Iconic broadcaster Ronan O’Rahilly passes on

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Throughout history, some great innovators have contributed immeasurably to the advancement of broadcasting & in particular, the evolution of pop & rock radio over the last 65 years. Here in America, we can all name some of the great radio station owners & programmers who advanced the medium into a highly successful vehicle for rock radio: Todd Storz, who is credited with inventing Top 40; Gordon Mclendon who blazed paths to fame & fortune with the rock/pop format & developer of all-news radio; programmers Rick Sklar, Ron Jacobs & Bill Drake who evolved top 40 into THE success story of 60’s radio & Tom Donahue who invented & pioneered “underground” album-based rock radio among others. Here in Seattle, legendary programmer Pat O’Day & a crack team of highly talented DJ’s created KJR Channel 95 one of America’s most imitated & highly rated pop/rock stations during that decade & beyond. In the UK & Europe, rock radio’s greatest innovator was Ronan O’Rahilly, who has passed away this week in his native Ireland at age 79 of advanced dementia. Ronan was a trailblazer who created Britain’s first pirate radio station – Radio Caroline which over the decades has existed through 5 different ships & 3 different owners and continues to this day to entertain. He was also indirectly responsible for the creation of commercial radio in the UK & the adoption of pop/rock music by that country’s public broadcaster – the BBC

Ronan O’Rahilly, right, and Allan Crawford of Radio Caroline. Photo: Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock

O’Rahilly in the early 60’s acquired a nightclub called the Scene which regularly featured groups such as The Rolling Stones, Alex Korner’s Blues Inc., the Cyril Davies All-Stars & groups responsible for the beginnings of the ‘British Invasion’. He became involved in the management of pop-soul/jazz singer & keyboardist Georgie Fame, Alexis Korner & The Animals. After producing a first single, Ronan attempted to get airplay for Georgie Fame’s new record. The radio scene in Britain & Europe in 1964 was markedly different than here in the US & Canada. There were no commercial radio stations in the the UK. The one & only commercial pop/rock music station in existence that year was Radio Luxembourg, whose 250 kW signal could be heard throughout Europe & in much of, but not all of England, Scotland & Ireland. Broadcasting in English at night from 7pm to 2am, Radio Luxembourg listeners were often subjected to the negatives of a “DX” signal – deep fades in the reception, distortion or for those with ultra-cheap transistors, the inability to receive the station at all. In spite of an increasing list of British advertisers, the station was hardly the success it should have been with teens & young adults. In addition, Radio Luxembourg was heavily influenced by a payola-driven playlist dominated by English labels such as EMI, Decca, Parlophone, Phillips & Pye. Commercial radio was non-existent all throughout Europe with Radio Luxembourg the exception. Neither the BBC nor Radio Luxembourg had any interest in playing Georgie Fame’s new record.

 

Radio Caroline bumper sticker.  Note the frequency is given as it’s wavelength – 199 metres.  This translates to 1503 kHz using a given formula to convert wavelength to frequency.  Throughout Europe, it was common to announce dial position as ‘wavelengths’ as opposed to ‘frequency’ & European radios manufactured in that era all had dials calibrated in wavelengths.  By the 80’s & 90’s UK & EU stations usually identified with frequency as we do in North & South America.

Radio Caroline signs on Easter weekend 1964 with a minimum of fanfare by DJ Simon Dee, whose program theme song “Round Midnight” by Jimmy Smith is heard.  First song played is the Rolling Stones “Not Fade Away” dedicated to Ronan O’Rahilly  Audio clip: The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame

As in the UK, European radio & TV was all operated by national governments. That was all about to change thanks to the visionary moves by one dedicated broadcaster who would single-handedly change European & British radio for good. Frustrated by rejection of his artists attempts at chart success, Ronan O’Rahilly was inspired by the Scandinavian & Dutch pirate stations finding success playing round-the-clock pop music. Around this time he met Alan Crawford, an Australian who was attempting to put a pirate station on air in British waters. Crawford was unsuccessful in his attempts to gain financing, whereas O’Rahilly found willing investors to back his scheme. With an experienced mariner friend, he acquired an old Danish ferry, installed an antenna mast & outfitted the ship with the latest broadcast studio equipment & transmitter. Anchoring just northeast of London & the Thames estuary, Radio Caroline signed on Easter weekend 1964. Nobody had ever heard a full-time music station in the UK, let alone a broadcaster with advertising. In daytime, Radio Caroline broadcast MOR & easy listening to homebound British housewives. Evenings it switched to top 40 serving teens & young adults with an expansive top 40 playlist featuring artists & records not heard on Radio Luxembourg hosted by hip sounding DJ’s. The station was an instant hit with listeners & advertisers! Soon after, several entrepreneurs launched competing rival pirate stations, either aboard ships or located on abandoned platforms call ‘sea forts’ erected just off the British coast during WWII for defense security & surveillance. Many of these didn’t last long, or merged with other pirate broadcasters to share in financial costs & ad revenue.

