Offshore infrastructure 

15 August 2001

Offshore Radio Day colour

Offshore stations broadcast from the high seas to avoid the legal constraints that would have been imposed by the land based authorities. In the UK case this would have meant preventing any transmissions at all. The BBC had a monopoly of UK sound broadcasting at that time, and with very few exceptions, such as Manx Radio and a University campus station, there was a government policy of instructing the Postmaster General to grant no licence applications.

This did not prevent applications being made, and the G.P.O. received many thousands during the early and mid 1960s. In a very minor concession to public opinion, the Post Office agreed “without implying endorsement” to maintain a register of those wishing to obtain licences to broadcast, should enabling legislation be passed “at some future date”. This was probably an early example of what we now call “spin doctoring”. The authorities had no intention of allowing the BBC monopoly to be broken, but felt that a notional register of intending applicants might calm the excesses of the enthusiasts, and prevent open campaigning.

Many exotic names were registered: “Southdown Radio” , “South Coast Radio”, “Radio Blue Angel”, and “Commercial Radio London Limited” were just a few. The latter, unconnected with the later pirate of the same name was a project of two producers who worked for Radio Luxembourg (London) Limited. Although they produced taped programmes for Radio Luxembourg to transmit, their direct licence application as with the others, all came to nothing.

Virtually the only name on the list that was eventually to be a radio station was “Red Rose Radio” , though whether the proprietors were those who were connected with the same name almost twenty years later, is not on record. These registrations kept the Sunday broadsheets busy, with endless stories of putative radio stations being turned down by the GPO.

When it became obvious that direct application would make no headway, the more daring (and it must be said wealthy) of the aspiring broadcasting companies turned to other methods. At that time, UK law applied only up to a notional ‘boundary’ three miles off the coastline (though modified arrangements existed for wide estuaries such as the Bristol Channel).

It was clear that a radio station placed upon a ship would avoid these legal constraints and could not be boarded by any navy, as that would amount to an act of piracy on the high seas.

Two precedents existed. Radio Sud in Sweden had been on the air since the late fifties, and Radio Veronica in the Netherlands had made some headway since the early sixties. The various groups of businessmen in the UK who were keen to advance the cause of commercial radio, and it must be said to make some money, began to scout around for possible vessels.

When the whole operation of a ship based broadcasting service is examined in detail, it can be seen that the venture capital required is large. It was never entirely clear where some of the original UK offshore operations got their initial backing, but eccentric millionaires were very much in the frame. It must be noted that they were driven by a (then) unfashionable private enterprise ideology, and placed their adventure on the “freedom of speech in broadcasting” platform more out of expediency than philosophy. Some fairly right wing people lurked in the shadows behind the proprietors.

Each station would need at the very least a large second hand ship, bought or rented, and capable of remaining anchored at sea for months on end and possibly years. It would need space, stability and motors strong enough to move the ship into the wind during storms. Such ships did not come cheap, and fishing vessels would be too small. Ex minesweepers were a feature, but retired cargo ships stole the show.

It would not be possible to run the operation from ships alone. The advertising sales departments and mobile sales forces would need to be land based. Management and clerical back up would need smart and respectable business addresses, and access would be required to Fleet Street, Solicitors, Purveyors of ships provisions, delivery and “tender’ ships, shipping agents, employment agencies and postal facilities. The operation would not come cheap.

In the cases where sufficient capital could not be raised in time, a fallback option was available, at least in London and the South-East of England. During the second world war the Thames estuary, Essex coastline and other parts of the UK sea defences, had been provided with sea based “forts” built on stilts, heavily armed and normally sunk into sandbanks some miles off the coast. These had been manned by RAF gunners and civil defence organisations, but had been abandoned at the end of hostilities.

Using a squatters philosophy and recognising that these resources had been officially disposed of, the smaller intending “pirate broadcasters” occupied several of the forts, and over some months repaired cleaned and outfitted them with office accommodation, power supplies using mobile generators, and living and studio space for the employees.

It is all too easy now to look back at the UK offshore radio phenomenon of the sixties without realising the scale of the projects involved. We tend to think of the stations as occupying points on the dial, and crosses on a map, without considering the scope and costs of the hardware involved.

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