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volume 7
april 2004

Listening to Radio Caroline


  The wet and wild history of Radio Caroline (13)
by Rob Olthof
  The four decades of Radio Caroline's history can be divided into five periods, Rob Olthof argues. In this chapter of our Caroline series, he takes us through them all, sharing his experiences as a listener.
1 Left: The MV Mi Amigo (1966)

Five periods and five formats. Since the very day Radio Caroline was born, way back in March 1964, I've been a dedicated follower of fashion. And, like fashion has changed over the past four decades, so did my favourite station. Never did Radio Caroline pursue a continuing music policy, because the management — or as I prefer to call it: the benign lack of any management — trusted the deejays on board to play what ever they liked to play. That is also the reason why each special category of listeners prefers its own special episode out of the life of Radio Caroline and dislikes some of the others. Only the real die-hards enjoyed all periods. Yes, I must admit that even some of those now are floating away from their once favourite station, as in their eyes and to their ears Radio Caroline isn't anymore the free radio station it once was. As I see things, the four decades of Radio Caroline's existence as an organisation can be divided into five periods. Step by step I will take you through the changing formats of the music.

2 A Top-40 station. My first period comprises the four years between 1964 and 1968. In March 1964 Radio Caroline did start its programming, merged into a single organisation with then competitor Radio Atlanta and, when a new, American competitor, Radio London, joined the offshore radio ballgame, Radio Caroline became a Top-40 station. I must admit, I did like it even better than the slick sound of Wonderful Radio London. Once Radio London, the station that to most people in the radio world is better known as Big L, had started, Radio Caroline evolved into a station hosting extremely good deejays — some of them still can be heard nowadays on different British as well as American and Australian radio stations. Just start looking for your favourite deejay from the past on the internet search machines and you'll find out for yourself that most of them have made a marvellous career. Moreover, you will see that they're still conscious of the fact that, without the help of the "grey fox" from Chelsea, Ronan O'Rahilly, their world would have been empty of success.
  Right: Ronan "the Grey Fox" O'Rahilly (1973)

As is known by insiders, it became very difficult for the Caroline organisation to acquire sufficient advertisers and plug records in Great Britain once the Marine Offences Bill had become act. Of course, it was not very clever of O'Rahilly and his colleagues to keep both their ships in international waters off the British coast instead of turning them into the direction of the Dutch coast. We must not forget, though, that until the ships were seized in March 1968 by the tendering company Wijsmuller, more "new" music was played on Radio Caroline than ever before, including the music heard in those long Major Minor commercials. Up until now, when hearing artists like the Dubliners, Raymond Lévèfre, David McWilliams and the like, these commercials are coming back into my mind, inevitably accompanied by the words: "New on Major Minor." It was the music of the record label of Philip Solomon — the new financial backer of the station. Solomon did more things to spoil the station. After all, with Ronan O'Rahilly at the back, he was the one who was responsible for the towing-away of the Caroline ships. He simply forgot that paying bills is an important fact of life. Instead of hiring a good debt collector, one of the Wijsmuller brothers decided to raise the anchors of both radio ships, thereby ending Caroline's first period.

3 The Van Dam period. The second period of the station started in May 1972 when both Caroline ships, the MV Mi Amigo and MV Fredericia — a name that for a long time was misspelled in many a book and article — were sold by auction in Amsterdam. The MV Fredericia went to a shipbroker and the MV Mi Amigo returned, along some byroads, into the hands of the Caroline organisation. I will call this the "Gerard van Dam Period," as Van Dam bought the MV Mi Amigo and, helped by a team of volunteers, succeeded in repairing the radio ship. As a memorable fact of history, let us not forget that a lot of equipment on both ships in Amsterdam, and at a later stage in Zaandam harbour, already was salvaged by Peter Chicago and Spangles Muldoon. Several times they went to the ships to collect the necessary material for Caroline's return free of charge.
  Left: Why the name of the MV Fredericia was so often misspelled

September 1972 there were test transmissions on the "259." Misleading almost everyone, on several occasions Van Dam had proclaimed that in the future the MV Mi Amigo would be serving as a hotel annex museum for Caroline fans, who also would have the opportunity to make their own program on board of the ship. Of course, some money had to be paid for that. At the day, when the ship left IJmuiden harbour, still this museum story was used. To make the necessary preparations, the ship, so the authorities were told, would be tugged to a harbour in England. Instead, not far away from IJmuiden, the anchor was plunged into international waters and the old lady was back where she belonged. Soon afterwards the mast, which had been on the ship since 1964, broke down. A new, temporary mast was built and the "199" became the next spot for Van Dam and his friends to make test programmes. The voices were heard of deejays whose capabilities ranged from moderate to bad, but their enthusiasm radiated over the air waves to the listeners: "We are back." As listeners, we were happy: there was action again.