Radio Caroline’s first ship – the MV Fredericia. Photo: The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame

Ronan O’Rahilly with the original Radio Caroline ship’s bell. Photo taken at the ‘Pirates Of The Irish Sea’ exhibition on the Isle of Man in 2008 by Declan Meehan.

The British government was furious & soon retaliated with punitive legislation & by extending the boundaries of sovereign marine borders. The pirate broadcasters were declared illegal & many, including Caroline were subjected to boardings by British police & Navy personnel. All but Caroline would sign off for good when British authorities raised the heavy hand of the law at them. Undaunted, Ronan O’Rahilly launched a second shipboard station – Radio Caroline North – & located this in the Irish Sea within a small pocket of waterway outside the defined borders. The existing station was renamed Radio Caroline South & moved anchor further from the coast beyond the now extended marine borders. Britain’s politicians & it’s broadcast regulator were also determined to financially ruin the pirate broadcasters & destroy their monopolies. In 1967, the BBC launched it’s new pop/rock music network – Radio One & hired away most of the Caroline DJ’s offering higher pay, fringe benefits & a chance to live on land avoiding the hazards of travel to/from the pirate ships & forts. However, the BBC maintained a tight control over Radio One & it’s DJs were confined to thematic programs & stiff guidelines. Up to this time, the BBC had virtually ignored & refused to program pop/rock music on it’s public stations with the exception of 2 hours weekly in which top name bands from England were invited to play their hits live before a studio audience. While Radio One found some success, many listeners preferred the freewheeling, outrageous style of the pirate stations with their larger playlists, talented DJ’s & ability to often ‘scoop’ Radio One playing the hits first. The UK parliament also made changes to the Broadcasting Act to finally implement privately owned, commercial radio stations. However, due to political wrangling & bureaucracy, it would be the early 70’s before Britain’s first commercial stations hit the air. The legislative move spread throughout Europe as France, Germany the Netherlands & Italy all expanded the broadcasting horizon allowing private, commercial radio in their countries.

Ronan O’Rahilly, left, on board the ship broadcasting Radio Caroline with DJs Jerry Leighton, Tony Prince and Lee Harrison. Photo: Daily Mail/Rex/Shutterstock

 

Tom Lodge from an undated edition of “The Big Line Up”, probably from April or May 1964. Recording by Albie Somerset & Pirate Radio Hall of Fame

As the AM & FM bands began to flourish with competition, the monopoly that Radio Caroline & other pirate broadcasters once had, quickly diminished resulting in less advertising & lower ad rates. By this time Radio Luxembourg had long ceased it’s payola-driven playlists & become a first class Top 40
encompassing all artists & labels that made the charts. In 1970, Ronan O’Rahilly attempted to launch a pirate TV station but that failed due to lack of investors versus start-up costs. Additionally, the challenges of covering large amounts of Britain with a UHF TV signal made the technical feat impossible. He made a bold programming move in 1970 changing the format at Radio Caroline from top 40 singles to an “underground/progressive” rock format relying on album cuts as was occurring in the US & Canada on FM stations with some success. This would be Britain & Europe’s first all- music station devoted to rock albums. Ronan continued to guide Radio Caroline‘s destiny & began making movies, none of which got off the ground. He resumed artist management in the 70’s with both successes & failures. His managerial advice to friend & James Bond actor George Lazenby, who had also acted in his failed movies, turned out to be less than productive. Counselling Lazenby to turn down future movie roles as James Bond all but
cost the fledgling actor his career. O’Rahilly also became intrigued by the spiritual teachings of Ram Dass while meantime becoming more secretive & reclusive to avoid prosecution by both British & Dutch authorities. By now Radio Caroline was far off the British coast using a powerful 50 kW transmitter to beam programming back to the UK. As the British government kept extending it’s territorial waters boundaries, Radio Caroline had taken up residence just off the Netherlands coast as that country had yet to implement legislation barring pirate ships. But by 1974 Dutch authorities had passed laws to that effect. Radio Caroline was once again in violations of government laws. 

Mike Ahern, morning show DJ on air 1965.  Audio clip: Ray Robinson & Pirate Radio Hall of Fame

Ronan O’Rahilly, 1964.  Photo: Daily Mail/Rex/Shutterstock

DJ Andy Archer, Dec 1972 with Radio Caroline’s new album-oriented progressive rock format,  The clip contains a commercial for the Ronan O’Rahilly produced movie ‘Gold’ voiced by DJ Tony Allen.  Audio clip: The Offshore Radio Archive & Pirate Radio Hall of Fame

