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volume 11
august 2008

When Mercury got wings

 





  Remembering Radio Mercur after fifty years
by Henrik Nørgaard
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  Offshore radio broadcasting did not begin in Denmark. However, the concept of broadcasting popular music programs from international waters directed towards an audience in a country with a state monopoly on radio transmissions came from Radio Mercur, a Danish commercial radio station that started airing its programs on August 2nd, 1958 — now half a century ago. Henrik Nørgaard, author of the book Pirater i æteren (2003), takes us back to that day.
 
1 Left: Mercur's first radio ship, the small vessel Cheeta Mercur (Cheeta I)

Breaking the waves. The year is 1958 and the scene Denmark. Since the early days of radio broadcasting in the 1920's the Danish radio listeners had been used to the fact that their choice was easily made when deciding what to listen to on their radio receiver. The national broadcasting company had a law-enforced monopoly on transmitting radio signals, and there were only two programs to choose from. The concept was to educate and enlighten the audience and entertainment and modern music was almost banished. Or, at least only in minimized quanta for a few hours per week. On good days you were able to catch transmissions from Radio Luxembourg in a fairly good quality. Otherwise the only available alternative was the State Radiofonia ("Statsradiofonien"). But now, on August 2nd 1958, a new sound was in the air and could be heard over the loudspeakers.

  From international waters between Denmark and Sweden, just a few miles from Copenhagen, a floating radio station began to transmit music and commercials in a way that had never been heard before in Denmark. The new station, breaking the sea waves as well as the radio waves, was called Radio Mercur. Within a few years the idea had spread to other countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Radio Mercur has since been known as the pirate radio, which gave inspiration to a whole number of pirate radio or offshore radio stations. Here, we look back at the start of Radio Mercur in 1958 to celebrate the fifty years jubilee of the first pirate radio.
2 Right: Radio Mercur's impressive looking studio complex at Copenhagen

The underlying idea. The founding father of Mercur was Peer Jansen, a young man from Copenhagen. He had the same interest for new music as many other young people in Denmark. He tuned in on Radio Luxembourg to catch the latest hits and occasionally did listen to American Forces Network. But, on the national radio he rarely found the music he fancied. On a journey to the south of Europe, he discovered that the USA military used a ship, the MV Doddridge, in the Mediterranean Sea to transmit the programs of the "Voice of America" to the people in the Soviet-alliance countries in Eastern Europe. Jansen got the idea that something like Radio Luxembourg could be combined with a floating transmitter to form a totally new kind of radio station in Denmark. What he didn't know, was how to realize the idea. But he had a good network to draw on in order to find out.

  First of all: Danish national laws didn't allow such a thing as a private radio station. But how about international regulations? Jansen had a cousin, Børge Agerskov, who was a law student at the University of Copenhagen. Agerskov tells: "There was a lot of adventure in Peer. He was very good at inspiring people. While I was finishing my studies I spent a lot of time researching radio conventions — whether it was possible at all, and it was in some way." No one had yet thought of the possibility, that a radio station could be anchored in international waters and broadcast to a specific country without having permission.
  Secondly: What about the technical side? Well, Jansen had a brother in law who was a radio enthusiast. He knew of another radio enthusiast named William Petersen. Normally he was a bike repairer but he also was very skilled in making radio transmitters. Petersen took up the challenge to build an FM-transmitter and an antennae that could be used for the purpose.
  Thirdly: The idea was costly and there was a need for financing. Jansen was working in a family owned silverware company in Copenhagen, run by Ib Fogh. Jansen presented his idea to his boss, and soon Fogh was keen on the idea and willing to invest in the project together with Jansen himself. From that point around summer 1957 things went fast with the establishing of a brand new radio station. A year later Radio Mercur was ready to go on air with recording studios in a mansion in a suburb of Copenhagen, a radio big band, a floating transmitting station and a lot of enthusiastic people working as technicians, speakers and crew on the ship.
3 Left: Mercur's radio announcer Gitta Müller

