Radio Caroline: The True Story of the Boat that Rocked

Radio Caroline: The True Story of the Boat that Rocked

by Ray Clark

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Radio Caroline was the world's most famous pirate radio station during its heyday in the 1960 and '70s. But while thousands of listeners were tuning in, it wasn't all plain sailing behind the scenes. Though she was financed by respected city money men, Caroline faced many challenges: political opposition, financial worries, technical problems and, of course, the dangers and difficulties of life at sea. She defied authority, transformed attitudes and promoted musical innovation and love and peace, while, at times, harmony was far from evident on the boat itself. The station is remembered as an icon of the swinging sixties but still broadcasts today. Featuring many rare photographs and unpublished interviews with the 'pirates' who were there, this is a modern-day adventure story of human endeavour and risk. Ray Clark, once a Radio Caroline DJ himself, tells the captivating story of the boat that rocked!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750992534
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 01/01/2020
Edition description: Second Edition,New edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,007,078
Product dimensions: 5.08(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ray Clark is a radio presenter with more than thirty years' experience. He started his career on Radio Caroline in the 1980s and currently presents on BBC Essex. He is the author of The Great British Woodstock (THP, 2017).

Read an Excerpt

Radio Caroline the True Story of the Boat that Rocked

By Ray Clark

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 Ray Clark
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5473-0


Before Caroline

Before Radio Caroline's first broadcast, radio in Britain was provided by the BBC, and though not controlled by the Government, they did regulate it. Its purpose, as set out by the first Director General, Lord Reith, was to educate, inform and entertain; however, it seemed to concentrate more on the first two objectives and less on the latter. Although British pop music was taking the world by storm in the early Sixties, you could hear very little of it on the BBC.

Radio Luxembourg was the only place for pop music fans to hear the hits of the day. Broadcasting from mainland Europe, English-speaking announcers played pop music and commercials every evening. But the signal was poor; it faded in and out continually, it couldn't be heard in the UK during daylight hours and the programme content was dictated by the major record companies, who bought airtime to promote their own recordings.

Unlike the USA and Australia, Europe had very few commercial radio stations, other than those based in Luxembourg, Monte Carlo and Andorra. In most countries, the State regulated national broadcasting and European governments saw no need for change. The only way to provide an independent radio station was to operate outside State boundaries and outside the law, selling commercials to finance the broadcasts.

The first commercial radio station playing popular music to a mass market and operating from a ship in international waters started in August 1958, when Radio Mercur (Mercury) came on the air. Listeners in Denmark were able to tune in to broadcasts from homemade equipment aboard a tiny ship, the Cheeta, moored off the Danish coast. The idea came after Peer Jansen, the founder of Radio Mercur, heard about the US Government-backed Voice of America radio station, which was broadcasting from a ship anchored off the coast. The MV Courier was moored in the Mediterranean while transmitting programmes that promoted an American view of the world to listeners in Communist countries in the area, such as Albania.

Jansen and his team studied the broadcasting laws and found a way to broadcast legally ... or at least, not illegally. The Danish press called them radio pirates, but Radio Mercur, in various forms, remained on air until 1962, when broadcasts to Denmark were outlawed by the introduction of new laws.

The success of the station had not gone unnoticed; other groups became involved with Radio Mercur, and at various times three different ships associated with the station broadcast off the country's coast.

The next offshore radio venture was a far more professional set up from the start. Jack Kotshack lived in Sweden and, through his contacts, met a Texan, Gordon McLendon, who was visiting the country on business. He owned several radio stations in America including KLIF in Dallas and KILT Houston, both market leaders. McLendon understood commercial radio and was one of America's major players in the business.

Within hours of meeting, McLendon and Kotshack agreed that they should start a radio station similar to Radio Mercur, but aimed at a Swedish audience. It was to be known as Radio Nord and it would be financed by Texan money men. A maximum budget of $400,000 was agreed and, at the start of 1960, the team went looking for a suitable ship. They found a small coaster called the Olga moored in Kiel, Germany:

I think she was one of the ugliest boats I have ever seen. Small and worn, she lay on the dock, surrounded by an overpowering stench of rotting herring, noticeable 20 metres away.

