Dropping anchor 

15 August 2001 tbs.pm/3162

Offshore Radio Day colour

With very few exceptions popular music was still regarded by the middle aged management of the broadcasting industry in general, and the BBC in particular, as a novelty of little substance. To some extent Independent Television had broadened its youth (as opposed to children’s) coverage with ABC’s Oh Boy! and Rediffusion’s Ready Steady Go, but the BBC was stuck in a time warp with only Juke Box Jury on television, and the limited fare of Saturday Club, Easy Beat and Pick of the Pops on the Light Programme.

The BBC had transmitted the Six-Five Special TV series in the fifties, but this had rather petered out without replacement at the end of the decade.

BBC radio was playing no more than seven hours a week of popular, new release music by the early sixties, and filling in the rest of the time with a diet of oldies, film music, and BBC orchestras doing cover versions of current hits. This may seem odd to us today, but popular music was considered by some older people to be something that should be rationed and contained – seen even as a weekly treat, and never allowed to “get out of hand” lest it should incite youth to immorality. Thus ‘youth concerns’ were kept in cultural isolation from the mainstream of culture.

The trojan horse to breach the walls of this cultural apartheid was Radio Luxembourg. For eight hours each night, up until the small hours of the morning, this “foreign radio station with an office in London” beamed pop music into the country. Since 1933, the government had opposed this practice, but were unable to stop it. The fact that the station was only on the air in the evenings limited its reach, but audience figures reached several millions per evening in the fifties and early sixties, measured by Gallup and accepted by advertising agencies and their buyers.

Into this stifled arena came the “pirate” radio stations of the sixties. Although often referred to in the press as “illegal”, this was in fact journalistic laziness. Many of the stations would have been “illegal” if they had drifted another half mile landwards, coming under British law.

They had been carefully planned, and were set up to be cunningly and carefully placed three and a half miles offshore where, outside the legal “three-mile limit” of UK sovereignty they could safely ignore all national legal constraints.

Pirate radio is a pejorative term, always begging the question of legitimacy. We shall use the more neutral term “offshore radio” as this series of articles proceeds.

It would be wrong to look back on the Offshore Radio stations as mere buccaneers and chancers. Even less were they intended as the new vanguard of a youth revolution. These roles were romantically laid upon them soon after they became successful. It was not immediately obvious to the millions of listeners they quickly accumulated, that they were aspiring multi-million pound businesses, and hoped to create a demand for land based commercial radio that the authorities would be unable to ignore.

That is not to say that the romantic adventure of “breaking the BBC monopoly” was lost on the proprietors, indeed much was made of their crusading aspect – but mainly in the later years of their 4 year reign. It is unlikely that the adventure would have been attempted if there had not been money to be made.

Not all the offshore stations were profitable, and in the early days, several smaller stations came and went – but the Big Six (Caroline South, Caroline North, Radio London, Radio 390, Radio Scotland and Radio 270) all made money for their backers. The shorter lived Radio England and Britain Radio, while not profitable, considerably added weight to the politics flowing from the cultural demand that was created.

Even the smaller stations like Radio Essex (unconnected with the later ILR station), Radio 355, Radio City and the short lived Tower, Invicta and K-I-N-G Radio stations added usefully to the subtraction of listeners from the BBC – the true barometer of the experiment’s success.

Teenagers and youth culture, not to mention housewives, took to the stations at once. They offered a bill of fare unknown in UK radio up to that point – continuous and up to date pop music, original records, and no cover versions. Disc jockeys who didn’t sound like “announcers” and an enthusiasm and a verve not generally found on the Light Programme.

Each disc jockey stayed at the microphone for two hours at a time. This was sensational in a country used to the fifteen and thirty minute ‘slots’ on Radio Luxembourg, and the daily hour of new records on the BBC Light Programme. Even the commercials seemed entertaining.

Out of respect for Radio Luxembourg the commercial radio pioneer, the bigger offshore stations closed each evening around 8 or 9 pm, Caroline returning with further programmes at midnight. This also gave the offshore disc jockeys a chance to relax and watch television, recharge their mental batteries and plan the following day’s programmes. Life on a ship or an abandoned RAF anti aircraft tower, a month at a time, being like a prison experience.

Taking their cue from ITV, most of the stations had regular “startup themes” and idents, and after a largely ‘jingle free’ first year, the stations began to import US jingles from early 1965. Radio London made particular impact with their use of modified PAMS jingles, as used by station WABC New York – at that time the most successful commercial radio station in the world.

The cultural impact of offshore radio on the youth of Britain in the sixties can hardly be overstated. It formed a rallying point for a growing cultural revolution, and by 1966 had joined Mary Quant, the Beatles and Carnaby Street among the leading icons of the post war generation.

In later articles in this series, each station will be examined in turn, and their impact on their audiences assessed. The business side will be examined, the disc jockeys remembered, and the reaction of the establishment and the BBC gauged. The struggle for survival from 1967 will be a particular feature.

It is hard today to grasp the cultural context into which British offshore radio erupted in the Spring of 1964. The new youth culture that had started with the Rock and Roll of the late fifties had developed well in clubs, bars, magazines, in cinema and on record but was not reflected in the output of British broadcasting.

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