KHz and MHz Meet H2O

Listening to pirate radio is a risk-free adventure. Whether the fun can be found on AM, FM or shortwave, all it takes to find a pirate is a decent radio receiver and some determination to find one.
Being a radio pirate is a bit more risky – there’s the chance of getting caught and prosecuted by the authorities, and there’s constant pressure to avoid that fate.
Some pirates simply broadcast sporadically; others change frequencies to avoid detection. Those more serious about staying one step ahead of a bust will even take their operation mobile, moving around in a truck or van to keep the radio cops guessing.
But the most gutsy move a pirate’s ever taken is to get a hold of a ship, fit it out with all the gear, and set sail for the high seas. They’re the offshore pirates, and they’ve presented the biggest challenge to broadcast laws: how can you crack down on a pirate when they’re physically outside your reach?
Offshore radio piracy had been tossed around as a concept since the early 1950s, but it took a flotilla of three ex-fishing vessels to put the first serious offshore station on the air. Radio Mercur debuted off the coast of Denmark in the summer of 1958: backed with significant funds from advertisers and operating out of the reach of the land-based radio authorities, Radio Mercur had a four-year run.
By the 1960s, offshore radio piracy had begun to explode. At one time, there were more than a half dozen ships plying the seas off the coast of northern Europe – most broadcasting shows recorded on land and ferried to them on tape either by dinghies or dropped from low-flying planes. The reason for heading to sea to go on the air was simple – most of the land-based radio stations were either state-owned or licensed to corporate media outlets who stifled the creative content.
Much of the momentum turned southward when Radio Veronica began its rise to fame in 1960 from the seas off the Netherlands. At its pinnacle, Radio Veronica claimed as many as 1.5 million listeners – pumping out tens of thousands of watts over water made for a huge signal range.
It was with Veronica that radio enthusiasts in the United Kingdom first heard the sounds of offshore piracy. It did not take long for the British to catch up to the trend, eventually becoming the pool from which the peak of offshore radio broadcasting took its talent and resources.
On Easter Sunday, 1964, in response to the British radio industry’s refusal to program rock n’ roll, the MV Caroline anchored five miles off the coast – and Radio Caroline was born. The people responded – Radio Caroline had more than seven million listeners within weeks of taking to the air.
Its dominance of the offshore radio scene was accented when another radio ship, the MV Mi Amigo, broadcasting as Radio Atlanta, merged operations with Caroline. Both ships moved into positions to cover not only the whole of the United Kingdom, but also parts of Northern Europe. Moving to a different AM frequency allowed Radio Caroline worldwide coverage for a time.
During its heyday Caroline claimed more people were tuning it in than were listening to all of the BBC networks combined.
But on August 14, 1967, much of the music stopped. The British Government enacted the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act on midnight, making it illegal to anyone to supply or otherwise do business with the rogue radio ships. August 13th was a busy day as offshore stations signed off in droves. The only one to remain broadcasting was Caroline – it was this move of defiance that catapulted them into becoming the best-known of all offshore broadcasters.
But failing to pay the Dutch seamen who had been keeping Caroline supplied killed the golden run – less than a year later, both Radio Caroline ships were seized and towed to port as collateral for the unpaid bills.
Outside of Caroline’s brazen act of defiance, the European offshore broadcasting saga was unabashedly commercial – most, if not all of them sold advertising to pay the bills. Keeping a station on a ship is no easy task. You’ve got to generate your own electricity, and if you can’t keep the ship afloat the station is all but worthless.
The elements took their toll, too. Many ships weathered storms and ran aground in the fierce North Atlantic weather, and a few sank. Electricity and water don’t mix well, either, adding an ever-present element of danger.
It seems that the rules of civility were also sometimes left behind at the dock: Radio Northsea International, who began broadcasts in 1970, faced literal acts of piracy in its debut year. As you can hear in these RealAudio clips, not only did people try to board the ship, but it was also firebombed.
In the 1970s and 80s, as FM radio rose to become the dominant broadcast band, the opportunities for alternative voices on land blossomed, and offshore pirates began to dwindle in numbers. A slight upswing took place in the mid to late 1980s, but quickly sputtered out.
But it was during this period that a rare offshore pirate appeared off the coast of the United States: Radio Newyork International took to the air in July of 1987 and broadcast a total of one five-hour show on five different frequencies before being boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Today, some offshore broadcasters still make symbolic appearances on the air. Radio Caroline just completed a week-long broadcast thanks to a limited-term license granted to it last month. Many of its broadcast crew have gone onto profitable positions in the landbased radio industry.
Only one offshore broadcaster keeps up a regular schedule to this day. Israel’s Arutz Sheva has been broadcasting for 11 years now, skirting territorial waters to provide an independent take on the state of Israel and relationships with its Arab neighbors. It has captured at least a quarter of the country’s radio listeners.
Even while their voices may be just whispers today, offshore stations captured the spirit of rogue radio most intensely. The concept was daring, doing it was dangerous, and the power of these stations remains unmatched by any landbased pirate. Their place in broadcast history is one of their own design – and their mark on the medium will never wash off.