  Needless also to say, that the not too (t)rustworthy O'Rahilly did not pay for the tug which brought the MV Mi Amigo to international waters off the Dutch coast. As I see it, O'Rahilly again behaved in a stupid and irresponsible way by not having given the ship a dockyard treatment. My former colleague Jacques Soudan, who earlier on worked for Radio 227 on the MV Laissez Faire, did visit the MV Mi Amigo on several occasions — when the ship still was in harbour in the Netherlands. He assured me that the ship was not seaworthy anymore. Even a part of the crewmembers — who clearly were underpaid — thought it became time to get into action. The MV Mi Amigo was towed into the harbour again and there was chained up. With the grey fox in Holland all kind of smart steps were taken to influence the harbour authorities and before everybody knew, the ship once again was back in international waters. One person decided to leave the organisation: Gerard van Dam himself.
4 Right: The mast which came down in 1987

The album format. The third period is, in my opinion, a very long one, say from January 1973 up till March 1980. Radio Caroline first tried Dutch and English language programs with an office at the Zeekant in Scheveningen and later on with studios in the Van Hoogendorpstraat in The Hague. Next they helped Radio Veronica by renting their ship to this station in April 1973. They needed new equipment and money as desperately as the Veronica organisation needed a radio ship, as their own one was on the beach of Scheveningen due to a heavy storm. Those were the days before that famous "April 18th 1973" — the day of the biggest demonstration ever held up until then in the Netherlands. Some 150.000 people demonstrated pro the offshore stations and against the Dutch government, which had plans to close down the offshore stations. The happening had to be promoted on a transmitter and so Dennis King came up with the idea to lend the MV Mi Amigo for this purpose. When O'Rahilly agreed, he got a lot of free publicity in return, posing again as "the good grey God of radio."

  With a new generator and new studio equipment on the MV Mi Amigo, so dearly paid by Radio Veronica, O'Rahilly and his friends were saved and so "the album format" was born, including the ponderous "Loving Awareness Campaign," which in the beginning — except for me — everyone seemed to believe in. Next to that, it was very nice and interesting period because also the Flemish stations Radio Atlantis and later on Radio Mi Amigo came on the air during daytime, so that Radio Caroline could broadcast at night. At one stage Radio Caroline and Radio Mi Amigo even were on the air at the same time on two different frequencies, thanks to the Offshore Radio Technician of the century: Peter Chicago. After Radio Mi Amigo ended her connections with Radio Caroline in October 1978, rumours had it that Radio Delmare would become their new partner. Problems within the Delmare organisation brought one of the people involved, Fred Bolland, to the idea to get a new Radio Caroline on the air. Before that, early 1979, the MV Mi Amigo almost sunk, but Eastern 1979 brought us Radio Caroline in English and Dutch.
  Left: The MV Ross Revenge bereft of its transmitting mast

The enterprise was almost completely financed by the many religious programs, which went out and mainly originated from the USA and partly from Holland. One thing is certain, the guy who did organise these religious broadcasters, did earn a lot of money in those days. And what about the commercials in those days? Well partly they were paid for but there were also other arrangements. A chicken restaurant, for example, got free airplay for filling the freezers onboard the MV Mi Amigo. One of the Flemish people involved in the organisation was in need for a good car. A free commercial on the station did the thing. Next, he was in need for some bodily entertainment, which he could get at a so-called sex farm and, yes, there was a certain commercial played for such a company on the Dutch service of Radio Caroline. The period ended in March 1980, when the MV Mi Amigo, after its long fight with the Dutch and British authorities to upheld the spirit of the offshore radio stations, at last did sink beneath the waves at the Knock Deep Channel.

