If I was just a few years older, the phrase that I used for the title to this post could well have been the one that is normally attributed to Don MacLean’s “American Pie” lyric; the death of Buddy Holly in a plane crash. I must be a little younger than Don Maclean, so I don’t have a clear memory of that time. However, I vividly remember 1967.
It was on the 15th August 1967, 41 years ago today that the airwaves of Britain fell strangely quiet as the Marine Offences Act came into force, silencing all but one of the offshore pirate radio stations.
I got into the pirate stations very late in their all too brief history, but when I did, it was a life changing time for me. 1967 was my 4th year at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield where I was preparing for the dreaded GCE ‘O’ Level exams. One of my fellow students used to rave about Radio Caroline and I switched part of my allegiance to this exciting and different station. I had already discovered Radio Luxembourg, the great 208, and was a regular under the blanket listener for years.
In those far-off days, medium wave was acceptable because we only had that and Long Wave stations, so the variable listening quality of all radio was simply part of our lives. What was new and different was the presentation and the music. Lively DJs and music that we could otherwise only hear in the soundproofed listening booth of the local record shop, Frosts the Chemist on Sutton Coldfield High Street, or in the Odeon on Saturday mornings before the 1960s institution that was cinema for children.
I remember the feeling of loss when the pirates went that the brand new sound of Wonderful Radio One was only just able to replace.
In these days of bland, boring, highly formatted commercial radio available in FM stereo and in Digital quality, it’s hard to remember just how big and how important those pioneers were. I still find it amazing that the DJs whose names I can remember, with just one of two exceptions, came from that time. Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko, Robbie Dale, Tony Prince and John Peel, to name only a few of my heroes.
I have mixed feelings about the revivalists who have tried to re-create those glory days on short-term RSL licences or on the internet. An aging anorak can never replace those pioneers, and forty-one years on, it’s sobering to think how many of them are no longer with us.
I swapped a few emails recently with a presenter working for a station in the USA who agrees with me that radio these days has gone to “hell in a handcart”.
Let’s also not forget that the people behind those offshore pioneers were first and foremost businessmen running commercial radio stations. Even if the stations had continued to run from storm-tossed ships in the North Sea, they would have evolved, very probably into the kind of formatted, networked, money-making commercial radio that we have today.
So let’s hold out hope that the new community radio stations succeed in bringing some of the fun back to the airwaves.