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volume 7
april 2004

The Radio Detection Squad

 





  The wet and wild history of Radio Caroline (14)
by Herbert Visser
Previous
  Herbert Visser belongs to that very small group of authors of our series on Radio Caroline who hasn't yet reached the age of 40. So he is younger than the station itself. Visser, though, knows all about it. He worked in the Netherlands for some illegal radio stations, the land-based "pirates", and in the second part of the 1980's he joined Radio Monique, one of the many sister stations Radio Caroline has had over the past four decades. Keep it in mind: if these stations hadn't been there, we wouldn't be celebrating the fact that Radio Caroline still is on the air.
 
1 Left: Herbert Visser nowadays

Thinking back to August 31, 1974. Like most other readers of this series, I have avid memories of Radio Caroline as an ordinary listener. When Radio Caroline started broadcasting in 1964, I wasn't even born. That would change a year later, but it would be at least some ten years after the launch of the station, that I became aware of it. In my childhood years, when I was around eight of nine years old, I'd been a fanatic listener to Radio Northsea International. Or rather, since I didn't understand any English at all at that time — the English service also came on only after I was put into bed by my parents, around 8:00 pm — to the Dutch daytime service Radio Noordzee Internationaal. Still being a child, I didn't have any clues about the upcoming Dutch Marine Offences Act in 1974. You see, for me as a child, offshore radio was a very simple thing. There were radio stations broadcasting from land and radio stations emanating from ships at sea. And the ones at sea were much more fun to listen to because they were on a boat. Sounds logical, doesn't it? But I remember very well what happened on that black day of August 31, 1974.

  As usual, I was listening to RNI when my mother entered my room, telling me that "tonight Noordzee will have to go, just like Veronica. The Government wants them off the air." Those words made a big impression on me. That day, I didn't leave my room anymore and tried to listen as intensively as possible to RNI. Sometimes when they'd play a song I didn't like, I turned the dial to Radio Veronica to hear what they would be doing, only to return to RNI a few minutes later. I just thought it was horrible that the "Government" — whoever they were, I didn't get it — wanted to take my most precious source of entertainment away. At 6:00 pm I heard Veronica going off the air, and retuned to RNI for the very last time. I heard Ferry Maat welcoming his listeners, but quickly thereafter reception deteriorated. I grew up near the German border and got into this so-called skip-zone. So it was "bye bye RNI," well before the actual close-down at 8:00 pm. At night I saw a video footage of the Veronica and RNI close-down on the Dutch television-news. Seemed pretty final, right?
  However, the next morning I simply couldn't believe that my favourite station had gone. I tuned the radio back on to 220 meters in the hope that RNI had continued after all. The actual spot on the radio dial that was blasting out the best music the previous day, now was silent. But very close by on that tiny radio dial I did hear a strong signal with music. A station I'd never heard before. It happened to be Radio Mi Amigo. And that night at 7:00 pm, it was the first time I heard Radio Caroline. I didn't understand anything, but immediately loved the semi-commercial sound of that station. I got hooked instantly. And from that moment on, it became a wish to one day become part of that vibe called Radio Caroline. A spirit — Radio Caroline clearly was something much more than just an ordinary radio station. Caroline quickly became my companion throughout my youth.
2 Right: One of the generators of the MV Ross Revenge

Cultivating a youth companion. I closely followed the events happening around Caroline. As this is supposed to be a personal story, I kindly would like to refer to the many history books about Caroline's legacy if you'd like to hear more about that. But on March 19th 1980 I noticed there was some trouble on board the MV Mi-Amigo. Each hour, numbers were being mentioned with additions like "urgent in three hours." Instead of the regular programming, non-stop tapes were being played, although they contained one of the best selections of music I'd ever heard. I remember myself thinking: "Well, if this is what they play when they're in trouble, I don't mind them being in trouble more often." I kept on listening till late that evening and eventually fell asleep. The next morning, there was only silence on Caroline's frequency. No cause for alarm though, because it wouldn't be the first time the station was off the air. But it all changed when I heard on the news that the MV Mi Amigo that night had sunk. On the evening news, I saw footage of the mast sticking out above the water. And I realized that it was all over now.

