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volume 7
april 2004

"The Radio Caroline format has changed dramatically ..."


  The wet and wild history of Radio Caroline (9)
by Hans Knot
  After a full three years of absence, in 1983 Radio Caroline again could be heard, now airing its programmes from the MV Ross Revenge. The ship was anchored only twelve miles away from the spot where the former Caroline ship did sink in March 1980. Though the name and location of the station were the same, the programme format would change dramatically, Ronan O'Rahilly announced to the press. Indeed, it did change but, as Hans Knot argues, for the worse and not for the better.
1 Right: The MV Ross Revenge in Santander

Rebuilding the MV Ross Revenge. Surely, a fat book could be written about all the things that were happening within the Caroline organisation — as well as against the organisation — while Ronan O'Rahilly, helped by some others, tried to bring back the radio station on the air in the early 1980's. March 1980 the MV Mi Amigo had sunk beneath the North Sea waves and from that date on offshore specialist John Wendale, a.k.a Tom de Munck, closely followed every move made by O'Rahilly, his financial partners, his former financial partners, the FBI in the case "fraud on Caroline," the imaginary MV Imagine — which wasn't there at all — and, finally, the MV Ross Revenge. In August 1983 the latter ship would become the new base of Radio Caroline.

The MV Ross Revenge was a former Iceland trawler, which formerly had her home base in Grimsby harbour and now was being rebuilt into a radio ship in the harbour of Santander. When De Munck showed me the first photographs of the ship in Spain, I told him I couldn't believe the station would ever come on the air from international waters. On deck of the MV Ross Revenge porta-cabins had been placed in which the technicians — so the photo's showed us — were building studio's. To me that didn't seem a very good idea. However, when the ship finally left Santander harbour, the porta-cabins had been removed and the studio's were then located inside the ship. We still don't know much about the costs of the whole operation. In the years before the ship went out, on several occasions different sums of money were mentioned by insiders when talking about the costs for a rebirth of Radio Caroline. The highest sum I heard was 3.25 million dollars. On July 28th — so my diary informs me — I received a phone call that the new radio ship was on its way to international waters off the coast of Frinton-on-Sea in the Thames Estuary. But, in fact, the ship departed a few weeks later.

2 Left: Building the aerial mast in Santander

Back home. Very soon after July 28th, another contact person informed me that the MV Ross Revenge still was in Santander, near Bilbao in Northern Spain. It left the harbour at two o'clock in the afternoon of August 4th. Two days earlier on, several of the regional television news programs in Great Britain had already brought the news of the return of Radio Caroline, using the 978 ton MV Imagine. That name still was used for the ship, though it had been dropped months and months before. In the Netherlands it was already known for a long time that the ship would be named the MV Ross Revenge. Originally the departure from Santander was set 24 hours earlier but the harbour authorities wouldn't sign the papers as they felt that one of the lifeboats on board the ship wasn't fit for its task as it was too big. The inflatable life rafts also were found to be faulty and so the authorities ordered the people on the radio ship to buy some new ones.

Of course it took some days before the radio ship would be near the British coast. It arrived at its location on August 8, 1983, and that date has gone into the history books as the day the red painted ship arrived near Beachy Head on the South Coast of Britain in the early morning hours. It was guarded by a Spanish tug — the Aznar José Luis — though the engines of the Ross Revenge, at that stage, were in good working condition. It would take some hours before the ship reached her anchorage. At 18.30 CET the small anchor was lowered at a position of 51 degrees 40.7' North and 01 degree 34' East. In the days to come, a heavy anchor would be brought onboard. Lady Caroline had come home, as the Ross Revenge now was located at almost the same anchorage were the MV Mi Amigo had been during the last years of her life. Well, almost ... The Ross Revenge lay just twelve miles away from the spot where the mast of the MV Mi Amigo still rose out of the North Sea waves, marking the spot where the former Caroline ship did sink in March 1980.

