When Pirates Ruled the Waves


International Broadcasters' Society, Postfach 128, Bussum (NH) Holland, 1968; Third edition, 1969. X+213 pp.; $2.95 from the publisher

Since 1958, offshore "pirate" radio stations have competed with State-controlled facilities, much to the latter's discomfort. This book chronicles their operations through spring of 1969, concentrating on installations directed at the British market from 1964 through 1967, the period of greatest activity.

In 1958, Ib Fogh, a Danish silverware merchant, set up what was probably the first "pirate" radio station in international waters near Copenhagen. Called Radio Merkur (Radio Mercury), the station was a 109-ton vessel (identified by Harris as the Lucky Star, although the two contemporary accounts I have gave the name as Cheetah) registered in Panama and was clearly audible, though imperfectly, in both Copenhagen and southern Sweden, Merkur became an immediate commercial success, yet Danish government pressure induced Panama to revoke the ship's registration, and, in 1962, the ship was boarded and silenced by Danish naval and police forces in the wake of an on-board murder.

Meanwhile, in April of 1960, Radio Veronica began broadcasting in Dutch from the converted German lightship Borkum Riff. Except for experimental English-language broadcasts in February and March of 1961 (abandoned due to lack of either sufficient power to effectively reach Britain or capital to acquire new equipment), it has since broadcast to Holland alone, moving to the vessel Veronica II in 1964, and is, at last report, the only European offshore station.

In 1961, attracted by Radio Merkur's prosperity, American-financed Radio Nord (Radio North) set up shop near Stockholm on the converted German freighter Bonjour, taping its programs on land and ferrying them out to the ship. Within a year, though, the Swedish authorities halted the process, and Radio Nord left the air.

Information on Radio Syd (operated by Britt Wadner, a former Miss Sweden, near Malmö in that country) is harder to come by. One account concerning the operation lists it and Radio Nord as dating from 1956 (but the latter is well-known, from many sources, as having started in 1958). Harris cites Radio Syd as predating Radio Merkur by less than a year, without giving exact dates, but other sources indicate that Fogh was first by a few months. In any case, Syd survived the harassment that shut down Radio Nord at least until 1966, (although Miss Wadner spent a few months in jail), and may have been on the air as recently as late 1968 or early 1969.

Harris reports the existence of no less than seven other "pirate" stations prior to 1964, but does not name or locate them. I have been unable to find any record of their activities. An addendum on non-British-oriented operations would be a useful supplement to any future edition of this book, inasmuch as no other reporter seems to be covering that area.

The "Golden Age" of offshore radio dates from Easter of 1964, when Radio Caroline went on the air. Run by 23-year-old Ronan O'Rahilly, an Irishman, it was based aboard the converted Danish ferry Frederica (renamed Caroline after President Kennedy's daughter) which had been specially outfitted in the Irish port of Greenore, owned by O'Rahilly's father. It narrowly beat out Alan Crawford's Radio Atlanta (aboard the ship Mi Amigo, formerly the base of Radio Nord, which had been refitted in Galveston, Texas). In the months immediately preceding the inauguration of broadcasting by both ships, a mutual-assistance pact between O'Rahilly and Crawford had been marked by a number of double-crosses, and, by the end, feelings were running high. In July, however, a merger was arranged, and the Caroline moved to a position off the Isle of Man to serve northern Britain as Radio Caroline North, while the Mi Amigo became Radio Caroline South.

The first (though by no means the last) element of farce in the offshore radio situation was introduced on May 27th, just 18 days after the premiere broadcast of Radio Atlanta. David "Screaming Lord" Sutch, a pop singer and former plumber, set sail for the high seas in the 60-foot fishing trawler Cornucopia attired in a purple cape, blue tights, and a cutlass, while the Jolly Roger, a banner reading "Radio Sutch," and four men in leopard skins hung from the rigging. The broadcasting equipment aboard was transferred to a platform on stilts (an abandoned anti-aircraft installation from World War II) in the Thames Estuary, near London. All of this publicity was to no avail, however, and "Lord" Sutch sold out in September for five thousand pounds to his manager, Reginald "Uncle Reg" Calvert, who renamed the operation "Radio City."

In June, following Sutch's lead, three gentlemen named Pepper, Evans, and Thompson set up "Radio Invicta" on another abandoned Thames tower. Pepper cut his two partners out shortly thereafter, and a couple of unpleasant incidents followed: the station's fuel tanks were smashed, and Evans' car's tires were slashed. In December, Pepper and two companions drowned; apparently the shuttle boat to the station capsized in a sudden squall, although there were rumors of foul play. Immediately, Evans repossesed the station, reopening it with greatly increased power, first under the name of King Radio (he was the "king"), and then as Radio 390 (its wavelength was 390 meters).

