Caroline rises from a watery grave 

17 February 2021


Birmingham Post masthead

From the Birmingham Post for 13 March 1970

IT is almost three years since the Government sank the pop radio pirates. But not without trace.

Mr. Ronan O’Rahilly, the 29-year-old ex-second-hand car salesman who ran the Radio Caroline Organisation, has resurfaced with a new challenge to the broadcasting monopolies.

His airbourne pirate TV station, Television Caroline, will be broadcasting to Britain by the end of the year, he says.

From the man who put a broadside through the BBC and was finally swamped by the Marine, Etc., Broadcasting (Offences) Act, 1967 this would appear to be no pie-in-the-sky claim.


A Lockheed Super Constellation

A Lockheed Super Constellation


Mr. O’Rahilly, in the great tradition of pirates, is a very elusive chap. But when I finally contacted him at an office in London this week he told me: “I have bought two Constellation aircraft and we shall be on the air by the end of the summer.”

He claims to have already taken 600,000 dollars [about $4m in today’s money, allowing for inflation] worth of advertising and arrangements are in hand for engaging crews for the aircraft.

Mr. O’Rahilly feels he is not contravening the 1964 Act, which is aimed at stopping anyone in the United Kingdom supplying goods, financing or placing advertising with a pirate station.

“British companies are not placing advertisements with us,” he said. “The advertisements are from foreign firms who manufacture goods sold in Britain.

Ronan O'Rahilly

Ronan O’Rahilly, pictured in 1964

“The planes will be based on the Continent – I’m not saying which country – and the programme material is being bought from the United States and other foreign countries.”

Some of the programmes will, in fact, have been made in Britain but Caroline will buy them through Continental firms.

The planes can stay aloft for 19 hours, but will only be needed to circle over the North Sea for eight hours at a stretch.

“You should be able to get Television Caroline in Birmingham. I reckon we can cover up to 80 per cent of the country,” says Mr. O’Rahilly.

The programmes – in colour and on 625-line UHF – will have a pop style basis, but will not be all pop shows.

“There will be talk shows and serials, and a two-hour pop spectacular every night.”

The broadcasts are technically possible. The Americans have already run successful television transmissions from aircraft.

Mr. O’Rahilly says that the station has cost “a lot of money to set up” but declines to say just how much.

If Caroline Television does get off the ground – and Mr. O’Rahilly is determined it will – then an immediate anti-aircraft barrage (legal not physical) can be expected from the Government.

The first salvo will consist of interpretations of the 1964 Act.

The Act says that it is unlawful for non-authorised broadcasts to be made from ships or aircraft while in or over UK “external waters.”

Map of the UK with reception circles

A very ambitious coverage map from Radio Caroline in 1964 – in reality, MW signals did not penetrate quite so far and there were pockets poor and no reception even in the main coverage areas.

This, presumably, would mean that broadcasts are not allowed from, say, the middle of the North Sea.

But Mr. O’Rahilly thinks that by operating from a country which does not have an agreement with Britain over broadcasting he gets round the law.

His choice of country would seem to be limited. In 1965 seven countries – members of the Council of Europe – signed an agreement aimed at combating pirate stations operating off the coasts of Europe.

Under the agreement, Britain, Belgium, France, Denmark, Luxembourg and Sweden undertook to take action against radio stations manned from ships, artificial islands or “flying platforms” from outside their territories.

Last year, Mr. John Stonehouse, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, said investment in any pirate TV scheme would be a “ridiculous gamble.”

Any backer prepared to risk a million pounds [£17.5m] to operate such a station would be running a foolish risk of losing his money even if he escaped prosecution.

“I want to make it quite clear,” he said, “that the Government is wholly opposed to pirate television broadcasting as it has been wholly opposed to pirate radio broadcasting.”

The government would use all powers at its disposal to “ensure that pirate television broadcasting is in no way successful.”

But despite Government threats Mr. O’Rahilly is confident that British viewers will be tuning to his station.

But don’t expect to find programmes listed in your newspaper – giving details of pirate shows is also prohibited under that Marine Etc., Broadcasting (Offences) Act, 1967.

The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

Russ J Graham writes: Ronan O’Rahilly was, apparently, serious about this barking plan for Television Caroline.

There are, however, several huge hurdles that he would have to leap if the absurd plan was to come to pass.

Technically, yes, it is possible to broadcast from an aeroplane. But the American aeroplane TV in question, ‘Stratovision’, broadcast using VHF, were stupidly expensive, low powered and were mainly used for relay and rebroadcasting. The idea of trying to broadcast a permanent original UHF signal in colour from a plane for home reception is obvious nonsense. How do you generate the power needed for a multi-kW transmission when you’re on a plane in the air? The propeller engines alone aren’t going to be much help – after all, they’re being used to keep the plane airbourne – and you don’t have the technical expertise of the US Air Force behind you.

Then there’s weight considerations. Broadcast-quality video machines of the time were ridiculously heavy. The actual transmission equipment, never mind an aerial of any sort, was ridiculously heavy. The number of staff needed to babysit both sets of equipment – neither of which were designed for nor particularly enjoyed being rocked and bumped and subject to turbulence – makes for even more weight. The Lockheed Constellations were good workhorse aeroplanes, but they still had a weight limit of about 62t including the craft itself and its fuel for the 8-hour flights.

Even if these problems were surmountable, one problem wasn’t: finance.

Ronan may have got $600,000 together, but he will have run through that in start-up costs alone. What would be needed would be on-going cash. He says he could get it from foreign firms advertising on the station. He seems not to realise the incredible costs of television vs radio. There were very little outgoings on radio once the initial costs of setting up the pirate stations was paid off – after all, it’s just men playing records. TV requires videotape, cameramen, soundmen, lighting operators, scriptwriters and so much more. Once the programmes he’s bought off the shelf are used up, they can’t just be endlessly repeated if he wants to keep his viewers. New programming will need to be made or bought – all at a price.

When direct-to-home satellite television began in the 1980s, early services like Sky Channel and Superchannel believed they could make money by selling to pan-European advertisers and to American companies that made products sold in the UK. They couldn’t. They hæmorrhaged money until they started country-specific services with country-specific advertising. And then they continued to hæmorrhage money for many years beyond that. Of course, Ronan couldn’t have known that 15 years in advance, but a man of his talents should at least have been able to spot the problem.

Perhaps he did. Television Caroline never got off the ground.

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