3 Right: The deejay-team

A change of format. After the ship's arrival, the media machine started to roll its wheels. That very same day, my agenda tells me, I received phone calls by at least seven journalists from different Dutch newspapers, including the three big ones — De Telegraaf, De Volkskrant and Het Algemeen Dagblad. Over the years I had acquainted the media experts of those papers — Bert Voorthuyzen, Henk Langerak and Peter van den Berg — and we kept in touch. In those years these three reporters wrote a lot about offshore radio in their respective papers. Yet another call came from a young lad at the VOO — the Veronica Broadcasting Society. H asked me if I could bring them in contact with Ronan O'Rahilly himself, as they wanted to interview him for the media program "Grote Verwarring" (Big Confusion). Just a few phone calls to radio friends in England did suffice to trace O'Rahilly down tot the place where he would drink his "water" that same afternoon in Chelsea.

It is not known if the VOO for that occasion did pay for O'Rahilly's drinks, but knowing him we know for sure that the grey fox didn't pay for them himself. Anyway, the man was interviewed and he told the VOO-listeners some news. "The Radio Caroline format has changed dramatically, " he said, "and it's going to be album track format which will have much appeal for the Dutch and Belgian audiences." O'Rahilly further informed us that the Ross Revenge had a mast reaching an impressive height of no less than 300 feet! It would be the largest in the history on offshore radio. He also had something more to tell about the income for the organisation in the near future: "We're canvassing advertising, mainly in North America. We've got an office in Los Angeles run by the Don Kelly organisation. Next to that there will be an office in New York with links to companies in Spain, New Zealand and Australia."

4 Left: Peter Chicago on board of the MV Ross Revenge(1983)

A strong signal. In those days I was already involved for some time in writing for the Monitor Magazine, a journal published in Benfleet in Essex and I stayed in contact with the editorial team — with names like Ronald C. "Buster" Pearson and Penelope Page — by means of spoken letters on cassette tapes and incidentally by phone. At that time overseas' phone calls were rather expensive, but on August 10, 1983, the information I got was worth its price. Over the phone Pearson told me that he had tuned in to the transmissions of the new Radio Caroline for the first time, at 0.30 CET that same morning. He told me that there was only a test-tone to be heard and that no music had been played but that we could expect a very good signal in the future. To this an excited Pearson added that he would go out to the radio ship with his friend Don, using a small airplane. I didn't make a long call, as I was staying with the family in a very small village called "Groote Keeten" in the North of Northern Holland, a holiday resort where only one telephone cabin could be found. I surely would have liked to hear more.

Late in the evening August 10th, I myself tuned in to Radio Caroline. Indeed, the transmitter went on and off with test tones. I did put the little tranny on, with a small headphone and even after four in the night, there was a clear test tone sounding into my ears. The signal proved to be unbelievably strong. Over the past two decades, never before had I heard such a signal coming from an offshore radio station. This really could be the start of something completely new, I realized. The next event was an official press conference onboard the MV Ross Revenge, where the deejay team was presented to the journalists on the deck of the new radio ship. Even Radio Netherlands had delegated a journalist in the person of Casper van Iersel. Van Iersel was not unknown to offshore radio matters. Under the name of Kas Collins, he had made a lot of programs on the Voice of Peace off the coast of Israel and in those days he was free-lancing at Radio Netherlands as well as TROS public radio in the Netherlands.

5 Right: Robin Ross, Dixie Peace and Tom Anderson

Old and new names. At that occasion we learned more of the names that would be serving Lady Caroline. The big surprise was to hear that Andy Archer was onboard the new Radio Caroline, as he was worked at that time for the Independent Local Radio station Centre Radio in Leicester. The story went that he had told his bosses there, only some hours before leaving to the MV Ross Revenge, that he wouldn't come back to the station as he wanted to go back to the station he had left way back in 1974. Next to Archer there were some known and some unknown names in the team onboard the radio ship. One of them was Tom Anderson who was known to the avid listener from his work for Radio Caroline in the late 1970's. The four other names mentioned in the radio interviews and in several newspaper articles in Great Britain and the Netherlands, however, were not familiar at all.

