My life on the ocean waves - as a pirate
13:00 30 March 2014
Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2009
It’s 50 years this weekend since pirate station Radio Caroline began broadcasting off the East Coast – and changed music forever. Former pirate radio DJ Tom Edwards reflects on those heady days...
It was Easter 1964 and a holiday weekend that would eventually decide what the future held for me and also what role(s) I was going to play in life. I was just 19 and this was the era of the so-called Swinging Sixties where music, clothes and attitudes to day-to-day life were changing rapidly. I was at home, having disliked my education at school and college and failed miserably at what was the family business in Norwich. The world of wholesale grocery simply wasn’t for me. I gave it the best shot I had but my mind was set upon ‘something’ in the media.
I had suggested a weekly page for teenagers called “Here and Now” which the Eastern Evening News liked and I tapped away at the typewriter with stories from around the region, for the princely sum of three guineas a week. Look East had just started their nightly programme and ran a story about a mysterious radio station that had suddenly appeared on the medium wave and playing non-stop music.
I tuned in and heard disc jockeys ad libbing and – yes – playing the kind of records that the younger generation were buying in their millions. The station was called Radio Caroline which was set up by an Irishman called Ronan O’Rahilly. He had an artist on his books called Georgie Fame, and try as he might Ronan could not get airplay on either the commercial Radio Luxembourg or the BBC. If you were lucky you might be able just about to receive the Luxembourg signal which faded in and out and the BBC played some pop on a Sunday afternoon for around two hours... and that was it.
Ronan had a ship fitted out in Ireland which had a transmitting mast, a transmitter, studios, crew quarters, and, of course, lots of vinyl records. The audience grew bigger on a daily basis and it wasn’t too long a time before other stations had started broadcasting, either from ships out in the North Sea or from old wartime fortresses that were abandoned in the early 1950s.
A life on the ocean was the furthest thing from my mind as I didn’t have a proper job or much money (which my mother constantly reminded me of). I took the hint: I saw a job as a Bluecoat for Fred Pontin’s holiday camp at Pakefield. I had an interview with the entertainments manager and got the job there and then.
I was taught how to have a smile on my face from 8.30 in the morning sometimes right through until midnight. I also noticed Pontins had a public address system with speakers in every chalet and building. Announcements were made about the day’s events, and at night chalet maids would patrol the camp, and if a baby was crying the announcement went out over ‘Radio Pontin’.
I thought this all needed livening up, so I asked my boss for money to get some records, and dead on 8.30am I would blast out the entire camp site with music and asking if anyone had any requests. Some of them did in no uncertain terms, especially if the previous night they had propped up the ballroom bar all evening. I ‘borrowed’ ideas and phrases from the DJs I was tuned into – these guys from Australia, America and Canada, some English too – and couldn’t get my head around the fact they were all miles out to sea, and illegal too. That made it even more tempting, so I sent off tapes to all of the pirate radio stations that by now had reached audiences of more than 22 million. On a few days’ leave back at mum’s in Norwich I had a telephone call from a man called Reg Calvert.
He ran a station called Radio City which transmitted from the Shivering Sands Towers in the Thames Estuary that served the nation well during the war years. The Ministry of Defence had abandoned them years before, so Reg took a chance. He said he liked my tape and would I come to Whitstable on the Kent coast as soon as was possible.
I jumped at this chance and so it was from Whitstable harbour I set sail in a small fishing boat, laden down with supplies, to find fame and fortune on Radio City. As we approached these enormous structures I thought “How the hell do I get up there?” as it was 90 feet high up onto the arrivals platform. I soon found out, as I was hoisted upwards, not even daring to look down or upwards.
I was viewed by the crew, shook hands, and with no warning whatsoever was told I was on air. I don’t remember what I first said or what music I played that day but it must have been all right with Reg as within the hour the tide was turning and my transport and the skipper were eager to get back to shore. So it was from 1965 to early 1967 I was a seafaring DJ broadcasting to an audience I never saw but they were there judging by the amount of mail we got.
