18 Days Remaining
Pic: Francis McKee

Wednesday 11th
posted by Morning Star in Features

KEITH FLETT explores one of history's little conundrums

AT MIDNIGHT on August 14 1967, the Marine Offences Act made broadcasting from a boat off the British mainland illegal. 

That meant the end for most of the pirate radio stations that had broadcast, primarily off the Essex coast, since 1964, although Radio Caroline continued and was joined for a period by Radio North Sea which was run from the Netherlands.

Many of the DJs on the pirate ships went on to work for BBC Radio One, which was set up as the official alternative, including of course John Peel.

Harold Wilson’s Labour government had pushed through the measure — the minister ultimately responsible being Tony Benn — because of concerns about how the pirate ships operated and also because of issues with interference with communications channels.

Benn was minister for technology in August 1967 but had spent much of the time since 1964 as postal minister. He hardly had a reputation as a pop music fan, but his actions led directly to the creation of Radio One.

In his diary he laid out a future for radio which the Act started to put in place. He noted a dislike of commercial stations and the people who ran them but wanted both to promote popular music on the BBC and set up a series of local radio stations also run by Auntie.

Benn reports in his diary that the BBC showed no interest in devoting more air time to pop music as this would be “pandering to popular tastes.”

Dominic Sandbrook’s suggestion in White Heat, his social history of the ’60s, that the BBC was behind the 1967 Act appears mistaken. 

It was the General Post Office, which regulated the airwaves, and to some extent the Musicians Union, which was concerned that its members gained no direct benefit from records played on the pirate stations.

The reality is, though, that without the pirate ships pop music culture would not have made the impact it did on 1960s Britain.

There was something of a radical element of shaking up the stifling conservatism of post-1945 British popular culture but the stations were commercial affairs. 

They were the forerunners of the independent radio stations that operate throughout Britain today though many of the leading DJs were hardly radical themselves. Indeed one, Roger Gale, became a Tory MP. He is currently the member for North Thanet, having joined Radio Caroline as a DJ in 1964.

Benn was well aware that his actions in outlawing the pirate stations would also open the door for legal commercial radio, which he disliked. But with the benefit of hindsight we can see that there was a bigger problem.

The BBC had no model for what a public service popular music radio station would be like. It simply imported DJs and their musical interests from the pirates.

These were very different worlds. Popular music had existed on the old BBC Light Programme in the form of Saturday Club run by the late Brian Matthews. But in the ’60s Matthews was hardly a big-name celebrity.

Yet the pirate DJs certainly were. One thinks of Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker and of course Jimmy Savile.

Radio One was a focus for the charts, the music industry and business. Minority music tastes, surely a focus for public-service radio, got less of a look-in.