New music and rising youth culture in a conservative landscape. How could anyone succeed in setting up a new radio station in a country with a monopoly on broadcasting radio, being unquestioned for decades? Denmark in the mid 1950's was a traditional society. Young people were expected to follow in the footsteps of their parents, and everybody was expected to obey the authorities. But, a new culture was rising — slowly but clearly. Talking about 1968 as a breakthrough in changing society, the path was already made many years before. A new kind of music — rock'n'roll — came to Denmark from England and the USA. Many young people were welcoming movies like "Rock Around the Clock" with Bill Haley and The Comets, shown in cinemas in Copenhagen in August 1957. Tommy Steele gave a concert in Copenhagen. Dance schools introduced rock'n'roll dancing.

  The new music arrived in different ways. It was welcomed by the young, but among the older generation it caused a lot of worries. Rock'n'roll music was thought to lead to loose and weak morals among the young generation, especially by the underlying sexual messages in the lyrics and its wild stage performance — just think of the hip movements of Elvis Presley! A leading dancer described the effect of the music in the newspaper Aftenbladet (The Evening Paper) on September 12th, 1956 as follows: "It's in the music. Performed rightly it is hypnotizing and narcotic like primitive drums on Indians and cannibals. It begins monotonous. After a while it excites more and more. At the end they are in the wildest ecstacy." And, the later program director of the national radio said: "On the question of rock'n'roll it is my opinion that it cannot be the task of The National Radio to promote knowledge of it, when we are told that it's all about mass hysteria."
  The young generation, though, wanted to hear to the music anyhow in spite of what their parents and the authorities said. They listened to Radio Luxembourg on tiny transistor receivers, the reception usually in a poor quality due to the long distance. Therefore Radio Mercur had success with a concept putting emphasis on the popular music — both from records and with live transmissions of young Danish bands, that were invited to be recorded and broadcasted by the new radio station.
4 Right: Ib Glindemann and his orchestra pose before the Mercur villa in Gentofte

Big plans. The people behind Radio Mercur had very ambitious plans. A mansion that earlier housed the Embassy of Argentine in Copenhagen was transformed into radio studios with facilities for the recording of commercials, programs and music. A jazz orchestra of sixteen musicians was hired as a radio big band. The leader, Ib Glindemann tells about the first contact:

"I was picked up on some phony address on the island of Amager [near to the center of Copenhagen]. An agent took me in his car and told me, that I was going to participate in something completely legal, but not to be talked about, because it had to be kept top secret. Well, he was a nice person, and I wanted a job for my orchestra. We drove to a big fancy villa in Gentofte, and I was shown into the high paneled rooms — it was incredibly beautiful, almost like an English country mansion. I was wellcomed by Arne Paaby, the artistic leader of the radio station. Paaby explained that a commercial radio station was to be established — and that was hot stuff at the time. Until then there only had been one station — the royal monopolized steam radio, so it was truly unbelievable! They seemed to know what they were up to. But they needed some music. I was 'in' those days and had a wellknown orchestra. They wanted to hire the orchestra, and we were to get a fair salary."


And so Glindemann and his orchestra became the new big band of Radio Mercur. In the villa the dining room was transformed into a concert hall. Recordings of dance music began soon after to warrant programs on stock for later transmissions. It was also Glindemann who composed the jingle for Mercur with three trumpets and a voice announcing "You're listening to Radio Mercur!"
5 Left: Danish police boarding Mercur's third ship, the MV Lucky Star

A difficult start. The preparations on land went fine, but on sea things were more troublesome. During July 1958 Radio Mercur announced several dates for the official launch of its transmissions, but all these failed due to technical problems with the ship, the Cheeta Mercur, or due to unexpected stormy weather in Øresund between Denmark and Sweden.

At last on Saturday, August 2nd 1958 at 6 PM the jingle sounded officially for the first time from the ship. Unfortunately the sound waves didn't reach many radio receivers among listeners in Copenhagen and other places within the expected radius around the ship. Technical problems with the transmitter caused an output of only a third of full power and strong winds made the ship move so much that the antennae didn't point towards land but rather towards the sky or the sea. Radio Mercur, though, soon had more success with its transmissions, and listeners rushed to stores in order to buy the specially made "Mercur Antennae." The companies buying advertisements, however, were uncertain on how many listeners the station actually attracted. Therefore they were not eager to pay the amount of money requested by Mercur.

