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volume 4
october 2001

Lessons from the past


  In search of the secret ingredient of offshore radio stations
by Tony Currie
  Are all those people participating in the restricted licenses of former offshore radio stations, living in the past? Some weeks ago Tony Currie published his views on that question in a contribution to this journal. For a follow-up he now searches for the secret ingredient which flavoured the programmes of offshore radiostations in the 1960's and 1970's. What was the secret of their success?
1 Tony Currie on air

Perched as we are on the edge of yet another expansion of British Radio, with the almost imminent awarding of Access Licences, and the creeping growth of digital radio, it seems an appropriate moment to peer through the wrong end of the telescope of history at the roots of commercial radio in the UK, before we take the inexorable plunge towards our ultimate doom. Tuning in to the average commercial station these days, you'd be forgiven for thinking that absolutely no lessons whatsoever have been learned from the past. Of course radio — like any other medium — is in a state of constant evolution and not for a moment am I about to suggest that we command Scotty to beam us back to the "sixties". A little reflection might provide some constructive ideas to creative souls, nevertheless.

2 There has, of course, always been commercial radio. The BBC was a commercial organisation when it began in 1922, set up by a consortium of radio manufacturers in order to provide the software so that they could sell their brand new hardware. In its early days the BBC stations carried sponsored programming, as indeed did the beeb's pioneering predecessors. And after the BBC received their Royal Charter, there were commercial broadcasters who leased transmissions time from transmitters outside the UK in order to beam advertising supported programming into Brithish households. Stations like Radio Normandië, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Athlone and Post Parisien played out programmes recorded in London and sponsored by the likes of Persil, Beecham's Powders and later (memorably) the Keynsham-based Horace Bachelor Infra Draw Method — a way of getting the punters to send dear Horace loads of dosh in turn for details of his sur-fire method for winning the pools. His sure-fire method, by the way, being to advertise on the radio and ask punters to send him dosh ...
3 The commercial stations were forcibly closed down during the war — although Luxembourg was used by the Germans to transmit Lord Haw Haw's Nazi propaganda to Britain — but Luxembourg resumed its English-language sponsored programmes after the war and continued until the early nineties of the last Century. Atlantic 252 — and, briefly gay station LBH Radio — has upheld the tradition of beaming programmes across National frontiers in the 21st century. Others, including the Manx-based MusicMann still aim to do the same in the future.
4 But is was in 1964 that Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta could be said to have established modern British commercial radio as we know it. In those innocent days, the vast bulk of the population tuned in only to the three BBC services — The Home, Light and Third — and although listeners would usually have a preferred network, their allegiances tended to be to specific programmes rather than to the station itself. Car stickers for the Home Service were unheard of. The BBC programmed a more or less mixed format on each network, resulting in much retuning or switching off at programme junctions. Although the Light latterly made some effort to hold its audience throughout the day by adding short news bulletins on the half hour and going for a music-based daytime schedule, there was no particular incentive for the BBC's planners to maximise audiences. After all, the BBC was the only game in town.
5 The role of the "pirates" in developing modern formats is often undervalued. All of them set out to make the radio station the main attraction, rather than its individual programmes or presenters. And they introduced the notion of programming, as opposed to programmes. To listeners brought up on a diet of "Music While You Work" one minute, "Mrs Dale's Diary" the next and then "Racing from Haydock Park", the notion of an uninterrupted flow of the latest records all day long from your radio was a novelty.
6 John Ross Barnard interviewed by Keith Skues

But while that pretty accurately describes both the vast bulk of today's commercial stations and Radios 1 and 2, the radio ships and forts had a secret ingredient that made them unique. Perforce, the men — women only took to the seas in Laser's days — whose job it was to spin those discs had to live together in a closed community. Whether on board a rusty ship or one of the even rustier disused North Sea forts — abandoned by the government and reclaimed by some of the pirates — there was no chance of nipping down to the pub, or even going for a solitary walk in the park. Those guys had no alternative but to live, breathe, sleep and talk radio.

