Pirate radios: the storm is about to break 

2 April 2018 tbs.pm/65308


The opening shot in the Government’s campaign to silence the pirate radio stations is a summons against Radio 390 answerable on November 24; and a new anti-pirate Bill is likely to become law by March.

From the Illustrated London News for 19 November 1966

Sir Alan Herbert, as chairman of the British Copyright Council, has described the pirate radio stations as “a scandal at Britain’s own front door. Every liner passes close to them: the stranger can almost hear the lawless laughing at the Crown.” Ever since March 29, 1964, when the first of the pirates — Radio Caroline — took to the air, they have been the targets of such criticism, although they have also attracted a great number of impassioned defenders.

The Government has been slow to act; it was only in September that the first summons for illegal broadcasting was issued against one of the ten pirate stations. Radio 390 must appear at Canterbury magistrates sessions on November 24. The charge is being brought under the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949, which prohibits public broadcasting without a licence from the Post Office to do so. The only holder in Britain of such a licence is the BBC.

The crux of the case is also the Government’s reason for the long delay in issuing such a summons: the question of the court’s jurisdiction over Radio 390, housed in a disused anti-aircraft tower on Red Sands, eight-and-a-half miles offshore in the Thames Estuary. The difficulty lies in the definition of territorial waters. In 1878 the limit was laid down as being three miles, but in the last two years Orders in Counsel and amendments to the Continental Shelf Act have been introduced to cope with the requirements of drilling in the North Sea. These Orders and amendments in some cases altered the definition of the “base line” for the limits, from the previously fixed position of the low water mark on British shores.



The Post Office emphasises that this “is no test case.” A second summons against another pirate aboard a fort — Britain’s Better Music Station, on the old Fort Knock John, 18 miles from Southend — will be heard by Rochford magistrates court on November 30. Radio City, the third fort-based station — on Shivering Sands, nine miles off Whitstable, Kent — can possibly expect to be the next recipient of a summons. The maximum penalty under the Act is a £100 fine and/or three months’ imprisonment, together with the confiscation of equipment.



These court actions are just a whiff of grapeshot from the authorities; the 1949 Act is apparently effective only against the stations based on forts. The really big guns will be wheeled out in March 1967 when the Marine Etc Broadcasting (Offences) Bill is expected to become law. This Bill’s provisions will enable the authorities to fight not only the forts but also the seven ship-borne pirates, a thing the Government apparently cannot do under the 1949 Act.


Mr Ted Allbeury, owner of Radio 390, the first of the pirates to be charged.


Mr Ted Allbeury, managing director of Radio 390, is confident that the summons to appear at Canterbury will do him no damage — “otherwise we wouldn’t have bothered fighting it.” But when the Marine Bill becomes law, he believes, “We’ll all have to pack up and go home. Like all spiteful legislation, it’s really very good.”

The Marine Bill was published in the Commons last July and is expected to be taken through both Houses by next February, then to come into operation a month later. Its provisions take the form of a tourniquet around the pirates’ lifeline: all those who serve or supply them would commit an offence; it will be unlawful to provide a ship or radio equipment for use in pirate broadcasts, to install or repair the equipment, to supply or carry any goods to the stations, or to carry anyone to or from the stations; any person who supplies records, tapes or other recorded material for pirate programmes will be legally answerable. Similarly, it will be an offence to advertise on the pirate stations, either direct or through an advertising agent, and to publish details of the broadcasting programmes. Proceedings under the Bill may be taken in any part of Britain and its provisions may be extended to the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.



Pirates will not be able to seek refuge from these laws by advertising foreign products or by obtaining supplies or advertising material from the Continent, because the Bill has been given extra backbone by an agreement made between Britain and six other European nations in January 1965. The signatories to the agreement — Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Luxemburg, and Sweden — have enacted similar preventive measures to those of the Marine Bill against their own citizens supplying goods, equipment, or advertising to the pirate stations. Holland too has taken the same measures against pirates.

A Post Office spokesman stresses that the Bill does not provide for use of force: There will be no need to resort to boarding parties. On indictment, the maximum penalties are two years’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both.



The pirates talk bravely of fighting these new measures. A Radio Caroline spokesman said: “Of course, the Bill will have some effect on our operations; certain changes and alternative arrangements will have to be made — but there is no intention of our going off the air.” This viewpoint is a general consensus of the pirate stations’ views. These mysterious “new arrangements” and hints of help from “other quarters” seem sufficient to keep them afloat — they firmly believe and hope.

An even greater pall of secrecy cloaks the finances of the stations. Information is refused on the grounds that they are entitled to withhold it because they are not public companies. The more prosperous, larger stations such as Caroline, London, and 390 admit that they are making “reasonable profits.” Radio Caroline has paid off its initial investment (an undisclosed amount); Radio 390 expects to pay off its investment by March of next year; and Radio London does make a profit, although there are no facts available about its initial investment. Britain’s Better Music Station also makes money, but running a station, they all agree, does not mean “having a licence to print money.”



Advertising rates on the stations vary enormously; stations often allow discounts, trimming their charge to suit the pocket of their client. Rates also vary according to whether it is for a customer in their own area or a national product; whether the “spot” is prerecorded or spoken by the resident disc jockey. A minute at peak hours — generally from 9 am-2.30 pm — may cost anywhere from £56 on Radio Scotland to £180 on Radio Caroline. Advertising is generally limited to a maximum of six minutes in an hour.

