Friday, 20 April 2018

34. PREPARING FOR THE MEBO ADVENTURE

In 1969, with my favourite (offshore) stations gone, my radio listening was at a low ebb. Professionally I was getting used to office life at the ferry company in Zeebrugge and the occasional trip to Camden Crescent in Dover, where the shipping company's HQ was situated. I remember one of my UK colleagues once made me don a hair cap and subsequently showed me around the large temperature controlled computer room in another part of town. It was the first time I came face to face with such a device. It was a big bulky beast that ingested large stacks of punch cards. Apart from subsequently disgorging reams of invoices it did very little else.

It was also the year that John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a “bed-in” for peace during their honeymoon in Amsterdam. To the delight of children in 1969 the bouncy Space Hopper hit the shelves. On Belgium's independence day (just a coincidence), to the amazement of grown-ups and youngsters alike, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went and proved once and for all that the moon was not made of green cheese. Music fans especially remember 1969 as the year in which the legendary Woodstock Festival took place.

In the meantime I didn't have an inkling that in an office in the Albisriederstrasse* in Zürich two young Swiss gentlemen were preparing my happiest adventure in radio. Erwin Meister and Edwin Bollier knew each other from school and after graduating they went into business together. To begin with they purchased a car-radio patent. Later, in 1968, they made good installing a communications network for the International Red Cross between Europe and Eastern Nigeria. This was to fascilitate the aid operation during the war of secession in Biafra in the late 60's. The technology made the largest humanitarian airlift possible since the Berlin blockade in 1948. It is estimated that the relief effort by all the agencies involved saved the lives of 2 million Biafrans. However it may also have prolonged the conflict. Then after a few other lucrative business deals, with money in the bank, the Swiss duo set out to realise a long held dream, to equip an offshore radio station for the German and British market.

Mebo Telecommunications AG, owned by the Züricher businessmen, acquired a Norwegian coastguard ship the Bjarkoy and renamed it Mebo. As the vessel proved too small to serve as a radioship it was demoted to the role of occasional supply tender, a purpose for which she really was too big. As base for the marine broadcaster a larger craft was sought and found, the 630 tons former freighter MV Silvretta, which was duly assigned the name Mebo 2.

To the best of my recollection it wasn't until early january 1970 that I heard the news that a new offshore station was being fitted out in the port of Rotterdam. There both vessels were also psychedelically painted in a multitude of colours, an image which at the time was humorously described as “an explosion in a paint factory”. With hindsight this word picture would prove to be an ominous one...

*pic MediaPages.nl




Monday, 12 March 2018

33. WHAT TO DO WITH MY LIFE AFTER THE DEMISE OF CAROLINE IN 1968

After my studies in Ghent and with really only RadioVeronica left for musical enjoyment, the reality of life set in. The idea of gap years not having been hatched yet, employment had to be found straight away, if not sooner. For the longest time I had been dreaming of working in English language radio, but with Caroline and even the smaller offshore stations gone there was little chance of that wishful thinking ever coming true. So I went hunting for more mundane jobs. Being a bit stubborn however, I only applied to positions of employment where knowledge of English would be an important factor.

At the Irish Embassy in Brussels they were most surprised to receive my application since -although not specified in their ad- they “were only looking for females”. In the late 60's 'emancipation' apparently did not apply to men. I had more luck when seeking a position at the Zeebrugge office of Townsend Car Ferries, the company which had started a roll-on/roll-off service between Dover and the Belgian port in 1966. Because traffic was increasing steadily the company needed someone who could look after the Belgian side of the accounts and explain things in proper English to the Dover 'overlords'. I started work at Townsend Belgium on December 6th 1968.

Just before joining the working classes I had a “gap-10-days” in Austria. (My only true vacation ever) In Ostend my friend and next door neighbour Walter and myself were joined by a busload of mostly elderly English holiday makers for the trip to Seefeld. And yes in the end we knew all the words to “She'll be coming round the mountain”...

It was whilst swimming at Die Kanne that we first heard Ö3 (Euh drei), the new third programme of Austrian radio, a pop music station that sounded somewhat Caroline-ish (it still does to some extent). As a result we spent quite a bit of time soaking up the hits at the swimming pool.

Working for Port Manager Noel A. Johnston MBE (photo above) at Townsend Car Ferries in those early days was an absolute pleasure. The office people busy in the small cottage near the old lock in Zeebrugge formed a tight-knit family, all trying to get the ships loaded and out on time through the very narrow Visart sluice gate. That was especially important since one of the captains was said to consider just two speeds when negociating the lock: “dead slow and stop”.

Only weeks after I began my employment the highlight became the first Christmas office party. It was held at the renowned “Chez Willy” restaurant with succulent “râble de lièvre” (saddle of hare) on the festive menu. In fact it was also my first time in a chic restaurant. Little did I know that this classy eating house would some time afterwards become one of my regular stomping grounds entertaining visiting company dignitaries, nor that a year or so later, in early 1971, “Chez Willy” would turn into a favourite dining place for Messrs Meister and Bollier of Radio North Sea International.


