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volume 5
may 2002

Remembering CNBC Radio


  John Michael, Doug Stanley and the first British offshore radio station
by Jan van Heeren
  At the end of 1960 only a year after its start, the Dutch offshore radio station Radio Veronica already reached an audience of one and a half million listeners. With so much success, the station's owners decided to take a try with the English public and initiated CNBC, short for the Commercial Neutral Broadcasting Company. Using this name, English spoken programmes were aired at irregular intervals between December 1960 and spring 1961. The transmitters, however, were too weak for the signals to reach the South-East of the UK and the advertisers shunned the station. In March 1961 the station stopped its transmissions and fired the deejays, according to the books: Paul Hollingdale, Doug Stanley en Bob Fletcher. However, there was yet another person involved, it seems, in the operations: John Michael.
1 The MV Borkum Riff (1960)

Some time ago I received an e-mail from some family members in Canada, whom I didn't know I had. Exchanging information I told them about my interest in offshore radio and they replied with a story about John Michael. Michael, who nowadays is hosting a radio and television talk show in Canada, reportedly, had said that he had worked for the first British offshore station, aired from Radio Veronica's first ship, the MV Borkum Riff. I quickly gathered this would have been CNBC, the "Commercial Neutral Broadcasting Company" — the station with which the Veronica organisation tried to reach the South-East of England in the early 1960s. However, the only names associated with CNBC up until now are those of Bob Fletcher, Paul Hollingdale and Doug Stanley. John Michael was not ever mentioned in the books about Radio Veronica. So I contacted him and he sent me the following information:

2 "Yes ... going to have to awake my memories. Three of us started the very first offshore radio station to England from a lightship boat in the channel with Radio Veronica. Two Canadians ... myself and another guy, and an announcer from Radio Luxembourg. Stan was a guy from Ottawa and Paul was with radio Luxembourg — and went back when we closed up. I was the announcer they hired and sent to Hilversum, and did the voice recordings for the station. They paid for my lodging, if I remember well, and for my air fare to Holland and return to London. I stayed with friends of Radio Veronica. We called the station CNBC because the C stood for Canadian and NBC flowed nicely on the tongue."
3 "Veronica was owned by a couple of Dutch brothers who owned a sock factory in Hilversum I believe ... and we rented from them the hours of 5pm to the following morning, and used their studios to broadcast English programming. The tapes were sent to the lightship boat, and we were the first very first Pirate Radio Station. Others followed suit and Pirate Radio was born. But we were the first. There is a long story as to how we failed. The venture failed after a year ... but it gave everyone the idea of how to do it and what real radio was like. They copied our format and radio Caroline was born."
4 "Here's the full story of the closedown. The engineer and his son ran the lightship boat. My tapes were recorded every day and sent to the boat each evening. The transmitter was poor — good for Holland, lousy for England — and in order to reach London we had to have a new transmitter. Once the signal reached London we had been promised the advertising revenue from large advertising agencies ... and then everything would have been full steam ahead. I was not getting paid, but loved the idea of breaking good radio into England, and worked on the promise of the new transmitter. The transmitter could not be landed anywhere on the continent nor purchased from any supplier in Europe because the BBC, owned by the government, had blacklisted us, and as they purchased large supplies from Telefunken ... we could not buy a transmitter in Europe — Telefunken supplied transmitters."
5 "So we arranged to buy a transmitter in USA, and land it on an island owned by a woman off the English coast where it could not be confiscated by English customs ... some woman who had a first name of Dame somebody. A helicopter would then take it to the lightship boat. They sent the engineer to New York with the money and apparently he took the cash and skipped. He was later found and jailed, but that was the last of the money and the end of our dreams. I got a handshake from Doug, and a one way ticket back to Montreal, arriving with 15 dollars in my pocket and great deal of memories. I later learned that other people had learned from our adventures and started the first Pirate Radio Stations such as Radio Caroline ... but we were the first."
6 "It was all a magnificent dream brought on by the desire to show Europeans the radio they had at that time was so poor. As the only announcer, I guess I never got into the radio record books, and I never knew what happened to the other people involved. I understand Paul Hollingdale went back to Radio Luxembourg. I went back to Canada and picked up where I left off. During the last thirty-five years, hosting TV talk show for Columbia Pictures, Hollywood, and hosting my own talk show in the Niagara Peninsular across from Buffalo NY. Working on four years left on my present contract and then ...?"
7 The Red Sands Fort in the Thames Estuary was the later base of Radio Invicta, KING Radio and Radio 390

From his story, it's clear that John Michael was there at time of CNBC's take on the British audience. After all these years his memory, however, is not quite correct on all details. The brothers Verweij, the owners of Radio Veronica, didn't have a sock factory. Michael must be mixing things up with the first and biggest advertiser on Veronica, the German nylon stockings corporation "Nur Die". CNBC also was not renting air time from the Veronica organisation, as it was an initiative of the organisation itself. The island Michael is referring to, probably is the independent Channel Island of Sark, where the famous Dame — a title, not a name — Sybil Hathaway still ruled at that time. Also, the story about the engineer running off with the money is not quite correct. To check on the details I contacted Doug Stanley. The only colleague he still could remember from this period was Paul Hollingdale. Both the names of Bob Fletcher and John Michael did not recall any memories. There were some other interesting things, though, he remembered from his CNBC period:

