Fishing for the Radio Caroline


Our modern perception of music has really only taken hold in the last hundred years with the advent of recording and distribution. The idea that a sound could be preserved, transported, and replayed was novel realization that has profoundly affected the course of the 20th century and paved the way for most modern media. A huge element of the growth of music was the development of an audience that could commercially pursue it. The advent of the radio and the adoption of the technology in households revolutionized information distribution and governments around the world saw this as the most important method of communication up to that point. Great Britain, one of the strictest countries when it came to media, established the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1922 as the sole operator of this new technology.

Just over a decade after the end of the Second World War, many countries around the globe began to experience varying tides of counterculture. Music became one of the central elements of these movements. Radio naturally became a major distribution channel for artists and media companies because of the ubiquity of the technology. In the United States, the music industry boomed as popular jazz, R&B, and rock ‘n roll artists came to dominate the cultural landscape.

Music took a much different path of development in Britain. The BBC was incredibly conservative when it came to their programming and did not feature many popular artists, despite their relative abundance by the late 1950’s. Many listeners turned to “continental” radio stations, such as Luxemburg Radio, but the quality and consistency of the programming was not very reliable to those a few hundred miles away.

In 1964, encouraged by Scandinavian “radio pirates”, the wealthy Irish businessman Ronan O’Rahilly bought the 702-ton former Dutch ferry Fredericia and rechristened her the Caroline. He was inspired by American pop artists – especially Chuck Barry and Ray Charles – after he visited the country and sought to give them the same sort of cultural significance in Britain. A couple of other “pirates” donated two 10 kW transmitters and they headed out to international waters to began broadcasting various music and talk shows on March 28, 1964.

Christopher Moore introducing the first song played by Radio Caroline: The Rolling Stones “Not Fade Away”

Looking back on this era, the shows were bland and characteristically amateurish – besides playing music, there really is no recognizable similarities between modern shows and the Caroline’s. To the general population, however, their shows were revolutionary and brought relief from the dull BBC broadcasts. After just a few months, they attracted over 10 million listeners and their popularity spurred dozens of copycat broadcasters. Reaction from government officials was mixed, but initially no action was taken to stop their broadcasting.

Tony Blackburn playing songs for the Caroline in 1965

The small crew of the Caroline – which was comprised of the more fervent members of the British counterculture – essentially lived on the boat from 1964 until the government shut it down at the end of 1967. The idea of a dozen or so salty men heading out, living on the sea, and playing music helped cement their image in British popular imagination. They were some of the symbolic leaders of massive social and cultural transformations taking over the western world.

Their wide musical taste helped increase the appeal for more dynamic rock sounds.

After the shows decline, the pressure they left on the BBC and other state-owned media groups forced them to adapt to the changing environment of popular culture. Many major rock groups of the 60’s eventually played successful live shows for the BBC – including The Who, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and The Rolling Stones which provided a stark contrast to the corporate practices of the preceding twenty years.

While the Caroline did not necessarily usher in these changes themselves, their groundbreaking work and role as part of the gritty fringe elements of the larger counterculture movement essentially paved the way for prominent British rock groups. Popularity at home was no longer contingent on popularity abroad.

Many of the ideas they fought for are things we take for granted or are wrestling with today: unadulterated access to music, popular progressive and experimental types of bands, and free distribution of music. They were pioneers in their own right and have played a seminal role in the culture of music that we experience. The history of the Caroline is one of the most pivotal examples of expanding the horizon of capabilities of technology, unleashing a torrent of artistic and cultural freedom.

The Radio Caroline still exists today, in the form of a satellite, and can be streamed here

Beyond the BubbleTom Bonan