Long before Spotify, livestreaming and TV on demand, in 1965 to be exact, a group of about 500 students arrived at a new university that had just opened not far from the north Kent coast, just north of Canterbury. Needless to say, high on the agenda was establishing an exciting social life – and many parties ensued. Luckily for them just a few miles away, broadcasting from a ship just off the north Kent coast was the perfect accompaniment. The pirate radio station, Radio Caroline.
Radio Caroline had started broadcasting the year before and set about providing a potent antidote to the sterile censored playlists available from the BBC. Caroline was illegal, revolutionary, free-spirited and introduced to its (mostly teenaged) audience music genres they had never heard before. Their “Age of Loving Awareness” unsurprisingly proved a huge hit with the students of the university perched on the hill just 10 miles from the pirate radio ship. A relationship that would last decades.
Throughout the ensuing years the British government waged a war against the unlicensed Pirate Radio stations and Kent students were never far from the campaigns supporting pirate radio – It was part of a battle for free speech, deregulation and personal freedom. But it was also a battle to listen to good music. Content on the BBC was strictly controlled. And the signal from Radio Luxembourg swam in and out much of the time. Radio Caroline, moored just a few miles away – became a way of life.
Plenty of Kent students would take an illicit boat trip from Whitstable harbour to visit first the radio ship MV Mi Amigo, and later the replacement ship MV Ross Revenge.
As an alumnus myself, I remember in 1976 Canadian band Klaatu had caused quite a stir when they released their iconic track ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’ (re-released under license by the Carpenters in 1977, which became a massive hit). The original Klaatu track was used by the pirate radio station Radio Caroline to open its evening show every night throughout most of 1979. You could hear it drifting down corridors of Eliot College like a siren calling us out to play. We knew some of the guys who clandestinely supplied the ship (MV Mi Amigo) and it was something of a ritual to tune in every evening. Sometimes the DJ would accidentally play it twice. On other occasions the track would end and be followed by silence for a while. It was right at the end of that period of the life of Radio Caroline – which at its height had millions of listeners. In 1980 the MV Mi Amigo sank and the crew were rescued by the Sheerness lifeboat. When the radio station returned in 1983 it was broadcast from a bigger boat and was perhaps more organised.
I am willing to bet thousands of Kent students would have listened to radio Caroline over very many years. It was incredibly popular, local, and being a pirate radio station was illegal, and so a big hit with students throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.
We would love to hear your memories of Radio Caroline. Were you one of the Kent students who risked the wrath of the authorities to visit the pirates?
Photographs copyright Steve Weaver