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The day we woke up to pop music on Radio 1


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 27/09/2007
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As Radio 1 reaches 40, Gillian Reynolds explains the key role pirate broadcasters played in its inception – and why it owes so much to the commercial stations

Get out your loon pants, it's Radio 1's 40th birthday this weekend. And Radio 2's and Radio 3's and Radio 4's as well. Next month, it will be BBC local radio's, too. What was it about 1967 that made it such a turning point in broadcasting history?

 
Radio 1 pirate DJs
Motley crew: A line-up of former 'pirate' DJs at Radio 1

Anyone born after 1987 may wonder what all the fuss is about. They can't remember the time when BBC radio was pretty much all there was.

Radio Luxembourg played records and carried advertisements, but only after dark. If you pressed your ear to the fretwork of your parents' radio, you might catch American Forces Network.

But, from the end of the war to the early 1960s, it was the BBC Light and Home services that people listened to, on medium wave and long wave, where the playing of records was strictly limited. No one broadcast round the clock.

These days, every major city in the UK has dozens of music stations to choose from, BBC and commercial, on medium wave, long wave, FM and digital, broadcasting all night, all day. You can listen to music of any kind from any part of the world on the internet. So why is Tony Blackburn all over the BBC reminding us of when he was a star?

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It's because what happened in 1967 was that classic combination of politics and demographics which always shapes media history. It is also a textbook example of the BBC's ability to protect its territory. It didn't have the money to relaunch its networks and inaugurate local radio 40 years ago. But it knew it must, or BBC radio would wither and die.

The withering had already begun. In 1950, almost 12 million people bought the "radio only" licence. By the end of the decade, BBC Television was established, ITV had arrived and the family audience was leaving dear old radio behind. Farewell Family Favourites, Edmundo Ros, Victor Sylvester and Pick of the Pops ("with a choice of current popular gramophone records"). Radio, even within the BBC, seemed doomed. Television was about to conquer all. Even Radio Luxembourg was suffering.

Then, in 1964, a young Irish entrepreneur changed everything. Ronan O'Rahilly was Georgie Fame's manager and found it impossible to get his artist's demo through the doors of either the Light Programme or Radio Luxembourg. So he bought a boat and started his own radio station.

He wasn't the first. There was already American money going into ships anchored outside British territorial waters broadcasting pop, American-style, to the mainland. But it was O'Rahilly's Radio Caroline, moored four miles off Harwich, which made the big breakthrough.

Within weeks, fleets of other pirates had followed. They were broadcasting to a new audience, a young one, and it wasn't getting what it wanted from the BBC.

This is where the demographics come in. On the population graph, there's a huge baby boom from 1946 onwards. Those babies became the teenagers who listened to Radio Caroline under the bedclothes because only Brian Matthew on Saturday Club was playing the Beatles on the BBC. The pirates rapidly clocked up audiences, raked in revenue and took on new DJs who could withstand the heaving life at sea, among them Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Kenny Everett, John Peel and Johnnie Walker.

They faced serious opposition. The General Post Office, then in charge of broadcasting, cut Radio Caroline's ship-to-shore link, protesting the theft of radio frequencies and consequent dangers to shipping.

The Conservative government of the time said it would wait for concerted European action. The Labour government, succeeding it, also hesitated to act, partly because its majority was slim, but mostly because pirate radio was so popular. In 1966, a national opinion poll found that 45 per cent of the population was listening to offshore stations and Radio Luxembourg.

In June 1967, Harold Wilson's government finally outlawed the pirates, and the BBC was once again given a monopoly of the airwaves. Frank Gillard, director of sound broadcasting since 1963, had already abolished the hallowed Features department and terminated Children's Hour and was ready for the challenge, moving BBC music radio away from its scripts and traditional "mixed" programming. Pop radio finally arrived at the BBC.

D/G Bridson, the great BBC feature-maker, was incensed. "The logic of this I utterly failed to see," he remembered in his memoir Prospero and Ariel. "Radio Luxembourg had been churning out uninterrupted dance music all through the '30s, but Sir John Reith had never felt any need to follow suit." He also mentioned "dwindling resources".

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