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volume 4
october 2001

Living in the past?


  Bubbles of nostalgia in the airwaves
by Tony Currie
  Over the past few years the British Radio Authority has granted many RSL's (restricted licences) to organisations whose aim it is to revive and to relive the spirit of 1960s and 1970s offshore radio. Did these organisations succeed to come near the original spirit of the old radio days? And, is there a future for such stations? The answer to these questions here is explored by Tony Currie — radio and television announcer for BBC Scotland and an author who writes extensively on the history of radio — who recently took part in a RSL venture himself.
1 Tony Currie volunteering as cook at the RNI RSL of June 2001

It is nearly six o'clock in the morning, and here I am in a bright, sunny studio with the door wide open to the waft of fresh sea air and the gentle sound of seagulls. Voicing over Les Reed's familiar "Man Of Action" theme. I once again tell listeners that they're tuned to Radio Northsea International on 199 metres, and of course that Bulova make excellent watches. After the news a track from near the to of this week's chart — Neil Diamond's "Song Song Blue". It might be the authentic sound of June 1972 — but it's actually June 2001 and I'm aboard a former lightship safe and securely tethered to a condemned pier in Harwich. For this is one of an increasing number revivals of former "pirate" radio stations and my voluntary nine-days stint as deejay, news editor and cook is just a summer holiday.

2 To discover why a bunch of middle-aged blokes would want to spend their holidays on a less-than -luxurious ship you'd have to go back a little to 1997, when broadcaster and entrepreneur Ray Anderson decided to live out his wildest fantasy and bring back the Radio London that he worshipped as a child. The Radio London of 1966 boasted stars like Kenny Everett, Keith Skues, Dave Cash, Mark Roman, Tony Windsor and John Peel. Anderson set about trying to persuade as many of the surviving jocks to come back for a last 28-day curtain call, courtesy of a Radio Authority RSL licence. Some popped in for ten minute to say hello, others — like Mark Roman — went the whole 28 days. But most of those on board were finally achieving youthful ambitions to be Big L deejays, taking brief breaks from their regular roles on various ILR and BBC stations. The original jingles were resurrected, a ship was borrowed — the Yeoman Rose was a grain carrier — a transmitter and temporary studio installed and once again the airwaves of the Anglia coastline reverberated to the hits of the sixties.
3 Assorted anoraks ferried daily from Clacton to and from the ship's anchorage seven miles out from Frinton-on-Sea (for a fee), would take photographs, ask questions, demand requests, and vie with each other to ask most trivial questions of the deejays. A temporary memorabilia shop on Clacton Pier provided them ample opportunities to part with their cash in return for books records, posters t-shirts and baseball caps. After the broadcast ended — "the best 28 days of adult life," said Anderson — some of the participants wished to pursue the idea of bringing Big L back permanent high power station; others preferred the annual RSL; a few thought it more appropriate to let the old lady rest in peace.
4 In the meantime, others seized the opportunity to their favourite stations from the past. Radio Caroline, one station that could never truly be said to have gone away — made some of its sporadic appearances on the medium wave band, as did Swinging Radio England, Radio Northsea International and — earlier this year — Radio Mi Amigo. In Holland there was even a reappearance of Radio Veronica. In the case of RNI's three annual broadcasts, many original presenters have returned for an encore, in such veterans as Alan West, Tony Allan, Andy Archer and Dave Rodgers, as well as former Caroline men Dick Palmer, Phil Mitchell and Paul Graham.
5 But few of these short-term revivals have been smooth sailing. Amongst many problems, the biggest is transmitter power. The Radio Authority licence only permits a radiated power of one watt, The initial Radio London and RNI re-creations involved ships anchored off the east coast. This had both advantages and disadvantages. On the downside, the best signals were being wasted on the fish, and by the time it reached the coastal towns they were already attenuated. On the upside, the highly conductive sea path meant that many of the original fans of RNI were able to listen direct on the coastline of continental Europe.
6 The Big L portable cabin at Clacton on Sea

Later broadcasts took advantage of the international availability of the internet, but because these sourced the off-air reception of the medium wave signals they were just as prone to severe night-time interference. Both RNI and Radio London came in from their watery locations — RNI choosing to anchor its leased light vessel in Harwich; Radio London preferring a hired portable cabin perched on the end of Clacton Pier, which also allowed them a direct (and interference-free) connection to the lnternet. In theory, these locations provided easier access for the die-hard fans. Poor weather and assorted disputes with local boatmen had meant that getting to and from the ships had been a rather tricky business, with deejays and fans alike sometimes finding themselves either unable to get to the ship or temporarily marooned at sea.

