The True, Considerably Less Rocking Story Behind "Pirate Radio"

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 13 2009 10:22 AM

The True, Considerably Less Rocking Story Behind "Pirate Radio"

The film Pirate Radio , which opens in the U.S. on Friday, has a raucous premise: enterprising disc jockeys commission a leaky sea vessel to start a pirate radio station just outside of English waters, introducing rude, crude rock n' roll to the land of tea and crumpets. Rock the Queen! Wake up the BBC! Free love on the high seas! And, according to film adverts, it's "Inspired by a True Story."

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But whose story?  Fictional accounts of true events routinely streamline stories by creating composites of multiple characters, but Pirate Radio goes one further by making a composite of an entire culture. The mid-'60s witnessed a brief golden age of pirate radio, with at least a dozen floating stations emitting signals to the U.K. These stations circumvented British laws that prohibited private radio transmission by positioning themselves just beyond British waters. Radio Atlanta, Wonderful Radio London, Radio Invicta, Radio Sutch, Radio Essex, and Radio 270 all operated from repurposed rigs .

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Real pirate radio stations weren't particularly rock focused. For those who lived during this period, the film's fictional Radio Rock is bound to recall Radio Caroline , the most fabled of the 60s pirates. It started broadcasting in 1964 and enjoyed a brief heyday before a governmental crackdown in 1967. Radio Caroline played as much Sinatra as it did the Beatles, and programming listed toward the middle of the road. Another station, the Texas-owned Swinging Radio England, was slightly closer in spirit to the fictional Radio Rock, but SRE's format was aggressively Top 40, not rock.

Actual pirate radio's clash with the English establishment ultimately had less to do with the Kinks or the Rolling Stones than it did with commercial opportunity. From its inception in the early 1920s, English terrestrial radio was noncommercial and state-owned. By the early '60s, the BBC's three official, antiseptically named stations—the Home Service, the Light Programme , and the Third Programme —struggled to satisfy the broad and changing tastes of the nation's listeners. Into the void steamed pirate radio, bringing with it not only more choice, but also sponsored shows and slick advertisements. Pirate radio proved that markets were neither being served nor exploited by the BBC, a bad-for-business reality that even buttoned-up Britain had to acknowledge. Although the government succeeded in killing off the pirates with the Marine Broadcasting Offenses Act in 1967—a buzz kill not dramatized in the film—the commercial revolution had already begun. The BBC soon expanded its offerings and added new stations, and in 1973 commercial radio was legalized. Henceforth, English radio stations were free to play whatever style of music they wanted. Needless to say it hasn't been all long hair and Hendrix ever since, but writer-director Richard Curtis ( Love Actually , Notting Hill ) is probably wise, if not terribly truthful, to dramatize the fight for the right to party instead of the fight for the right to sell adverts.    

Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.

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