Pirate radio in the UK first became widespread in the early 1960s when pop music stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London started to broadcast on medium wave to the UK from offshore ships or disused sea forts. At the time, these stations were not illegal because they were broadcasting from international waters. The stations were set up by entrepreneurs and music enthusiasts to meet the growing demand for pop and rock music, which was not catered for by BBC Radio services. The first British pirate radio station was Radio Caroline, which started broadcasting from a ship off the Essex coast in 1964. By 1967, ten pirate radio stations were broadcasting to an estimated daily audience of 10-15 million.
Radio Scotland was an offshore pirate radio station broadcasting on 1241 kHz mediumwave (242 metres), created by Tommy Shields in 1965. The station was on the former lightship L.V. Comet, which had been fitted out as a radio station in Guernsey using RCA technology and engineers, it was anchored at locations off Scotland, usually outside territorial waters. The station began on 31 December 1965
The UK Government closed the international waters loophole via the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in 1967 which came into effect at midnight on the 14th August 1967, although Radio Caroline would continue to broadcast in various forms right up to 1990. When Marine &c. Broadcasting Offences Act become law on 14 August 1967, Radio Caroline was renamed Radio Caroline International. Six weeks later, the BBC introduced its new national pop station Radio 1, modelled largely on the successful offshore station Radio London, and employed many of the ex-pirate DJs.
On 24 March 1970, a radio ship named Mebo II anchored off the east coast of England during the UK general election campaign, broadcasting as Radio North Sea International (RNI). RNI operated on medium wave, short wave and FM. Its medium wave transmission was jammed by the UK authorities and on 13 June, RNI changed its name to Radio Caroline International with co-operation from Ronan O’Rahilly. Radio Caroline lobbied against the Labour Party, for the Conservative Party and for the introduction of licensed commercial radio in the United Kingdom. Following the election, RNI resumed its original name but jamming continued under the newly-elected Conservative government. It was not until RNI returned to its original anchorage off the Netherlands that the jamming ceased.
From June 1971 until the end of August 1974 Radio North Sea International was a regular and reliable broadcaster from international waters, four miles from the coast of the Netherlands. The main MW transmissions continued at about 50 kW on 1367 kHz, shortwave using 10 kW on 6205 kHz and VHF FM on 100 MHz. Dutch programs, which were mostly taped on land, were extended eventually to 20:00 Central European Time (CET).
Programs in English extended at the weekends from 03:00 until 06:00, when Dutch language programming began. The second 10 kW AM TX was tested on medium wave 773 kHz, and on 30 September 1972 as RNI 2, a second stream on 1562 kHz, in addition to the main stream on 1367 kHz, and intended to assure advertisers that, if need arose, Mebo II could continue transmissions on another frequency. The main English-language service closed at midnight on 30/31 August 1974, and Dutch transmissions ceased on 31 August 1974 at 20:00.
Following RNI’s closure due to the Dutch Marine Offences Act, it was announced that the ship would move to Italy to broadcast as that country’s first offshore radio station. However, this plan fell through, and in 1976 the ship sailed to Libya where it operated for some time in coastal waters relaying Libyan state radio. Later its broadcast operations ceased, and it was sunk in 1980 when it was targeted for Libyan rocket practice.
Radio Caroline is a British radio station founded in 1964 by Ronan O’Rahilly and George Drummond initially to circumvent the record companies’ control of popular music broadcasting in the United Kingdom and the BBC’s radio broadcasting monopoly. Unlicensed by any government for most of its early life, it was a pirate radio station that never became illegal as such due to operating outside any national jurisdiction, although after the Marine Offences Act (1967) it became illegal for a British subject to associate with it.
The Radio Caroline name was used to broadcast from international waters, using five different ships with three different owners, from 1964 to 1990, and via satellite from 1998 to 2013. Since 19 August 2000, Radio Caroline has also broadcast 24 hours a day via the internet and by the occasional restricted service licence. Currently they also broadcast on DAB radio in certain areas of the UK: these services are part of the Ofcom small-scale DAB+ trials. Caroline can be heard on DAB+ in Aldershot, Birmingham, Cambridge, Brighton, Glasgow, Norwich, London, Portsmouth, Poulton-le-Fylde and Woking.
In May 2017, Ofcom awarded the station an AM band community licence to broadcast to Suffolk and north Essex; full-time broadcasting, via a previously redundant BBC World Service transmitter mast at Orford Ness, commenced on 22 December 2017.
Radio Caroline broadcasts music from the 1960s to contemporary, with an emphasis on album-oriented rock (AOR) and “new” music from “carefully selected albums”. On 1 January 2016, a second channel was launched called Caroline Flashback, playing pop music from the late 1950s to the early 1980s.