UK pirate radio (free radio), unlicensed illegal broadcasting , was popular in the 1960s and experienced another surge of interest in the 1980s. There are currently an estimated 150 pirate radio stations in the UK. A large proportion of these pirate radio stations operate in London.
“Pirate radio” in the UK first became widespread in the early 1960s when pop music stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London started to broadcast on medium wave to the UK from offshore ships or disused sea forts. At the time, these stations were not illegal because they were broadcasting from international waters. The stations were set up by entrepreneurs and music enthusiasts to meet the growing demand for pop and rock music, which was not catered for by the legal BBC Radio services.
- April 21, 1960 – Radio Veronica begins broadcasts from the Borkum Riff, just of the Dutch coast.
- March 28, 1964 – Radio Caroline begins regular transmissions from the Fredericia, renamed MV Caroline, anchored off Felixstowe, Suffolk, England.
- May 12, 1964 – Radio Atlanta begins test transmissions from the MV Mi Amigo, in the North Sea, three and a half miles from Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, England.
- May 27, 1964 – Screaming Lord Sutch‘s Radio Sutch begins broadcasting from Shivering Sands Army Fort in the Thames Estuary.
- July 3, 1964 – Radio Caroline merges with Radio Atlanta and becomes Radio Caroline South. It begins broadcasting from the MV Mi Amigo, for the first of five periods of broadcasting between 1964 and 1968, 1972-1973, and 1974-1980. MV Caroline begins broadcasting as Radio Caroline North.
- July 6, 1964 – MV Caroline begins broadcasting from Ramsey Bay, Isle of Man
- July 17, 1964 – Radio Invicta launches regular broadcasting from the Red Sands Fort near Whitstable, Kent, England.
- August, 1964 – Radio Veronica acquires the MV Nordeney
- September, 1964 – Screaming Lord Sutch sells Radio Sutch to his manager, Reginald Calvert who renamed it Radio City.
- December 23, 1964 – Radio London begins regular transmissions
- October, 1965 – Negotiations begin for Radio Caroline to take over Radio City. A transmitter is delivered and, when the merger collapsed, it had not been paid for.
- September 22, 1965 – Radio Invicta closes down but repeated announcements advise listeners to retune to the new Radio 390 station
- May 3, 1966 – Swinging Radio England and Britain Radio begin broadcasting from the MV Olga Patricia in the North Sea, off Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, England. Whilst dubbed pirate radio stations, they actually operated within the law.
- June, 1966 – Radio 270, serving Yorkshire and the North East of England, begins broadcasting from Oceaan 7, anchored of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. The boat eventually moved to a position near Bridlington.
- June 20, 1966 – Reginald Calvert’s business associate, retired Major Oliver Smedley who claimed ownership of the transmitter, sends men to take possession of Shivering Sands.
- June 21, 1966 – Calvert visits Smedley at home and, during a scuffle, is shot by Smedley. The incident moves the British Government to introduce the Marine Broadcasting Offices Act.
- November 25, 1966 at 11.00pm – Radio 390 closes down for the first time
- December 31, 1966 – Radio 390 returns to the airwaves
- February 22, 1967 – Britain Radio ceases broadcasting
- August 14, 1967 at 3.00pm – Radio London closes down
- August 14, 1967 at 5.00pm – Radio 390 closes down for the final time
- August 14, 1967 at 11.59pm – Radio 270 closes down
- August 15, 1967 at 12.00am – The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act comes into effect, making it illegal to supply music, commentary, advertising, fuel, food, water or other assistance except for life-saving, to any ship, offshore structure such as a former WWII fort, or flying platform such as an aircraft used for broadcasting without a licence from the regulatory authority in the UK.
- August 15, 1967 – Radio Caroline becomes Radio Caroline International
- March 3, 1968 – Both MV Caroline and MV Mi Amigo are boarded and seized
- March 19, 1969 – Land-based pirate radio station, Radio Jackie begins broadcasting
- February 28, 1970 – Radio Northsea International (RNI) begins regular programming off the Dutch coast, from their ship Mebo II
- March 24, 1970 – Radio North Sea International begins broadcasting during the UK general election campaign, now anchored of the east coast of England.
