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volume 4
october 2001

Looking back at Radio London and Radio England

 





  An interview with Tom Danaher
by François Lhote
Previous
  Tom Danaher in the days of Radio London

For one of the recent Radio London RSL's, a restricted transmission licence for twenty-eight days, some people of the original American staff of the station traveled to the UK to join the celebrations. Among them was Tom Danaher, the man who stood at the station's crib and rigged up the impressive transmitter facilities on board of the ship that in 1964 would become Radio London's home base, the MV "Galaxy". François Lhote met him on board of the "Yeoman Rose", anchored seven miles out from Frinton-on-Sea, and asked him to tell us some more about the beginnings of Radio London in 1964, and the ill-fated Swinging Radio England / Britain Radio project of 1966.

 
1 François Lhote: As a rule — which I will not break on this occasion — this kind of interview starts by asking how you got involved in offshore radio.
  Tom Danaher: Well, it all started when I was an automobile dealer and got involved in the cable TV business. I had applied for the cable TV franchise for Wichita Falls in the state of Texas. Another dealer from Amarillo, a city in the same state, by the name of Don Pierson, who was also chairing the board of the Abilene National Bank, had just recently obtained the franchise for Abilene. While talking to him about my application, he told me that he wanted to join me as a partner. Combining both franchises would be very lucrative and I agreed to do so. I had already been before the city council and the council had decided to consider my proposal for the franchise. So, for their next meeting I told Don to come over — he lived about 90 miles away in Eastland.
2 On his way to Wichita Falls Don read a big article in the Wall Street Journal about Radio Caroline, describing how successful the station was. In just its first month the station netted about eighteen thousand pounds, at least according to Ronan O'Rahilly who was quoted in the paper. Don let me read the article as we were sitting in my office and he said he thought that this was interesting stuff. We started talking about it and in the end we decided it was a good deal. I had some knowledge of ships — during the war I was a Navy pilot and I flew off aircraft carriers — and Don had his connection with the banks that could help us financially. So we thought it might be worth looking some further into the thing. So that is how it came of the ground.
3 The MV Galaxy

Our agreement was simple. He would take care of everything that could tear — the money and the contracts. Everything that could bend — the technical and mechanical part of the operation — would be my responsibility. He persuaded his group of friends to invest in the project and I got a group of my friends to do the same. After we talked about it, Don decided to go over to Britain, which he did. He hired a plane and flew around Caroline's ship a few times, taking pictures. He investigated about the organization and, sure enough, it was doing really well. While he was away, I decided to find out where we could buy a ship for our own.

4 I had a friend in Miami who was in the fishing boat business. This man gave me the names of some brokers. I called them and then they gave me the names of several other brokers. When Don came back from England, we took off to Mexico, St. James River in Chesapeake Bay, because that was the location of the surplus ships of the U.S. Navy. From there we went on to Miami and Tampa Bay, Florida, and yet another place in South Carolina. There at last, we decided on a ship. It was a surplus ship, that some Greeks had bought as a cargo ship and renamed Manoula. Originally it was a World War II minesweeper, once called the USS Density. It was very cheap compared with the other boats we had seen, because it really was not good for anything else ... yes, the ship really was in bad shape.
Swinging Radio England first Johnny Walker Show (1966)
5 François Lhote: How bad was she?
  Tom Danaher: The ship had been lying dormant for about eight or nine years, some four miles up Miami River. That river is not very wide, but it is deep. The ship had been lying on its side and a lot of water had gotten into it. So before we could get the ship away, the water had to be pumped out. Nothing on the ship worked. The engines had not run for years; the plumbing was bad; and layers of rust were creeping up everywhere. Finally we towed the ship out of there with a tugboat and pulled it up to Dade dry-dock in Miami, where they work on merchant boats. They dry-docked it there, scraped the hull and cleaned the whole thing up and next we started to work on it ourselves.
6 The MV Galaxy in international waters

I was doing the design work for the transmitter house, the studio room and the antenna and also getting all of the machinery — the ship's engine, the generators — in working order again. I also went out to buy another generator to run the transmitter and I set the bids out for buying the transmitter itself. Now a friend of mine at home, Bill Horne, was an engineer at the local radio station, a 20 kW AM station. I talked to him about what kind of transmitter I had to buy and where I could find a good second-hand one. He advised me to buy an RCA, because those are the best ones. He also told me who to call at Camden, New Jersey. So I called those guys and asked them how long it would take them to deliver a transmitter and how much it would cost us. Meanwhile I was staying in Miami, working on the ship full-time and assembling everything needed. Next I designed the mast that went on the ship's deck. It was made by Union Metals in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. That's how I practically got involved with the radio ship business.

