Rebel Radio - A Brief History of Pirate radio

Rebel Radio

In the 1950's, music radio stations in Britain did not exist. There was literally no musical entertainment to be heard on the radio, other than the BBC's 'Light Programme'. The BBC's music shows mainly consisted of bland cover versions of popular hits played by the Northern Dance Orchestra. The only alternative was to tune in to Radio Luxembourg and their infamous fading signal. However their output consisted largely of sponsored record shows. This wasn't conducive for up and coming artists who weren't supported by the major record companies. This was painfully obvious to an Irishman called Ronan O'Rahilley. He was an wealthy young entrepreneur who had financed a record by Georgie Fame. When his attempts to obtain airplay for the record failed he decided to set up his own Radio Station.

O'Rahilly set up Radio Caroline, which began transmitting on Easter Sunday 1964, from the MV Frederica located a few miles off the Essex coast. Caroline was immediately successful and soon a whole fleet of ships joined them. Some even set up home on old sea forts in the Thames Estuary. The first generation of pirates included such stations as Radio Scotland, Swinging Radio England, KING Radio, BBMS, Radio Invicta and the most successful of them all Radio London. These stations were offshore based to circumvent broadcasting legislation. They broadcast from international waters and were therefore outside British jurisdiction. 

The quality of these stations varied enormously. While stations such as Caroline and Big L could boast DJ line-ups which included names such as Kenny Everett, Johnnie Walker, Dave Lee Travis and Tony Blackburn, the smaller stations were basically run by enthusiastic amateurs. The pirate stations were regarded as a continual thorn in the side of the government and they were desperate to find an excuse to have them closed down. They got their chance when a man was shot dead in an ownership dispute over Radio City which illegally occupied the Shivering Sands fort in the Thames Estuary.

Radio Carolines First Ship - The MV Frederica

The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act became law in August 1967, and the BBC launched it's national pop music station Radio One a month later. One or two offshore stations continued broadcasting sporadically, including Radio Caroline, which continued broadcasting illegally until 1968 before disappearing, although it did re-emerge in 1972 with a rock-based format, and continued off and on until 1990.

The most famous offshore station of the 1970's was Radio Northsea International, which broadcast from the coast of Holland until the Dutch government introduced their own legislation in 1974.

Despite these laws there was another golden period in the mid '80's when Laser 558 joined Caroline in International waters. 

RNI's QSL Card

Then came the first onshore pirates, particularly in London, such as Radio Free London, Radio Jackie and Kaleidoscope. These Land based stations broadcast mainly on medium wave. All of the programming was pre-recorded and transmitted from a remote area. They would string up a wire aerial between tall objects such as trees or lamp posts. Then attach a cassette player to a home made transmitter powered by a car battery. This primitive set up was highly effective and could generate a good signal which propagated over a wide area.

These land based pirates established a foothold in the London area during the late '60s and early '70's, and filled a huge musical void. Radio Jackie was really a 'community' radio station and campaigned vigorously for a licence to broadcast in their native south west London. They did have a year or so of actual live round the clock broadcasting but eventually closed down after a particularly heavy raid by the Home Office in 1985.

Radio Jackie Car Sticker

Soon a plethora of pirates were playing to a niche audience of music fans all over Britain. Broadcasting mainly from tower blocks, these onshore pirates were the pioneers of the pirate scene that exists today. These Stations thrived during the 80's playing reggae and soul music. At their height there were more than 50 stations including Invicta 94.2, Horizon LWR and Solar. One pirate in particular became extremely successful. Kiss FM claimed a massive half a million listeners with it's mix of soul, house and hip hop. It closed down in 1988 with the goal of obtaining an official licence and in September 1990 it succeeded on it's second attempt.

Radi Invicta Car Sticker

The Government introduced tough new laws in December 1988 and a lot of the land-based pirates closed down. Slowly a third generation of pirates such as Sunrise, Centreforce, Fantasy 98.1, and Dance FM replaced them. This coincided with the emergence of dance music as a major influence in the UK. With the rise of house, hardcore and later Drum & Bass, a fourth generation of pirates like Dream, Kool FM, Rush and Pulse FM took control of the London airwaves. BBC Radio One has also recognised the importance of the dance scene and recruited many former pirate DJ's such as the Dream Team to front their specialist output.

Despite the efforts of the Department of Trade and Industry, pirates are alive and well with hundreds of stations regularly on the air around the country. A lot of the stations have started to stream their output on the internet so they aren't just confined to large cities anymore. The days of Pirate Radio Stations capturing large listening figures may well be over but they'll continue to thrive when there is an specialist group who feel ignored by mainstream radio. 

For more detailed information try these brilliant pirate radio sites

Offshore Radio Guide The definitive Site about Watery Wireless.

Norman Barrington The Jingle Fan's heaven.

Land Based Pirates British land based pirates of the 70's and 80's.

Free Radio Network American site with loads of audio samples.

The Irish Era Detailed site packed with details of the Irish Scene.


Click here for the Links Page

Click here for the History of Radio

Click here for the History of Radio Part 2

Click here for the History of Old Time Radio

Click here for my Favourite Old Time Radio Shows

Click here for the Links Page

Click here for the Haunted Studio Home Page


Pirate Radio of the Offshore Kind!