photo by Beverley Goodwin
Many Americans would be surprised to discover that in 1964, as Beatlemania was sweeping the world, British fans could tune in to pop music for only an hour or two a week – at least officially.
By that year, not only The Beatles, but also The Rolling Stones and The Who had begun to make major contributions to the state of rock ’n’ roll worldwide. But in these bands’ native United Kingdom, the BBC retained a firm grip on the radio airwaves. Before World War II, the BBC had faced competition from English-language commercial broadcasts on the Continent, but by the 1960s, the government-sanctioned service had a comfortable monopoly over Britons’ radio experience. That experience consisted mainly of news, dramas and lifestyle tips. The revolution in popular music was politely, if briefly, acknowledged only on the weekends.
So the audience was ripe when several ships began to beam unauthorized broadcasts, largely of rock music, into the U.K. in the mid-1960s. The first such station, and one of the best known, was Radio Caroline, named after President Kennedy’s young daughter. A variety of other stations soon cropped up. The model was based on unlicensed ships broadcasting niche programming to tiny numbers of listeners in Scandinavia, but their British counterparts soon commanded a massive audience (to the BBC’s dismay). Though reportedly much less colorful than the fictionalized composite featured in the 2009 film “The Boat That Rocked,” pirate radio stations made their mark on British culture by meeting a demand that the BBC chose not to address.
In 1967, Parliament passed the Marine Broadcasting Offenses Act, which extended existing regulation of radio broadcasts to ships outside territorial waters if one or more of the people operating or assisting with the stations were subject to U.K. law. The act was designed to deprive pirate stations of staff – along with advertising revenue. Six weeks after the law took effect, the BBC launched Radio 1, which offered a steady stream of pop music and which, not incidentally, employed several former pirate DJs whom the law had driven ashore.
Radio Caroline remained the lone holdout, vowing to depart for Holland in order to keep broadcasting. Despite several decades of ups and downs – including a sinking ship in 1979 – Radio Caroline has continued to broadcast in a variety of forms in the years since. Fans can currently listen to an online stream or tune in (metaphorically) through iPhone or Android apps. Now, 50 years after the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act and just as FM broadcasting is beginning to pass into history, Radio Caroline has secured a full-time AM broadcast license. The pirates have officially been welcomed onto the airwaves.
We have a tradition of pirate broadcasts in the United States, too. Stations in Mexico blasted an excessively powerful signal (many times the wattage of any authorized broadcast) across the continent every night in the 1970s and ‘80s. During the Reagan administration, when U.S.-funded Radio Marti promoted democratic reform in Cuba, Havana responded by amping up its signals in our direction. I used to try to tune New York’s clear-channel WCBS at night in Florida, only to have the signal fade into voices from the south. “Hello, Fidel!” I would shout, to the mild amusement of my young daughters.
But the pirates never really found much of an audience here, because we already had a much more diverse and commercially responsive set of broadcasters. They had no choice; most of our radio station relied on advertising, which relied on audiences who would only tune in to listen to programming that they wanted to hear. Over in Britain, the BBC had a guaranteed source of funding from the mandatory government-issued radio (and later television) licenses, which freed executives to program what they thought Britons needed, rather than what they wanted.
The pirates, of course, arose to give the British public the latter.
I have no quarrel with public broadcasters soliciting donations from the public, as we do here with NPR and PBS. I’m not sure this funding model has much of a future in the age of subscriber-supported commercial services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, but either way, people will get what they pay for.
These days they have commercial and subscription television over in Britain too. The government still collects license fees for televisions, but no longer for radio. This is probably for the best; when something as simple as a smartphone or an Amazon Echo (and many similar devices) can function as a global radio receiver, it is hard to imagine how radio licensing would work, and I have growing doubts about the TV equivalent.
It has been years since I tuned to a shortwave broadcast on the radio my parents got me as a business school graduation present. Now I can get all the worldwide content I want – including BBC radio stations – on practically any of my internet-enabled devices. If I had to pay an annual license fee for my shortwave set, it might have already ended up in a landfill unless sentimental value alone saved it.
So the truce between Westminster and the pirate broadcasters is more like two spent fighters simply quitting the ring than a genuine peace treaty. I wish Radio Caroline every success, and I look forward to tuning in for some interesting broadcasts from the other side of the pond. But I’ll still be tuning in on my new MacBook, not my old Panasonic.