Pirate radio

technical chart showing radio frequencies, annotated in English and French

Chart of European medium and long wave radio stations of the 1960s showing the frequencies they were broadcasting on
on 1 November 1965. Image courtesy of Ian Francis. The chart was originally available as a supplement with Wireless World magazine.

In the period after World War II, radio listeners in Britain seeking new popular music sounds usually tuned in to Radio Luxembourg's evening shows, especially the Sunday night chart show. But by the 1960s Luxembourg's challenge to the BBC was itself challenged by 'pirate' stations, broadcasting outside the licensing area from ships moored around the coast.

Like Radio Luxembourg, pirate stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London were essentially pop music stations and depended heavily on records for their programming. Where they differed was in showcasing their DJs, all of whom were expected to have larger than life personalities. Pirate stations also gave up the practice of programme sponsoring by commercial companies, which had sustained Radio Luxembourg (as it had many US stations) and opted for commercial breaks.

In their heyday (1964-6) the pirate stations were immensely popular. The fact that new listeners were constantly tuning in suggested that for many of them the pirates provided the means to hear new sounds. For regular listeners too there were always opportunities. But pirate radio was like format radio in many respects (see Radio and records) and successfully mixed the new and the familiar, exploiting listeners' anticipation of hearing sounds they already knew to keep them tuning in.

In 1967 the British Government took action to end the careers of the pirate stations. At the same time the BBC was restructured and Radio 1 came into existence, in at least partial acknowledgement of the effectiveness of the pirate approach to broadcasting. Other countries also adopted some of their ideas.

By the mid-1960s pirate stations such as Radio Caroline North were of some significance to music activity in Liverpool. Radio Caroline had offices in Prescot Street - near to the Majestic Picture House - and one could at least in theory send a request to the station from this address. However in reality things were rather more chaotic than this. Although Caroline North is remembered fondly by some in Liverpool, others remember that when the end came with the 1967 Marine Offences Bill it put paid to a rather disorganised radio station that was rather overly inclined to have Murray Kash present country music for listeners in Ireland rather than the pop for which they were renowned:

"It was fun listening most of the time but they used to plug Major Minor Records incessantly, play country music a lot and not do requests. I remember putting a request into their office one week, listening in and being very disappointed not to hear it read out, then going past their office on the number 10 bus thinking that the postcard was probably sitting there, uncollected."

Perhaps predictably, the Major Minor Record company was owned by the proprietor of Radio Caroline, Ronan O'Rahilly.