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A lesson in free speech from the radio pirates


AUGUST 15, 1967, was the first day of a tumultuous setback for free speech. At midnight pirate radio had been outlawed and all the stations but Caroline had gone off the air. Fifty-four years later the right to express what we think and feel is more under threat than ever. Speaking truth to power has never been more important as we face existential threats from Chinese communism, a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda as well as a societal disintegration unparalleled since the closing stages of the Roman Empire.

What has this to do with the stamping down of pirate radio stations in August 1967? These unwitting heroes were defending freedom and in their own way opening up the airwaves from the suffocating stranglehold of the BBC and the establishment. The struggle goes on. Rock ’n’ roll has always been about rebellion, originating in the blues. 

If popular music was at first the purview of dance bands and crooners, by 1960 it was a rebel-rousing call to arms, a guitar riff for a forgotten generation. Trouble was we weren’t able to hear it on the radio here in Britain. No WABC or KHJ for us, just an hour or so a week of popular hits on the BBC and the wonderful exception of Radio Luxembourg broadcasting at night from an old castle far away in a fabled city. The signal rose and fell like the sea and some nights was impossible to pick up. How we clung to those wisps of transmission as we listened to transistor radios under our bed covers. 

This all changed in 1964 with the arrival of pirate radio. On ships and forts outside the three-mile limit of British jurisdiction, Caroline, London, Radio City and Essex claimed they were breaking no British law. The signals grew weaker the further away from the Thames Estuary you were. Then Radio Caroline positioned a second ship off the Isle of Man. Radio Scotland followed. Later came the pick of the bunch, Radio 270. Broadcasting from perhaps the worst anchorage of them all, three miles out in the North Sea, first off Scarborough then Bridlington, Radio 270 had no real shelter and was tossed by storms and gales. Listeners rarely appreciated this, for the cheerful banter of the dee-jays continued undaunted.

For many teenagers, listening to a pirate radio station was an act of defiance. Everyone, parents, teachers, coast guards and the government, disapproved of free radio. Pop music was regarded as subversive, dangerous. What was to stop the pirates challenging the status quo? Those cheerful disc jockeys were like a personal friend in the room. They laughed at the bad weather, read out requests and played endless rock ’n’ roll. The effect was liberating beyond belief. After another difficult day in a Britain still recovering from the war, here were these guys telling you not to take it all too seriously. 

The establishment threw everything at the new stations yet the pirates sailed on blasting out pop music in cheerful defiance for three glorious years. Their example should inspire us all. Rebelling is fun, free speech sacred. Let’s rock the boat.

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John Musgrave
John Musgrave
John Musgrave is an author living in the West Country. His first novel Radio A-Go-Go is out now.

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