MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

BACKGROUND

. . . on why it took a melodramatic murder to goad the British government into action against the pirate radio stations

MARK NICHOLS August 6 1966
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

BACKGROUND

. . . on why it took a melodramatic murder to goad the British government into action against the pirate radio stations

MARK NICHOLS August 6 1966

BACKGROUND

. . . on why it took a melodramatic murder to goad the British government into action against the pirate radio stations

LATE IN JUNE a British magazine published an article by Maj. Oliver Smedley, a London businessman with financial interests in Radio City—one of the nine “pirate” radio stations that bombard the unprotected English coast with a round-the-clock medley of pop music and commercials. Smedley wrote that the British government wouldn't dare put the pirate stations out of business until the sponsor-free, publicly owned BBC. Britain’s only licensed radio network, hoisted its skirts and started giving the public what it obviously wants: non-stop

rock ’n’ roll.

Smedley's prediction mechanism was slightly out of tune. By the time the article appeared he himself was in jail awaiting a hearing on a charge of murder and the government was swiftly preparing legislation that will probably blow the multi-million-dollar pirate-radio business off the British airwaves. The government, after two years of hemming and hawing, was finally goaded into action by a weird saga of violence as lurid as any Danger Man fan could wish.

On the night of June 20 a group of 10 tough-looking men led by a woman used grappling hooks to swarm aboard, commandeer and silence Radio City, which is beamed from a cluster of abandoned anti-aircraft towers in the Thames Estuary. (Ironically the same gaunt, rusting towers

with their linking catwalks had been used as a setting for British TV’s Danger Man series just a few months before.) The next day Reg Calvert, a 37-year-old former popcorn manufacturer and the current manager of Radio City, was killed by a shotgun blast in his chest at Smedley’s manor house in Essex. Smedley, 54, was charged with the slaying. The tangled motives for the commandeering and killing have still to be unraveled but ostensibly it boiled down to a dispute over ,£10,000 worth of transmitting equipment.

But the whole pirate radio story, which began when Radio Caroline anchored in a gale off Harwich on Easter Saturday, 1964, has a background of murky deals, tough rivalry and shady take-over bids. Part of the reason is the money involved. It’s big. The “top two” pirates, Radio Caroline and Radio London, claim they are reaping advertising revenue at the rate of £.80,000 a month. And the other stations, dotted around the coast in their converted yachts, trawlers, war vessels and gun emplacements, boast of equally attractive turnovers.

Another reason for the atmosphere of illegality lies in the very nature of the stations. Anchored outside territorial waters, they are beyond the reach of the law. Until now the government has worried about what right

it has to interfere with a Panamanianregistered ship manned entirely by Texan and Canadian disk jockeys. The government is even unsure whether it can claim jurisdiction over its own island gun-towers, built in the days of 1940 when there were more menacing pirates around and finicky details concerning territorial waters didn't seem to matter much.

The legal snags are only part of the government’s problem. The pirates have made some bitter and powerful enemies at home and abroad. The British musicians’ union, the BBC, the privately owned Independent Television network and the British Copyright Council arc all unhappy about the stations’ financial success and their free-wheeling habit of not paying royalties on the records they spin. Foreign radio stations from as far away as Czechoslovakia and Italy have complained about interference on their licensed wave bands.

But despite hostility from these interest groups and the howls from artistic purists, the fact remains that the pirates are satisfying a crassly commercial craving in today’s swinging Britons. The omnipresent roar of the rock ’n’ rollers provides the only beat there is for the hordes of bluejeaned kids whose long hair conceals the transistors prominently plugged in their ears. And not just the kids. Their elders too are beginning to grow weary of the beatless BBC’s bland diet of talks, tea-time topics, incredibly folksy soap operas and slow-tempo music.

Political observers suggest that the government’s lethargy in dealing with the pirates lies primarily in the dilemma of how to serve the market that so clearly exists. You can’t just cut off an addict’s supply without finding a substitute. He’s liable to get angry and vote for somebody else.

The vision of an electorate suffering collective withdrawal symptoms was probably the main factor that deterred the government until now.

One possible substitute the Labor government is currently examining is a network of what it calls “public service” radio stations—presumably local nieces and nephews of old Aunty BBC but with a little more zip in them. However many people now think that the only real solution for a government that wants to stay popular is to abandon 40 years of hallowed radio-broadcasting tradition and adopt Canada’s system—licensed private commercial stations co-existing with the publicly owned outlets.

If they’ve achieved nothing else in the two raucous melodramatic years since they raised their flags, the pirate radio stations can at least boast of having won a following large enough to worry a vote-conscious British government. And despite the violent climax that will likely sink them, the pirates have permanently changed the British way of life.

MARK NICHOLS