One of the chief charges against the pirates is that they infringe the law of copyright by playing records without permission from the British Copyright Council. In fact, four stations — Radio Caroline North and South, Radio London, and Radio 390 — do pay the Performing Rights Society. The payment is based on a scale rising to 3¼ per cent of their advertising revenue. No figures of the actual amount are forthcoming either from the pirates or from the Society. A Society spokesman explains that they never reveal figures of this kind, as they are, in this case too, “a matter for private negotiation and agreement.”



The Society is in the vanguard of bodies opposing the pirates, and a spokesman complained of the “delicate” situation they are in of accepting money from the pirates: “We have been put into this situation by the pirates. If we were to refuse the money, the pirates would publicise the fact and we would look really silly.”

Curiously, the BBC’s objections contain no mention of the competition for listeners; the official view is only: “The pirates are illegal. They pay no regard to international agreements on the allocation of wavelengths, and cause severe interference with foreign stations.” But it was the trend set by the pirate stations that influenced the BBC to introduce “late” (after 12 pm) recorded music shows. They chose as one of their disc jockeys for this purpose Simon Dee, who announced the very first programme on Radio Caroline, the dean of all the pirate radio announcers. On hiring Mr Dee, the BBC declared: “His experience will be very useful.” (Radio Caroline’s transmitters, incidentally, were set up by experienced ex-BBC engineers.)



The future for the pirates is overcast by the cloud of the Marine Offences Bill. But it may have a silver lining in a Cabinet White Paper on broadcasting, now drawn up for publication. It is thought to contain proposals for setting up a hundred or more local commercial radio stations throughout the country.



Several very respectable companies have staked claims, but possibilities for further investment still remain — and a shortage of personnel experienced in running radio stations will soon develop. There is a strong possibility that pirate backers and staff will plug these gaps. A government invitation for them to do so would be a brilliant exercise in redeployment, and would save the expense and effort required to enforce the provisions of the new Bill.



5 miles off Troon, western Scotland. Operating since January, 1966. Backed by Scottish business syndicate. Broadcasts from 6 am to midnight, and 2 am on weekends, on 242 metres. Advertising rate: 1-minute peak-time spot, £56 [£1030 in 2018 allowing for inflation]



3½ miles off Ramsey, Isle of Man. Operating since August, 1964. Backed by publisher Jocelyn Stevens. Broadcasts from 6 am-9 pm and 12pm-2am on 199 metres. Advertising rates are high – 1-minute peak-time spot: £180 [£3315]



Formerly Radio Essex. Fort Knock John, 18 miles off Southend. Operating since October, 1965. Owned by Mr Roy Bates. Broadcasts 24 hours a day on 222 metres. Advertising rates are low – £20 [£370] for a 1-minute peak spot


◉ RADIO 270

4 miles off Scarborough. Operating since June, 1966. Backed by Scarborough businessmen. Broadcasts from 6.30 am to midnight on 270 metres. Advertising rate for 1 minute peak time is £60 [£1100]



Fort on Shivering Sands, 9 miles off Whitstable, Kent. Operating since September, 1964. Backers unknown, controlled by Mrs Dorothy Calvert. Broadcasts from 6 am to midnight on 299 metres. The advertising rate for a 1-minute spot at peak hours is £80 [£1475]



3½ miles off Frinton, both are aboard the same ship. Operating since June, 1966. Backed by unnamed Texans. Broadcast non-stop, Britain on 355, England on 227 metres. 1-minute spot: £152 [£2800]



3½ miles off Frinton, Essex. Operating since December 1964. American backers, unnamed. Broadcasts from 5.30am to 2am on 266 metres. Advertising rates: 1 minute peak time costs £152 [£2800]



3½ miles off Frinton, Essex. Operating since March, 1964. Backed by publisher Jocelyn Stevens. Broadcasts 24 hours a day on 259 metres. Advertising rate: 1 minute peak-time is £180 [£3315]


◉ RADIO 390

Fort on Red Sands, 8½ miles off Whitstable. Operating since September, 1965. Run by part owner Mr Ted Allbeury. Broadcasts from 6.30 am to midnight on 390 metres. 1-minute spot: £60 [£1100]

You Say

3 responses to this article

Joseph 30 April 2018 at 11:58 pm

The facility of either Radio City or Radio 390 was used for exterior scenes of the “Danger Man”/”Secret Agent” episode “Not So Jolly Roger” (I’m not sure which; both look exactly alike).

Ronnie MacLennan Baird 15 August 2021 at 11:59 pm

Given the stances and views that Sir Alan (AP) Herbert had taken and held earlier in his career, his position on “Pirate” Radio seems out of character at best and hypocritical at worst!

Paul Mason 29 August 2021 at 6:57 am

I often wonder whether Radio 1 would have been better had it been run in a similar way to Channel 4 TV but outside of the BBC who didn’t understand pop culture. This set up would have only had the 247 m(1215 KHz) frequency but would have been liberated from the BBCs need to use live musicians. It would have been allowed to play pop initially from 0700 to midnight,instead of having to join Radio 2.
The royalties issue could have been solved by some commercial funding but the station would have had to be state owned because of the network of transmitters that would be needed only the BBC possessed. This issue would have deprived R1 of an FM option until the 1970s.The Wilson Labour government would not have approved of this but a “National Radio 1” might have been a compromise

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