  It wasn't to be. After three-and-a-half years of silence, Radio Caroline returned from the biggest ship ever used for offshore radio broadcasting, the MV Ross Revenge. The mast was the tallest mast ever built on a ship. And the signal emanating from the MV Ross Revenge in Western Europe was splendid. The station kept on going for some time, but despite the strong signal, wasn't financially successful. On December 1st 1984, Radio Caroline got a Dutch sister station, which from now on would rent airtime in exchange for supplies for the cash-strapped Radio Caroline organisation. This station, Radio Monique, would later give me the opportunity to climb on board the MV Ross Revenge and experience myself what it was to be an offshore radio pirate. That, though, would only happen one-and-a-half years later.
  At the time I was heavily involved with the very successful regional FM pirate station Delta Radio. From Nijmegen in the Netherlands we covered a significant part of the east of the Netherlands. It sometimes felt as if all the radios in the area were tuned to us, and advertisers were lining up in droves. Every single day we had to turn down potential advertisers because we were fully booked. And, my personal opinion at that time was that Delta Radio was a much better radio station than Radio Monique. Delta played all the hits all the time. A large portion of the airtime of Monique consisted of songs that needed a plug, but in fact were a "turn-off" for many listeners. You can cover the entire country, but even when you're the only radio station people can pick up, if you don't play what a large audience likes, you won't get too many listeners. So, I had no plans to leave Delta. However, when after a while I experienced my personal 16th raid on Delta — Delta had been taken off the air often before, but then I wasn't around and being held responsible for illegal broadcasting — I was faced with a dilemma. Either to continue with Delta, knowing that I would be thrown into jail for six months or so, or to quit. In the summer of 1986 I had just been sentenced to a suspended imprisonment of a month with two years probation time. If the authorities ever caught me again, I'd be placed behind bars. And that idea didn't look very tempting to me.
3 Left: Herbert Visser on the Ross Revenge

Boarding the MV Ross Revenge. In the Netherlands, suspended imprisonment can only be imposed for a crime you've already committed before. Now, land-based pirate radio and offshore pirate radio were dealt with by two different laws. Therefore, the Dutch courts could never impose that month of suspended imprisonment if they caught me working on the MV Ross Revenge. The decision was made rather quickly. In order to continue making radio, I simply had to end up on the Caroline boat. I knew that a guy from The Hague, Fred Bolland, was acting as a sort of "Executive Director" of the radio station. I had his phone number, gave him a call, and told him that I wouldn't mind working for Radio Monique. And only two or three weeks later or so, I got picked up from The Hague Central Station, was driven to Ostende in Belgium and late at night picked up by the tender Windy. Early September 1986, I set foot on the Caroline ship for the first time.

  You now may think: "Ok, now we're going to get the stories." Well, actually you will not. I worked on board the vessel during a relatively good time. Both Radio Caroline and Radio Monique had quite a few listeners all over Western Europe. Almost every week the Windy would show up with fresh supplies, and the atmosphere on board was, in general, good. We weren't deprived of anything out there. I enjoyed the many hours I spent mainly with my English colleagues talking about "radio." When it comes to the quality of the programs, 1986/1987 must have been one of the best times in the history of Radio Caroline. Real good music, most of the deejay's were highly professional, and hundreds of thousands of listeners surely appreciated it. I certainly did not experience any of the dramatic events in the history of Radio Caroline. I'm actually quite happy that I was there at a time when the stations were providing continuous entertainment and succeeded in being true radio stations. The only "dramatic event" I experienced somewhere early 1987 was when some colleagues on board the MV Ross Revenge started a strike. They wanted to be taken off the vessel and go home. They were mad that no one came to pick them up. At the same time, some colleagues and I were on the tender Windy in the harbour of Dunkirk, waiting for the heavy wind to go down so that we could go out.
  The Windy was a relatively small boat, and any trip in winds higher than a "strong breeze" — force 6 of the Beaufort Force Scale — would be highly uncomfortable. The strike on Radio Monique — while Radio Caroline continued as normal — lasted about two weeks. By that time everyone got so desperate that we were leaving anyway. And with a packed Windy, with enough people on board to replace almost the entire crew of the MV Ross Revenge, we went out. The wind was Force 8 — a gale — and indeed, it became a very choppy ride. Almost everyone got seasick, also people who'd been with Caroline for over a decade and had experienced many very heavy North Sea storms. I can also tell you is that I didn't think that, with my past as a land-based pirate, it would make much sense taking a fake-name as a deejay and news-presenter, as all my other colleagues did. An alias would make it more difficult for the authorities to find you out. But, I had already met almost every single employee of the Dutch Radio Authorities in person. I realized that it only would take them hearing one sentence from me on Radio Monique, and they would know whom they were dealing with. So I became the first and only person after the introduction of the anti-offshore radio laws in 1974, who used his very own name for programmes emanating live from an offshore radio vessel. Strangely enough, this never got me into any trouble.
4 Right: A small part of the equipment that was taken by the OCD

