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
|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
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?
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".