7 François Lhote: You had the work done very quickly?
  Tom Danaher: It took four months to build the whole thing up from scratch. Just four months, and all the while not one of those guys gave me one minute help. All of those rich guys sons that invested money in the operation ... they should have been down there with me. One of them could have taken the water system and got it to work, another one could have taken the toilets and got them to work, and yet another one could have taken the generators and get them to work. But, no, I had the whole job to myself.
8 François Lhote: Did you do the studio as well?
  Tom Danaher: Yes, I set up the room and I negotiated with RCA about the equipment. Now I am a car dealer and we got down close on the money. The average price of a transmitter was way more than $100,000, but they had this one transmitter made in Italy. It was the only transmitter they could supply immediately. The delivery of a USA-made transmitter would have taken four months because they only produced those on order. So I took the bite and started negotiating. I got Bill Horne to help me out and to see that I was getting the same transmitter as the American ones. Bill assured me that the Italian transmitter was identical as most of the components were made in the States and only the big heavy parts were imported from Italy. As we continued negotiating, I found out that RCA wanted to get rid of that particular transmitter from Italy. I also knew we needed something of $30,000 of studio equipment to which they had access. So in the end, when the guy from RCA put the contract on the table, I told him that I would sign it, but only if they would throw in the studio equipment! He thought about it, made a couple of phone calls and said: "OK, sign it," which I did. We really got a good deal. Of course, later on I learned that the deejays wanted a lot of other pots and things of which I did not knew anything at that time.
9 François Lhote: When did the ship leave for England?
  Preparing the MV Olga Patricia in Miami Harbour

Tom Danaher: I cannot remember the exact date, but Bill Horne put me in touch with Bill Carr from Fort Worth. Carr was the radio engineer who would match up the transmitter with the mast. The captain was Kou Walters and he had given me a lot of help. He worked every day on the ship with me and it was he who eventually hired the outside contractors who helped us with the engines and the compressors. Now this boat used a lot of compressed air. The engine did not have any transmission in it. So when you were going into reverse, you had to stop the engine, pull a series of levers and then the compressed air would run the engine backwards. Only then the ship itself would reverse.

10 François Lhote: Were there any problems on the crossing?
  Tom Danaher: Not particularly. The engines and some other different items did break down occasionally. But the ship sailed and when it got to Funchal, Madeira Island, Portugal, we refueled the tanks and filled the ship with food. We then went on to London. However, when we got there, Bill Carr was having troubles getting the transmitter tuned to the aerial. We already were experiencing problems to start it while we were in Miami. So we decided to make one more stop up to Lisbon. It was a two-day trip, that took us out to sea again and we had two or three days work there. Shortly after our arrival in Lisbon, I talked to Phil Birch who had been hired to look after the operation in England. He had hired someone in turn to find out where we would have to anchor the ship. I discussed this with Kou Walters and it proved to be a trip of only a couple of days to Sheerness. So I went up there and got this anchorage laid out, exactly where Phil Birch had been told to anchor the ship. It was very cold and I waited there for the ship. When the ship turned up, I told Kou Walters where to stop and he dropped the anchor.
A unique jingle for the Johnny Walker Show on Swinging Radio England
11 No sooner had we done that, or a British gunboat pulled up beside us and told us that we could not anchor there. So we got hold of Phil and told him to find us some place else to go. We had to get permission to stay there until we found somewhere else to go and the gunboat stayed with us until we left. At last Phil found someone else with better information and that is why we wound up around Frinton and, up to now, that was the last time I was here. I went back to the States, as I had not been home for months, to look after my car business.
12 François Lhote: How did they decide upon the frequency?
  The MV Olga (Swinging radio England and Britain Radio) in international waters

Tom Danaher: I cannot answer that question. All they did was call me up on three different occasions. They told me to get different crystals, cut for different frequencies. I called the company that produces these crystals for RCA and they said they could not make them just like that. It takes some time, you know, because it is a growth process and you cannot just call up and tell them to send over a 266 or whatever.