Good timing. People working for Radio Caroline hardly got paid at all. The Dutch people working for Radio Monique got a little more, but also for them/us it wasn't anything special. The very low salary was something I had calculated on before joining, but such a situation can't last too long. In today's currency, I got offered 22 euros a day. But I even didn't get that sum. When the organisation owed me some 1,400 tax-free euros — at the time much more money than today — and I could honestly say that I had experienced what it was to work for an offshore pirate, I called it a day. Less than a year after joining Radio Monique, I left the station. It proved to be good timing, because not so very long thereafter the very tall mast on board the vessel collapsed after one of the heaviest storms on the North Sea in decades, and Radio Monique would disappear forever.

  For Caroline it didn't mean the end, though. The Caroline people built another mast and returned to the airwaves. After I'd left the station, I decided to stay in touch with some Caroline friends I'd made while working on the vessel. Sometimes I would get requests to sort something out in the Netherlands, sometimes I would visit the then highly secret Caroline office in North London, or stay at engineer Mike Watts' place in Brighton. I also made another friend with whom I'd been staying in London a lot, David Lee Stone of the infamous Caroline neighbour, Laser 558. I even got the opportunity to send DJ's out to the ship, like Judy Murphy/Jody Scott. Although no longer actually working on board the vessel, I still felt very much related to Radio Caroline.
  And then the notorious August 19th 1989 came. A while earlier, besides spreading signals on medium wave, the MV Ross Revenge also started broadcasting programs on shortwave, and in particular on a frequency of 6,215 kHz. This frequency however at that time was internationally registered as a marine emergency frequency. Since the religious programming on this frequency was organized by a person in the Netherlands, the Dutch authorities were flooded with official complaints from other countries and decided to do something about it. Until this moment, the authorities had constantly been investigating everything, but not taken any real action because the vessel was beyond their jurisdiction, in international waters. Now, the status of the flag was checked. And when it appeared that the MV Ross Revenge was no longer registered in Panama and in effect stateless, the decision was made by the Dutch authorities to silence the ship.
  The Dutch police raided the MV Ross Revenge, took away all the broadcasting gear and brought the Dutch people on board back with them to the Netherlands. A few days before that, all the Dutch people who at that time were actively involved running the station, already had been arrested. However, even now Caroline managed to come back. Chief Engineer Peter Chicago assembled a transmitter with whatever still could be found on board. The "home-made transmitter" came to life on October 1st 1989, and already very soon reception was quite OK everywhere. But the overwhelming majority of the equipment was gone. It simply had been taken away by the Dutch authorities.
5 Left: Martin Roumen

Meeting Mart Roumen. In the spring of 1990, rumours were spreading that the Dutch Government was about to return the confiscated equipment to Radio Caroline. I got a call from Peter Chicago asking me whether I could find out whether these rumours were true. I decided to call the Dutch department that had been directly responsible for the raid. That proved to be the "Opsporings- en Controle Dienst" (OCD), the Dutch Radio Detection Squad, and there I got Mart Roumen on the phone. He appeared to have been the "Mastermind" of the raid on the MV Ross Revenge. Roumen told me at that stage that there was no possible way the confiscated equipment could be returned. We did have a lengthy conversation, though, about the legality of the raid on the Ross and a number of other issues. All in all, it was a constructive conversation and we decided to stay in touch. Roughly half a year later, Roumen told me that he had spoken to the responsible Prosecuting Officer and that, yes, maybe there could be a possibility that the equipment could be returned to Radio Caroline. The reason? No owner had claimed the equipment and the case was still pending.

  The Caroline equipment took up quite some space at a Governments storage centre of confiscated equipment, and the Dutch Government wanted to close the matter once and for all and use the space for other items that would have been more valuable. But you can't destroy equipment just like that. So it had to be kept in storage for a long time, till someone stepped forward to claim the gear. Radio Caroline was still on the air from the North Sea at that moment. The British Government didn't have any intention to silence Radio Caroline at that stage, and for the Dutch Government there was no reason to act, since there were no longer programmes in Dutch emanating from that vessel, nor were there any Dutch people on board.
  Returning the equipment with Caroline still on the air, however, was another matter. Thus, the return, so it was decided, could only happen if Radio Caroline would voluntarily close down. Well, you may understand that for Radio Caroline this would hardly be an option. I did pass the message on to Caroline manager Peter Moore, but we had a good laugh about it. Then the situation did change quickly. With no income, things deteriorated rapidly on board the MV Ross Revenge. And by the end of 1990, money had run out, fuel had run out, and Radio Caroline was forced to close down. Unknown to the crew at that time, but on November 5th 1990 the last Caroline programmes from the North Sea had just been aired. The ship was to remain at sea however, "keeping the dream alive." And the Dutch Government did have no intention of returning the confiscated gear to a vessel that could be brought back to life instantly. Only when the ship came into port, with assurances that Radio Caroline never would return to the airwaves as an offshore pirate, could the equipment be returned, as Mart Roumen told me over and over again.
6 Right: Mike Dundee (Caroline) and Martin Roumen (OCD), loading the Caroline equipment in the van (1992)