Wednesday, 7 March 2018

32. THE CAROLINES HIJACKED AND FEAR OF REVOLUTION

It was a cold and fairly somber Sunday when I got out of bed on March 3rd 1968. As always the first thing I did was switch on the radio. But all remained silent. Caroline was not there! It was only when I got downstairs and tried Caroline North on the big Saba receiver and found that her frequency too remained completely quiet, that a feeling of forboding set in. The next day my fearful apprehension was confirmed by the newspapers. In the early hours of Sunday both the Caroline and the Mi Amigo had been boarded by Dutch seamen in the pay of the suppliers Wijsmuller and towed to the Netherlands because of outstanding debts.

As a matter of principle I did not turn to Radio 1 for my music fix. In the months to come it was Radio Veronica that brought some solace, and sometimes also Radio Kuwait on shortwave. Few people remember this, but for a time Kuwait, with a stable and strong signal, was one of the best pop stations around. Truth be told, I had less time for music in those days, because my exams were drawing near...

In the wider world too it was a troublesome period. It began in May 1968 with a student revolt in Paris which turned into a general strike involving millions of workers and the worst rioting for decades. President Charles de Gaulle resorted to brutal police force to counter this attempt at revolution which immobilised most of France.

Subsequently also students in Belgium, especially in university cities like Ghent and Louvain, took to the streets. Suddenly that brought two plain clothes members of the secret police to my house. I was upstairs studying and unaware of the fact that these men threatened my mother not to let me join the protests, or “worse would follow”. The then Belgian prime minister Gaston Eyskens had just formed a coalition government with the help of the Christian Democrats (CVP) and the Socialists (BSP), two parties that had lost seats during the elections in March '68. Eyskens feared that if the protests continued they would bring down the government and revolution would ensue... With hindsight, it wàs the year that the Beatles brought out their hit “Revolution”, not that the Belgian prime minister would have been aware of that.

In the Netherlands all remained calm during the disruptive May days of 1968. It has been said that this was partly due to the existence of Radio Veronica. The station went some way in making the country a happier place and functioned as a valve to diffuse any pent up tension among students and workers alike.   

Friday, 2 March 2018

31. FOR NO MAN WILL EVER FORGET...

Being a 60's offshore anorak, like so many others, it was with dread that I followed the ominous countdown to August 14th 1967 when the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act would take effect at midnight. Even before the ultimate day stations were closing down for all sorts of reasons. On July 23rd came the end for Radio 227, one of the twin stations on the Laissez Faire. Next was fort based Radio 390. The “Woman's Magazine of the Air” ended its transmissions on July 28. On August 6th it was Radio 355's turn, the second of the twin stations.

According to my diary in spite of a southerly wind there was nothing summery about August 14th 1967. The temperature barely reached 14 degrees C. And all day the sun refused to put in an appearance. In fact it was very very cloudy, perfectly reflecting my somber mood. Like one waiting on death row I listened to Radio London, as the minutes ticked by in the life of the station. And then "their Final Hour" was upon us. At 16,00 hrs (3 pm in the UK) Paul Kaye's became the last voice to be heard on Big L. It had also been the first voice on the station.

After the close down, like so many thousands, I retuned to 259, to hear Caroline welcome the Radio London listeners. But then it was time for me to make tracks, as duty called. I had a Summer job to get to at the Games Arcade in Blankenberge.

Later that evening also Radio 270 and Tommy Shields' Radio Scotland closed down. In spite of interference from the electric games in the Arcade I did manage to hear Caroline turn into Radio Caroline International as the pioneer station defied the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act at midnight (1 in the morning my time). To this day hearing Johnnie Walker's “Man's Fight For Freedom” still makes my eyes go moist. (Lyrics)


Tuesday, 27 February 2018

30. FRESH PAINT AND AN ABUNDANCE OF CAROLINES

Very much like Marcel Proust's 'madeleine moment' it was the smell of fresh paint at a friend's house that today brought another personal highlight from the offshore days back to mind... I remembered that there was a time when three Radio Carolines were on the air. At that crucial occasion it so happens that I had to spend a few nights in the spare room. My own bedroom was being repainted, by my dad and myself. In fact the smell of paint permeated much of the house.

Months before the threat of anti-pirate legislation doomed, it was mostly the power of water and winds the wireless buccaneers off Britain's coast had to contend with... So during a massive storm late on January 19th 1966 the MV Mi Amigo, home of Radio Caroline South started drifting and subsequently ran aground on the snow-covered beach at Holland Haven (Frinton-on-Sea). At the crack of dawn radios remained silent as transmissions had ceased when the ship entered British waters. After failed attempts by the tugboat Titan, the Mi Amigo refloated herself at high tide by winding on the repositioned anchor. Upon inspection it proved that the hull was damaged and the vessel was towed to Zaandam in the Netherlands for repairs in dry dock.

