, but John Peel was one of the few who had much interest in music.  More typical was the first deejay to be heard on Radio Caroline, Simon Dee (who died earlier this month).  Dee (real name Cyril Henty-Dodd) was a public school boy who’d got his first radio experience serving in the RAF and used his pirate exposure as the basis of a meteoric if short lived career as first an easy listening BBC radio deejay and then a TV chat show host.  A surprising number of the pirate deejays were like Dee, ex-public school with a slightly cloying charm and not much pzazz.  As Radio 1 deejays, from 1967, they became the sort of radio voice that all true rock fans despised.

Simon Frith marries his experience as a rock critic and sociologist to explore the culture of popular music. Currently holding the Tovey Chair of Music at Edinburgh University, Frith is the author of such books as The Sociology of Rock, Sound Effects, Art into Pop and Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music.Frith recently edited a four volume set entitled Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media & Cultural Studies, and also has chaired the judges of the Mercury Music Prize since its inception in 1992. His writing can be found in a number of popular journals from the Village Voice to The Sunday Times.