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21 March 2023

Book Review: Radio Caroline: The Pirate Years


Our review of this revised edition as featured in RadioUser September 2018

Reviewed by: David Harris

Buy your copy of Radio Caroline here

This is a revised version of a book first published in 2003. It is also the first history of Radio Caroline since 2014, when a number of titles were published which I previously reviewed (RadioUser June 2015: 54-55). 

It is disappointing that this new book is not an up-to-date history of Radio Caroline but rather a history of offshore radio from 1958 to 1980.  Radio Caroline does take up a good part of the book, but the volume also includes detailed accounts of other ship- and fort-based radio stations that broadcast between 1958 and 1980. The book ends with a statement that the history of Radio Caroline from 1980 onwards will form the basis of another book. 

A partial history of Radio Caroline up to 1980 may have been worthwhile. However, the reader faces many challenges with this present book. First, there seems to have been no editorial intervention.  The author has gone to great lengths to pull together a tremendous amount of information about offshore radio. However, having collected all of this information, he then regurgitates it all in strict chronological order.  The book does not really have any structure and the author does not express any view about his subject.  Unlike most books about pirate radio, the author had not worked on an offshore station but was an officer with Trinity House (The English Lighthouse service). 

The book is also too long and in parts over-written. The strict chronological sequence of the narrative means that, sometimes, we learn about several different ships and their problems, all on one page. The book would have worked better if it had confined itself to Radio Caroline and then provided a brief couple of chapters to bring the story up to date.

Alternatively, the story of the other pirate ships from Radio Mercur which started broadcasting to Denmark in 1958 to Laser, which began in 1984 could have been covered as a series of short chapters focusing on the individual station or ship. At times one is overwhelmed with detail.

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The book is very strong on the, ‘who’, ‘where’, and ‘when’ of pirate radio but there is no discussion as to the ‘why’ and ‘what’” of offshore broadcasting.  The whole point of offshore radio was to provide unlimited popular music to an audience starved of popular culture by state broadcasters impinged by needle time agreements and locked into a conservative view of what young people wanted from the radio.

There is no discussion of the music or the role played by presenters in shaping music policy on the ships. Instead, we learn about every gale, every anchor chain that broke, every mast stay that snapped and a lot of other extraneous information.

Despite its shortcomings, the book is a potential mine of information. The chapter on Scandinavian pirates and the early years of Dutch pirate Radio Veronica cover an area that most radio books choose to ignore. The core chapter which covers the years from 1964 to 1968, manages to fit in all of the ship- and fort-based stations that broadcast to the UK during the ‘Golden Age’ of pirate radio. The book provides a lot of detail about the rigging of aerials and fitting of anchors, topics which are often considered too ‘prosaic’ by other commentators.

The chapter covering 1970 to 1974, which the author refers to as the ‘Dutch Era’, is quite confusing; we are on unfamiliar ground when discussing Dutch stations. The conflicts between Radio Veronica and Radio North Sea International, which involved fire-bombings, could make the basis of a book in their own right but are related in such a breathless style that one yearns for a bit of reflection rather than just a driving narrative.

In the chapter Fight for Survival: 1974 -1980, things really get complicated with the MV Mi Amigo hosting Radio Caroline and a Dutch station that was also called Mi Amigo. There is some coverage on the rather ‘hippy-ish’ concept of Loving Awareness, a philosophy embraced by Caroline that, arguably, bored most listeners stupid during this period.

The phrase ‘Curates Egg’ comes to mind when summing up this book. Mr Humphreys must have spent a very long time gathering up all of this information, but he really has not thought about what to do with it all. On the positive side, the book is well illustrated with good photos of the ships and there is at least an index.

A bibliography would have been useful, as the book seems to have been compiled mainly from unacknowledged secondary sources. 

Buy your copy of Radio Caroline here

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