13 François Lhote: Were you involved on a day-to-day basis?
  Tom Danaher: No, I had to return to the States because else I had to give up my business.
14 François Lhote: What did happen during the first days of broadcasting?
  Tom Danaher: Well, Bill Carr stayed over for some time to get the transmitter going, but all the generators were doing well by then. I arranged for two mushroom anchors, because when I came in England, I could see that the regular ship's anchor was not going to be worth a hoot. So I went to Southend on Sea and located two of these big mushroom anchors. I arranged for them to be brought up to the ship and they put those out. In 1966, even with those mushroom anchors the ship still moved closer to the shore. I did not stay there on a day-to-day basis, but when I was in the States they would call me on the phone nearly every day.
15 François Lhote: What do you think made the success of Radio London?
  On air: studio of Swinging Radio England

Tom Danaher: Well, two things made it successful. The first one certainly was Ben Toney who brought us the KLIF sound. Toney knew he had to go to PAMS to get the jingles, because he had worked at these Top 40 stations and at KLIF itself. He knew where to get his stuff. Then he trained the diskjockeys and taught them how to present the programs. The second thing was that our transmitter was better than the competition. I mean, we obliterated all the other offshore stations with the power of our large transmitter. At least as soon as it operated properly, which at first it did not. Bill Carr worked on it for a long time, trying to get the output up and every time it would trip out. I was present at the first few times, when they tried to go up to 50 kW. The thing would get up to 20, 25 kW and then there would be a big bolt of lighting dropping on the deck. Next the transmitter would trip out — I don't know what caused it. Bill would keep changing the position that was loaded. The whole mast was loaded and it had to be tapped at a certain point. It took some time before it worked properly. However, I do not think that even Bill stayed long enough to get the thing clear up to 50 kW and probably it never did. Still, Radio London's transmitter was so much stronger than those of Radio Caroline or the others, that they just might have used that as a sales pitch.

16 François Lhote: In the last months they said they were on 75 kW?
  Tom Danaher: Yes, I heard that too, but I cannot believe it. Every time the power was raised, there would be flame, arcing across the deck and one of the big capacitors — which looks like a big vacuum tube — would blow up. And those capacitors were very expensive.
17 François Lhote: When you started in 1964 there were no laws and regulations. How long did you think it would last?
  Tom Danaher: At that time we had not even heard about the British Government trying to put us off the air. We did not think that what we did was against the law because it was all done in international waters.
How Radio England got its jock jingles
18 François Lhote: So you must have been rather disappointed when, in july 1967, the Marine Offences Act came into effect and Radio London had to stop?
  Tom Danaher: Well indeed, we were disappointed because a lot of work went into this whole thing and it was very productive. Moreover, everybody seemed to like it. Yes, it was a big disappointment. It was not only a financial disappointment to lose all the income from your efforts, but it was also a moral disappointment to see something taken away that was serving a purpose.
19 François Lhote: Did you consider the possibility of carrying on despite the law as Caroline did?
  Transmitter room on the MV Olga Patricia

Tom Danaher: That option was subject of some discussion, but we figured that it was not really worth it. Of course, by that time for me, personally, it really did not make any difference. I had my own business back home and I was quite busy with that. I suppose that for Phil Birch this advertising agency, Radlon Sales, was his whole life. It was his full-time job and it was really his decision whether to go on or not. However, I did not think he wanted to. So it would have been a matter of getting someone else to keep it all going, and we did not know whether they would pull the same thing when we tied up at Sheerness. Moreover, no Englishman could work on or service the ship anyway, so you were fighting an uphill battle. I did not want to mess with it. Also, by this time I was totally detached from servicing the ship or trying to keep the thing afloat. Other than just being on a ship, Radio London was just another regular Top 40 station.

