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How the Beeb struggled to adapt to radio pirate ways

PUBLISHED: 07:31 21 September 2017 | UPDATED: 10:04 21 September 2017

The MV Caroline, off the East Anglian coast, home of Radio Caroline. When the pirate radio DJs joined the new BBC national networks in 1967 there was an instant culture clash, says David Clayton.

The MV Caroline, off the East Anglian coast, home of Radio Caroline. When the pirate radio DJs joined the new BBC national networks in 1967 there was an instant culture clash, says David Clayton.

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Opinion: David Clayton recalls how the informal style of ex-pirate radio DJs proved a problem for their new BBC bosses 50 years ago.

Fifty years ago, we were treated to an overhaul of our national radio listening. Looking back, it was a long overdue re-shuffle of the BBC’s radio networks and was rather forced on the corporation as they looked to fill the pop music vacuum left by pirate radio’s demise.

Those famous boats that rocked were silenced with some “strong-arm” Government legislation in August 1967 leaving millions of us hungry for the non-stop hits of the day. Gone from the dials were the quaintly-named, but evocative “Light Programme,” “Third Programme” and “Home Service” and along came Radios 2, 3 and 4 with the much-heralded arrival of Radio 1 taking over the Light Programme’s old medium wave frequency of 247 metres. The older ones amongst us will, no doubt, be singing the jingle right now!

Many of the pirate DJs we’d grown to know and love jumped ship and landed ashore at Broadcasting House. On Saturday September 30 1967 Radio 1’s new Breakfast Show kicked off with Tony Blackburn playing The Move’s “Flowers in the Rain”, Keith Skues hosted “Saturday Club” at 10am and then came Emperor Rosko with “Midday Spin.” Those pirate radio names went some way to assuaging the national anger over the pirate padio cull.

For fans of the heady “watery wireless” days like me, it was nowhere near what we’d enjoyed. The BBC, at the time, wasn’t used to DJs just sitting there with a pile of vinyl records and ad-libbing, they were more used to announcers and scripts. The other problem was “needle time.” The pirates played what they wanted and as much as they wanted but the Beeb was constrained by a Musicians’ Union agreement to play a good percentage of live music and to that end, employed numerous orchestras. So, you’d probably hear Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra playing a Beatles tune rather than the Beatles record itself and the Northern Dance Orchestra knocking off a Rolling Stones medley. Then, as the broadcasting day progressed, Radio 1 shared programmes with Radio 2.

The pirate DJs almost certainly didn’t moan about it at the time, grateful as they were to have a job with the nation’s broadcaster, but unlike their programmes on board the ships, which were basically one man and a pile of records, BBC producers would be hovering in the background timing links, choosing the music the DJs could play and insisting on production meetings. A stop-watch ruled and to start with ad libs and the resulting knock-about fun were scripted out. We heard the difference and it wasn’t the same.

I’m not sure the recording exists now but on Radio 1’s first day, as Emperor Rosko shouted his high-energy, groovy, mid-Atlantic DJ patter up to the news bulletin, John Dunn was heard to intone something like, “This is BBC Radio One (pause) now the news at 12.30 (longer pause) …in English!

It’s difficult to conceive half a century on, but the pirate stations gave broadcasting a huge kick up the backside. Having spent most of my working life in radio there’s no doubt, as far as I’m concerned, that the pirate DJs forged a style which still influences today. It was informal, it was chatty, it was interactive and fun. Radio 1 got there in the end and I was a huge fan because they wrestled a bit more needle time from the MU and gradually cut the DJs some slack, although the brilliant Kenny Everett took a little too much of it!

The BBC claimed a huge audience for Radio 1 very quickly. However a national newspaper remained a tad cynical, recognising the pirates had created an audience the BBC simply “cashed in on.” Had the pirates still been on air, would it have been so successful? I’m not so sure, but you’ve made it to 50, so Happy Birthday Radio 1!

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