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volume 17
march 2015

Reminiscing the offshore stations Radio Essex, Radio 270 and Radio 390


  Review of:
  • David Sinclair (2015), Making waves. Fun and adventure as a young DJ on Britain's offshore pirate radio stations in the mid-60's. Raleigh, North Carolina: Lulu Publishing Services.
by Paul de Haan
  In the 1960's, David Sinclair was a presenter on three offshore radio stations off the UK coast: Radio Essex/BBMS, Radio 270 and Radio 390. Recently he wrote down his memories of his radio adventures in the mid-sixties. Paul de Haan here reviews the book, meanwhile adding his personal reflections on and his memories of the days when radio still was "making waves."

Career perspectives. You can of course read this review before you decide to read the book. If, on the other hand you don't, I strongly advise you in advance to order it as soon as possible, because it tells this great inside story of a station that always intrigued offshore radio fans like me: Radio Essex/BBMS, the smallest of the UK offshore radio stations — on the air from autumn 1965 till Xmas 1966. On top of that author David Sinclair also explains the goings-on on Radio 270 and, as if that's not enough, also offers a great inside look in what is one of my favourite stations: the legendary "sweet music station" Radio 390.

But before we get to Sinclair's account of events on the locations of these stations — the Knock John Tower, the Oceaan 7 and the Red Sands Fort, it's time for a note on the foreword written by Jon Myer from the Pirate Radio Hall of Fame. Myer writes that he got hooked onto offshore radio in May 1964, which resulted, he mentions, in his school teacher expressing the wish he wouldn't listen so much to the 'pirate stations': it might ruin his education and career in adult life. Well, it didn't ruin his life. In fact it got him a forty-year-long career in broadcasting.