In those days -not to be unfaithful- I did my best to regularly tune in to Radio Caroline North off the Isle of Man. But then suddenly Caroline South was back, but from a different ship. Mrs Britt Wadner (1915-1987), the blonde 'Queen of pirate radio', had offered Ronan the use of her Swedish Radio Syd* ship 'Cheetah 2”. The vessel having been driven from its usual anchorage in the Baltic by pack ice.

Much technical wizardry and many dead-airs later the programmes of Caroline South resumed on 199 m from the Cheetah on February 13th 1966, be it at fairly low power. Then on April 5th the Mi Amigo appeared alongside the Swedish vessel after repairs and a refit had been finalized. It was time for the fun to kick off.

The idea was that the Cheetah would relay the programmes on 199 m from the Mi Amigo which was now broadcasting on an announced 259m (253 in fact) with 50 kWatts of power. That did happen, but for a time also separate programmes were aired, resulting in two Caroline Souths, and off course, in the Irish sea, there still was Caroline North. What is more, a lot of on air banter was at times going on between both South ships. Evenings for me in the spare room, my paint-free refuge, were full of laughter during the link-ups between the vessels. I remember listening to Dave Lee Travis and Graham Webb on the Cheetah and Tony Blackburn with Norman St.John on the Mi Amigo. The fun wasn't to last though. On May 1st Britt sailed her radioship to Spain and later on to The Gambia, where she obtained a broadcasting license. And in our neck of the woods Caroline South sounded as loud as Big L. It's an ill wind...

* Syd means South and is pronounced more or less like Sud in French.

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Sunday, 25 February 2018

29. A RADIO IN EACH EAR

Musicwise 1967 stands out in my mind as the year the Beatles' iconic album “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released. There was a rush among the students at university, myself included, to get a tape copy of the album to coax us more or less gently through study time leading up to the exams... Luckily by that time I was the proud owner of a sturdy Grundig tape recorder.

During the Summer of 1967, -the so called Summer of 'Love'- when the US was rocked by race riots, also the end was in sight for most of the British offshore stations. I took a job to help pay for my studies, working for two months at the Sportland Lunapark on the seafront in Blankenberge. At the time many British holiday makers flocked to the popular Belgian seaside resort and were regulars at the games hall. Among them one of the sons of Spike Milligan. I also made the acquaintance of quite a few Southwalians like Nigel Jones from Barry Island and Michael Hibbs (photo) who lived at Treherbert in the Rhondda. For any Flemish readers of this blog I can further add that also the famous revue artist Charles Janssens (1906-1986) religiously played a few games at Sportland after finishing his performance at Blankenberge's well known Wit Paard.

At the games arcade I had opted for the late shift which meant I was working from 5 in the afternoon until about 3 at night. As a result I had most of the day to go to the beach and tune in to the 'pirates'. Cycling home at night I used to carry two small transistor radios in my pocket, listening to Caroline in one ear and to Big L in the other.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

28. THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL FOR THE PIRATES

Already in late 1966 the writing was on the wall for the radio stations off Britain's coast. The government of Harold Wilson, egged on by Post Master General Tony Ben, was determined to bring in legislation to make it illegal for British citizens or companies to supply the pirates, work for them or advertise on the stations.

On January 1st 1967 there was a bit of good news for a change. As announced earlier by Caroline on New Year's Eve, Radio 390 returned to the airwaves. I remember, the next day, writing a letter to Prince Charles protesting against the British government's actions to sink the pirates.. “Why not”, I thought “the crown prince is a paid-up member of the Big L club and has a Radio London T-shirt...” After a few months I got a reply from the Home Office with the usual lies.

The imminent demise of the offshore stations was not the only problem at the time. I also had to try and commit professor Hesman's German “Kulturgeschichte” to memory. I found that this was best done with the deep brown voice of Jim Reeves in the background. Luckily both Radio 390 and Radio 355 (former Britain Radio) now had a Jim Reeves Show on Sundays. The reason being that after a boardroom battle station manager Ted Allbeury left 390 and went on to run Radio 355, taking most of his middle-of-the-road programming ideas with him and some of the dj's. Theodore Edward le Bouthillier (Ted) Allbeury (1917-2005) had been a real-life spy during the Second World War, decades before he got involved with radio and then started writing best-selling novels.

Not only Britain Radio had changed name... As it proved unsuccessful Swinging Radio England went Dutch and turned into easy going Radio Dolfijn and still later into Radio 227. It was hard to keep up with the changes. Later more upset as one by one the fort based stations fell by the wayside and my exams doomed...

