Free Radio: 40 years on 

14 August 2007

“Big L time is three o’clock, and Radio London is now… closing down….” This is what we heard Paul Kaye say, forty years ago today, virtually to the minute as I write this. The “Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, 1967” was to become law at midnight, and virtually all the remaining off-shore radio stations that had variously graced our shores for the previous several years left the air sometime during the day. All except Radio Caroline, accompanied by Johnny Walker’s voice, over the Alan Moorhouse’s recording of Ballad of the Green Berets, telling us, “This is a story of man’s fight for freedom. The beginning is in the past; the middle is now; the end, is in the future…”.

The stations were to be replaced, the following month, by BBC Radio 1 on 247 metres, with a format based on that of the off-shore stations – and several of the same personnel – and similar US-style jingles from past PAMS collections.

We’ve noted in detail, in Robin Carmody’s exceptional article The Politics of Off-Shore Radio, that the Labour government of the time took a major mis-step in banning the so-called ‘pirate’ stations, first closing down those in British waters – mainly the forts – with the good old Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, as amended (and anyone with a recording of the Choir of King’s College Cambridge singing the WTA, widely broadcast at the time, please let me know*). Then the Marine &c Offences Act made it illegal for UK organisations to supply, advertise or basically have anything to do with the off-shore stations. The pressure was enough to close them down, Caroline making arrangements to be supplied from Holland and then Eire – until such time as they might introduce similar legislation.

We campaigned for “Free Radio”, back in those days, with rallies in Trafalgar Square, car stickers and the lot. What did we think we were campaigning for? It certainly wasn’t “free radio” – the stations were simply modelled, by and large, on American Top 40 stations. We were de facto campaigning for plain old commercial radio, as had been common in North America for decades and even beamed to these shores from elsewhere in the form of Radio Luxembourg and its predecessors such as Radio Normandy since the 1920s.

The “Roaring Sixties’, probably members of the band The Ivy League, recorded a song that captured what it was really about for us: hearing the music we wanted to hear.

The Government wants to close them down

But we want them to stay

They’re playing sounds that we all like

So don’t take them away…

When you’re walking down the street with your transistor radio

Everybody has a good time

You can dance to the beat of your transistor radio

Even when the sun don’t shine

You can hear your favorite rock ‘n’ roll

Rhythm and blues with a lot of soul

We love the pirate stations

We love the pirate stations

We love the pirate stations

Don’t let them take ’em away (Don’t let them take ’em away)

(Don’t let them take ’em away)

There’s some swinging DJ’s playing Top 40 records

That’ll really turn you on

Now the government’s trying to close down the stations

What’ll happen when they’re gone?

You won’t hear the music that you like

Any old time of day or night

We love the pirate stations

Hands off the pirate stations

Fight for the pirate stations

Please don’t take ’em away (Please don’t take ’em away)

(Please don’t take ’em away)…

The fact is that we didn’t care whether the radio we heard was “free” or not: we wanted to hear the music we liked, which was not given a great deal of airplay on the BBC – exactly the same factors that had made Captain Plugge and the International Broadcasting Company successful in the 1930s, when they played popular dance music which the BBC ignored.

The commercials just came as part of the package: we might remember “Bulova time is one o’clock: when you know what makes a watch tick, you’ll buy a Bulova” just as our parents could sing, “We are the Ovaltineys/Little girls and boys…”. But we would have been (more or less) equally happy if the BBC had been playing the music we wanted to listen to – wouldn’t we?

What came next probably was free radio. That first Free Radio rally was supported by its own radio station, what was to become Radio Free London. Stations sprang up all over London and no doubt elsewhere, broadcasting from our bedrooms with a wire antenna strung out down the garden. We all had our own little stations, gradually aggregating into more or less stable structures like the Radio Helen Network and the various Radio Free London variants plus a few stand-alone broadcasters. We were all infringing the WTA and many of us got caught by Mr Smith and the men from the Post Office – sometimes within half an hour – and fined for it, forcing the more persevering stations to begin broadcasting from fields with battery-powered rigs and pre-recorded programmes.

Yet we continued. Radio Jackie became famous and is now a legitimate commercial station broadcasting to South London, just as Radio Veronica became part of the Dutch radio system and Radio Caroline turned to satellite legitimacy. Some of us explored VHF/FM with the London Transmitter of Independent Radio, a kind of pirate IBA, owning the transmitters that put out programmes from a different ‘contractor’ every night: Radio Aquarius, Radio Jackie VHF, Radio London Underground… We were creating Free Radio all right, with our one- or two-hour shows – the longest we felt we could do and not be closed down by the Post Office, until an emboldened Jackie extended broadcasting times. And we were not by any means all Top 40 pop stations: we were specialists covering different genres, something that has only really gained legitimacy in the UK with the advent of DAB.

The advent of BBC local radio and then, in particular, ILR in October 1973 overshadowed our tiny efforts. The big commercial station, Capital Radio, emulated Radio 1 and in turn, in many cases, ILR stations around the country emulated Capital. We ended up with a national network consisting largely – though not exclusively, it’s true – of soundalike radio stations. Perhaps the only odd thing was that Britain was, as Kenny Everett once put it, the only country to have commercial radio after it had commercial television.

Arguably we got what we were asking for: commercial, Top 40 radio. Was it “Free Radio”? No. Is it what we really wanted? hmmm.

*I could also do with a copy of my radio documentary, On The Run – the story of London’s clandestone radio stations, if anyone has one: this was sold by Script Magazine in the early 1970s. I have the masters but not the final mix!

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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