Jack Kotshack

The Olga, originally called the Margarethe, had been built in 1921 as a steel schooner weighing just 250 tons. Over the years she'd been lengthened and fitted with a low-powered diesel engine and had already had a hard life, surviving five years of coastal work during the war.

On 31 May 1960, she was towed to Hamburg, where she underwent a major refit. The cargo hold was converted into cabins for the crew, with space allocated for transmitters and the generators needed to power a radio station. A new superstructure was built, containing the galley, the messroom and broadcast studios.

The Olga was renamed Bon Jour and became the home of Radio Nord. Many issues delayed the start of the radio station, but once these problems, political and technical, were overcome, the station broadcast successfully off the coast of Sweden for fifteen months, from March 1961 until the close down on 30 June 1962, one month ahead of new laws introduced to outlaw offshore broadcasts to Sweden.

The days of Radio Nord were over, but the American investors still owned the small radio ship housing a complete radio station, able to go anywhere in the world. The immediate future of the ship became uncertain, but she would play a huge part in the story of Radio Caroline in the years that followed.

In April 1960, Radio Veronica had started broadcasts off the Dutch coast. Despite a precarious start, Veronica went on to broadcast successfully from sea until 1974 and later to have a role in the Dutch national broadcast system.

The Dutch VRON (Free Radio Broadcasting Netherlands) was set up by a consortium of Amsterdam businessmen. Dubious financial dealings preceded the first broadcasts of Radio Veronica, but eventually a former German lightship, the Borkham Riff, registered in Guatemala was equipped and moored off the Dutch coast. Programmes were recorded on land and played out from the ship and although the audience grew quickly, little money was made in return. Six months after it came on air, three brothers, the Verweijs, one of whom, Bull, was part of the original group of investors, took complete control of the venture.

Veronica's new owners were keen to increase their income and decided to target a British audience, so CNBC (the Commercial Neutral Broadcasting Company) was set up. Three English-speaking broadcasters were hired, including Paul Hollingdale, an Englishman who had experience with the British Forces Broadcasting Network, who was given the role of Programme Director:

There were only three people involved with CNBC: Doug Stanley, a Canadian Broadcaster, John Michael, a Canadian and me. The people behind the station were three Dutch brothers, they worked in the textile business in Hilversum, making a fortune manufacturing and selling nylon stockings.

Paul Hollingdale, DJ

You're listening to the radio sound of tomorrow today, the CNBC way. If you dial 192 metres medium wave, you get us. We hope you do, as of this morning this is CNBC broadcasting to the south-east coast of England and other parts, no doubt, of England picking us up. We'd like to hear from you by way of reception reports to find out what it's coming in like.

The show consisted of popular music, a mix between 208 [Luxembourg] and the Light Programme [BBC]. We broadcast until lunchtime with the programmes of Radio Veronica starting after that. All of our shows were recorded in studios that we constructed within the textile factory located in Hilversum. The tapes were then taken aboard the ship for transmission. CNBC had a London office, located in a newly built block called Royalty House in Dean Street.

Paul Hollingdale, DJ

The CNBC programmes quickly gained listeners in the south-east of England and East Anglia and questions about the broadcasts were asked in Parliament. But politics played no part in the demise of CNBC; the signal just wasn't strong enough, leading to poor reception and interference:

CNBC closed down because the medium-wave signal on 192 metres was too weak to penetrate into London. The project failed when an engineer hired by the Verweij brothers received money from them to buy a more powerful transmitter, but he spent the lot in London on the fast life with women, one of whom became pregnant. We were denied the opportunity of this transmitter and the station closed down.

Paul Hollingdale, DJ

Next came the unlikely named 'Voice of Slough', with plans for Radio LN (London) or GBLN. The intended vessel for this project was a 70-ton fishing boat called the Ellen. She was moored in Leith harbour in Scotland and had been detained in port, because she was considered unseaworthy.