Life on the towers wasn’t easy. If the weather was rough sometimes Harvester 2, our supply boat, couldn’t get out to us - but ‘the show must go on’, and it did. I even got myself a great seaside home in Whitstable and had the actor Peter Cushing as my next door neighbour.
It wasn’t an easy life as I worried about the future. Radio City was doing well but the Government, led by Harold Wilson, were making loud noises about getting the pirates off the air, whatever the cost. I chose to live my life day by day. Reg was a good boss and a good friend.
I became friends with him, his wife Dorothy and two daughters Candy and Susan. Even Mum came down to London to meet them all. Little did any of us realise the dramatic times that lay ahead.
Reg got involved in a business deal, a possible takeover or a merger with another station. It didn’t work out and there was an argument over a transmitter. Major Oliver Smedley (a financial backer) was asking for £10,000 – and when that didn’t happen Radio City was raided by about 20 men who kept the station off the air. Reg, of course, was not happy and he went to see Smedley at his home in Saffron Walden. An argument broke out and Reg was shot dead. I was on shore leave at the time and didn’t know why the station was off-air... but I soon found out.
The following day after his death I went back to Radio City with Essex Police in attendance followed by a flotilla of pressmen who had chartered whatever craft they could lay their hands on... boats, helicopters and aircraft all circling the Shivering Sands towers. It became one of the biggest stories of 1966. I still have the original newspaper cuttings from those very difficult few days.
The raiders left Radio City as mysteriously as they appeared and our first record to say we were back on air was Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night, which as programme director I thought was pretty appropriate. Dorothy Calvert immediately said she would take over the running of the station, which she did for about seven months. Smedley eventually walked out of court a free man.
Mrs Calvert was taken to court in February 1967, fined £100 and the same day sent me a message saying the station I had cared for so much had to close down that night. I was gutted but orders are orders and I closed down the staion for the very last time at midnight on February 8. I left Whitstable very soon afterwards and came home to mum in Norwich.
Dorothy promised she would try and get us all some work. She was true to her word and within a matter of a few days I found myself on board the Mi Amigo, also known as Radio Caroline. There I met my heroes – Keith Skues, Johnnie Walker, Roger Day, Keith Hampshire, Steve Young, Mike Ahern and so many other DJs – those friendships that were formed almost 50 years ago are still as strong as they ever were. We simply pick up on a conversation where we left it, be it last week, last year, or 40 years ago – it’s amazing.
I settled in quite easily on the good ship Mi Amigo but in a storm force ten gale I still turned green and would ask myself whether it was really worth it. The other storm gathering was the Government’s Marine Offences Act which would come into force at midnight on August 14 1967. I left the ship just 12 hours before that act became law. Had I stayed I could have lost my passport and or gone to prison – it seems so ridiculous today. I promised Johnnie Walker I would go back, but deep down I knew I wouldn’t. I think by now, as a good mate, he has forgiven me.
I returned home to Norwich, knocked on the door of the BBC and within a couple of weeks was presenting Look East as a young man of just 22. Yes, the very programme that had alerted me to pirate radio in the first place... what goes around comes around. I learned my craft as a TV presenter the hard way (by my mistakes) and then came a call from London to join the BBC at Broadcasting House for Radios One and Two.
From a Bluecoat at Pontins to almost three years spinning records in all weathers far out at sea and risking life and limb. Even today although I love the ocean I just cannot swim! Most of us DJs were lucky enough to be employed by the BBC. The BBC was the enemy, of course, when we were all pirates but at least we were on terra firma.
So it’s 50 years since all my adventures began. I’ve had some wonderful times, made fabulous friends, and had some tough times too. Looking back I made mistakes but I so pleased I was right in there in an era that was exciting as it sounds. We lose one of our number every so often as because we are all getting older but give me the ship, my disc jockey pals, and a huge stack of vinyl records and given the chance... yes, let’s do it all over again! Happy Anniversary Radio Caroline.
Stuart Lake: What now for Radio Caroline? – see page 34