Radio Caroline, 49 years after

Radio Caroline went on the air forty nine years ago this weekend, broadcasting from the MV Caroline off the coast of England.  Why is this important?  Before off shore broadcasting was attempted, in Europe the only radio stations (and TV) were government owned.  As such, they had a monopoly over the air waves and were very restrictive on which groups or types of music they allowed to be broadcast.  Many of the so called “British Invasion” groups like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, etc got their first airplay on offshore radio stations like Radio Caroline or Radio London.

This video “Radio Caroline – A day in the life,” shows what it was like to be an offshore broadcaster:

By the haircuts and music, that appears to be sometime in the eighties.

Check out the Radio Caroline website for more information.  From 1983 onward, Radio Caroline was broadcast from the MV Ross Revenge. This is an overview of the Ross Revenge transmitter hold.  The movie “Pirate Radio” is loosely (very loosely, by most accounts) based on Radio Caroline/Radio London composite.

Radio London was the one of the other well known offshore radio ships.

I am sure that there are other tribute sites with lots of technical information on how they broadcast. Much of offshore radio was outlawed in the late 1960’s by several European countries. Radio London signed off August 14, 1967. Radio Caroline continued on in various iterations until about 1991 or so.

WBCQ is airing a radio ships special on Sunday March 31, 2013, 5,110 KHz starting at 6 pm eastern daylight time (2200 UTC).

Radio Ships

Radio London air studio aboard the MV Galaxy
Radio London air studio aboard the MV Galaxy

These were broadcast platforms that were usually anchored in international waters broadcasting popular music to several European Countries including Great Britain, Holland, France and Spain in the late 1960’s through late 1980’s.  The reasons for these peculiar operations was strict government control of all broadcast outlets and programming in those particular countries. The BBC was known to be stodgy and repressive of new music, particularly rock music from bands like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, and others.

At the time, there was no specific law preventing ships anchored in international waters from broadcasting to shore based listeners, a loophole in the government control was found and exploited.  That loophole has been closed in most places, so as they say, don’t try this at home.

At one time there were several ships out there in the English Channel and coastal Denmark. The first and best known of these was Radio London or “The Big L.” It broadcast on 1133 KHz from December 16, 1964 to August 14, 1967 using a 50,000 watt RCA ampliphase transmitter. The ship itself was the M/V (motor vessel) Gallaxy, a converted WWII minesweaper formerly known as the USS Density.  After Radio London went off the air, the ship was transfered from port to port until it ended up in Kiel, Germany, were it was finally scrapped in the late 1990’s.

Radio Caroline was the main offshore competitor, broadcasting on 1520 KHz and several other frequencies off and on from 1964 until 1990 or so using several different vessels to transmit from.

MV Galaxy with radio mast
MV Galaxy with radio mast

One incident in off shore broadcasting that has always fascinated me was the burning of the Mebo II, then transmitting Radio Northsea International off the coast of Holland (this ship moved around quite a bit) in 1971. Later investigations revealed that the staff of an offshore competitor, Radio Veronica, was responsible for the firing of the ship.  Apparently, in those days the competition was brutal.

I like the nice calm music with the increasingly frantic DJ (West, no East). In any case, the ship remained afloat and returned to the air the next day.  The final European offshore broadcaster was something called Laser 558 on M/V Communicator.  It broadcast using to CSI 25 KW AM transmitters on 558 KHz in 1983, again, off and on for several years until 2004.  The CSI grounded grid transmitters may have been inexpensive to purchase, but I’ll bet they cost a lot to run.  This would be especially true if one were using diesel generators as the main electrical power provider.  As a result, they were usually run at about 1/2 power.  Eventually, M/V Communicator ended up beached in the Orkney Islands off of Scotland.

The only such attempt in the US was Alan Wiener’s MV Sarah, known as “Radio Newyork International” anchored off of Jones Beach on 1620 KHz.  The owner’s figured 4 miles off shore was far enough to be in international waters, the FCC felt otherwise, I believe at the time, 12 miles was (and still is) the territorial limits for the US.  Four miles was not international waters, as the broadcasters claimed.  These guys were arrested and sent to trial.  After several years all charges were dropped.

Anyway, an interesting bit of radio history. Goes to show the lengths that some will go to when feeling repressed.