From the mid-70’s onward, Radio Caroline had a very checkered history with many twists, turns, periods off air, financial struggles, horrific storms damaging it’s ships & antenna tower masts. At times it offered a second program service & signal & also made brief incursions into the short-wave broadcasting spectrum in attempts to lure international listeners or those in remote locations unable to hear the AM signal(s). In spite of this, Ronan relentlessly kept pursuing it’s continual operation. He had become a master of convincing investors to provide needed money to keep Caroline on air during hard times. Numerous celebrities he had come to know often came to the rescue with investment money. Former Beatle George Harrison, a friend of Ronan’s, contributed funds more than once to keep the maverick pirate station on the air. Over the years he was forced to sell & repurchase Radio Caroline, it’s ships & broadcasting gear 3 times over! As the 80’s began, O’Rahilly implemented another pioneering programming move – switching Caroline‘s format from album-rock to all oldies. Again, this was a format that had yet to be tried in Britain & Europe which once again put the station into profitable territory. He also leased out air time to other broadcasters who used the station’s facilities to broadcast their own programming to European listeners. In 1987, a horrific hurricane cripple the Caroline ship – now the MV Ross Revenge & it ended up being towed to a Dutch port where it was seized by authorities. By 1990 the money had finally run out & Ronan O’Rahilly had had enough. The station finally signed off & would
remain so for some time. At the start of 2000, a non-profit society had raised enough money to launch Radio Caroline on satellite & using a brand new technology – an Internet webstream.

Ronan in the early 1970’s. Photo: Radio Today

Radio Caroline’s final ship – the MV Ross Revenge.  Photo: Radio Caroline

Early in this millennium, it started becoming apparent to Ronan’s friends & associates that his freewheeling schemes & ideas to resurrect Radio Caroline & move into other entertainment ventures were becoming increasingly erratic & irrational, unusual traits for someone who so boldly took
chances often obtaining success. By late in the first decade more & more of those who surrounded him were concerned about his well-being. In 2013, he was diagnosed with vascular dementia. He left his long-time home in London’s Chelsea district & returned to his native Ireland and spent the last years of his life in a nursing home in Carlingford, near Dundalk. He died at 2.15pm on 20th April 2020, a month short of his eightieth birthday. He was one of a kind. His vision, innovation & sheer determination to change the landscape of British & European radio broadcasting place him with the greatest of broadcasting giants in our lifetime. Ronan’s funeral was held at St James Church, Co. Louth, Ireland on Thursday 23rd April. A private family affair, it was none-the-less broadcast via a webcam for those that wished to pay their respects from a distance. The flags aboard the MV ‘Ross Revenge’ are all flying at half mast this week.

Ronan O’Rahilly & some of the original Radio Caroline DJ’s at the stations’ 40th anniversary reunion, 2009.  Photo: Pirate Radio Hall of Fame

The end of Ronan’s involvement with Radio Caroline wasn’t the end of the station. In addition to it’s website providing 3 different program streams, it has been providing the weekend programming on 20 kW *1368 Manx Radio from the Isle of Man. Many original Caroline DJs such as Tony Prince &
Emporer Rosko spin oldies from the 60’s & 70’s in addition to vintage station jingles. In May 2017, Britain’s broadcast regulator Ofcom awarded the station a community licence to broadcast to Suffolk and north Essex on *648 kHz with a power of 1 kW. Commercial programming commenced at noon on Friday 22 December 2017, with a signal that could be heard as far afield as Southampton, Birmingham, Glasgow and in large parts of The Netherlands and Belgium.

Radio Caroline website & streams

In writing this tribute it should be noted that Radio Caroline has a lengthy history with many ups & downs, turns of events, adventures & misadventures. The stations’ entire story couldn’t possibly be told within the scope of this eulogy. For a detailed, non-fictional, accurate story of Radio Caroline, readers need to click here:  The Pirate Hall of Fame to read the story of this fascinating station.

* = readers note that these frequency notations are not ‘typos’ or mistakes. In North & South America, The AM band is divided into 10 kHz channels from 530-1700 kHz. Example: 530, 540, 550…1680, 1690, 1700. In Europe & the rest of the world, the band is defined as 531-1611 kHz. AM channels are separated by 9 kHz spacing. Example: 531, 540, 549, 558, 567…1584, 1592, 1602, 1611.

MV Ross Revenge. Photo: Radio Caroline

On the day of Ronan O’Rahilly’s passing this documentary tribute was broadcast on Radio Caroline by Peter Phillips:

Audio Tribute to Ronan O’Rahilly

On a personal note: I traveled around Europe for 3 months spring/early summer 1969 with radio in hand. Unfortunately Radio Caroline was off the air & it’s ships seized by Dutch authorities. However, I did get to hear pirates Radio Northsea International off the east coast of England which was “block” programmed with top 40 & rock at night, MOR, country & easy listening daylight hours. Radio Veronica aboard a ship anchored just off the Netherlands coast was a well-run, exciting top 40 station. I also got to listen to plenty of Radio Luxembourg, who had the best airstaff of all stations I heard. Changes were afoot as a few commercial stations had recently signed on & offered pop music some of their broadcast day – Radio Monte Carlo & Radio Andorra both from tiny countries/political entities. BBC Radio One was enjoyable at times, but was divided into thematic shows as opposed to a personality driven format with the emphasis on music. Radio One also had too many talk-oriented shows that merely talked about music as opposed to presenting it. Hearing the best of British & European rock radio was part of what made that trip memorable! (Mike Cherry)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mike Cherry

Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening

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