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

27. CHOOSING BETWEEN STUDYING AND 60's CAROLINE

In 1965 and 1966 it really kicked off along the British coast. Although because of my studies in Ghent I had somewhat less time to monitor the goings on at stations like KING, 390 and Radio Essex, the start of Radio Scotland from the Comet and the moment when Swinging RadioEngland and Britain Radio rocked up on board the Laissez Faire did not go unnoticed.
In Ghent, after lunch in 'De Brug', a handful of us would hang out at the Blandijnberg talking about the music of the day and about offshore radio. Often, when we had an hour to spare, we went to the closeby 'kot' of Jos Borré to listen to Radio Caroline. During lessons we even 'pestered' one of the assistant professors, McCauley, with tales about the pirates. So much so that, for our benefit, the young Scotsman later included a question about the offshore stations in the written English exam.
In the day Germanic philology still consisted of the study of three main languages: Dutch, English ànd German. For me listening to the offshore stations had been a great help to get a good grasp of colloquial English. That came to the fore when one day, during a talk about the poet Keats, professor Willem Schrickx (1918-1998) told a joke in English and in a packed auditorium I was the only one who laughed. Which made an unhappy professor comment in his native Antwerp dialect “d'er is er ier mor ene deen Engels kent”.
At university my German didn't quite match my knowledge of English. But it wasn't too bad either since for a number of years I had been obsessed with Franz Kafka. In fact I had read every single word this Jewish author from Prague, who wrote in German, had ever committed to paper. 
By sheer coincidence my professor German, Herman Uyttersprot (1909-1967), had written extensively about Kafka. Uyttersprot was good fun in spite of the fact that he stood before us making jokes whilst dying of throat cancer. One of his last bits of fun was teaching us a new German word to describe the French scantily clad film star Brigitte Bardot. He called her “eine Nacktrice”. My time in Ghent was not always plain sailing, especially the Logics course proved somewhat of a nightmare. But in spite of a very heavy workload every night I tried to hear at least one hour of the Johnnie Walker Show on Caroline.


Monday, 19 February 2018

26. LAST TIN OF TUNA, IN LONDON ENGLAND

Shortly after the former US minesweeper Density (renamed Galaxy) arrived off the coast of Frinton-on-Sea (Essex) in the second half of December 1964 listeners -like myself- immediately were charmed by one of the most successful American jingle packages. It was created by Pams of Dallas and consisted mainly of the so-called series 18 “Sonosational”. The initial jingle repertoire had been further enhanced by scores of clever edits. It was Radio London's early programme director Ben Toney, a Texan, who had overseen the production of Pams Radio London jingles.

In the 50's and early 60's US stations had developed a tradition of using a superlative connected with a station name, like “Colourful KQV” and “The Mighty 690”. Jingle beds had been composed to allow for such superlatives. That's the reason why Radio London became “Wonderful Radio London”. The station was also referred to as “Big L”. A lesson learnt when years later we were managing local station Radio Dynamo in Knokke-Heist (Belgium) and called it “De Grote Dee” (The Big D).

Creating Radio London's jingle package to a large extent meant adapting jingles that had been made for other stations in the States. That is why unexpectedly also a jingle in Spanish was lurking in the series: “Esta es la estación número uno en London England es mi favorita. Wonderful Radio London, Olé!. (6th jingle) This caused some confusion. Because the jingles were so fast and slick not everyone could easily understand some of the lyrics, especially when they were suddenly confronted with a foreign language. Hence it is no surprise that 10 year old John Bennett was completely baffled by Big L's 'Spanish jingle'. It resulted in a beautiful piece of mondegreen. John thought he heard “It's the last tin of tuna in London England, see the ballerina. Wonderful Radio London. Olé”.

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Sunday, 18 February 2018

25. THE FUNERAL OF FRANKY THE FLY ON BIG L

In the day, apart from human visitors, the radioships were also a favourite but brief place to rest for migratory birds and sometimes for fogbound gulls. But hardly ever were flies seen on board, the distance to international waters simply being too great for insects to fly. At least the djs never ran the risk of painful mosquito bites.

Once however a fly did get on board the Galaxy, Radio London's vessel. It must have been hiding in the supplies which were delivered by the Trip Tender. The “distinguished visitor”, as Paul Kaye described the fly, quickly found its way to the messroom. Because it was the only fly on the ship it was soon treated as a pet by the djs and crew. They even gave it a name. They found that Franky the Fly had quite a good ring to it. A few days later however tragedy struck in the form of Chuck Blair's “negligent hand”.

Immediately the radioship was turned into a hive of activity; a funeral had to be organized. Proceedings were directed by news chief Paul Kaye (1934-1980). The ceremony held, including a “funeral fly-past” and some gun salutes, was broadcast live on the station during the Pete Drummond show at 2 pm on Friday June 2nd 1967  In the address it transpired that Franky the Fly had been a lover of music “from the tips of his wings to the end of his... dying days”. The funeral service was a brilliant piece of radio theatre and you can enjoy it here: TheFuneral of Franky the Fly.

