Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Radio Ga-Ga #2: 1962-2004

Continuing the bizarre tale of piracy, misdirection and hallucinogens that is the history of London radio started in the previous post. PLEASE READ THE FIRST POST FIRST!

1962 saw the launch of RADIO CAROLINE from a ship moored just off the Essex Coast. Incensed by this upstart, the BBC was furious and attempted legal proceedings. However, the Beeb did have one extremely useful trick up its sleeve - the Received English Act of 1934. Originally designed as a way of keept the Queen's English free of the taint of "provincial" accents such as Scouse, Welsh or Cockney, the REA gave the BBC massive power to decide what was and what wasn't "proper" English, power it immediately used to stop Radio Caroline and the other "pirate" stations from using capital letters. It would have to become radio caroline, and would no longer be able to use acronyms or abbreviations, forcing the station to say british broadcasting corporation rather than BBC, frequency modulation rather than FM and disc jockey rather than DJ.

This was purely a wrecking tactic, designed to waste caroline's airtime and hurt its credibility. The staff were furious, but could do little, and slowly turned to the brutal tactics of the Spanish Main in order to stay operational: boarding msaller pirate stations and stealing their records, for instance, and raiding coastal villages - a devastating raid by Simon Dee (or simon fourth-letter-of-the-alphabet, as he had to be known after the REA was enforced) on Sheerness in 1968 reduced the settlement to a smoking ruin.

Eventually, weakened by this campaign and torn by schisms, radio caroline ceased transmission and was boarded by the Royal Navy under the command of Lord Belfast. The seized ship was towed into London by a triumphant Establishment and moored next to Tower Bridge, after being renamed HMS Belfast (picture).

But caroline had already had its influence. Its battle-hardened crew - including simon 4th-letter, alan "fluffbeard" freeman and tony blackburn - quickly stormed the offices of the new Radio One and secured their places in broadcasting history. Meanwhile, another set of desperadoes decided to stick with London broadcasting after the ban on capital letters was lifted. Some set up the defiantly titled "Lower Case Broadcasting" and gave it the deliberately confusing abbreviation LBC, while the notorious Chris Tarrant - feared at sea, when he went under the name "Captain Smirk" - set up the equally defiant CAPITALS RADIO, later shortened to CAPITAL FM. (If you click on that link, notice how "capital" on the logo is all in lower case - another snub to the REA!)

And so, London's radio scene settled into its now-familiar pattern, although LBC died and the stations KISS FM and XFM arrived to cater for more modern music.

However, the last legacy of caroline and the REA was a daring raid on the BBC Radio London offices at the turn of the century. An unknown band of thieves, bearded men who reeked of rum, succeeded in making off with most of the letters of the station's name, leaving it absurdly truncated to LDN. This escapade took months to correct, and shows that the spirit of caroline lives on ...

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