How Britain’s Pirate Radio Ships Spurred the Rock Revolution


The British pop invasion that took over American airwaves in the 1960smight never have happened, had it not been for a radio revolution in the United Kingdom.

In 1964, there was nowhere easy for British youngsters to listen to rock ‘n’ rollers like The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones. Commercial radio wasn’t yet an option, and the guardians of the publicly-owned British Broadcasting Corporation considered such music immoral, antisocial and unfit for public broadcast. Yet just three years later, on Sept. 30, 1967 — a half-century ago this Saturday — the BBC switched on the transmitters of Radio 1, the country’s first dedicated popular music station.

What happened to change their minds? The answer to that question — and the story of how pop music came to the FM dial in the U.K. — involves illegal offshore broadcasters, a gutsy Irishman and a murder acquittal.

The Irishman’s name was Ronan O’Rahilly, a small-time businessman who dabbled in the record industry. He realized that a station using a transmitter on a ship anchored 5.5km from the coast would be outside British territorial waters, and therefore not subject to broadcasting laws. He named it Radio Caroline, reportedly after seeing a picture of a young Caroline Kennedy dancing in the Oval Office that, to him, represented a playful disruption of authority. The idea wasn’t original: the U.S.-backed Voice of America had already been anchored in the Mediterranean promoting a westernized worldview to communist lands. But Caroline was the first station to make waves in the music radio industry. On March 28, 1964, the pirate radio station made its first broadcast, unsure of who could hear or who was listening.

One of the first DJs on Radio Caroline was Tony Blackburn, whose experience of broadcasting was limited to his love of Radio Luxembourg, a European station playing pop hits that could occasionally be picked up from within the U.K. He applied after seeing a small advertisement in the New Musical Express, the country’s definitive music magazine, and was invited to come aboard. Being free from the British authorities meant being free from record company and artist rights’ restrictions. Radio Caroline could import the American Top 40 format: playing today’s biggest hits repeatedly and giving tomorrow’s the time to climb. “I remember hearing Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’ for the first time, thinking that it was terrific, that was probably the first pirate radio hit,” Blackburn tells TIME. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks all came after.



  1. Ms Lewis’s theory for Time suffers from missing time. Beatlemania was well underway in England by the end of 1963. And most of the bands that would comprise the British Invasion of the US were being signed up en masse. That’s not to diminish the importance of pirate radio. For sure it aided the advent of longer-form music and, as the article notes, spurred the Beeb to devote a channel to music for younger ears.

    Speaking of odd signals…what’s with AM 1000? Is it a Lower Mainland or Washington signal? Never hear its call letters and no between-song patter. But it airs an eclectic mix of pop and rock during most mornings, albeit with oddly muffled sound (as if someone put a giant sock over the transmitter).

  2. There were some pretty good canadians on that ship too, including Lorne King from Vegreville, Alberta who went on to host the drive show on CHQT-Edmonton.


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