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The role the pirate radio stations played in freeing the airwaves.

radio 270Wilfred Proudfoot has just died aged 91.  He was a Yorkshire grocer and entrepreneur who twice served as a Conservative MP and who played a significant role in breaking the BBC’s monopoly of radio broadcasting. That monopoly allowed no-one to compete with the BBC’s Light Programme, Home Service and Third Programme. The BBC was in thrall to the Musicians’ Union.  To support live musicians, the union severely restricted ‘needle time,’ the playing of recorded music, and the BBC had to employ live orchestras instead. The BBC’s most popular programme was its Sunday “Family Favourites” in which the forces and their families requested records to be played for each other. The two presenters, who were disc jockeys in all but name, were celebrities. Young people yearning for pop music, would tune in instead to patchy reception from Radio Luxembourg on 208 metres.

Onto that scene in the 1960s came the pirate stations. With the transmitters aboard ships moored beyond territorial waters, they beamed a diet of the pop music young people wanted and enjoyed a dazzling popularity. Radio Caroline started the ball rolling, but soon there were many of them: Radio London, Radio Scotland, Radio 390, and many others. Radio 270 was Wilfred Proudfoot’s contribution, sitting in international waters off the Yorkshire coast. In St Andrews at the time, I rigged up a complicated aerial of chicken wire running around the picture rails in my room, and using the bed frame as part of it. With this I was able to receive many of the pirate stations, including Proudfoot’s 270.

Alas, the killjoy Labour Government passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Bill to outlaw the pirate stations, and Radio 270 closed down along with all of the others except Radio Caroline, which decided to defy the law. Proudfoot had his revenge, though. As a Tory MP he took up the issue of broadcasting, and eventually saw the BBC radio monopoly broken and a plethora of independent stations opened up. I met him a few times and found him almost a stereotype of the bluff, friendly, no-nonsense Yorkshireman. He played an honourable part in giving people the freedom to choose what to listen to.

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5 Responses

  1. It’s very hard to imagine living in a country where the government would control what you could listen to on the radio or what you could watch on tv, and in addition make the programmes it thought were suitable but, we were there.

    • Mark

      That is just how it was no choice of radio. We now need to recognise the part Radio Caroline in particular had in pioneering a revolution in radio not only in the UK but Europe by giving the station a frequency to broadcast on wit its 50th anniversary next year.

  2. I fear that the dash towards Digital will restrict listener’s choice even more. The cost of renting space on a multiplex is only for the big boys. Meanwhile tiny community stations are still burdened by regulations far worse than standard commercial stations. Ofcom will announce in the autumn a scheme for low powered medium wave operations, but with a likely radius of 10km it sounds like a hiding to nothing. Having deregistered 648kHz from Orfordness, Ofcom has killed off the chance that, possibly Caroline, could ever have a national or even regional voice. So we’re back to the ’60s situation of more & more national, dull formatted stations saying nothing to a local audience. Wilf Proudfoot would be dismayed, yet again.

    • Ron – Radio Caroline does have a national voice via its internet transmissions (radiocaroline.co.uk). It is great that it still trail blazes free broadcasting almost 50 years since its launch. If only it had taxpayers’ funds to promote itself with, like its “rivals”!

  3. A interesting reflection on the man. I lived in the South East and Radio 270 did not feature large on my radio habits. There is no doubt that Radio 270 and Proudfoots influence played a significant part in the liberation of airwaves to the common man.

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