- June 13, 1970 – After their signal is jammed by UK authorities, RNI changes its name to Caroline International and lobbies against the Labour Party, for the Conservative Party, and for the introduction of licensed commercial radio in the UK.
- July 23, 1970 – Following the election, RNI resumes under its original name and moves back to the Netherlands to escape jamming and becomes a neighbour to Radio Veronica.
- September 1, 1970 – Capital Radio begins regular broadcasting from the MV King David, off the Dutch coast
- September 24, 1970 – RNI closes after reaching an agreement with Radio Veronica who replaces RNI’s crew with their own staff
- November 10, 1970 – Capital Radio silenced after the MV King David runs aground
- January 5, 1971 – Unhappy about the arrangements, one of RNI’s directors boards the Mebo II and takes command from the Veronica-appointed captain.
- February 21, 1971 – RNI resumes broadcasting
- May 15, 1971 – A fire starts on the Mebo II but only damages its stern
- September, 1972 – The MV Mi Amigo, moors off Scheveningen in the Netherlands, sitting between Radio Veronica‘s Nordeney and and RNI‘s Mebo II
- September 30, 1972 at 12.30pm – Radio Veronica closes down but reopens on a new frequency at 1.00pm
- December 17, 1972 – Radio Caroline returns to the airwaves as Radio 199, from the Mi Amigo
- December 22, 1972 – Radio 199 reverts to the name Radio Caroline
- December 28, 1972 – Unpaid crew cut the Mi Amigo’s fuel line and leave.
- December 30, 1972 – The Mi Amigo is seized due to unpaid bills. It was towed back to sea and repaired before writs could be issued.
- April 11-20, 1973 – The Mi Amigo broadcasts for Radio Veronica whose ship had run aground.
- July 15, 1973 – Radio Atlantis begins broadcasting from the Mi Amigo
- July 24, 1973 – Radio Caroline adopts an album format similar to US progressive rock stations. Calling itself Radio Seagull broadcasting begins for an hour in the evenings
- October, 1973 – Radio Atlantis‘ contract with Radio Caroline is terminated.
- December 30, 1973 – After Radio Atlantis acquires its own ship, broadcasts resume
- January 1, 1974 – Belgian station Radio Mi Amigo begins broadcasting from the Mi Amigo
- February 23, 1974 – Radio Seagull becomes Radio Caroline, continuing the album format
- August 31, 1974 at 6.00pm – Radio Veronica closes down. Radio North Sea International also Radio Atlantis close down that day. Radio Caroline intends to continue broadcasting, moving its operations to Spain and the Mi Amigo drops anchor in the Knock Deep Channel, 12 miles from the British coast.
- September 1, 1974 – The Dutch Marine Offences Act comes into force
- March, 1975 – Radio Mi Amigo moves to Spain after a raid by Belgian police
- November 8, 1975 – The Mi Amigo drifts into territorial waters
- November 13, 1975 – Radio Caroline returns to the air while inside UK waters
- November 14, 1975 – The Mi Amigo raided by police
- November 26, 1975 – Radios Caroline and Mi Amigo resume broadcasting outside the territorial limit
- May, 1976 – Radio Caroline begins daytime broadcasting, while its overnight service is shared with Radio Mi Amigo.
- March 3, 1977 – Radio Caroline closes to prepare for a frequency change
- March 9, 1977 – Radio Caroline resumes broadcasting
- October 20, 1978 – Technical and financial problems caused broadcasts from the Mi Amigo to cease.
- November, 1978 – Radio Mi Amigo terminates its contract with Radio Caroline and begins broadcasting from its own ship.