2 How to get hooked on offshore radio. For me it was the same: I also got 'hooked,' be it in a different way. In June 1964, I stayed with my uncle and aunt in Hilversum. And one day, my uncle asked me if I had ever done some fishing. Well in fact up until June 1964 I had no idea of this branch of sport. So, we went to the famous Loosdrechtse Plassen near Hilversum and I got some lessons in fishing. But after about 15 minutes I noticed that the car radio, parked near us, played good music: Stones, Beatles, Ray Charles, Georgie Fame and a voice of a man telling us we were tuned to Radio Caroline — "ding, ding." From that day in June 1964, at the age of twelve I was hooked on offshore and onshore radio. It didn't only introduce me to the UK offshore stations, but also the "BeebBeebZee" Light on 1500 longwave, Luxembourg on 208 and AFN on several medium wave frequencies.
  At age twelve I got my very first transistor radio, long and medium wave, and I am proud of the fact that I heard every UK offshore station between 1964 and March 1968, also Essex on "2 double-2" medium wave but to tune in and get hooked onto the Knock John Radio I had to set my alarm clock at 2:00 A.M. The French station had closed down. That was the only time for me to listen to 222. At the age of twelve I was expected to only listen to the ones playing the top 40 tunes, but there was something rather strange: I also started to enjoy the sounds of Britain Radio 355 and most of all the great format on 390.
  Somehow I managed to find photos from the ships and army towers in UK newspapers and Disc and Music Echo, but it took me a long while to find out that the Knock John was something very special compared to Red Sands. And, through the decades and the blessing of tape swapping and later internet, I found out that the smallest station of them all — Radio Essex — was in fact a very, very mature radio station with a great format and with presenters who somehow at very young age — between sixteen- and eighteen-year-old — had very specific knowledge of music. There aren't that many hours of recording left from Essex/BBMS — perhaps five 'good quality' medium wave recordings from a time of day at around 18.00-20.00 hours: easy listening and Big Band music. So, that's my introduction to this phenomenon called offshore radio. By the way, I never ever fished again.
3 The flight from boredom. I started reading the book and was amazed that at an early stage in his working life Sinclair was horrified by the chance that his working life was going to be down and dull and somehow he decided that joining one of the offshore radio stations would be a guarantee for an exciting career till his pension would come along.
  Reading this took me back to December 1970. That month both Hans Knot and yours truly could be heard on an FM pirate in Groningen called RNI Groningen — remember, at the time the real thing was off air. We were also longing for more thrills and much more music. After three weeks we were raided by the Dutch GPO. Here's a funny story: one of those GPO guys insisted we handed over an Elvis record that we played on air. We couldn't because we didn't have any Elvis record, but the guy wouldn't believe us. After the raid we laughed our head of. We had played one of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band songs, imitating Elvis. Great fun, and we had our cheap thrills for three whole RNI Groningen weeks. So, somehow I can understand why David Sinclair was keen on getting aboard of one of those floating radio stations off the English southeast coast.
  Getting aboard one of those floating dreams wasn't easy for just about eighteen-year-olds, not having the necessary contacts in the radio business. London and Caroline employed professional presenters/deejays and somehow Sinclair needed to be on an easy-listening station, not playing the pops of the day. Getting aboard proved to be possible on the one hand because one of the Essex people lived in the same village as Sinclair. On the other hand, getting aboard the Knock John was a different story. London and Caroline had spent a lot of money on buying a ship to broadcast from. The good news was that getting Radio Essex on air was a matter of climbing aboard the fort. Once there, it's yours. No money involved, good news! That's what they had in mind, the reality was different, a rival group was already out there, so it took some gentle persuasion to make them leave the Knock John to Bates and his Radio Essex happy bunch.
4 Making things work. Becoming a deejay on a fort based radio station off the Essex coast was what could be considered as a training school for the rest of your life. It proved that spinning the Mantovani and Big Band sounds was just about 10% percent of the job. The other 90% —? Buy the book, read the book, it's revealing! It took Sinclair four pages to write down the horror of getting 'aboard' the Knock John. 99.9% of all radio presenters just can walk into a radio studio blindfolded, only using their nose for the smell of vinyl records ... Four whole pages for the 0.1% lucky ones starting their careers on the Knock John. Thanks to the Major Roy Bates.
  Many pages in this superb book are devoted to explaining the format and music policy of Radio Essex/BBMS, the food and diesel situation on board and the 222 Powerhouse, a 50 watt medium wave transmitter that was expected to produce 50kw of Rf. Well, of course it didn't. In those days it was all valves and old army TX stuff, no handbooks etc. etc. And, the TX engineers on the Knock John were specialists on electric toasters. Are there any medium wave toasters?
  For many years we were educated to believe that medium wave broadcasting is something from out of space. Well, I can assure you it's not. In 2012 I wanted to know what it was all about and bought a 100 watt medium wave transistor transmitter and together with my son we started building a proper long wire aerial in the back garden. That was the easy bit of the project. Backbreaking was digging in many, many yards of copper wire into the garden as an effective earth to the TX aerial. In the end we got the contraption on air on 1539 kHz medium wave using a laptop as playout system connected to a 70s Tandy equalizer and a homebuilt lim/compressor. It sounded great and the signal that originated from Groningen was heard loud and clear in towns like Dokkum, county of Fryslan. It's a matter of arithmetic and some educated thinking on how to get very good modulation. All this without the help of an Optimod. It can be done without it, you know. The TX and aerial have now been sold to one of those other medium wave fans. It wasn't the cheapest, but certainly it's the best. By the way, my garden still harbours a lot of copper in the premises.
5 Ghost stories and salesmen jobs. Now over to page 56 of Sinclair's book, where he goes into the question if there really was a ghost on the Knock John? We now know that not only the Mi Amigo had a friendly ghost, as one was also 'seen' on the Ross Revenge. As of page 58 a fascinating story unfolds about the other navy fort off the Kent coast. I remember the Tongue from passing it whilst being on the Olau ferry from Vlissingen to Sheerness and it could also be seen from the beach of Margate. What was the reason for those Essex men to visit this crippled fort?
  During the fall of 1966 however things started to fall apart for Radio Essex/BBMS, resulting in the close-down during Xmas 1966. In his book Sinclair gives us the sad details and the reason why he moved on to bigger and better things. Bigger and better, indeed! Radio 270 was the next station, moving on continued whilst being aboard the former Dutch fishing vessel Oceaan 7, going forward-backwards-forward-backwards and even from side to side-side to side-forward-backwards and of course the ever present smell of fish caught during her fish hunting days. "Would you like a salty raw herring with a nice touch of whipped cream on top, come on give it a try, you'll love it" ... backward-forewords-backward-forwards and — ahhhh — there's that nice smell of diesel oil too. And on top of that the format was Top 40, not everyone's cup of tea.
  Radio 270 had a very clear signal with its 10 kW on 1115 kHz across the North Sea into the northern parts of Holland — in fact a better signal than Big L on 1132(and some) kHz. Big L was off channel and pushing into AFN Bremerhaven's 1142 from northern Germany, and so in Groningen there we always heard this 'whistle' on the London signal.
  About twenty years ago, via satellite I listened to ASDA Radio, one of those instore radio stations advertising just about every product they had in store. That is exactly what 270 did in 1966 — the deejays were salesmen too. Sinclair also explains about the background of the Yorkshire investors in the station and the unique very cramped living conditions on the radio ship that should have been used as the tender.
6 The classiest of them all. The next station Sinclair worked on from February 1967 was without doubt his favourite and in fact, if it still would be on air from Red Sands towers, he might still be going out there every other week and I would still be listening. Radio 390 the classiest of them all!
  The remainder of this excellent book is all about Radio 390, right till the station's sad ending in July 1967. This superb station was forced of air even before the introduction of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, leaving the very loyal listeners out in the cold and wasting very good on-air people who were never heard on UK radio again.
  A thank you goes out to David Sinclair for the many hours of listening to 390 and for writing this great book about three significant offshore radio stations. Making Waves can be ordered at the publisher's site Lulu.com or at Amazon (UK). More information about all the stations we discussed here can be found at the website Marinebroadcasters.
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