20 François Lhote: But over here it was very new?
  Tom Danaher: That is right and the uniqueness of Radio London was such that, though it did not wipe the other ones out, it sure did give them a big headache.
21 François Lhote: The fact that the station was on a ship — did that contribute a little bit to its popularity?
  Tom Danaher: That certainly is true. It was subverting the law and it gave the young people a little bit of pride. They joined the Radio London clubs. I have heard all kinds of astronomical numbers of young people that belonged to these clubs. When we got off the "Yeoman Rose" yesterday, and met all those people that were on that dock ... I bet 75 percent of the people that were out there were ex-Radio London club members. And you probably noticed that they were all kind of old! They were not a bunch of kids!
22 François Lhote: How did you become involved in Radio England?
  Tom Danaher: Well, that is quit another story. I was not involved in that one from the very beginning. For Radio London Don and I had done all the work. I sometimes tend to downgrade how much work Don did, because he would go around and entertain the people while I was sweating on the ship. But he did his part of the job. Anyway, we were putting our money in, pro-rata, with all the other guys whenever it was necessary. So when Don and I got together we thought that we had taken the brunt of this thing and we had earned our share. But nobody had suggested that we should have a bigger interest in it. So we asked ourselves: why don't we start another ship? We had the books on Radio London and it was a fantastic success. Going out and raise more money for another ship would be easy.
24 So I approached Bud Diller, a very wealthy oilman and one of my good friends whom I had brought into Radio London — I know that he would have probably taken the whole thing himself. I asked him, because after Don and I had talked about this other ship, Don suggested that we would do it the same way again: he would take everything that could tear and I would take the ship and all that. But I said: "Yeah, Don, but on this next ship you are going to give me some help this time. I am not going to do that whole damn thing by myself again. Either that or we are going to provide help for me and then we'll have to bring Bud into it. He will handle all the financial ends and with him it will be easier to get all the money together that we need. Then I'll have all the labor that I want."
Graham Gill's first show on Britain Radio, playing around with the carousel and Greg Warren
25 So we called a meeting again in my office that lasted all afternoon. We all got the opportunity to say what the proposal would be. But Don kept saying: "Well, Tom, I feel that we should go ahead and put an easy listening station and a Top 40 station on her." I said: "You mean we are going to play thirty minutes of Top 40, then thirty minutes of good listening music, or what?" But he meant two different stations on the same ship. I asked him how he intended to do that with only one transmitter. I said: "We are going to have to house two different frequencies." He said, that was correct and that he was talking about two 50,000 watt transmitters. I countered, that this was ridiculous considering all the trouble we had with Radio London's transmitter, getting it ready to load. You could not even turn the lights off on the ship. There was so much energy that a fluorescent tube was already burning when you pulled it out of the box!
26 I told Don, that I did not think that it could be done. But he kept insisting on it. I said to him that I would go along when he could prove to me that it would work, and that I definitely would participate when the ship would have only one station and if Diller would be in the game. That would mean that Diller and his co-investors would own 49 percent and Don and I would split the remaining 51 percent — so that we both still would have control of the operation. Don, however, kept insisting on two stations. I tried to explained to him that a Top 40 station would be competing with our friends of Radio London, which I did not believe was truly ethical. In the end, as we were in disagreement even before we started, I told him I was not going along with it. Bud Diller backed me up for the full 100 percent. Of course, Don was as mad as hell. He childishly slammed his briefcase shut, got in his car and went off back to Abilene. I did not hear another word from him for some months.
27 Preparing the MV Olga Patricia in Miami Harbour

About four months later, a friend of mine down at the City National Bank called me and asked if he could bring two men to my office to talk to me. About fifteen minutes later these three guys came by. I knew one of them already, because he was the Chevrolet dealer in Archer City, Texas, which is about twenty miles south of Wichita Falls. The others were Red Livingstone, a big, rich oil driller and his business partner. Both men asked me if I was making any money on that radio ship off England. I told them that I was and that the operation really was going well. They explained that they had been contacted by a guy from Eastland, Texas, who had built a radio ship, the "Olga Patricia", in Miami.