Next on the scene was Radio London, operating from the Galaxy, formerly a U.S. minesweeper. Like Radio Nord, it was American-backed, and featured slick, American-style Top-40. Radio London quickly secured a place as one of the leading broadcasters.

Now the scent of profit was strong, and all manner of amateurs tried to get into the act. Radio Red Nose, Radio Lambay, Radio Shannon, and Radio North Sea were heard over fairly wide areas for at least brief periods, and there were rumors and unconfirmed reception reports concerning a large number of other operators. Most vanished without a trace. The most spectacular failure was Radio Noordzee, a Dutch radio and television station broadcasting from an offshore platform six miles from the coast of Holland, which was boarded and shut down by Dutch forces in December, after three months on the air.

The only notable station started in 1965 was Radio Essex, based on yet another Thames tower, which inaugurated broadcasting in September of that year using a 25-watt transmitter built by the owner, a former British Army major named Paddy Roy Bates, who later increased the power to 1.75 kilowatts. When his tower was ruled to be within British territorial waters at the end of 1966, Bates moved to another tower, farther out, which he proceeded to proclaim as the independent Principality of Sealand, with himself as Prince. As of last report, the tower had been held repeatedly by British courts to be outside their jurisdiction, although no attempt has been made to broadcast from it.

At about the same time as the suppression of Radio Noordzee, Radio Scotland came on the air from the former Irish lightship Comet anchored in the Firth of Forth. In spite of a history of technical trouble and frequent changes of location, it remained a fixture of the radio scene in northern Britain until August of 1967.

In June of 1966, an innovation in offshore radio appeared: the converted liberty ship Olga Patricia (renamed Laissez Faire) started operations boasting two complete, separate radio stations on the same vessel. Radio England featured the by-then-familiar Top-40 sound, and Britain Radio had what is called in the U.S. an "Easy Listening" format. This installation was backed by Americans who said that their main interest was in getting a license to operate conventional, land-based commercial stations in the United Kingdom, a motivation shared by a number of owners and disc jockeys of offshore stations.

On June 9th of 1966, the last of the major "pirates" commenced broadcasting: Radio 270, based on the converted Dutch lugger Oceaan 7. Compared to the more than $4 million spent on the Laissez Faire, Oceaan 7 was a bargain basement outfit costing barely $200,000, yet it easily established itself as a power in northern Britain.

Up to this point, Her Majesty's government had reacted with apathy. Much political rhetoric was bandied about against or in favor of the "pirates," but neither the incumbent Laborites nor the aspiring Tories seemed especially anxious to take any overt action that might antagonize either side of the dispute. When one politician or another, bolder than the ordinary, asked why nothing had been done about the situation, he was shunted from Bureau to Office to Ministry, each claiming that the offshore stations were not their problem. There had been a number of "scandals" from time to time that looked as though they might jolt the Government into action (notably the drowning of Pepper), along with several near misses, but the flurries had always died down after a while. Finally, as was almost inevitable, there came the straw that broke the camel's back.

Oliver Smedley (another retired British Army major, and founder of Radio Atlanta) was involved in negotiations (on behalf of Radio Caroline, of which he was a major stockholder as a result of the merger between Atlanta and Caroline) with Reginald Calvert of Radio City concerning some of the latter's equipment. Suspecting that Calvert was dealing behind his back with American interests about the same gear, Smedley hired ten men and a woman to board and seize the Radio City tower as "insurance." Such boardings weren't unknown in the annals of offshore radio, and usually ended amicably, but, for some reason, "Uncle Reg" took exceptional offense at Smedley's action. He went to the Major's onshore home late one night in a rage, smashed some furnishings, and grabbed the housekeeper, threatening to kill her with a bronze statuette. Smedley killed him with one blast from a shotgun.

Government wheels began to turn. Two "pirate" stations were on towers that were clearly within the three-mile limit, and court orders shutting them down were easily obtained. There was some argument concerning the Radio Essex tower, and that of Radio 390, which were more than three miles from the nearest point of land exposed at mean low water. Under international law, an area of water may be considered a "bay" (and hence the same as land for purposes of computing the three mile limit) if a straight line drawn between two points on the coast of a country encloses, together with the land, a larger area of water than the area of a semi-circle having that line (called a "baseline") as its diameter. By this rather involved standard, a baseline was drawn passing just within three miles of the towers, enclosing less than one percent more water than the area of the semicircle involved.

