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Radio Caroline

Radio Caroline is Europe's most famous offshore music radio station. A number of unlicensed radio stationss have been located on ships anchored off Britain's coasts. Radio Caroline is unique in that she was the first English language all-day offshore station to broadcast from an anchorage off the British coast. This, together with the station's tenacity in surviving for some forty years has established Radio Caroline worldwide as a household name for offshore radio.

The station has seen four distinct stages:

  1. 1964-1968: its founding in 1964 through to 1968 when its two ships were impounded by the shipping company
  2. 1972-1980: the return of Caroline in 1972 and survival up until 1980 when the ship sunk in a storm
  3. 1983-1991: the second return of Caroline, using a new ship in 1983 until 1991 when this vessel was shipwrecked and brought into harbour
  4. 1991-present: Caroline's move onto land, operating as a primarily on-shore station broadcasting principally via satellite.

This article examines each of these four phases in turn.

Table of contents
1 1964-1968
2 1972-1980
3 1983-1991
4 1991-present day


Radio Caroline opens

Radio Caroline was founded in 1964 by irish music industry businessman Ronan O'Rahilly. It began broadcasting on the 28th March 1964 from the ex-passenger ferry MV Fredericia, anchored in international waters three miles off the Essex coast of south east England. It quickly became the most popular radio station in the UK with some seven million listeners at a time when all day pop music radio was unknown in Europe.

Caroline was not the first offshore station; the first ship-based radio station reportedly broadcast from the casino ship Rex, moored off California in the 1930s. Later, there were offshore radio ships anchored off the coasts of Denmark and Sweden in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and since 1960 Radio Veronica had been broadcasting successfully to the Netherlands from a ship located off the Dutch coast. The US Navy also operated radio stations from some of its vessels.

Creation of Radio Caroline North and South

Other offshore radio ships soon followed Caroline's example and began broadcasting off the British coast. A few months after commencing broadcasting, Caroline merged with the newly opened competitor station Radio Atlanta, and up until 1968 broadcast from two ships - the original vessel Fredericia, which moved to the "Isle of Man" to become "Radio Caroline North" and the MV Mi Amigo, the ex-Radio Atlanta ship, which remained anchored off the Essex coast and took the name "Radio Caroline South". Together the two ships were able to cover most of the British Isles and the westernmost parts of continental northern Europe.

The first programme ever to be heard on Caroline was presented by Simon Dee. Other DJS who went on become nationally famous included Tony Blackburn, Roger Day, Spangles Muldoon/Chris Cary, Keith Skues and Andy Archer. There were also a number of Djs from the USA and Commonwealth countries, such as Rosko. Syndicated shows from the USA as well as prerecorded religious programmes were also broadcast.

The Mi Amigo runs aground

In January 1966 the Radio Caroline South ship, MV Mi Amigo, drifted in a storm and ran aground onto the beach at Frinton-On-Sea. Transmissions ceased as the boat entered british territorial waters and the crew and broadcasting staff were rescued unharmed, but the hull of the vessel suffered damage and had to be dry-docked for repair. Whilst the repairs were being carried out, Caroline South broadcasted from the vessel Cheeta II, which was normally in use by a Swedish offshore station called Radio Syd, but which was off the air at that time, due to severe weather conditions in the Baltic.

The Radio City murder

In June 1966 Radio Caroline embarked on a joint-venture project with rival pirate Radio City, which broadcast from an old World War Two marine fort located off the Kent coast, seven miles from Margate. One of the directors of Caroline, Major Oliver Smedley, agreed to finance the provision of a new transmitter to relay Caroline's programmes from the fort, whilst Reg Calvert, the owner of Radio City, would continue to run the operation but this time on behalf of Radio Caroline.

However, Radio Caroline then withdrew from the deal when it was heard that the government intended to prosecute those occupying the forts, which were still Crown Property. Major Smedley however had not received any payment from Calvert for the transmitter.

A raid on the Radio City fort was subsequently launched by Smedley, and the station's transmitter was put out of action. Calvert then visited Smedley's home to demand the departure of the raiders and the return of vital transmitter parts. A violent struggle developed during which Smedley shot Calvert dead. During the subsequent trial, Smedley was acquitted on grounds of self-defence.

