Radio Caroline was founded in 1964 by Irish businessman and music manager Ronan O’Rahilly as a pirate radio station broadcasting from aboard a ship off the English coast. It was named after Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy. Airing popular music exclusively to cater to the taste of young people at the time, it swiftly ended the BBC’s monopoly on deciding which artists could be heard. Station manager Peter Moore has been with the radio since 1986.
“The radio entertainment that you got was what the BBC gave you,” Moore says. “When I first heard about Radio Caroline, it was a revelation – not only to me, but to most of the people of my age at that time, because we really hadn’t heard any modern popular music. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were!”
Moore goes on to describe the station’s beginnings: “Up to that point, it was almost impossible to get any radio airplay if you were an artist, unless you were already famous. But when Caroline came along, if you think about it, there’s 24 hours in a day, and if Caroline played 15 tracks an hour, you need 360 music tracks a day, or 2,500 tracks a week, so overnight it went from a situation where you couldn’t get airplay to save your life, to a point where almost any band or artist with a reasonable degree of talent automatically got played on the radio. Within a month, Radio Caroline had more listeners than all of the BBC networks combined. So the music business changed completely, and it’s never changed back.”
As a teenager, Moore had promised himself if he could ever help Radio Caroline, he would – although the possibility of that happening seemed slight. Later on, in the 70s, after meeting someone who worked on the ship by chance, he got involved mostly by supplying things that the boat needed, like lubricating oil and machinery. At the time, the station was being broadcast from the Mi Amigo, which was in very poor condition, and eventually sank in 1980.
Radio Caroline restarted in 1983, using a new ship, the Ross Revenge. It has been broadcasting continuously ever since, although they have faced a multitude of legal challenges over the years.
“I realised that the government really did intend to close down Caroline and all the other pirates, which I thought, in terms of democracy, was completely unfair,” Moore recalls. “I came back in 1986, and again offered my help. This time I got more and more involved, until it had virtually taken my life over, and that continues to be the case.”
“For many years, the authorities were quite vigorously trying to close Radio Caroline down,” Moore adds. The more the authorities tried to close us down, the more we were determined to keep going, and that produced an admiration from the public. The public like to see an underdog fighting back.”
When they first started in the 60s, they had virtually no competition. The situation has since changed very dramatically, but Moore believes that its legacy will always help maintain an interest in Radio Caroline. To stay true to their reputation, they mostly play music by the kinds of bands they helped make famous.
“We started out playing short pop songs, and then expanded into playing long album songs that bands like Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues had evolved into creating,” Moore explains. “It’s now very difficult for us to find a common policy for choosing what to play. But obviously there’s no point just playing pop songs, because that’s already being done, so we mostly play album tracks from the artists that we know and like, and artists whose careers we helped create. And to try and keep ourselves current, we also play some new music.”
After Britain, the second largest proportion of listeners is in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. They also have two time-shifted music streams in America, as well as a presence in China.
A documentary is currently being made about the eventful and dramatic history of Radio Caroline, directed by Hans Fjellestad and produced by Joe Mundo. The film will feature interviews with some of the artists whose careers were launched by the station, including Roger Daltrey, Donovan, Mick Fleetwood and Nick Mason.
Music Heritage London is honoured to have an ongoing collaboration with Radio Caroline. They have supplied the original jingles and music you can hear on our Swinging 60s London tours, running at 11am on Sundays and 11:30am on Tuesdays.