8 "We initially recorded music programmes in The Hague, which were then taken to the ship for broadcast. Tests made to determine the strength of the broadcast signal were not strong enough, we discovered, to penetrate the principal area: South East England. We needed a stronger, directed signal and I recommended we purchase a 5KW transmitter from RCA in the United States. The Verweij's agreed. It was going to take three months to order and deliver to the ship. Then the plan changed."
9 "The Verweij's were persuaded by a Dutch engineer called Luke [can't remember his surname] that he could build a transmitter as good as RCA's and much cheaper. They agreed. Some time later, Luke told the Verweij's he had installed the new transmitter on the ship. A test of its signal strength was arranged by Luke. It took place in an Amsterdam Hotel. The Verweij's were shown a radio in the room that Luke turned on. The sound was strong and clear. They were sold and paid Luke the balance of the money he was owed. However, there was no transmitter. The signal the Verweij's had heard came from a direct feed from a tape recorded in the next hotel room. It later transpired that Luke, in fact, was a heating engineer and knew nothing at all about transmitters."
10 "Unfortunately, I had already left for London with the promise of a transmitter that would penetrate South-East England. I left Holland and set up offices on Dean Street in London. I recruited Paul Hollingdale, with whom I'd worked at the British Forces Network, to assist me. We had a secretary as I recall but do not remember Bob Fletcher or John Michael. The Verweij's, confident of the new transmitter agreed to the setting up of a London office to attract potential radio advertisers for CNBC, the name we gave the new station. We advertised in the UK newspapers the fact that CNBC was broadcasting a strong signal into the South-East of the UK. Indeed, we received incredible press coverage for the new station because, at that time, there was only the BBC and Radio Luxembourg at night. Its signal was not very good in the south of England. We told advertisers how to tune in to CNBC."
11 "This is when our problems started. CNBC couldn't be heard in the South-East of the UK and the signal was inconsistent with a lot of interference. When the Verweij's finally discovered they had been duped they pulled the plug on the CNBC office. I tried again to get them to buy an RCA transmitter but they refused. They lost interest in the radio business. With no financial support from the Verweij's we had to close down immediately leaving those involved with us in London without a job. In the meantime, Luke and a lady friend had fled Holland with the Verweij's transmitter money. He was finally arrested in Belgium and given a prison sentence."
12 "Because we had received so much publicity for the "pirate" CNBC I couldn't get a job in broadcasting for more than a year. I was blacklisted, as was Paul Hollingdale but, to a lesser extent as I was running the station, such as it was. I don't recall any plans to have a transmitter delivered to a British island owned by a woman. We did consider placing a transmitter on one of the gun forts off the south coast of the UK, one of which was owned by the late Lord Sutch. They were outside British territorial waters. We visited them and decided it wasn't practical to run a radio station from there."
13 "Unfortunately, I didn't keep anything from CNBC days. It was a station that died as quickly as it was born. Others were to have more success than we did. Stations like Radio London learned from our mistakes and realised the potential of the radio market in the UK. Ideally, we should have placed the Borkum Riff of the English coast and bought the RCA transmitter. It wasn't to be. Still they were good times and I have some great memories of those days, trying to provide a wider choice of radio programming than was then offered by the BBC. I guess you could say we were a little too ahead of our time and with no resources to achieve our goals."
14 What is the conclusion we can draw from both the stories of John Michael and Douglas Stanley? Stanley's account about engineer Luke no doubt is the correct one. By the way, his deceitful transmission was the second of its kind in Veronica's short history. In November 16th 1959, only a month after the start of the Veronica Organisation, Henk Oswald performed a similar feat to convince the share holders of the workings of the ship's transmitter. Stanley's memory, moreover, is also playing tricks on him. David "Lord" Sutch didn't go to the Shivering Sands fort in the Thames Estuary before May 1964. The crucial fact of the Veronica's weak transmitter, not capable of reaching the South-East of England, however, concurs in both stories. It seems that those concerned at some date really did consider the possibilities of placing a new transmitter elsewhere, closer to the British coast. In this context, possibly also Sark was seen as a potential delivery harbour for the new transmitter.
15 Anyhow, we can add the name of John Michael to the short history of CNBC as the first British offshore station. If — as he says himself — there were only three deejays involved, we may even have to scratch the name of Bob Fletcher, which may be a mystification. By the way, what happened to Radio Veronica's weak transmitter? In the second half of the 1960s it was finally replaced by a much stronger one, made by Continental Electronics. The sale was negotiated by Erwin Meister and Edwin Bollier, who later on opened up their own offshore station RNI for the British public.
  The complete story of CNBC has been told by Hans Knot in his book Herinneringen aan Radio Veronica, 1959-1964 (Amsterdam: Stichting Media Communicatie, 1995). Another essay in our journal tells Paul Hollingdale's story of CNBC. See: Jan van Heeren: The broadcast revolution of CNBC.
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