  The situation turned out to be an economic disaster for the new radio station, though it got a lot of attention from newspapers and radio listeners. Employees had a hard time to get their salaries — technician Birger Svan remembers: "At that time we had to go to the office, and they asked: 'How much can you live on this month?' We couldn't get our salaries. Those with children were paid first, we bachelors then got what was left so what we could get through the month. Later on we got our full salaries, but for quite a while it went on like that — 'I wonder how much I can get this month?'"
  In the winter of 1958-59, Radio Mercur was close to wreckage because of poor finances. The station had build up huge debts: it no longer had a contract with the international federation of record companies, the big band signed off due to lack of payments of salaries and so on, and so on. Only a loan from a small bank, Finansbanken, saved the pioneer in offshore broadcasting from a sudden death in the ice cold winter storms. Within half a year time, though, the situation changed completely. Radio Mercur was able to pay back the loan to Mr. Alex Brask Thomsen of Finansbanken in August 1959 and from then on it was just more and more successful until June 1962, when the Danish authorities and the Parliament passed a bill making it illegal to assist in producing radio programs to offshore radios like Mercur. This law, in fact, made it impossible for Mercur to continue broadcasting. By the end of July 1962, Radio Mercur officially closed down transmissions. Three days of illegal broadcasting in August were brought to an end when Danish police went out to seize the ship and the transmitter.
6 Right: Mercur's own private plane, used to transport the studio tapes to the ship

Setting the example. The end of Radio Mercur did not imply the end of offshore radio. While the station was still airing its programs, elsewhere other people were attracted by the idea and wanted to try it out in their own way. Radio Mercur set the example for a whole fleet of pirate radio stations in international waters around Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. From December 14th, 1958, the young Swede Nils Eric Svensson and his company Skaanes Radio Mercur began broadcasting to the southwestern part of Sweden from the Cheeta Mercur in the hours when there was no broadcasting to Denmark. Later on, Radio Mercur began using its ship number two in Denmark, which made it possible to broadcast in Swedish all day long from the first ship. In 1961 Britt Wadner took over Skaanes Radio Mercur and the station changed name to Radio Syd in 1962, when it bought Cheeta Mercur from Radio Mercur.

  In April 1960 the Dutch station V.R.O.N. started broadcasting to the Netherlands and to Belgium from a ship off the coast of Netherlands. It was better known later on as Radio Veronica. The people behind Radio Veronica got their inspiration from Radio Mercur. They got direct assistance on how to construct the company and on technical issues from the Danish pirate. In March 1961, Radio Nord started its transmissions towards Stockholm in Sweden. It was mainly inspired by American radio programmes, but there had also been contacts between Radio Nord and Skaanes Radio Mercur.
  Not much later, Denmark got another pirate radio as Danmarks Commercielle Radio or DCR — founded by outbreakers from Radio Mercur — began its transmissions on September 15th, 1961. The two stations fought not only the national state radio, but also each other. Soon, however, they merged into one company under the name Radio Mercur. Denmark proved too small at that time for more than one commercial radio based on the expensive offshore concept. Especially the UK faced a number of offshore stations during the 1960's starting with CNBC in 1960/61 and Radio Caroline from 1964 on. So even though Radio Mercur didn't survive for more than four years, the idea of offshore broadcasting or pirate radio lived on for a long time after its demise.
   
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  References
 
  • Knot, Hans (1999), "Rare pictures from radio's past. Scandinavian Offshore Radio: Radio Mercur." In: Soundscapes, 1999, 2, 1 (Spring).
  • Nørgaard, Henrik (2003), Pirater i æteren. Radio Mercur og Danmarks Commercielle Radio — Dansk reklameradio fra Øresund, 1958-1962. Odense: Danmarks Grafiske Museum.
  See also:
 
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