Pirate Radio DJs Reunite 50 years after Government outlawed offshore music stations

The story of pirate radio has been told by Hollywood in the Boat That Rocked, a comedy written and directed by Richard Curtis, with pirate radio in the UK during the 1960s as its setting. 

During the sixties, pirate stations sprung up around the UK coast, broadcasting from ships and commandeered wartime forts off the East Coast, outside British jurisdiction. They challenged the BBC monopoly that limited pop music to just a few hours a week, despite the burgeoning music scene in clubs and dance halls across the country. Both recording artists and major advertisers clamoured for the chance of air time.

Exactly 50 years after they stepped ashore to be mobbed by fans, as the Government outlawed the pirate radio stations that had turned them into household names, the swashbuckling disc jockeys that made the sixties swing, are to reunite.

Offshore 50, a reunion commemorating that day, will be a special occasion, as many will not have met since the eventful times of the 1960s when they were young rebels.

Australian DJ Ian Damon, who presented music for Radio London from onboard the ships, has told the ABC’s Europe correspondent Lisa Millar he remembered the day the rebels gave up in defeat.

“When that transmitter finished with the playing of Paul Kaye saying ‘And now Radio London is closing’, we all had a tear as you can imagine,” he said.

Led by Radio Caroline in 1964, there was soon a number of pirate stations playing the music an eager youthful audience was desperate to hear. Radio London with its slick American Top-40 format, dropped anchor to rival Caroline and both stations swiftly commanded millions of listeners, much to the anger of the BBC and politicians.

John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker, Kenny Everett, Dave Lee Travis, Emperor Rosko, Stuart Henry, Tony Prince and Keith Skues were among the disc jockeys who challenged the might of the BBC and the British establishment. In response, Harold Wilson’s Labour Government introduced the Marine Offences Act to outlaw the offshore broadcasters.

​One-by-one the pirate stations closed down ahead of the August 14th, 1967, deadline.

Only Caroline continued in defiance.

Many of the offshore DJs were from overseas and, after serving in the pirate fleet, returned to their homes, including Australia.

They included Ian MacRae – Graham Webb – Dermot Hoy (known in Britain as Bryan Vaughn ( ex 2CH ) – Norman St.John ( who worked Queensland radio on return to Australia) – Carole Miller who with her then husband Noel operated a pirate station off the coast of Newcastle (UK), and John Kerr, who are all travelling to the event.

“From 1964 through to 1967,” writes legendary 2UE presenter John Kerr, “the British Government did everything in its power to close them down, eventually being successful with the introduction of The Marine Offences Bill on the 14th August, 1967 making it an offence for any British subject to work on these ships. We could still broadcast but landing back on British soil we would be arrested.”

Kerr, worked aboard Radio Scotland for 18 months and was there on the last day. He recalls, “The only Scotsman during my time aboard “Radio Scotland” was Richard Park. Richard and I became real good pals and we’ve visited him at his home on a couple of previous visits. Richard went on to be voted Best DJ on the 1st commercial station in Scotland, Radio Clyde. He then moved through the ranks rapidly being Program Director in London for Capital Radio – on the board at Capital Radio and various other English stations. He hosted a national TV talent show and now is co-owner of a major UK radio network. His son Paul Jackson is Group Program Director for Nova Entertainment based in Sydney.”

The last crew of Radio London disc jockeys returned to the UK mainland after “Big L”, as it was known to its listeners, closed down at 3pm on August 14th. They were given a tumultuous welcome by 1,000 fans who descended upon London’s Liverpool Street station to meet their train from the East Coast. It made headlines on TV, radio and in newspapers, with many reporting on the anger felt by fans at being deprived of radio choice and the music they loved.

Six weeks later the BBC opened Radio One and hired many of the disc jockeys who had found fame on the pirates. The new station was opened by Tony Blackburn.

Tony will be among surviving broadcasters, engineers and other staff who worked on the pirates attending Offshore 50 in London aboard the Tattershall Castle (pictured below), a paddle steamer moored on the River Thames.

The anniversary is significant as it serves as a powerful reminder that there was a time when the BBC monopoly was held sacrosanct and choice was denied.

The pirates paved the way for local and commercial radio in the UK and the eventual creation of the huge choice of music outlets taken for granted today.



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