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volume 6
january 2004

Looking back at Caroline with Mike and Tom


  The wet and wild history of Radio Caroline (2)
by Robert Chapman
  From Easter 1964 on, when Radio Caroline came on air for the first time, its listeners were won over by the deejays. Simon Dee and his friends gave the station a massive audience. In the late summer of 1988, in the Essex Radio studio, Robert Chapman interviewed two former Caroline deejays for his research into the history of pop-radio. On that occasion Mike Ahern and Tom Lodge saw each other again for the first time since they left Radio Caroline in 1967, when the Marine Offences Act became law in Great Britain.
1 Right: Caroline deejays at supper. Left to right: Tommy Vance, Steve Young, Mike Ahern, Robbie Dale, John Aston, Johnnie Walker (1967)

Robert Chapman: How did you get involved with Caroline North, Mike?

Mike Ahern: I got involved with Caroline North by writing them a letter, to Caroline House in London, and they wrote back and said "Forget it." Actually I was surprised to get a reply. And when they wrote back, saying: "Forget it," I rang up Chris Moore. I didn't know who Chris Moore was then, and said: "Listen, if you don't give me a job, you going to miss the best disk-jockey in Northern England." So Moore said: "If you're so good you'd better come down to Chesterfield Gardens and do a tape." I'd never been to London except as a small boy and I got totally lost. In the end I found Chesterfield Gardens, went down to the basement and all I did — because I had listened to Tom Lodge and Jerry Leighton — was sound exactly the way they did. You know, Radio Caroline 199. Just copied them. After I did this tape they said: "Thank you very much, we'll let you know." Three weeks went by, and four weeks, and I called. It was a big deal to call London because I just had the phone at my mother's house. They said: "Haven't you got any letter from us?" I said that I hadn't received a word. Chris Moore said to me to come down to London as they wanted to see me.

  So I went back to London again and had another chat in that office with those big black chairs — it was Ronan O'Rahilly's office with the big picture of the Fredericia on the wall. Anyway, I was very nervous and after a little talk they said: "Thank you, it was good to see you." Again it was nothing for a couple of weeks and I called again and said: "Listen and ..." And Chris Moore said: "Oh, Mike, I'm so glad you called, can you please be at Liverpool Airport? You'll start on the ship next Monday, which is the changeover day." Anyway, I met this guy at the airport, a big Irish guy called Jimmy, who was Ronan's agent there. That was the start. I went on the ship and I remember I went out with this guy Naddy or whatever his name was. Also Tom was on, and Jerry. I was shit-scared, as you can imagine.
  Tom, who was the chief presenter, was very calm and said: "Look, what we'll do is record your first show." The first thing I said was: "This is Radio Caroline with Mike Ahern. Tell me, what kind of Christmas you're going to have?" Elvis was next, singing: "I'll have a Blue Christmas." This was because I started in November 1964. I sat downstairs and listened to myself on the radio and then the same night I went to the studio while Tom and Jerry were doing the request program and somehow it clicked. At the end of my first stint, Tom said to me: "Listen, we've kind of a problem, somebody hasn't come back ... can you stay on for an extra week?" So I said: "Sure," and the program I had to do was the "Women's 9 to 12". And I did it from that time on, forever.
  Tom Lodge: You sounded really good on that, it obviously suited you.
2 Left: Caroline deejay Dave Lee Travis

Robert Chapman: Did you have that kind of style immediately that appeals to the housewives audience as well as to the kids?

Mike Ahern: I suspect I did, I had no idea why, but it was the figures were just through the roof; and we had men and housewives there. At one point we had 4, 5, 6 million.

Robert Chapman: Did you have a rivalry then, with the jocks on Caroline North being so very separate from Caroline South?