The boat set sail on 3 October 1961, under cover of darkness, but didn't get far; the next day she was towed into North Berwick with engine trouble. After repairs she made off again, only to put into Dunbar with further problems. The man behind the plan was John Thompson, a journalist working in Slough who intended broadcasting from a position off Southend-on-Sea in Essex. As with CNBC, the radio station was to pre-record programmes on land, some reports suggested Ireland, and then broadcast them from the ship. Thompson told reporters that the plan was to collect a transmitter that was hidden near an East Coast creek, 'a secret rendezvous has been arranged', although he later said he was still looking for a transmitter; he told the Southend Standard that Marconi had refused to sell him one, so his company may well buy American.

Thompson's technical advisor and major financier was a Canadian millionaire, Arnold Swanson, who soon decided to break away from Thompson and launch his own radio station, to be called GBOK (Great Britain, OK!). It seems there was little goodwill between the two after the split, according to a newspaper article from the time:

This man Swanson has pinched our idea, his station GBOK is a complete copy of our Voice of Slough idea. You can take it from me that our station, GBLN, will be beaming before his.

Thompson was true to his word; a broadcast was heard on 306 metres between 4.15 p.m. and 5.30 p.m. on 5 April 1962. The authorities believed it may have come from Mr Thompson's studio, based in a caravan parked in a builder's yard in Slough; it certainly wasn't from his boat which was still in Scotland, beached in Musselborough:

You are listening to Radio Ellen, the Voice of Slough, coming to you from a ship anchored off the Nore.

It's not known if the boat ever managed to get to the Thames, but Radio LN, Radio Ellen or GBLN was never heard of again, although Thompson later told reporters that he had relinquished control of his company and all 'intangible' assets, including advertising contracts, had been handed over to his rival, Arnold Swanson, who had a ship that he planned to use for his station GBOK. The Lady Dixon was an 84-year-old former lightship, weighing 570 tons and lying in a mud berth in a creek off the Thames at Pitsea.

The plans for GBOK were impressive; a colour brochure gave detailed programme information and advertising rates. Programmes for future broadcast were recorded in a specially constructed studio at Swanson's home in Oxfordshire. He claimed to have invested £80,000 in the project and had already sold £100,000 worth of advertising through his company, the Adanac Broadcasting Agency.

Post Office officials, who were responsible for regulating broadcasts in Britain, had little detail of the proposed radio station in the early months of 1962, but they did suspect that a lightship would be used and set about looking for it. They initially failed to track down the Lady Dixon, but inadvertently they stumbled across what may have been a future offshore radio project without realising what they'd found.

An official report gave details of a boat called Satellite, a lightship tender, that had been sold by Trinity House during 1961 and was registered to Mr Allan James Crawford, the owner of a group of music publishing companies. The Satellite was moored in East Cowes. Though no link was found to the GBOK project and no more was heard of the Satellite, Mr Crawford would certainly come to the authorities' attention during the months that followed.

As 1962 progressed, plans for GBOK continued, but there were problems when tugs tried to pull the Lady Dixon free from its muddy berth in Pitsea Creek. Several attempts were made and eventually three tugs managed to free the hulk and tow her across the Thames to Sheerness, where she was to be fitted out. Press reports suggested that the ship, registered in Liberia, would be on the air within about a fortnight.

As work took place on the ship, Post Office officials observed progress and planned to board her to inspect any radio equipment once it was installed. But by July 1962 Mr Swanson had given up with the Lady Dixon, saying she would never be sufficiently sound for the project and he was now looking at using another ship, a 'tank landing ship', that he would name the Notley Galleon (his home was Notley Abbey in Thame, Oxfordshire). Whether through lack of finance or official pressure, GBOK, just like GBLN, failed to materialise. By August, the Lady Dixon was still moored at Sheerness and the Ellen was somewhere between Scotland and Southend-on-Sea, but a third ship was in the Thames Estuary and, unlike the other vessels, she was certainly capable of fulfilling her role as a broadcasting base.