5 Falling asleep. After a few years of waiting and many promises, Ronan O'Rahilly — who had played with a lot of backers from Canada and the USA — finally made his words come true. In August 1983 the MV Ross Revenge arrived from Spain, where the ship was rebuilt into a radio station in the harbour of Santander. Again with many thanks to Peter Chicago, who still in Santander even saved a dog, which he baptized "Raffles" and took with him into international waters to become a radio dog hero. For me, August 1983 is the start of the fourth important period in Radio Caroline's life, which ended with the "raid" of August 1989. Not a very interesting period, if you look at the choice of music: a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Every deejay played, at one stage, his own choice of music, as there was no music policy anymore. In the beginning there were far too less announcements and I always fell asleep when listening.
  Right: Leen Vingerling tendering the MV Ross Revenge (photo: Hugo van Wieringen)

Still, a lot of names are coming into my mind when I think of the deejays. Some of them were very good, like Andy Archer, J. Jackson and Simon Barrett to name a few of them. The rest, however, were moderate to bad deejays. In the beginning the "963" signal was extremely good. Owing to its Dutch contributor "Radio Monique" and again many religious organisations, Radio Caroline could stay on the air. The Dutch also looked after the ship in cleaning and painting; the British deejays always went to bed straight after finishing their programmes. When, in November 1987, the mast came down, the organisation went down with it. Sister station Radio Monique left the scene and Radio 819 and Radio 558 became the Dutch providers of money for O'Rahilly and his friends. Peter Moore came round the corner as acting manager and still is there. But, in 1989 the Dutch authorities thought to bring a lasting end to the broadcasts by entering the ship and taking the equipment and records to a store house in Blijkswijk, the Netherlands.

  August 19th 1989 was a new black day in the history of Free Radio. However, things turned out different than expected. Initially the Dutch authorities thought their operation was legal. Instead, they had made a case of piracy by raiding the MV Ross Revenge in international waters. Two years later, at a radio day in Haarlem, the people from the OCD, the Dutch authority involved in the raid and present at the radio day, were confused that Caroline's Peter Moore was attending the meeting too and admitted to him that they had done wrong by entering the ship without permission. All the raided equipment was removed from the Blijswijk stores and handed back to the Caroline organisation. The Foundation of Media Communication in Amsterdam — with the money it had earned with the production of the CD The legend lives on with Hans Knot as producer and Marc Jacobs as narrator — rented a van to bring it all back to the MV Ross Revenge in Dover harbour.
6 Left: Transmitter room of the MV Ross Revenge (photo: Theo Dencker)

The satellite period. From that time on several, so-called RSL's were held on different locations from the ship, simply to get the name "Caroline" on the map again. But our feelings for Radio Caroline grew less and less. What to do with recordings which are made by listening to a radio station with only a few watts of power? Several other attempts were made, I think, with starting satellite programs in the USA, even followed by many more. I do call this the fifth period, the so-called "satellite period." What more to say about those five periods? If I have to rate this period, I will give it a grade B- for its programmes throughout the satellite period. Some deejays are wonderful, like Nigel Harris, Roger Day and John Lewis. Others, however, are really boring just like the deejay I heard presenting the most obscure records on a Sunday morning — that is prime time — at the end of 2003. When asked, Peter Moore agreed that she was not particularly good at her place. He added, though, that he could not replace her because there he had nobody else to take her place. I think, this does explain why the advertisers don't want to buy airtime — and the programmes never will get any better.

  Over its five periods, in short, Radio Caroline was very varying. As a listener and music lover I come to the conclusion that for me the first and the third period were the best ones. The enthusiasm of the deejays, the boat trips from Scheveningen, organised by SMC in the 1970's and also the boat trips to the MV Ross Revenge, organised by SMC's tour manager Leen Vingerling and myself, were a great success. The last period also gave Radio Caroline a new breath of living as all the Anoraks paid a lot of money to have the opportunity to visit their beloved radio ship. The money they paid for these trips was used for the salary of the skipper of the tender and the costs of all the water, food, drinks and fuel brought to the radio ship in the second part of the 1980's. Maybe, something can be learned from this to bring the lady Caroline into a new and better, sixth period of her life.
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