Dealing with the stations based on bona fide ships was not so simple. Finally, a law was passed making it illegal for any British subject or alien resident to work for, supply, or buy air time from "pirate" broadcasters. Once it seemed assured that most of the "pirates" would be off the air before the next election, so that the Tories didn't expect to have to worry about ever being called on to deal with the situation, they came out strongly in favor of continued offshore broadcasting, even going so far as to buy political commercials on some. Tories in the House of Lords, where they were a majority, delayed the effective date of the anti-"pirate" legislation as long as possible. It finally became law at 12:01 a.m. on the morning of August 15, 1967, in spite of heavy mail to Members of Parliament (the heaviest ever received on any issue) evoked by massive advertising campaigns by the offshore broadcasters.

Most of the broadcasters shut down at or before the deadline set by the law. Dawn on August 15th saw only Radio Caroline and Radio Veronica on the air. Radio Caroline carried on using mostly non-British personnel, and supplies ferried in from Holland. At first it ran in the red, but then it found new sources of advertising revenue. At least part of the new advertising was from outside the United Kingdom, and thus strictly legal. Radio Caroline continued, however, to broadcast commercials for British concerns, and, although all manufacturers of advertised products claimed that the commercials were unauthorized, it seems likely that at least some were being paid for and hidden in the truly unsolicited announcements. By early in 1968, the operation was once again running in the black. However, the insurance examiners had ruled that the Mi Amigo and the Caroline needed extensive repairs, for which the owners had no funds, and so a Dutch salvage firm that had liens on the vessels seized both of them simultaneously on March 3rd, and towed them into port, leaving Radio Veronica alone on the air.

In May of 1968, Mr. Richard J. King published an appeal for funds to buy Oceaan 7 and re-establish English-language offshore radio. About a year later, apparently unsuccessful, King distributed a brochure advertising a more ambitious pain for offshore operations in the North Sea. At last report, nothing has come of this activity, either, and offshore radio remains as it was in March of 1968.

What lessons do these episodes have to offer libertarians? Several, I think. In the matter of tactics, it's worth noting that no attempt has ever been made to prosecute people for listening to "pirate" radio, even though tuning in is clearly illegal in the United Kingdom under the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949. Occasional threats along these lines were made by minor officials, who pointed out that the license fee that radio owners there pay annually (which goes to support the BBC) "authorizes" radio owners only to listen to "official" stations; but no serious action was taken. This might be stated as a general principle: no action that is engaged in by a large portion of the population under a government's control (assuming that the fact of such widespread action is beyond dispute) will be regarded as "criminal," regardless of how loudly it may be denounced from pulpit, bench, and soapbox, or whether it is technically illegal.

As an example, consider prostitution. While the prostitute is hounded her clients are usually left alone. Or Prohibition, during which no serious stigma, legal or otherwise, was attached to patronizing a bootlegger or speakeasy, even when these suppliers of liquor were undergoing their frequent harassment by the police.

Why is this so? I think an explanation can be found in the psychology of rulers, be they absolute monarchs or petty bureaucrats. They see themselves as stalwart protectors, standing selflessly alone (in the best "High Noon" tradition) between the (often nonexistent) "Silent Majority" and a "tiny minority." Classifying people engaged in any kind of activity as "wolves" to be hunted down requires that those in power believe them to be small in numbers. If a sufficiently large portion of the public participates in such an activity, it will not be treated as truly criminal, even if it has been so thought of in the past.

A good example of the latter is the case of marijuana in recent years. In the past anyone who had anything to do with growing, processing, shipping, selling, or using it was labeled a "dope fiend," and subjected to heavy penalties if convicted. As its use has become widespread, however, we have seen a trend to lesser penalties for users and "small time" dealers, and harsher ones for "big operators." As more and more people use marijuana, it becomes more difficult to credibly think of them as "enemies of the State." Yet this very increase makes the "drug menace" all the worse, and hence the stiffer laws against those who can still be stigmatized as "Corrupters of the Nation's Youth."

All of this tends to lend support to the educationist viewpoint among libertarians: if this principle holds, then increasing acceptance of libertarian positions that involve violations of the law (draft refusal, tax resistance, etc.) would gradually reduce the vigor of official persecution of such violators. This sort of causal relation reflects that fact that (for all of the gerrymandering, malapportionment, lying, corruption, etc., that goes on) the United States and Great Britain basically have government that represent the wishes of most of their people, and, if most of these people support a position for an extended period of time, that position will eventually be reflected in the government's stand. On the other hand, there are a number of contrary forces at work, and the possible necessity of violence at some point on the road to the Libertarian Millenium shouldn't be summarily rejected.