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24. WONDERFUL RADIO LONDON EVEN IN CHURCH

In the second half of 1964 more fortbased stations took to the air along the British east coast. In the Thames Estuary Radio City (ex Radio Sutch), Radio Invicta (later rebranded as KING and subsequently as the legendary Radio 390), started broadcasting from derelict World War II forts. Then arrived the heavyweight.

With many offshore stations already on the air Wonderful Radio London came late to the party. But when Big L started transmissions on 266, just before Christmas 1964, the station sounded so much better than Caroline and the other broadcasters. Especially the jingles made the station come across slick and professional. Also, from the start ‘Big L’ offered a very strong signal. One could hear it everywhere. And that was literally true.

In those days -although I was 17 and an outspoken atheist- my mother still forced me to attend church on Sunday. For a long time I had been most unwilling to do so, especially since my parents stopped going to church years before. To survive an hour’s worth of tedious boredom I usually took some Franz Kafka (my favourite author), disguised as a prayer book. With the advent of Radio London attending mass became less of an ordeal however.

It so happens that the new PA-system in the church at Zeebrugge was not properly grounded. Apart from producing a hum, the whole system also conducted itself as a very crude receiver. The result was that when sitting next to any of the loudspeakers in the church one could hear Radio London in the background. As the priest only made sparing use of the microphone, Big L’s programme could be enjoyed almost without interruption. This sort of gave a whole new meaning to “Go to the church of your choice”, one of the Pams-jingles that Radio London used from time to time over the weekend.

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Saturday, 17 February 2018

23. THE AFTERMATH OF THE REM AFFAIR

In the dying days of TV-Noordzee viewers had been encouraged to become members of the TROS, an acronym for Televisie Radio Omroep Stichting. This organisation aimed at and succeeded in becoming one of the official broadcasters in The Netherlands, as the number of its required members grew in leaps and bounds. Just a year after the demise of the REM-project the TROS was given time slots in the Dutch public broadcasting system. It became the first of the so-called broadcasting pillars (omroepzuilen) to programme the kind of light entertainment the public really wanted to hear and see. Up to that time the other ‘pillars’ had mainly focussed on issues such as education, religion, culture and politics. The growing popularity of the TROS programmes soon forced the original Dutch broadcasters to follow suit.


After Radio & TV Noordzee was forced off the air at the end of 1964 the REM Island lay derelict for ten years. From 1974, when the tell-tale mast was removed, until 2004 the platform was used by the Dutch government to automatically measure sea temperature, salt concentration and wave height. In addition also meteorological information was collected. Early in the new century the measuring platform, which had been renamed “Meetpost Noordwijk”, had outlived its usefulness. In 2004 the construction was put up for sale, but no buyer was found. Two years later, in September, the remainder of the former REM-island was dismantled with the help of the large pontoon crane Rambiz, supplied by the Vlaamse Berginsmaatschappij Scaldis. In 1987 the enormous crane had also been deployed to right the capsized Townsend Thoresen ferry Herald of Free Enterprise off the coast of Zeebrugge.

The upper structure of the REM-platform was temporarily stored in the port of Vlissingen. Later it was purchased by the housing association De Key and moved to Amsterdam, where in July 2011 it opened as a restaurant. 

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22. SPECIAL LEGISLATION FOR THE OCCASION

Politicians in The Hague however were not charmed by tv-programming from the high seas. They rushed through the so-called “anti-REM-wet”, legislation making broadcasts from structures on the Dutch Continental shelf illegal. That became possible because of a UN-resolution concerning the rights of coastal states over their part of the Continental shelf. This led professor Eric Suy, a resident of Knokke-Heist (Belgium), to publish a study in 1965 about the “Volkenrechtelijke aspekten van de REM-affaire”. From 1974 to 1983 Suy was Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations.

In the meantime, in December 1964, the owners of the REM-island, announced that its TV operations had been sold to a British company, High Seas Television Ltd. Ownership of the REM-island itself was transferred to a Panamanian company. But it was all to no avail.


On the morning of December 17th 1964 a flotilla of boats accompanied by police helicopters arrived at the REM-island. Dozens of police officers disembarked, and at 7 minutes past 9, Radio Noordzee went off the air in the middle of Anneke Grönloh’s “Paradiso”. 

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Friday, 16 February 2018

21. TELEVISION THAT MADE WAVES

During the first half of August 1964 work continued on the REM-island off the Dutch coast. The antenna mast was completed and towered some 90m above the surface of the sea. The reinforced roof of the broadcasting and accommodation unit started to serve as a helipad and the official opening of TV Noordzee was set for September 1st. Every day after finishing my Summer job as a caddy at the Golf course in Knokke, I rushed home to point the rotary antenna in northeasterly direction, parallel to the coast, in the hope of catching the REM’s television debut. Each time I had my box camera at the ready. 

Then on Thursday August 13th the persistent background snow on the telly, purportedly some of the residual electromagnetic radiation left over from the Big Bang/Bounce at the start of the universe, was suddenly replaced by a picture perfect test card showing the sea, the REM-island and the lettering ‘tv NOORDZEE’. Media history was being made, but the start of television programmes from the offshore structure also caused dangerous waves in the Dutch parliament. 