  Mike Ahern: I don't think there was rivalry ... but, yes, we always wanted to be ourselves. We thought the South ship was more broadcasting to London and we were kind of forgotten in the North of England and our audience wasn't that big and we wanted it to be better. Sure, when the Mi Amigo ran aground in 1966, there was great jubilation on the MV Fredericia.
  Tom Lodge: I was aboard when it ran aground. I'd gone South then, and that was quite an experience.
  Mike Ahern: I remember a photo in a newspaper with Ronan standing on the beach next to a policeman, while they where trying to drag the Caroline ship.
  Tom Lodge: They took us off with a Breeches Buoy and I had this picture of my girlfriend, a huge picture. I came off holding this and made the front page with it, a great picture of this disk-jockey coming off the ship in this howling gale and in his hand this huge picture of his girl friend.
  Mike Ahern: Actually, you were the only guy who was ever allowed to have a lady on the ship. We always said: "Well it's great for Tom," but we were all waiting mostly 12 days ... I remember the way we used to doll ourselves up when we us used to go off the ship, the after-shave had come out, a shower for the first time — of course not quite true. Oh, do you remember the mad captain who used to keep chickens?
  Tom Lodge: It was on Caroline North.
  Mike Ahern: He had a rooster and three chickens in the place where later the new studios were built. Most afternoons you'd get bored shitless, there was nothing to do. So, I used to go up and tease the chickens. Anyway, this bloody chicken got out. The seaman was crazy. He treated his chickens like they were children. This chicken got out and took off over the deck. I tried to catch it but it had gone straight over the rail and landed in the Irish Sea. The sea was calm but you've never seen such a dumb, frightened chicken in your life. I went: "Chuck, chuck, come back," and "What I'm going to do?" The chicken, however, disappeared towards England. So I went to the captain and said: "Listen, one of the chickens has gone overboard." And this really scared the seaman, for this man was crazy. Some of the Dutch were really crazy. I said that I had opened the door because I had heard a funny noise; I was just too scared to tell the truth.
3 Right: Caroline deejay Tony Prince

Robert Chapman: At that time the South ship was still very much kind of, what as I describe as a Hit Radio 2. You had a lot of the original Kings Road crowd playing very middle-of-the-road music on the South ship. There were people like Gary Kemp and Keith Skues. The North ship was much more a pop-oriented station.

Tom Lodge: We had a very simple policy and that was: "Play what you like." You would choose your selection by taking what you might like and putting it all around you on the floor. You had your Top 40 in a box, your new releases. Remember, we used to sit down and listen to the new releases and pick out the one we liked? You chose your selection as you went along. So you had a very spontaneous show. I mean, it was a much better programmed than if it was planned. And then, on South, they had to play certain of Crawford's Publishing Labels and so on. I don't think this was so good, because when I went down to the MV Mi Amigo, I introduced the same kind of format and our ratings just soared. By August 1966 we had 24 million listeners.

4 Left: Caroline deejay Robbie Dale

Robert Chapman: I remember when you guys went onto the South Ship the staff thing changed over night. All these Keith Skues people went.

Mike Ahern: Caroline South was being hammered by Radio London.

Tom Lodge: They had first one listener to Radio London's ten. That's why Alan Crawford lost, I presume, because he didn't get any change. So Ronan took it over and told me to do the same sort of thing we were doing on North. My policy-was totally to pick people who had the right state of mind, enjoyed the music that was happening, were in touch with what the audience was doing, and therefore picked the right music.

  Mike Ahern: We were responsible for making a lot of artists. I said to Tom Jones recently, during an interview: "Do you understand, Tom, that you may not have had a career if we'd had no Caroline North starting to play "It's Not Unusual"?" The reason we picked this song was because of its duration: it was only 1 minute and 59 seconds. It was short and it was a good one, up to news. We were pretty good about getting the news on in time, even in those days. Another one that we broke was the Fortunes "You've Got Your Troubles", the Rolling Stones certainly, The Who, and a lot of bands just would not be as big as they are now without Caroline. Tom Jones said to me that he hadn't realized that, but I said to him "It's true." I remember what we did. We went to the library where a record player was. I remember saying it to Jerry and you guys were not so keen on it but you said: "Michael, if you want to play it, play it."
  Tom Lodge: I had the same kind of reaction with the early records of the Who. I don't think anyone liked them at first, so I started playing "Anyway, Anyhow", as their first one.
  Mike Ahern: And the BBC was still like the BBC Light Program — they couldn't understand why they had no listeners. We were "rockin' and rollin'." The unfortunate thing was that we had problems. Our medium wave transmissions on the 199 meters at night would go under. I mean, you could get us in Blackpool, but it was a really scratchy reception. We had the same problem on 259 meters on the ship with Radio Moscow. We used to go over the top of Moscow and we had then a lot of kids listening to Radio Moscow to get Radio Caroline! There we actually got official complaints from the Foreign Office about radio Caroline from Moscow. They had a big audience from kids who had never been listening to Radio Moscow.
5 Right: Caroline deejay Dave Lee Travis