The saga of the "pirates" has something to say about what the world might be like without coercive States, as well. It's an excellent example to show non-libertarian friends of how the free market can satisfy human desires better than the State, even in one of the areas, broadcasting, that most people think of as having the greatest need for government "regulation."

The saga, on the other hand, should serve as a cautionary note to those who stress "smashing the state" as the means to freedom. The state is not people, nor is it buildings, nor least of all a scrap of paper called a "Constitution"; it is a state of mind. If a group of people escape the effective jurisdiction of any government (either by destroying the one that rules them, or, as in the case of the "pirates," moving beyond its reach), but continue to think in the old patterns, the same evils will crop up, just as a weed regrows from the roots if the top is cut off. As long as people believe that the only bad result to be feared from practicing coercion is the retribution of the State (i.e., "the only crime is getting caught"), then as soon as the spectre of "The Law" is removed they will cheerfully set about committing all manner of coercive acts against their competitors, and will be genuinely surprised when their actions boomerang on them. There were at least five deaths in connection with offshore broadcasting in the period studied by Harris (ranging from fairly clear-cut murder to circumstances that might be described as "mysterious"), not to mention various acts of vandalism, armed invasion, and the like. It is a fairly simply matter to torpedo a ship or dynamite a tower's supports, and it seems quite possible that (had the governments not shut down most of the "pirates," and had the broadcasters not reached some sort of an accommodation among themselves) they might have disposed of each other at no expense to the state.

But the picture is not entirely bleak. In most new industries, a few pioneers establish the workability of a basic idea, then a large number of competitors jump in, and finally a shakeout takes place, after which the more competent operators share most of the market, and their competitors either get out of the business or accept smaller roles. This is the normal working of the free market, and there were signs that just such a shakeout was coming in offshore radio. Now we'll never know what would have happened, which is perhaps one of the greater pities of the situation.

Although competition for frequency space never got to be a serious problem, as more stations came on the air, and as older ones stepped up their power, trouble in this area was brewing. It would have been interesting to see how this situation would have been handled. In this case there is also an analogous situation to draw inferences from: not the classical free market, but the various State broadcasting operations in Europe in the earlier days of radio. As in the case of the pirates, there was no central instrumentality of coercion to enforce standards as different countries scrambled for frequency space and ever greater transmitter power. There was only the self-interest of each government, and the simple realization that overlapping frequencies and excessive power in broadcasting were doing more harm, in the long run, than good. Finally, in 1948, the broadcasting nations of the world got together in Copenhagen and worked out a system of frequency and power allocation. Although a majority of the land-based, medium wavelength stations in Europe use frequencies not authorized by the Copenhagen Convention (302 out of 510 when this book was written), and many of the rest use more power than was allocated (thus, incidentally, undercutting claims by onshore governments that the "pirates" were "disrupting the established order" in that band), most nations have continued to appreciate the disadvantages that provoked the Convention, and the situation has remained liveable since 1948. Most likely, the "pirates" would have made similar arrangements among themselves, and, had the governments of the area unbent enough to meet with them, with all users of the radio spectrum.

One thing that disappointed me when I first read this book was that Paul Harris (when he wrote it, a 20-year-old Politics major at Aberdeen University in Scotland, and leader of the campus Young Conservatives) had no direct connection with the offshore radio industry, unless an abortive, though amusing, attempt to set up a "pirate" station near Aberdeen for a couple of weeks to raise money for charity can be counted. Of course, this can't be held against Harris, but it would be nice to have an "inside" view of things. Perhaps some day O'Rahilly or Bates or some other operator will write memoirs. Lacking any first-hand knowledge, Harris is limited to publishing what is essentially a press review, a summary of the public record, although that's better than nothing.

Something, I think, Harris could include in future editions without undue effort is a review of the same scope covering non-British-oriented operations, which are barely mentioned here. However, the only really inexcusable omission in this volume is an index. In a compendium of names, dates, places, and figures like this, an index is a must. It's hard to appreciate how helpful one can be until you've spent an hour or so looking for a couple of statistics buried deep in the book. Perhaps some libertarian with plenty of time might approach the publisher or Mr. Harris for a commission to prepare an index for future editions.

All in all, though, When Pirates Ruled the Waves is the definitive chronicle of the rise and fall of offshore radio. As such, it is required reading for anyone interested in floating societies or new-country development. It's also a swashbuckling and, at times, uproarious comic/adventure story, and is a good way to introduce non-libertarian friends to the glories and problems of freedom.

Erwin S. "Filthy Pierre" Strauss