Radio Caroline began regular broadcasts during Easter 1964. The playlist was youth-oriented popular music, and served an audience which was not provided for by the government-controlled licensed stations. Because Radio Caroline operated from a ship in international waters off the United Kingdom, it did not require a licence.
At their peak, Radio Caroline and the other pirate stations of Europe had over 25 million listeners. Not surprisingly, the government disapproved and passed a law in 1967 making it illegal to support these stations or even to buy advertising on their programs.
Radio Caroline retreated to waters off Holland and sought advertising from overseas companies that had UK operations. But the economic “nail in its coffin” was that the BBC started up Radio One to serve the youth audience that had been Caroline’s mainstay. Without that audience, Radio Caroline could no longer attract sufficient advertising to stay in operation, and it soon went bankrupt. Bills went unpaid, and the two boats were towed by tugs into Amsterdam on 3rd March 1968.
BBC Radio 1 never quite matched the carefree freewheeling fun of the Radio Caroline programmes, and there was continuing demand for Caroline’s return. In 1970 the ship MV Mebo II anchored off the coast of England, and for a while broadcast as Radio Caroline by agreement with Caroline’s original owners.
In 1972, Radio Caroline made a longer-lasting comeback from the MV Mi Amigo, serviced from the Netherlands. It adopted a “heavy album tracks” format not yet available in the UK, but had difficulty attracting enough advertising income.
To remain afloat financially, they shared the ship with Radio Mi Amigo which broadcast during the daytime to a Belgian audience who had no access to commercial radio from their own shores. At night, when medium-wave radio signals travel much further without interference, the ship switched to the Radio Caroline program for British audiences.
Over the years there were a number of changes to frequencies and hours of operation, but the station kept coming back despite the strengthening of anti-offshore-radio laws in Holland, Belgium and elsewhere, and the arrest and imprisonment of some who were associated with the station.
The condition of MV Mi Amigo had been deteriorating for many years, and during a storm on 20th March 1980 the ship began to sink. As it went down, these were the final words broadcast:
Due to the severe weather conditions and the fact that we are shipping quite a lot of water, we are closing down, and the crew are at this stage leaving the ship. Obviously, we hope to be back with you as soon as possible, but just for the moment we would like to say goodbye. “It’s not a very good occasion really, we have to hurry this because the lifeboat is standing by. We’re not leaving and disappearing, we’re going onto the lifeboat hoping that the pumps can take it, if they can, we’ll be back, if not, well we really don’t like to say it. I’m sure we’ll be back one way or another. For the moment from all of us, goodbye and God Bless.
You can see the ship sinking at YouTube.
Radio Caroline started broadcasting again soon after that, but it was getting harder and harder. The territorial waters had been extended from three to twelve miles, forcing the operation further offshore. The UK laws had been strengthened to allow pirate stations to be boarded even in international waters if any British citizens were involved, and on 19 August 1989 the station was boarded and raided, although the legality of this operation remains in dispute.
Radio Caroline resumed broadcasting again, and managed to keep going until 5 November 1990 when it ran out of fuel and supplies and was forced to close.
There’s lots of Radio Caroline memorabilia, plus film and audio clips, at the pirateradiocaroline MySpace page.
PS: Those in the know say that you shouldn’t take the new movie The Boat That Rocked too literally. Apparently, female groupies were never present on the boat, although Radio Caroline’s DJs say they received plenty of female attention whenever they returned to the UK.
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