Robert Chapman: You had this Jack Spector on, this syndicated program from the States. You must have liked him because he used to have a go at you in his programmes.

Mike Ahern: I'm glad that you remember it. I don't quite know what happened. He must have picked up my name, maybe because it sounded more Irish or American. He found out when I was coming back on the ship. He'd say things like: "Mike Ahern is back, all the rats have left or comments like that and this built in quite a thing to find out what Jack Spector was going to say about me and I was always shit scared to find out what he was going to say. I could not get back at him. I flew one day to New York and met him and he was the most charming guy and one of the hot shots of WMCA. He took me to his house in Brooklyn, introduced me to his wife and kids, took me to some high school dances, which he was doing, and it was excellent.

  When I went to Australia, I got night-time, so guess what I did? I came on the radio: "This is your leader, raise your right hand and repeat after me." And I just ripped off Jack's style, doing it of course in my way and it blew them apart in Australia. They didn't have anything like that. What I did then ... we used to go on relay on a couple of stations, and I just picked up on a guy in the same way as Jack was doing to me. So, Jack Spector had an enormous influence on me. He was big in New York. His style of broadcasting was just something like we'd never heard. I don't know what happened to him. I don't hear him anymore in New York.
6 Left: Caroline deejay Dave Lee Travis

Robert Chapman: What was the Caroline House like in those days?

Tom Lodge: Unique and luxurious. Blue carpet, big staircase.

Mike Ahern: Frances van Staden, the publicity officer. A huge office upstairs. Big photograph of the Fredericia on the wall.

Robert Chapman: Some people told me that the Moody Blues had an office there, and that it wasn't just Caroline.

  Mike Ahern: Georgie Fame was there too.
  Robert Chapman: When you do think back, was it well run?
  Mike Ahern: When you look back ... I mean, none of us had had any experience in that quarters. First of all how do you set up a traffic department, how do you get your commercials on a ship at sea when the tender would come out three times a week? We had this log, on which was when we had to play the commercials. It worked fine. I think from a point of view of being organized, yes, the schedules came in time, the music came and I always thought that Van Staden, the publicity officer, did a marvellous job. She was excellent. Another interesting thing about Caroline, both North and South, was that we had never any people on the ships who were gay like they did on the ship of Radio London.
7 Right: Caroline deejay Norman St. John

Robert Chapman: I was recently talking to Tim Blackmore and he said there were several levels on Radio London. There was everything from the people who where obviously gay, the ones who were chronic alcoholics, you got Kenny Everett spaced out of his mind at the time, and there was always "behind the scene's stuff."

Mike Ahern: We had no drugs, two Heineken beers a day. The only drug you had was smoking a cigarette. Of course, we sometimes brought ourselves a bottle of Bacardi onto the ship, which would last a fortnight.