28 The ship was now ready to sail and they wanted to know if I thought that putting any money into it would be advisable. I told them that I could not advise them on that matter and I asked what they had heard about this ship. They said LTV and Continental Electronics had done the job. So I told them the story of Don Pierson and how I had advised against putting two stations on one ship. The only way to do something like that, I told them, was to could get hold of a surplus aircraft carrier and to put a transmitter and a mast at one end of the ship and another transmitter and mast at the other end. It might just work with both mast and transmitters being about 800 feet apart, but I doubted it.
29 A few days later the phone rang and it was Don again. This was the first time we had spoken in four months. He knew I had been meeting the other two men and he told me that the ship was ready to sail from Miami in a few days. He said that it did not look like anything I had put on the Galaxy. Since the arrangement on the Galaxy worked so well and this being different, he was afraid that it would not be as good. As he had to make a $29,000 incremental payment before the ship could sail, he needed a second opinion. Would I do him a favor and come to Miami to look at the construction? Being treated by him the way he had, I was surprised at his audacity to call me up to and ask me to come down to help him. But because of my good-hearted nature, I agreed to go.
30 So I went there, took a look at the ship and, really, it looked terrible. Then Don called a meeting of the people of Continental Electronics, where I would present my findings. We went down to the Du Pont Plaza Hotel in Miami where Don always stayed. I always had a $40 dollar-a week rooming house close to the ship. He had a $50-a-day room in a hotel! Anyway I told those guys that I was not an engineer, but that I had designed and built the antenna on the Galaxy which was still up. Looking at the way they had stayed the mast, I added, it would nost last for two minutes in a North Sea gale because of the pitching and rolling. To this they replied that their computer had said that it would be all OK. They said, I just had done it by taking things at face value and probably had made the stay wires much too big. I said them that Don had asked me whether he should pay them the incremental payment and that I had told him not to do so. Boy, their faces just hit the floor. I told them that I was not involved in this thing at all and that I was only here as a friend giving an honest opinion. Before I left I warned them that the ship probably would not make it across the Gulf Stream, because the water can be very rough between Miami and Nassau.
Britain Radio: some bits and pieces of the programme of August 4th, 1967 with Martin Kayne and Garner Ted Armstrong
31 They did not listen. They arranged for the ship to be put into Nassau so that they could check that everything was OK, and then set sail to Nassau. After 14 miles from Miami, however the whole construction on the deck collapsed and nearly hit one of the crew. So Don did not pay them. Then Continental Electronics called me and asked me if I would team up with their German engineer and meet the "Olga Patricia" at Porto Delgarda in the Azores. They hired me and put me on their payroll. Don and I went over there, only to find they did not have the necessary equipment. So I left for Lisbon with the ship. Don went ahead of us. When we got there, we worked on it there for about a week and then I left and I went back home. I helped the German engineer and gave the benefit of my experience of building the transmitter. Still, the idea of the antenna was all wrong. To change it for the better was going to be a major delay for them, so we re-did it as best as we could. That still did not make things right. All I heard afterwards was how bad it went from then on.
32 Tom Danaher at one of the Radio London recent RSL's

Don had also promoted his venture with some of the friends that I had brought into Radio London — which I did not like either. He never told me about it and asked them not to say anything about it to me, because of the falling out between himself, Bud and me. The whole Radio England thing was a bad, unethical experience for me. After they got it over here and they could not get it to work, my friends who had invested at least five times as much as they had invested in Radio London, were losing money. After seeing the success of Radio London, they just wrote big checks. So these friends then called on me. They said that they we losing a terrible amount of the money that they had invested in Radio England. Would I help them out? This was because when the going really got rough at Radio England, Don just left. He ran up a huge bill at the Hilton Hotel, and a host of other places in London, and then he just evaporated into thin air.

33 So again, I was being pulled into the affairs of Radio England. These guys did not know a thing about ships and these humongous bills were coming in and they did not know what they were all about. So they sent the bills to me, airmailed every day. I would get a big, thick envelope full of bills and chits to look and I had to authorize them, looking if they were legitimate or not. The ones that were not, I would put on one side for nonpayment. When the big lawsuit came up — because they did not pay Continental Electronics either — they turned over all the paperwork to me. As a result my name was on all this paperwork and Continental Electronics subpoenaed me to their lawsuit, although I had nothing to do with the whole thing. And when it got down to the lawsuit, Don did not even show up to pay my attorney's fees or anything. So I found myself in a lose, lose, lose situation where I had no interest in it at all other than friendship. How do you like that for a friend!
   
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  The sound fragments on this page are copyrighted. They are used here according to the rules of fair use and academic quoting. Also read the comment on this article by John England, "The day I attended the funeral of Don Pierson. A postscript to Tom Danahers's memories of Don Pierson." In: Soundscapes, 2003, 5.
  2001 © Offshore Echo's Magazine / Soundscapes