7 In practice, RNI discovered that the disused railway pier in Harwich was in a poor state of repair and the owners were understandably reluctant to allow hoards of radio enthusiast to congregate on the rickety structure. Access was therefore restricted and the only safe route on and off the LV 18 — the former light vessel — was by boat. Although this only meant a very short journey from a nearby safe pier, the weather conditions still made this a tricky business. The Clacton Pier authorities have benefit from Big L's new location, listeners less so because of the difficulty in erecting an efficient transmitting aerial on the Pier. In contrast, the high masts of the LV18 allowed for the construction of an efficient permanent aerial, and the subsequent purchase of the vessel by a local Trust has meant that LV1 8 is now able to provide a temporary home for not only RNI but also Caroline and Radio Amigo at various times of the year.
8 The fan base of these continuing activities grows apace, with substantial assistance from the world wide web. Big L enthusiasts Chris and Mary Payne established their own excellent web site, which now provides a focus for fans of a variety of offshore stations and its 242 pages of information attracted their 30,000th visitor in mid September — see: Studio Anorak). The pair have also organised annual reunions, and this year played host to an impressive party of radio stars. RNI has established a 21st Century Fan Club, complete with a regular magazine and of course a web site which overflows with photographs of the RSL's, charts, and programme information for it at: RNI in 2001). And despite assorted and sometimes opposing factions behind the continuing activities of Radio Caroline, the "lady" somehow seems to survive and naturally can be found at the site of Radio Caroline.
9 Norman Barrington on air, asking the listeners to send some email

But is there any serious point in these activities, fun as they undoubtedly are? Some of the broadcasts have failed to impact on their intended audiences. If you exclude the dedicated anoraks and friends and families of the jocks, in some cases you're left with hardly any listeners at all. Yet when former Carolin man Norman Barrington invited listeners to his RNI morning show to email his home, his wife reported the receipt of 120 messages in the course of the three-hour show.

10 With no great expectation of success, Ray Anderson decided to enliven a late night RNI stint by reviving the Johnnie Walker trick of inviting listeners driving along the coastline to flash their headlamps at a certain moment. And I can personally vouch for the subsequent surprise appearance of the string of fairy lights as far as the eye could see! There is no doubt that those RSL's that enclaved their participants on a ship managed to recapture the camaraderie of the original "pirate" stations, The novelty of not only broadcasting but cooking, cleaning toilets, taking turns at watch duties, and painting decks was all part of the action for most of the participants. More of the participants are now spending longer periods on the ship, creating a more closely-knit on board community, although the broadcasts from land-based facilities have perforce had less sense of camaraderie.
11 A variety of programme and technical formats have been experimented with. The original Big L revival turned the clock back to the equivalent week in 1966 for the whole broadcast, utilising the original vinyl play list, charts and format. Boxes of 45s surrounded the DJs, who operated 6Os-style cart machines loaded with the original jingles and some of the 60s commercials. But clearly the need to finance the broadcasts through the sale of contemporary advertising made for some incongruity — I found myself on Radio London promoting the merits of a fax machine that hadn't even been invented in the time period we were attempting to recreate. The news was also current, and the hourly reminder that we were really living in the 90s would puncture the bubble of nostalgia.
12 RNI also began with a straightforward copy of a particular week from the 70s. Its second broadcast utilised a very broad play list drawn from the whole period of RNI's original life in the early 70s; this year yet another formula saw the year change each week — so for week one it was 1971, week two was 1972 and so on. Some broadcasts have rejected modern-day news bulletins as destroyers of the illusion of time travel. Others have made no secret of the fact that it's 2001 and we're playing the oldies — with modern-day commercials, news, weather and other references in an attempt to answer critics who say the participants are intent on living in the past. Yet it's hard to avoid this conclusion when confronted with a 1960s rotary-style sound mixer, a pair of old EMT turntables and a box of scratchy singles.
13 Are these broadcasts worth the persistence? For my part I'd have to say yes, since they not only provide an opportunity to enjoy a style of broadcasting that I thought I'd never hear again but also to savour the companionship of like-minded friends. If a presenter is enthusiastic and having fun, it usually makes for fun radio for the listener as well, and the stations are, by and large, largely harmless and make a pleasant fleeting alternative for those who can tune in to them. (Although some of the full time stations have accused the RSL's of pinching their advertisers, the truth is those local chip shops, second-hand record shops and pirate memorabilia suppliers were never likely to advertise on their local ILR anyway.) And undoubtedly the broadcasts provide a source of pleasure for anoraks everywhere, thanks to the internet. Perhaps the very fact that they only appear for brief periods each year, makes them more of an event for their listening fans.
14 Former Big L people reminiscing in a pub

Is there any future for stations like Radio London on a wider scale? After four RSL's and a shortwave broadcast Ray Anderson is now seeking financial backers for a full time service. Whether this would be on Medium Wave, Sky Digital, DAB or via some more exotic means like Worldspace depends largely on how much investment could be found. "We do not want to do any more RSLS," says Anderson, "they are costly — only one broadcast has made a profit — and Radio London is worthy of more than becoming an annual 1 watt seaside end-of-the-pier attraction." He is convinced that an audience exists for the product of which he seems to have seized ownership. (The question of the legitimate ownership of the old pirate names provides scope for a separate article, incidentally!) "Listeners seem to like the fact that we play some songs that the other gold stations don't play, that we talk between each link, our presenters have more personality."

15 Might there be investors prepared to back such a venture? Could existing groups seize upon the notion first? Or are these the last death throes of a style of radio that's well beyond its sell-by date? Are stations like RNI now more likely to rival Saga as providers of themed pensioner holidays than as radio operations? And if Ray Anderson is no longer prepared to lose money on Big L revivals, are there others still prepared to take the gamble, given that it seems likely that at least RNI will be back for more next year? Doubtless any with strong views will be discussed in the pages of Soundscapes. For me it's back to my Earth and Fire albums until it's time to go to sea again.
  2001 © Tony Currie / Soundscapes