Robin Ross, for instance, was one of the names I hadn't heard of before. Tony Gareth came from Ireland and had some experience in land bases pirate radio in his native country. Then there was Dixie Peace. He originated from the West Indies and was a former musician from London. Oh, how I loved his later programs. Wild and exciting, the way he presented his programs were a brand new experience for the listeners. The last name mentioned also did belong to a new guy, called Dave Simmons. He was present at the press conference of August 13, 1983, but he went back ashore with the next tender and never presented a program on the strong "963 kHz" or the 319 metres. The problem was that he was very active in discriminating his team-mate Dixie Peace. Unheard off in Caroline quarters, and so he got a one-way ticket back home.

6 Left: The MV Ross Revenge (1983)

A bad feeling. After the day of August 13, 1983, we still had to wait for yet some other days for Radio Caroline to come back on the air. I myself had still some days left for a well-earned holiday. I couldn't resist, though, keeping my transistor radio tuned on "963" and to interrupt my rest with the occasional phone call to my radio friends. Did I get it right, that there were only test-tones because the studio's were not ready yet? Indeed, as I heard afterwards, the earlier mentioned porta-cabins had only be removed from the deck of the MV Ross Revenge days before leaving Santander port. The crew just had had just enough time to paint the deck in green colours and to add the logo "Caroline 963 — 319 metres." So, during the trip to the British coast and the days afterwards, the technicians had been working very hard to get all the equipment in working order in the studio's and to make all connections to the transmitter room, to turn the ship into a professional radio station. Just one minute to eleven, late in the evening, suddenly a signal was heard again to disappear again only ten minutes later. As I was staying with my family at the west coast of the Netherlands, I thought that the signal was only so strong because of the fact that we were staying only 150 metres away from the western shore line of the Dutch coast.

Some days later, after having returned to my home town Groningen, I did found a copy of a newspaper in my postal box with an interview with Ronan O'Rahilly. Rereading it now, I have quite the same nasty feeling with which I read it then. Why? For the answer we have to go back in time a little bit more. In 1978, when the MV Mi Amigo was still in international waters and the income came partly from religious organisations and partly from the sister station Radio Mi Amigo, Ronan thought the time had come to make a new partner. Sylvain Tack, who had been hiring transmission time since October 1973 although his station Radio Mi Amigo was not on the air earlier than December of that year, was put aside. As a replacement, October 1978 should have brought the brand new sound of Radio Hollandia, a Dutch language station on 319 metres with deejays like Will Luikinga, Jan van Veen, Joost den Draayer and Tony Berk — all four of them from famous RNI and Veronica days. O'Rahilly's new partner was a certain Gert Jan Smit. As one of the deejays in question once told me, the deal was Smit would provide them with a contract with O'Rahilly. For this they had to pay him a huge sum of money on forehand. This investment, he told them, would earn itself back easily as he would sell airtime for the evening hours to religious organisations in the USA.

7 Right: Paul Jan de Haan and Hans Knot holding the stolen poster

That ever-strange Ronan O'Rahilly. Weeks went by, but the promised programs, recorded in a studio in Hilversum, didn't arrive and so they weren't aired from the MV Mi Amigo at all. At one stage Gert Jan Smit was invited by some of the people of the Radio Hollandia team as the promised programs were not aired. Gert Jan went to Hilversum and arriving at the office he was asked to close the doors. The people of Radio Hollandia, who were present at the office, grabbed him by his arms and pulled all the money — approximately 6,000 guilders &mdsah; out of his pocket. As this was only a part of the money they had handed earlier on, they didn't allow him to leave the room and ordered him to phone the ever-strange Ronan O'Rahilly. As the story goes Gert Jan Smit was forced to ask O'Rahilly for the remainder of the paid money. O'Rahilly, however, got very angry and asked for Willem van Kooten, a.k.a. Joost den Draayer, on the phone. He then warned the Radio Hollandia people by saying that he was Irish-born and had some very good friends within the IRA.