The 1967 Marine Offences Act

The British government responded to the presence of Caroline and the other offshore stations in 1967 by passing the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act (MOA) which made it an offence to advertise or supply an offshore radio station from the UK. All the offshore stations located off the British coast subsequently closed down, with the exception of Radio Caroline, which moved its supply operation to the Netherlands where offshore broadcasting had not yet been outlawed. She was the only UK offshore station to do so. However, the anticipated advertising revenue from overseas sources was not forthcoming, and less than a year later the station was forced off the air when the Dutch shipping company which tendered the two Caroline ships seized the vessels on grounds of non-payment.

As a result of the broadcasts of Radio Caroline and the other offshore stations, one month after the passing of the MOA, the BBC introduced its national pop station Radio 1, modelled largely on the successful pirate competitor station to Caroline, Radio London. The old BBC Light, Third and Home channels became Radios 2, 3 and 4 respectively. It was to be a further 5 years until the first on-land local commercial radio stations began to appear in the UK.


Radio Caroline returns

Caroline made a comeback in 1972. This time from the smaller of the two ships, the MV Mi Amigo, anchored off the dutch coastal resort of Scheveningen and serviced and operated from the Netherlands. Ronan O'Rahilly decided Caroline should adopt a rock album music format similar to that found on "FM progressive rock" stations in the USA, as this radio market segment was uncatered for in Europe. This service was initially broadcast using the name Radio Seagull.

Radio Atlantis and Radio Seagull

Due to the hostile legal situation now prevailing in Britain, Radio Caroline could not expect to find substantial advertising revenue in the UK nor big business backing, and so the station depended mainly on the work of dedicated volunteers. In order to survive Caroline shared its 259 metre broadcast frequency (actually 1187 kHz, corresponding to an actual wavelength of 253 metres) with dutch language pop stations. the first of which was a belgian station called Radio Atlantis, which used the frequency during the daytime to broadcast pre-recorded programmes. Radio Seagull broadcast during the night live from the ship's studio.

Radio Mi Amigo

Once the contract with Radio Atlantis had come to an end, the daytime programmes were provided by another belgian-run operation called Radio Mi Amigo. In contrast to Caroline in the 70s, this station was a commercial success, with a wide listenership in Dutch-speaking Belgium and the Netherlands. Radio Seagull then changed its name back to Radio Caroline. Throughout most of the 70s, Radio Caroline itself could only be heard at night, under the banner "Radio Caroline - Europe's first and only album station".

Caroline's daytime partner station Radio Mi Amigo was run by a Belgian businessman (Sylvain Tack) who also owned a large waffle bakery (Suzy Waffels) near Brussels, as well as a pop music magazine and recording company. The station's offices and studios were headquartered on Spain's Playa De Aro coastal resort, where it produced programmes for Dutch-speaking holidaymakers. Most of the programmes of Radio Mi Amigo were recorded onto tape and rebroadcast from the Caroline ship by day and were a mixture of top 40/MOR together with native Flemish/Dutch language popular music, presented by Belgian, Dutch and occasional English DJs. Landbased commercial radio was prohibited in Belgium at that time; thus Radio Mi Amigo had little competition and so enjoyed a wide popularity in Belgium and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands. Thus for the first few years there was a big demand for advertising on the station.

Loving Awareness

Caroline's chosen format of heavy album tracks rather than top 40 now meant that, although the station served a market gap, overall listenership was smaller than in the 60s. Caroline also promoted the concept of "LA" or Loving Awareness. This was a far-eastern inspired philosophy of love and peace defined by the station's founder Ronan O'Rahilly. Some of the station's DJs were embarrassed at the idea of promoting love and peace on air, but some were fascinated by the challenge of promoting an abstract concept in the same way that they might promote a brand of detergent.

To help promote LA, O'Rahilly set up a band, called "The Loving Awareness Band". The band released one album, Loving Awareness on Morelove records, #ML01, which was of course heavily promoted on the station. This might be seen as a cynical marketing ploy despite claims to the contrary, were it not for the fact that the album was very professionally produced and was even pressed on heavier vinyl than most rock albums. All of the musicians who played on the album went on to work with Ian Dury - from Loving Awareness to Blockheads!

Caroline's constant plugging of "LA" - which it promotes to this day, together with the progressive rock album music it played - bands such as Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Hawkwind, gave the station an unusual and distinctive sound.