- January 19, 1979 – The Mi Amigo takes on water and is abandoned
- April 15, 1979 – Radio Caroline returns to the airwaves
- June 25, 1979 – Radio Delamare begins broadcasting from the Martina
- July 1, 1979 – Radio Mi Amigo resumes broadcasting from a new ship, the MV Magdalena
- September 18, 1979 – Radio Mi Amigo closes down after drifting onto a sandbank
- September 28, 1979 – Radio Delamare closes down
- March 20, 1980 – The MV Mi Amigo sinks
- 1982-1983 – Shropshire’s Sunshine Radio begins broadcasting
- August 19, 1983 – Radio Caroline resumes broadcasts from the MV Ross Revenge
- December 16, 1984 – Radio Monique begins broadcasting to the Netherlands and Belgium from the MV Ross Revenge. Radio Monique was sold in October, 1987 and, in May 1988, Radio 558 (later Radio 819) replaced it.
- February 4, 1985 – Land-based pirate station, Radio Jackie ceases broadcasting. It would be relaunched legally in 2003.
- February 20, 1985 at 8.00pm – Sunshine Radio ceased broadcasting unsuspectingly. Much of the audience believed it to be a legitimate station.
- August 24, 1986 at 8.00am – Sunshine Radio resumes broadcasting
- September 21, 1986 – Sunshine Radio is taken off air by the authorities
- May 15, 1987 – The Territorial Sea Act extends the UK maritime limit
- September 13, 1987 at 7.00am – Sunshine Radio returns, broadcasting on Sundays from a farm granary
- October 1, 1987 – The last Sunday broadcast by Sunshine Radio due to fears of another raid
- August 19, 1989 – The Ross Revenge is raided
- October 1, 1989 – Radio Caroline restarts broadcasts from the Ross Revenge with makeshift equipment
1990s and beyond
- November 5, 1990 – Lack of fuel and supplies forces Radio Caroline to cease broadcasting
- October 18, 1992 – Having obtained a licence, Sunshine Radio begins broadcasting as Sunshine 855
During the 1990s, Radio Caroline was largely off the air, except for a few licensed 28-day restricted service licence (RSL) broadcasts from Ross Revenge while anchored off near London’s Canary Wharf, Southend Pier, and off the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. The station continues to use RSLs in the 2000s. Find out more at www.radiocaroline.co.uk*
By 1989, there were about 600 pirate radio stations in the UK, with over 60 in London. In the 1990s, a new wave of acid house and rave stations emerged. In the early 1990s, pirate radio briefly declined in response to tougher penalties, an intensified crackdown by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the leading dance pirate radio station Kiss FM responding to the Government’s offer of amnesty for pirate stations that closed down voluntarily and applied for an official license. But Kiss FM failed to satisfy the rising rave audience and pirate radio resurged in 1992 and 1993. The new pirate radio stations abandoned the mainstream pop radio format and moved to a “raves on the air” format with strong emphasis on audience participation, enabled by the spread of mobile phones. Pirate radio stations would frequently lose transmitters worth several hundred pounds due to DTI raids, redirecting to backup transmitters on the roof of another building to maintain broadcast continuity.
The Broadcasting Act 1990 led to the brief decline of UK pirate radio by encouraging diversity in radio and opening up the development of commercial radio. Many pirate radio stations such as the London-based dance music station Kiss FM applied for licenses to the new Radio Authority and went legitimate. However, the number of unlicensed broadcasts has since increased, partly because many non-licensed broadcasters believed that the 1990 Act had actually undermined community-based stations and small scale radio entrepreneurs. Of the pirate radio stations that gained a license in the 1990s, such as Kiss FM, FTP in Bristol, WNK Radio in Haringey and KFM Radio in Stockport, only a few, such as Sunrise Radio in London, remained in the hands of the original owners.
By the mid-late 1990s, genres such as happy hardcore, drum’n’bass and garage saw a new generation of pirate radio stations emerge. In London, stations such as Kool FM were joined by Rude, Dream FM, Flex FM, Deja Vu, London Underground, Freek, and most notably Rinse FM.