That is, yet again, one of the many stories surrounding Ronan O'Rahilly, testifying to his lack of trustworthiness. Thoughts like these were lingering in my mind when I read the interview of August 1983. O'Rahilly here told the journalist: "The beauty of Caroline is it's totally a relationship between the station and the audience; the audience is the absolute decision maker. When the audience don't want to listen to us, if they don't want to tune in, then there's no ball game. But we never had that problem. I think we're going to have an enormous audience. There's an enormous amount of international advertisers who are very enthusiastic about using us. We will supply from Spain and we have international advertising. The station is run in strict compliance with all of the legal local legalisations in the various European countries." Again many people will easily have believed O'Rahilly as he had brought us many nice spiritual interviews before. For my part, my mind already was filling with doubts.

8 Left: Kas van Iersel interviewing Andy Archer

Looking for Ronan. A year later, Rob Olthof — head of the Dutch company which had just published my book 20 Years Radio Caroline — and I were visiting Great Britain for a promotional tour. During one of our trips to London, while discussing the news facts of the past twelve months, we made a bet for some beers. We would go out to see if we could meet up with the Irish guru. And, yes, we succeeded in contacting him through various sources and "yes" we finally did go to Sloane Square in Chelsea. Not only to meet Keith Skues at a wonderful exhibition on the subject BFBS, but also to bring a "first" copy of the Caroline book to O'Rahilly. As soon as we had reached his door step, we pushed the bell and believe it or not, there was this gorgeous woman saying "hello" to me. When I told her that I would like to talk to O'Rahilly, however, conveying my wish to give him the "first" copy of the book, she simply answered: "I've never heard of this guy." We tried on but finally, though I still didn't believe her, she closed the door on us.

Olthof and I took our refuge into a park near O'Rahilly's home to sit on a bench with a wonderful sight at his classy house. There, I shovelled the book into an envelope and added some personal notes. The envelope in hand I walked to the house again. The next thing to do was to put the envelope halfway into the mailbox and to wait for a reaction. Within a minute the envelope was taken out and ... at the first floor someone was watching us from behind the curtains, which by the way deserved to be cleaned. It was the grey old fox himself, looking if we were still there. By the way, the last time I did met O'Rahilly in the flesh was in August 2002. It was at a reunion in London from former offshore deejays from the 1960's. At that occasion O'Rahilly met Graham Gill again, for the very first time since 1974. After almost 28 years, the only thing O'Rahilly could do, was talking to Gill — for a whole hour — into getting a better life by increasingly drinking less alcoholic drinks and more water. But, these stories are all memories, which were coming into my head when writing about all those promises O'Rahilly made on the after deck on the MV Ross Revenge on August 13th 1983, more than twenty years ago.

9 Right: Journalist, relaxing on the after deck

Knocking on heaven's door. Getting back to August 1983 ... many people expected that on August 14, the big signal would come on the air as this was the day that the British Offshore radio stations, except for Radio Caroline, had left the air waves in 1967, a day before the MOB turned into the MOA. Several times that day I switched on my transistor radio, but as my agenda notes: "Nothing was heard today on 963". Later I was informed, that late in the evening some modulation tests were done for some minutes. By then I was already asleep, tired of waiting for Caroline. August 15, 1983, again brought some short tests but the next day I didn't notice anything, except for a short television interview with Ronan O'Rahilly and Andy Archer in which the latter told the public: "We will be keeping a low profile. The music is a most important thing, combined with educated chat from the disc-jockeys when necessary. There will be none of the incessant gabble of Radio 1."

It was early in the morning, half past six Dutch time, Friday August 19, that the transistor radio almost jumped from the table next to my bed. A very hard signal suddenly awoke the whole family when for the first time music could be heard on 963 kHz. A better tune couldn't have been chosen. Loud and hard, Bob Dylan's voice made itself heard through our holiday house, singing "Knocking On Heaven's Door." Having heard that, I jumped out of my bed to take a walk along the beach, accompanied by my transistor. My family happily turned over, falling asleep again. Almost two hours later, the first announcement could be heard from the MV Ross Revenge: "You're listening to a test transmission from Radio Caroline on 319 metres, that's 963 kHz; our programmes continue tomorrow at 12 noon." From that moment on, this message was repeated several times during the tests.