Dutch Marine Broadcasting Act

In 1974 the Dutch government legislated to prohibit pirate radio. Caroline however continued broadcasting, this time moving its headquarters and the servicing operation to Spain. In practice however the Mi Amigo was tendered clandestinely from ports in Britain, France and the Benelux. Tenders and small boat owners were warned and in some cases prosecuted for ferrying staff and provisions out to the ship. Belgium had outlawed offshore radio in 1962 and the authorities in Belgium took action to prosecute the advertisers. This led the station's revenue source to diminish. In addition, belgian courts sentenced the owner and a number of DJs, to fines and terms of imprisonment in absentia - although the prison terms were later cancelled.

The two stations experimented with several different broadcast frequencies. Alongside 259 (really 253) metres, Caroline/Mi Amigo also tried out 192 (1562 kHz), then 212 (1412 kHz), before finally settling on a new location at 319 metres (actually 312 metres, 962 kHz - the "9" was chosen because it rhymed with Caroline). In the latter years of the 70s, a daytime service for Caroline was established, whilst Mi Amigo continued on its own frequency.

By the end of the 70s conditions on the MV Mi Amigo had deteriorated. The ship was now 60 years old and had been used to house offshore radio stations for 20 years, since its original use as Sweden's Radio Nord in 1960. The ship drifted and went aground on sandbanks in the North Sea a couple of times in the late 70s. Finally, in the winter of 1980, the MV Mi Amigo floundered in a storm and began taking in water. The crew were rescued by lifeboat, but the Mi Amigo sank.


Radio Caroline's return from the Ross Revenge

In 1983 Radio Caroline returned to the air for a third time. This time from its biggest and most robust ship yet, the MV Ross Revenge, a sturdy ex-North Sea factory fishing trawler. The name Revenge was not entirely appropriate for a station devoted to Loving Awareness (the ship was originally built during the Anglo-Norwegian cod wars, hence the name), and it was originally intended to rename the ship Imagine after the John Lennon song. However, for legal or financial reasons, this was never done. The station's antenna was 300 feet high (ca 90 metres), and was the tallest mast on any ship in the world, and 100 feet higher than the mast of the Mi Amigo. Officially Caroline was now run from offices in North America with most of the advertising coming from the US and Canada. In practice, day-to-day servicing of the station was carried out clandestinely from France and the UK.

The MV Ross Revenge was more than twice the size of the old vessel and was fitted with more elaborate transmitting equipment than the Mi Amigo had seen. This enabled her to transmit not only Radio Caroline, now with a format which settled down to a mix of pop and rock oldies and the latest top forty, but also a number of other services. As in the 1970s Caroline tried out several frequencies, amongst them 963, 558, and 819 kHz. In the evenings throughout 1986 and 1987 in addition to the main Radio Caroline service,a separate programme of progressive rock was broadcast called Caroline Overdrive, and Jamming 963 presented by DJs such as Tom Anderson.

Radio Monique

Once again, Caroline had a dutch operation. The Ross Revenge broadcast the taped programmes of a dutch music radio production company by day under the name "Radio Monique" and later "Radio 558". These programmes featured mainly easy listening style music, aimed at the mainstream dutch radio listening audience, which gave Radio Monique wide appeal throughout the Benelux.

In addition, Caroline transmitted paid-for programmes of various dutch and american religious evangelist broadcasters such as Johann Maasbach and Roy Masters. Some of these were broadcast on short-wave as well as AM under the name "Viewpoint 963".

In 1985, the British government launched a surveillance action lasting several months, anchoring a vessel on board of which were officials from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The DJs nicknamed the action "Euroseige 85". Vessels and persons attempting to supply the two stations from land were subject to harrasement and prosecution.

In November 1985, the competitor offshore station, Laser, dragged its anchor in a storm. Laser broadcast a Mayday call, which the DTI answered and escorted the Communicator into harbour, where they impounded the ship. With Laser off the air, Caroline moved to Laser's 558 Khz frequency, now broadcasting a top-40 music format similar to Laser's under the name "Caroline 558".

The mast collapses

In the 1987 storm a massive storm hit southern England, nicknamed the "Surrey Hurricane" because of the severe damage totrees and buildings it caused in that part of southern England. The storm caused the 90 metre antenne of the Ross Revenge to collapse. After a pause Caroline returned but with an inferior signal and much reduced audience, conditions from which it never recovered.