Two weeks later the official opening of TV Noordzee started with Marjan Bierenbroodspot and Hetty Bennink welcoming viewers on a very windswept Rem-island. That was followed by a 20 minute documentary on the building of the broadcasting structure. Viewers in Holland were very enthusiastic about the TV-Noordzee programming which was aired before the official station Nederland 1 started its evening programmes and after this state-run broadcaster closed down around 22.00 hrs. 

To help finance the 9 million guilders REM-island operation, 7 million guilders worth of shares were issued. Such was the popularity of the project, that the issue was heavily oversubscribed. Many small investors became minority shareholders. On the date of issue, 13 August 1964, the share price was 20 guilders. As stated earlier, within 10 days, the value of the shares had rocketed to 143 guilders. 

By October 1964 audience surveys showed that TV Noord­zee had 2 million viewers every night. TV and radio from the REM-island were not on the air simultaneously. Radio Noordzee operated between 9am and 6.15 pm, and 15 minutes later the TV station signed on.

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Thursday, 15 February 2018

20. REM-READYING THE TELEVISION SET

The big wait was now on for television programmes to commence from the REM. At home -in preparation and without my parents knowing about it- I made the necessary adjustments to our television set in order to be able to receive the transmission. You have to remember that in a country like Belgium, with two different cultural entities, nothing is as simple as it might be, least of all watching television. In those days programmes in Flemish and Walloon were broadcast according to different television standards.  

TV Noordzee’s intended Channel 11 was free but switched to the 819-line French standard on our television set. That wouldn’t do and meant tweaking the frequency converter through a small hole in the back of the receiver until it clicked to the 625-line setting which was the norm in Flanders, The Netherlands and most other European countries. No big deal really as I was used to messing with the television set, when my parents were out. 

It had been two years since my mother went and bought a fairly expensive Sierra television receiver, which in fact was largely Philips on the inside. The set was duly delivered but the rooftop antenna mast would only be installed two days later. On the screen, without aerial, only black snow could be seen, accompanied by white noise from the speaker. No surprises there, after all it was a black and white receiver! As soon as my mother went out for a loaf of bread however, I couldn’t resist the temptation to try out a few things. When she got back I was watching television! Well to be truthful I was merely gazing at the test card. To get the signal I had firmly jammed the pointed end of a pair of scissors in one of the antenna input sockets. This resulted in near perfect reception of Flemish television on VHF Channel 2; the transmitter being only some 30 km away at Aalter.

Days later, after tweaking Channel 9 and turning the brand new rotary antenna in the direction of Dover, I also managed to pick up ITV’s Southern Television. Unfortunately the 405-line picture was severely mangled, with the right quarter of the newsreader’s head curiously popping up on the left hand side of the screen. The sound was perfect however, but could only be heard on Channel 8. The start of TV Noordzee was only days away now... 

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Wednesday, 14 February 2018

19. THE REM ISLAND SUMMER

In late Spring 1964 the papers in the Netherlands and Flanders were awash with news about an offshore TV-project that was being prepared by a Rotterdam-based ship builder. Cornelis Verolme had set up a company called ‘Reclame Exploitatie Maatschappij’, which he floated on the stock market. As a result of the massive media-hype surrounding the project, in just a few hours the REM share-issue was heavily over-subscribed. Thousands of ordinary Dutch men and women proved eager to invest 20 guilders per share in the company. Within 10 days, the value had leaped to 143 guilders

In the meantime the artificial REM-island, built in the Irish port of Cork, was lashed on to the massive lifting vessel ‘Global Adventurer’, and transported to a position off the Dutch coast. Soon afterwards work started in earnest on ‘The Thing’ -as the Irish workmen called it- in international waters some 6 miles off the seaside resort of Noordwijk. Fifty two meter long steel piles were inserted into each of the six leg segments and subsequently hammered into the seabed. Working day and night Dutch, Irish, Belgian and Spanish workmen assembled the offshore construction in just eight days.  

Subsequently Radio Noordzee was heard testing on a number of frequencies. On Wednesday July 29th 1964 –the middle of my Summer hols- the station settled on 214m Medium Wave. At the time I was again spending a few weeks at the house of my mother’s eldest sister in Beerzel. Whilst there I often went on long bicycle jaunts with Ronald Hazelrigg, an American friend of mine. Ronny -as we called him then- was at his grandparents for the Summer. The boy -he was a year younger than me- was mad about bicycles; at the time a most uncommon mode of transport in the States I understand. As there was hardly anyone else in the village who could speak English, Ronny and I, having met watching the dodgem cars at the Summer fair, spent a lot of time together. 