7 The result was that when they were on the air, the jocks talked about each other, the food, the listeners' letters, the weather and the music. They truly were the station. All conversation revolved around the radio station, and although much of it consisted of "in" jokes and comments, the listeners were themselves part of that inner clique, and as a result related to the station in ways that they don't today. The broadcasters and listeners bonded together.
8 It was Radio London who first introduced slick American jingles — the Luxembourg jingles of the period were recorded by terribly British "fifties" vocal groups and may have been "awfully naice", but they didn't exactly set the heather on fire. And it was the offshore pioneers who introduced the concept of playlists and niche programming, with Britain Radio flying the flag for easy listening music, and in its latter days Caroline pioneering an album format. In Scotland, the airwaves reverberated to the sound of traditional Scottish music side-by-side with the hits as, in an attempt to circumvent his instructions to play bagpipes and ballads every night, Jack Mclaughlin dreamed up an outrageous and irreverent style of presentation. But he did it too well, and found himself inescapably pigeon-holed for the rest of his life on a variety of Scottish radio and TV stations. The same winning formula of bagpipes and ballads is yet alive and well on Jack's internet station.
9 Those early stations were lucky to draw the attention of such quirky, creative and talented people. The boys on the boats did things in new and original ways simply because nobody had ever taught them to do things the "proper" way and they constantly had to invent new tricks for themselves. This they did mostly unwittingly because it was pioneer territory with a dozen new ideas on the table every day before breakfast. In 1967, the BBC recognised the special contribution that these young men had made to the new style of broadcasting by hiring the cream of the crop for their new pop music station Radio 1. With Kenny Everett now installed in Broadcasting House, furiously re-writing the lyrics to the popular Radio London jingles, Radio 1 was perceived by many as a clone of the pirates. But as the men — and now women — who spun the discs weren't obliged to kip down in Portland Place every night, things never quite sounded the same.
10 After the ILR stations made their debut, there were still many gaps in the radio marketplace, and again these were filled by floating entrepreneurs. Radio Northsea International adopted the mantle Caroline and the others had been forced by legislation and creditors to abandon and played a unique blend of Dutch, British and American records whilst allegedly indulging in a few other activities not exactly covered by the Marine (etcetera) Broadcasting Offences Act. Laser 558 pioneered the tight format and small playlist, but again did so with the added frisson of the Government blockade. Nothing appeals to the rebellious nature of teenagers more than radio stations which are seen to be even more rebellious themselves and for many listeners there was a special thrill in listening to stations that The Establishment considered illegal. A thrill that Atlantic 252 has attempted to recapture by deliberately cultivating a slightly mysterious identity; few listeners are aware that the programmes come from a village in the Midlands of Ireland, and many have a vague idea that the station is in some was illegal and comes from a ship. The name, by the way, does nothing to dispel this erroneous notion!
11 Tony Allan on air

Fast forward to the 21st Century, where the widespread use of cloned styles, formats and playlists means that the very spirit of innovation that made the "pirates" so appealing has well and truly been beaten out of most of today's broadcasters. Within their formats, the pirates still allowed their presenters some flexibility when it came to the final choice of which piece of plastic to slap on to the turntables. And they were usually given a handful of "off-format" slots in the evening where they could do their thing. John Peel did his thing for "progressive" music with "The Perfumed Garden" and Duncan Johnson played the lounge music hits the first time around in "London After Midnight". Radios 1 and 2's "Night Ride" was a subsequent recognisable clone.

12 Most commercial stations fail miserably when it comes to bonding together, the presenters and listeners in one big family. Jocks often never meet colleagues whose shifts come at the opposite ends of the broadcast day. Even those they do come into contact with may only exchange a few words with them. The best efforts of a rabble-rousing Programme Controller are unlikely to persuade the on air folk to hang around socially after hours merely for the sake of togetherness. Add to this the increasing use of networked programming, with faraway jocks whose faces are neither seen by listeners nor colleagues and you can understand why radio seems to have lost some of the intense emotional appeal it had in the 1960s.
13 Voicetracking a 4 or 6-hour show in as short a time as possible is a far cry from giving Kenny Everett several hours a day in a production studio — with nothing else to do, nowhere else to go — to commit to tape whatever daft ideas came into his head. Tight, computer-driven playlists and few specialist slots make it pointless for jocks to have any musical knowledge beyond the names of Britney Spears and the members of Westlife.
14 As radio rises in the ascendancy once again, it's crucial for the medium that its narrow lead over television is maintained and expanded, and a few enlightened commercial programme directors are now beginning to turn back to the days of "personality" performers rather than anodyne anonymity. The shipboard DJ's regularly strove to outdo each other in terms of personality projection, and this was undoubtedly empathetically fuelled by their off-air companionship. There is a crying need for PD's to encourage individuality from their on-air teams, rather than the predictable bleatings of "Dolly the Sheep".
15 But something curious is happening way out on the fringes of British radio. As popular radio threatens to become ever more anodyne and automated, some of the old-timers are making sporadic reappearances on Planet Radio. In 1997, Radio London ("Big L") popped up as an RSL, broadcasting from a grain carrier anchored off Frinton-on-Sea; throughout August it shoved out a brave one watt from the end of Clacton Pier. Every year since 1999, Radio Northsea International has returned as a 28-day RSL from a former lightship off Harwich. Could there be a renaissance for these former pirates? Can the bonds be reestablished? Is there a future for ship-borne broadcasters? Or is this merely a chance for ageing, unemployed second-rate jocks to stave off their inevitable consignment to obscurity for another desperate 28 days? You can find the answer elsewhere in this on-line magazine.
  Tony Currie is a broadcast historian and author who writes extensively on the history of broadcasting. He is also a radio and television announcer for BBC Scotland.
  2001 © Tony Currie / Soundscapes