The joint anglo-dutch raid

On land, the UK Thatcher government sharpened the 1967 anti-offshore broadcasting law further, to time to permit the boarding and silencing of stations operating even in international waters, if British nationals were involved. On August 19th 1989 officials from the Department of Trade and Industry and their counterparts from the Netherlands Radio Regulatory Authority carried out a raid on the Ross Revenge, in which vital equipment was wrecked or confiscated. Part of the raid was broadcast live before officials finally cut off the transmitters. Although the british staff were not arrested and were left on the ship, Radio Caroline was no longer in a position to broadcast.

A few months later following the police raid, a low power Radio Caroline service restarted from the Ross Revenge. This survived until November 1990 when lack of fuel and supplies finally put the station off the air. Most of the previous broadcasting staff had by now left. A skeleton staff of volunteers remained onboard for a year as caretakers, whilst fresh funding and equipment was supposedly being gathered on land.

In November 1991 hurricane force storms caused the ship to break anchor and drift onto the Goodwin Sandbank in the North Sea. the crew were rescued by RAF helicopter. The Ross Revenge was later salvaged and brought into harbour in southern England.


1991-present day

The RSL broadcasts

Following the near shipwrecking of the Ross Revenge and subsequent harbouring off the south east coast of England, the ship has been maintained by an association of enthusiasts called the Caroline Support Group. The radio station itself was off the air for most of the nineties, with the exception ofoccasional low power one month broadcasts. A number of these licensed 28-day RSLs (Restricted Service Licence) broadcasts took place from the Ross Revenge during the 1990s, with the ship anchored off Clacton, in London's Canary Wharf Docklands area and off the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Meanwhile O'Rahilly was said to be canvassing foreign states in an attempt to be granted a license to broadcast legally again from the Ross Revenge.

Satellite Caroline

In the 21st century Radio Caroline now broadcasts primarily by satellite and as in the 1990s, still relies principally on listener donations from the Caroline Support Group. The station now uses onshore studios in the southeast English town of Maidstone in Kent. A website and internet audio stream are also available. Caroline began broadcasting on the Astra satellite, covering the whole of Western Europe, first with an analogue, and then later digital service.

At weekends, a german-english language service is broadcast in the mornings for a few hours, under the name "German Caroline". Evangelical programmes are also broadcast, together with a number of sponsored specialist music shows.

However, the Astra satellite used is positioned at an unsuitable angle for reception by satellite dishes in the UK, which tend to be aimed at the, for the UK, more popular Sky satellite service. This put Caroline at a disadvantage for attracting audiences in Britain. Listenership levels in continental Europe were also disappointing and the service was therefore discontinued in early 2003, with the station moving to a channel on the Sky Digital satellite, which allows for easier reception in the UK.

In 2002 Caroline took a channel with the WorldSpace satellite radio system. This is a subscription-based satellite which carries only radio services and covers a third of the world from South Africa across to the western tip of India and northern Europe. A special dedicated WorldSpace receiver is required in order to receive WorldSpace stations, together with an annual subscription to descramble the broadcasts. It remains to be seen whether this service will enjoy widespread popularity but it gives those living outside of the Sky Digital broadcast footprint (principally the British Isles), the chance to hear Caroline on a radio set.

Dutch Caroline and Caroline South

In January 2002, Sietse Brouwer, a DJ with Caroline in the 1980s launched a netherlands-based Radio Caroline operating from Harlingen and broadcasting on the dutch cable network with coverage in the northern Netherlands. This operation is run largely independent of UK Caroline. This was intended to be a prelude to obtaining an AM frequency from the dutch authorities in 2003, when dutch medium wave frequencies were reallocated. However, Dutch Caroline failed to obtain a frequency and the cable network service has been discontinued for the interim, due to lack of funds. In the meantime, Dutch Caroline continues to broadcast via internet audio, whilst future plans are decided.

Caroline also now has a broadcasting partner based on the French and Italian mediterranean Rivieras. Presented uder the name "Caroline South", this operation provides weekend evening programmes for Radio Caroline which are also broadcast on local FM radio stations on the Riviera. Veteran Caroline DJ Tom Anderson is among the presenters.

Note on frequency/wavelength conversions:

To convert mediumwave frequencies to wavelengths, divide 300,000 (the speed of light in kilometres per second) by the frequency (in kilohertz) and then round off to the nearest whole number (if the first figure after the decimal point is between 0 and 4 discard the decimal, if between 5 and 9 add 1 to the number and discard the decimal. Alternatively, add 0.5 and discard the decimal). The result is the wavelength in metres, given to the nearest whole metre, as used by almost all European mediumwave stations until the 1980s when frequencies in kilohertz began to be given instead..