10 Left: The MV Ross Revenge (1984)

A test program on 963 kHz. By then, my holidays were almost over and so we had to pack our bags that very same day. Endless album tracks accompanied the process of packing and cleaning our holiday house. As always, the last day a two-week holiday period proved to be the most terrible one. But then, way back in August 1983, Radio Caroline brought a glance to that day. What would the station bring the next day at the official opening to their ever-enthusiast listeners? A comeback after a silence of almost three and a half years? Surely, so the thought ran through my mind, many anoraks would be eager to tape the official opening that afternoon. I would have to ask someone for a copy, as I would still be on my way back home from the holiday.

I was not the only one lacking the opportunity to tape Caroline's official opening. Paul Jan de Haan, a very good friend of mine since 1970, missed it too. Born, like me, in Groningen, he had listened to the same radio stations as I did in the 1960's: Radio Caroline, Radio London, the stations from the MV Laissez Faire and the fine sound of Radio 390. When all were off the air, in March 1968, De Haan spent some time by visiting the MV Mi Amigo as well as the MV Fredericia in Amsterdam harbour. During his visits, he "rescued" some unique things from the past: a pile of "T-shirt" posters of Caroline North and also the big poster which had been hanging for so many years in the studio of Caroline South. He took these relics with him to his house in Groningen and donated it in the late 1970's to my Offshore Archive. Only last year, late November, we showed this prize to our friends in the world of Offshore Radio.

The reason why Paul Jan de Haan couldn't tape Caroline's official opening on Saturday August 20, 1983, was that he had promised me to get me and my family from the holiday resort in Groote Keeten — a two-and-a-half hours ride from home. As a non-driver, I'm still grateful to him for bringing us to our holiday place and getting us back in Groningen. I really remember very well that De Haan was parking his car that very morning around 10.45 near the resort and his car radio was sounding very loud so everyone could here that he was listening "to a test program on 963 kHz."

11 Right: Studio in the porta-cabins on the MV Ross Revenge

A journey through the past decades. The final pot filled with coffee was ready and we decided to leave Groote Keeten just before 11.30. We must have been driving some 35 kilometres east when it was twelve o'clock. Anxious not to miss a thing, we listened to the car radio. Who would be on and what would the opening be like? Then we heard the official Caroline tune by the Fortunes, followed by "Imagine" by John Lennon and much more music. It took more than a quarter of an hour before someone — deejay Tom Anderson — opened the microphone to make the official announcement of the reopening of the world famous Radio Caroline: "Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen and welcome to Radio Caroline on 319 metres, 963 kHz. I'm Tom and for the next hour or so I'd like to take you on a couple of musical journeys through the past decades. We're going to start with the Zombies and "She's Not There" and follow that with the Yardbirds with "Heart Full Of Soul." Caroline on three-one-nine."

The official opening was one of a cool statement coming from one of the former Caroline deejays who had worked on the MV Mi Amigo in the late 1970's. In those days, he certainly had been fun to listen to. In 1983, though, we were totally dissatisfied by the way he opened the station and next to that how the new Caroline format was brought to us. That same stand-offish style would continue to characterize Caroline's programs. Now, over twenty years later, I still believe that during the first few weeks, Radio Caroline lost thousands of listeners who initially thought that their beloved station had returned only to tune out again disappointedly. The station turned out to be a total disaster and even Tom Anderson, so I heard last year, himself has asked his friends not to remind him again of that "memorable day" way back in August 1983.

  Photos © Theo Dencker, Rob Olthof, Tom de Munck, Chris Payne, Jelle Boonstra and Hans Knot. Look here for the index of this series
  2004 © Soundscapes