Project Atlanta

Australian Allan Crawford was a music publisher living in London. He'd been employed by Southern Music, one of the biggest publishing houses in the world, at a time when sheet music sales were all important. But times were changing, and the music business had become more dependent on sales of the new 45rpm records. In 1959, Crawford decided to 'go it alone', setting up his own Merit Music Publishing Company and, later, a variety of record labels, including Rocket, Cannon and Crossbow, which featured cover versions of top pop hits of the day performed by session musicians and singers and available by mail order. He also released original recordings on his Sabre and Carnival labels:

I was managing director of Southern Music both in Australia and in London; I resigned from the London Company after fourteen years to become independent. Then it hit me that having 300 publishers in London striving to get into any half-hour recorded programme on the BBC or Luxembourg was idiocy; there was no way to win as an independent. The publishers that were getting success were the well-established, wealthy publishers, who could wine and dine people and influence them.

I read an announcement that Radio Luxembourg had made an arrangement with one of the big publishers to form a publishing company between them. Well, I was angry at that, because I could see that favouritism was going on. The main advertisers on Luxembourg for the principal hours in the evening were EMI and Decca, so naturally it was their numbers that were being played, and, of course, the disc jockeys employed by Radio Luxembourg, by great coincidence, turned out to be the same ones the BBC were using – and were they going to cut off their own bread and butter by not playing the records that EMI and Decca wanted? Of course they weren't, they'd have been crazy if they had. It was a very restrictive set-up.

I was annoyed so I wrote a sarcastic letter to the BBC and said, 'Following the announcement in the paper,' and I didn't name the article or what it said, 'I now make the following suggestion: that the BBC and my company, Merit Music, form a sub-publishing company, so that by careful programming, we can do away with such worthy institutions as the Performing Rights Society, the Publishers Association and Phonographic Performance Limited, so that all the numbers being broadcast would belong to Merit Music and the BBC.'

I meant it to be sarcastic, such a thing could never happen. But, you know, they had a fellow ring up, 'Mr Crawford, we have your letter – what does it mean?' I've forgotten the name of the man but I was invited to lunch with the BBC, in the boardroom, there was a butler serving on silver platters a beautiful luncheon and we were sitting at a boardroom table a mile long and there were only three of us.

One of the men, I think he was in charge of BBC programmes, was reluctant and a little bit huffy at having been made to come, until he listened to what I was saying and he warmed up as I was explaining how Luxembourg worked.

He wrote out the address of a committee1 that was meeting to take evidence about the future of radio and he described how they were going to have housewives on this committee and I thought 'my God, we're going to get some sense out of this, aren't we?' [sarcastically]. He said, 'would you please repeat what you said to them,' and I said, 'I'll think about it'.


Excerpted from Radio Caroline the True Story of the Boat that Rocked by Ray Clark. Copyright © 2014 Ray Clark. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword 7

Acknowledgements 9

About the Author 10

Introduction 11

1 Before Caroline 15

2 Project Atlanta 23

3 The 'Why Not' Business 33

4 Chug-a-lug, Chug-a-lug, Chug-a-lug 42

5 Genius 51

6 Your All-Day Music Station 57

7 The Ship that Rocks the Ocean 69

8 The Caroline Network 77

9 You're Hearing Things 96

10 Bringing News to the Nation, Fast and Factual 105

11 The Tower of Power 109

12 A Sudden Swing in High Command 112

13 Mayday, Mayday 115

14 It's a Cash Casino 116

15 The Sound of the Nation 129

16 Oh, Mister Benn, You're a Young Man 133

17 Let Me Marry You … 137

18 Paying for Plays 142

19 The Fight for Free Radio 147

20 Caroline Continues 152

21 Cutting the Chain 163

22 Television, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding … ? 172

23 Unseaworthy and Barely Habitable 177

24 Caroline Comes Home 188

25 Ship in Distress 200

26 We'll Be Back 208

27 Eurosiege 219

28 Into Overdrive and Playing the Hits 223

29 Hurricane Force 12 234

30 Who Are the Real Pirates Here? 240

31 Could this Finally Be the End? 245

32 Past, Present… Future? 251

Index 254

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