  Tom Lodge: When we had to revamp the South station because we had to compete with Radio London, we became the best station around. We just had to be, and we enjoyed it. I insisted that every jock listened to his own program. You see this in Canada and the States. You go into the studio and there's a jock and the record is playing and he turns it off. He won't listen to it. With us it was: "You're into the music, you feel what this music is about, you win the audience, who're also listening, the record comes to an end and you're going to speak and behave relative to that music." Now, you listen to North American Radio, you can tell that they're not listening. They're not into the program.
  Mike Ahern: I remember Rosko, who had a bird called Alfie. One day he went off the ship and asked me because we shared the same cabin, to look after Alfie. He was going to France for a gig at Luxembourg. What we did was make a loop tape and play it to the bird: "Rosko is a bastard ..." We played it for a week. When Rosko came back, for the next week the bird didn't say "Rosko is a bastard" once. Anyway I went ashore and came back and he went ashore. After he came back next time he said: "You swine!" I said "What happened?" Well, he used to go to the Royal Garden Hotel and had taken the bloody bird in and had put it on the window ledge and got this girl in his room and they were just about to make love, when suddenly Alfie cried: "Rosko is a bastard."
8 Left: The MV Fredericia

Robert Chapman: Was there much communication between yourselves and Radio London?

Mike Ahern: We visited them and had a beer. Kenny and I went to school together. We came from the same area, so we knew each other. Some years later I was doing this special broadcast between Brisbane and Capital Radio in London with Kenny on the other end. At the time he was already doing television programmes and this Captain Kremmand thing. I just didn't realize that he was so big, a star. I said; "Hi Kenny, how are you?" He just looked at me like I had never existed and I thought "Well, if this is what stardom does, I don't need any stardom." But, there was a lot of communication between the Mi Amigo and the Galaxy. Not so much probably between us and Radio England, because they were a bit further away. But there was certainly a fair amount between us and London. In fact we used to switch on the radio in the morning to see how sober Tony Windsor was going to be, if he would make it with the program.

Tom Lodge: Were you on board, Mike, the day that Ronan O'Rahilly came out with the tender, because somebody had hijacked his Tower ... the Roughs Tower? He had taken over this tower with the object of making it into his own country. The purpose of that was to show the ridiculousness of nationalism because if he could make a country, anyone could. So, Roy Bates hijacked this tower from O'Rahilly. Ronan came out on the tender to Caroline South and called me saying that we were going out to the Tower to take it back. So I jumped on the tender and off we went out to the tower. I was a very huge tower. We came along with our tender to climb up, all on the ladder to the top, and we got splattered with machinegun bullets. So Ronan said: "Let's go." So we went back to the radio ship. From then on the tower became Roy Bates' property and was renamed "Sealand." By the way, Mike, were you on board when I fired the captain?

  Mike Ahern: I don't know, but yes, I once had a riot with the captain.
  Tom Lodge: Well, I think it was on South then. This is what happened. We had the show going all night and the guy who was doing the all-night show, maybe about 2.00 or 3.00 in the morning, would put on a long-play record and would go down to the galley and have a bacon sandwich or something, because he was hungry.
9 Right: Caroline deejay Tony Prince

Mike Ahern: Oh yes, I remember now, I'll give you the story!

Tom Lodge: It was you?

Mike Ahern: Right, and it certainly was Caroline North. The story is that there was the guy called Mark Sloane, who was a newsreader. We got this particular captain and we had this habit that around eleven o'clock or something like that Mark and I would make a bacon sandwich and a couple of hot chocolates. One day this guy came in and asked what we were doing. When I told him, he said: "This is not a 24-hour café; you'll have to put it back and go to your cabin as well!" He said to me the classic words: "Mister Ahern, you'll leave the ship immediately," and he called the tender out. The tender came out and he put me on, and I went back to Felixstowe. There I called O'Rahilly in London and he said: "What the fuck are you doing off the ship?" I said that I'd been sent off and he asked me why and I told him the story. Ronan came down and we went back to the ship. Next to the Mi Amigo, he said: "Get on," and this captain said "Get off." I had one foot on the Mi Amigo and one foot on the tender.

  Tom Lodge: I said then, that we had to fire the captain and so O'Rahilly went back ashore and I presume he got in touch with Holland, because the next thing was that a boat came alongside with another captain on it and this one had new working orders and the crew stood with their mouth open because you don't fire a captain. From then on we were king. That was really a legal mutiny.
  Look here for the index of this series
  1988 © Robert Chapman / 2004 © Soundscapes