If I was baffled over Ronny’s dreams of becoming a professional cyclist, he was even more bewildered by the fact that I made such a song and dance over some radio station going on the air. In Wheelersburg Ohio, where he then lived, one could tune in to any number of commercial stations, many of them from nearby Portsmouth. It took some time to explain that things were totally different in most of Europe. Hence -on Noordzee’s on air day- it was at near breakneck speed that we cycled back to catch the first proper wireless transmissions from the REM-island on his grandmother’s set. Reception was excellent but the music was somewhat disappointing. The station was no match for either Caroline or Veronica. 

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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

18. PIONEER STATIONS MERGE

When Radio Atlanta took to the airwaves in the second week of May 1964, Caroline, the first of Britain’s pop privateers, was already claiming seven million listeners. Anchored just fourteen miles from each other, both stations were aiming at the same audience. Talks ensued between Project Atlanta and Ronan’s Planet Productions and on July 2nd the merger between the two stations was announced. At 8 pm on the same day Radio Atlanta closed down for the very last time. In their joint statement Ronan O’Rahilly and Alan Crawford said: "The decision to merge was taken due to the enormous interest from the public and advertisers in parts of England outside our original transmission area. The merger means that we will now cover the most populated areas of Great-Britain and will meet the demands of advertisers in the Midlands & North and from existing advertisers who are already taking time on the two stations”.

The next day the original Caroline ship set sail westward towards The Channel, hugging the coast and broadcasting as she went. On board the dj’s tried to predict at what time the ship would be passing important coastal towns. I remember Tom Lodge announcing “This is Radio Caroline steaming West along the South coast”. I managed to pick up the transmission until the ship passed Penzance, just before Land’s End. It took some four days for Caroline to reach her new anchorage off the Isle of Man in Ramsey Bay. Radio Caroline North continued broadcasting on 197m and Radio Caroline South on 201m, both advertising their spot on the dial as ‘one nine nine’, because it rhymed so well with Caroline. With digital frequency read-outs still far in the future hardly anyone noticed -or cared about- this white lie for euphony’s sake. In Zeebrugge, where I lived, I could receive both Carolines. Caroline South obviously offering by far the strongest signal on the Belgian coast. 

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Monday, 12 February 2018

17. MOR-STATIONS ON STICKS

In early Summer 1964, the Red Sands off the Isle of Sheppey -another of the ageing anti-aircraft platforms- was taken over by people who wanted to make a go of regional commercial radio in Kent. Subsequently test broadcasts were carried out on a number op frequencies. In the second half of July the newcomer settled on 985 kHz and called itself “Radio Invicta, your station on sticks on 306”. Reception in Kent, Essex and coastal areas in Belgium was excellent. Life on the solitary sea-towers was at first uncomfortable and sometimes fraught with danger. But for the people putting up the money, a fort-based operation cost a lot less to run. 

Although she could hardly be called a fan of this or any other station, Invicta’s more middle-of-the-road type of music was somewhat better tolerated by my mother than the output of most of the floating broadcasters. In the early evening reception on 306m became problematic however. Invicta’s power of just 750 Watts proved no match for a strong same-channel signal drifting in from Algiers. As the evening progressed no amount of turning the ‘tranny’ could prevent Invicta from being totally swamped out. 

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16. LORD OF THE AIRWAVES

Even in Belgium hardly a day went by or newspapers were reporting on the rapidly expanding British offshore scene. On my 17th birthday the Flemish newspaper ‘Het Volk’ announced that Screaming Lord Sutch was all set to start broadcasting from the fishing trawler Cornucopia in the Thames Estuary. The next day, Saturday May 27th 1964, I managed to pick up Radio Sutch, which was calling itself ‘Britain’s first teenage radio station’. The new pirate was only on the air for a couple of hours in a row. Also, the station started very late in the morning. Not knowing any better at the time I thought that the dj’s were plain lazy and overslept or maybe had wild all night parties and were subsequently suffering from a collective hangover. This proved not to be the reason for the late start however. Later I learnt that the transmitter was battery operated, hence the rather flexible broadcasting times. 

The signal, on an announced 197m (next to Caroline), was fairly weak. Especially in early evening the green tuning eye on the Saba radio at home started winking erratically as interference from other stations moved in. It also soon proved that the crew of motley minions around David Sutch were in fact broadcasting from one of the derelict towers of Shivering Sands Fort off Whitstable in Kent. As a result it was the first offshore buccaneer to take up residence on one of the wartime anti-aircraft sea forts off the British coast. They had been designed by Irish-born Robert Maunsell and the last one was abandoned by the Navy in 1958. 

In the early 60’s Screaming Lord Sutch was known for his horror-themed stage show, dressing as Jack the Ripper. From the start Sutch was of course plugging his own records on the station. In fact I remember being quite taken by ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ and ‘The Monster Man’.  When I listen to the songs now, I can only conclude that there must have been something wrong with me at the time. There probably still is.