Making a presence. At Easter 1991 Radio Caroline was still off the air and still at sea. My opinion was that the station should at least make a presence on the airwaves. At the time I had this reasonable powerful shortwave-transmitter in my apartment in Amsterdam and offered to switch it on at Easter. Peter Moore asked Nigel Harris to pre-record a couple of hours of programming, and at Easter Radio Caroline was at least back on shortwave, albeit for only a short time. Since the broadcast was pre-announced on the several Caroline outlets — like a premium phone line — the British Authorities were aware of the upcoming broadcast and wanted to find out whether the programmes were really emanating from the MV Ross Revenge.

  Soon they discovered that the signal was coming from somewhere in or around Amsterdam. A Dutch detection van was sent out and tracked the signal coming straight from my apartment. Instead of the Dutch authorities immediately bursting into my place — well, at least I'd had quite some experience of that — Mart Roumen got a call, and was informed that "Radio Caroline" now was broadcasting from Herbert Visser's place in Amsterdam. Roumen asked them not to take immediate action. Only if I stayed on the air much longer, could they raid the equipment. By chance, it later appeared, the programme ended some fifteen minutes later and I switched off the transmitter. That same evening, former Caroline DJ Richard Jackson arrived at my place to stay for a few days.
  The next day, Radio Detection Squad officer Mart Roumen gave me a call. "Herbie, what were you doing yesterday-afternoon?" I realized immediately that it wouldn't make sense to play hide and seek, so I instantly answered: "I was relaying Radio Caroline programs on the shortwave transmitter in my kitchen." "Yeah," Roumen replied, "reception in London at the DTI's office was quite strong, but I'm afraid that this week I'll have to come and confiscate that transmitter." We made an appointment and so Roumen arrived with a colleague — Ben van Duyvenvoorde, who now happens to be the head of the radio licensing department — a few days later and confiscated that transmitter. Nevertheless, it was worth the fun!
7 Left: Herbert Visser's OCD plaque, saying: "Hoofddirectie Telecommunicatie en Post, Etherbewaking"

Picking up the confiscated equipment. On November 19, 1991, a heavy storm broke the anchor chain of the MV Ross Revenge, and the vessel drifted to the Goodwin Sands where it grounded. A few days later, tugboats managed to free the vessel and it was towed into Dover. The "Ross Revenge Support Group," closely linked to Radio Caroline, managed to get the vessel in its custody. But no longer seaworthy and with a lot of other problems, it soon was clear that the MV Ross Revenge wouldn't be capable of ever going back to international waters. Now, Radio Caroline not only was off the air, but its vessel was also lined up in Dover harbour, and thus there was no longer an imminent "danger" that Radio Caroline would return to the airwaves. So, I called Mart Roumen again. I explained to him that all the reasons for not returning the confiscated equipment to the MV Ross Revenge were no longer valid. He took the matter up with the responsible Prosecuting Officer again, and to my great surprise, the decision was made to return the equipment to Radio Caroline as well as dropping all charges against the Dutch people who got arrested in the process.

  The only thing was that an official representative of Radio Caroline would have to make a statement about a few issues and indemnify the Dutch Government against eventual future claims. So, negotiations were started again with Peter Moore, who represented Radio Caroline, in association with the official owner of Radio Caroline, the Panamanian company Grotham Steamship. I constantly acted as an intermediary, translating the words from Mart Roumen into English for Peter Moore, and vice-versa. And this time things moved rather quickly. A few months later, early 1992, a tightly selected group of representatives were able to pick up the confiscated equipment from the Dutch Governmental storage space in Bleiswijk, near Rotterdam. Only the Dutch officials, like Mart Roumen, and the direct representatives of Radio Caroline were allowed access to the premises. And, having been the intermediary during this deal, I was also allowed on the premises. After the Caroline van drove away with all the gear and the many records, Mart Roumen awarded me with a plaque, on behalf of the Dutch Radio Detection Squad, for the help I'd given them. To this day, that plaque still is hanging in my living room.
   
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