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Life as Performance Art

On late cold nights when I was growing up, I would listen to my father’s shortwave radio receiver.  
I could not make sense of the amateurs sending Morse Code but delighted in finding an English-speaking commercial station. 
There were many, but the one that boomed through the airwaves was BBC from London. I would listen for top-of-the-hour “pips,” as the short single-tones were called, and a plummy-voiced announcer saying, “This is London.” When he read the news, you knew he meant business.  
I liked it, as we might hear news stories Edward R. Murrow, Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite left out.
Other stations came from the Netherlands, the Armed Forces Radio and Voice of America. The one I was never able to connect was the fabled “Pirate Radio,” said to come from somewhere in the Irish Sea.
“Beeb” managing director John Reith was as serious about radio as presenters were about the news stories they were reading. Some thought him an intimidating, micro-managing autocrat.
One of his hard and fast rules was presenters had to wear tuxedos for their radio listeners not to see. The other was only classical music would be broadcast. In the early days that meant no Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller or even Lawrence Welk.  
The sole exception came during World War II when Reith relented and let the popular “Music While You Work” air for those in factories or at home. He said it was good for morale and the war effort.
The station went back to all-classical after the war, while others in Europe started playing newly-popular boogie-woogie and rock ‘n’ roll. British youths were tired of listening to what they called “long-haired music” and wanted to listen to shaggy-haired musicians like the Beatles, Elvis and black artists, among others.
In 1964, Ronan O’Rahilly bought a vintage Danish freighter, renamed it “Caroline” in honor of U.S. President Kennedy’s daughter, installed generators, fuel tanks, living quarters, transmitters and antennas.  
He sailed The Caroline into international Irish Sea waters just over three miles off the English Coast and March 27 started broadcasting the new music with 20 kilowatts of power. That station keeps broadcasting to this day.
Heads of the BBC and British Post Office, under which it was chartered, were livid. Many clergy decried the outrage. Awful things were sure to happen: morality would plunge, youths would take up shameful habits such as drinking lager, smoking and
snogging in the back rows of movie houses.
There were fierce debates in Parliament, with the conservative Tories in a snit while the more-liberal Labour Party supported the airwave pirates.
To offend the BBC even more, one pirate warned his international audience he was going to say a well-known but dirty word starting with the sixth letter of the alphabet. “That’s ‘f,’” he said. “So if you’re going to be offended, plug your ears.”
A bill was introduced in Parliament to outlaw “at sea” (i.e. beyond three miles) stations from broadcasting. Though it failed, the radio wars were not over.
Other pirate stations popped up and turned rivals. One set up on a sea fort off the English coast, prompting efforts to board and capture it. An argument over unpaid-for transmitters led to a shoot-out that left one dead.
The tiny Island of Man’s Manx Parliament passed a bill supporting pirate radios. Since the island was independent, there was nothing the U.K. Parliament could do. There was talk of a British invasion, but that military type of it never happened.
Storms at sea instead did in pirate radio. One March 20, 1980 caused The Caroline to lose its anchor, drift and start to flounder. Announcers Steve Gordon and Tom Anderson explained the situation, and signed off, “For the moment from all of us, goodnight and God bless.”
Ten minutes later, the ship went down. With a new boat a few weeks later, they were back in business.
“Whether (Radio) Caroline was right to maintain her defiance for so many years is irrelevant,” BBC actor Steve McGann wrote years later.
“Her story illustrates how uniquely dangerous governments regard an independent voice transmitted over unrestricted airwaves and to what ends they will go to silence it.”
Pirate radio’s story plays to the latent anarchist in us all. As Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock put it: “There is nothing funny about an old, frail person slipping on a banana peel. But we laugh when pompous, overfed banker or politician take the fall.
When the BBC became stuck in its ways, it took radio pirates to stir things up. They saved the BBC in the end by forcing it to expand its broadcasting. I have no right to impose my musical taste on you, nor do you on me.
Keep expression free!

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