In the 60’s David (Screaming Lord) Sutch also started to dabble in politics of sorts. In the General Election on October 15th 1964 he stood in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Lancashire constituency. He managed to amass 518 votes.  Years later (in 1977) I briefly met Lord Sutch when he appeared with his group the Savages at ‘Flashback ’67’, the convention held at London Heathrow commemorating 10 years of Marine Broadcasting Offences Act.   

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15. MID-ATLANTIC

A month and a half later, immediately after Caroline signed off at 6 p.m., I heard Radio Atlanta go on the air from the Mi Amigo. She too had been equip­ped at Greenore. The vessel had anchored off Frinton-on-Sea and used the same frequency as Caroline, introducing herself as the “ship that rocks the ocean”. To me it felt as if my Christmases had all come at once. For the first time in my life there was an abundance of pop music available at the flick of a switch; sheer luxury. No wonder that whenever the sun was out beach-goers had their transistors blaring up and down the East-Anglian coast. On the Belgian beaches it was no different.

I remember Bob Scott, one of the initial dj’s on the Mi Amigo, announcing between records ‘You are tuned to Radio Atlan(t)a. This is a test format’. The station’s name was often pronoun­ced without the second ‘t’ by some of the Americans on board. Testing on Caroline’s wavelength after it had gone off the air in the early evening, meant that the newcomer could advertise its presence to a ready-made audience. Regular programmes began on May 12th 1964 using 1493 kHz, 201m, the old Uilenspiegel haunt. In the early days transmissions were between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., but were soon extended to 8 p.m. 

The programmes sounded very mid-Atlantic and a number of maritime-related slogans were used. The dj’s referred to the station as ‘the most on the coast’ and a rather corny sounding ‘the music queen of the seven seas’. The music on Radio Atlanta was distinctly different. Probably because the station's boss, Alan Crawford, gave ample air-time to many cover versions by little-known artists on his Cannon and Sabre labels. Indeed he was no stranger to recreating the hits. Crawford even produced a cover of the famous Fortunes hit ‘Caroline’.

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14. GLORIOUS MADNESS

It so happens that Caroline, named after the daughter of a murdered president, was also supposed to be payback for an Irish freedom fighter murdered by the British. It was on April 29th 1916 that Ronan’s grandfather had died in Dublin during the Easter Rising against the British occupiers. Michael Joseph O'Rahilly (Mícheál Seosamh Ó Rathaille), was an Irish nationalist and an important figure in the quest for Irish independence. Although a militant, he had been against the planned insurrection as he felt it was madness and could only lead to defeat. When the revolt went ahead regardless he decided to join his comrades at arms of the GPO garrison. Arriving at the General Post Office he told Countess Markiewicz “It is madness, but it is glorious madness”. To the volunteers he said “Well, I’ve helped to wind up the clock. I might as well hear it strike”. And indeed, hours afterwards the bell tolled for him, slain by a number of British machine gun bullets. Forty eight years later it was time for Caroline’s bell to toll to claim the freedom of the airwaves. It also was “glorious madness” and a definite shot across the bow of the British government. 

In 1981, in a stolen moment when preparing offshore Radio Paradijs in Dublin, I went and visited the very spot near Moore Lane (O’Rahilly Parade), not far from the GPO, where The O'Rahilly is said to have been mown down by British bullets.  

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Sunday, 11 February 2018

13. PIRATES OFF THE BRITISH MAIN

In 1964, like modern day successors to the 16th century French, Dutch and English privateers off the Spanish Main, suddenly a flurry of radio pirates popped up along the British Main, being the Essex coast and the Thames Estuary; often described as pirate alley. Un­like their Caribbean predecessors, who went after Spain’s sil­ver bullion, the pop pirates had set their sights on London’s adver­tising dollar in an attempt to break the monopoly of the BBC and the large record com­­panies. The pioneer in the race to lay claim to the lucrative London market was Radio Caroline, financed by Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly, who hoped to emulate Veronica’s success. A former Danish passenger ferry Frederica was bought, renamed Caroline and fitted out as a radio ship in the Irish port of Greenore, owned by Ronan’s family. After two days of tests off Felixstowe Britain’s first off­shore station opened officially on Easter Sunday, March 29th 1964. Ronan had been egging on everyone connected with the organisation in order to be able to inaugurate the station on that day. 

In fact, at the time, I only heard about Caroline going on the air on Easter Monday, as I was spending my school holidays in the small Belgian village of Beerzel (near Malines) where my maternal grandparents lived. My immediate problem was that Caroline’s broadcast on the announced 199m (in fact 1520 kHz) was too close to Belgian regional radio in Antwerp. But as luck would have it my niece Maria Goris, who had just married, was in possession of a large Phillips portable radio, which could be turned away from most of the splutter involuntarily caused by the Antwerp station on the adjacent channel. After a few minutes’ tuning and turning the sound of Caroline’s bell rang through the small house. It would change my life forever. Over the years the start of Caroline has also become a very important date to me personally. More than half a century later I still use it as an all important benchmark. In my life BC means ‘Before Caroline’.

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