So. Radio Caroline
has gone off the air once again. You can't fault the organisation for perseverance,
can you? To have the financial millstone of the Ross around their neck, as
their symbol of the Caroline of the 70s and 80s, must give Peter Moore sleepless
nights. To have still been committed to a weekly satellite service in the
wake of huge bills incurred when the Ross ran aground at Christmas in 1999,
must have caused even more headaches for all concerned. Yes, the path to satellite
radio has many potholes.
I worked for SKY TV when the company went on air in February 1989. Working in Master Control, we also handled the audio feeds to the satellite for all the radio stations - SKY Radio, Holland FM, Euronet, Solar FM, QEFM, etc. I saw them come and go. Euronet and QEFM didn't last, but Solar can now be found on SKY Digital. I understand someone has a lot of money to keep it going! SKY Radio and Holland FM survived because the satellite was mainly used as a means of getting the signal on to cable networks in Holland. We forget that in Europe, cable is much more prevalent than in the UK, indeed Germany had about 19 million households wired-up by the mid-80s.
So why target your UK radio audience via satellite? When it was realised, by people who wanted the age of real radio back, that you could have radio on satellite, it looked like the way forward. (We call it radio by virtue of the programming that's on there, but it's just other audio signals associated with a particular TV channel in reality.) Practically, how do you convince someone to have the TV on to listen to the radio? It was doomed to failure!
In the early days of SKY, TV dealers would install dishes for a couple of weeks so that prospective viewers could see if they liked the new service. I remember one particular dealer in the North of England, who if the final sale didn't look like going through, would say, "Did you realise you can get radio on the satellite as well?"
Remarkably, this would usually get a reaction such as, "I never knew that. That sounds good." He would produce a long audio lead and plug the satellite into their hi-fi, and they would be so impressed they'd buy the system. That would sell it, and I'm not making this up!
In the early days, Sky Radio had a great selection of music on their service, with a few commercials in Dutch which didn't detract from the music. It was actually a bit of a novelty! Later, Sky Radio was available on FM in Holland, so more commercials and news were added, and the station became rather hard work for English-speaking listeners. Such is progress, of course.
European Klassic Rock (EKR) was another station to put money into satellite radio. We enjoyed all the great rock music and revelled in hearing Big L's Dave Cash having the time of his life back on the air. I felt for Peter Leutner, EKR's owner, as I, (along with many other people I should think), knew full well that the station was doomed to failure. They did have an ace up their sleeve, though!
Low-power FM and Medium Wave RSLs (Restricted Service Licences) in the UK, were intended to enable an organisation to 'test the water' in a particular area in order that they would be well-prepared to apply for a local radio licence in said area, should one become available. You're also permitted to have RSLs for special events. Hence Radios London and Caroline, RNI and others have been allowed to broadcast legally for a month at a time. EKR had the idea of obtaining RSLs within large towns to promote the satellite station, therefore hopefully getting people to tune into Astra once the RSL finished. When they launched, EKR had an RSL broadcasting the satellite service on FM in Kent. They then secured an RSL in North London. (Incidentally, this broadcast saw Dave Cash pick up a big audience of former listeners from his Capital Radio days in the 70s. See, real radio can work!)
By this time, EKR had applied for an RSL in Birmingham. What a coup that would have been! The Radio Authority was getting twitchy, and refused EKR's application for their next RSL. Land-based RSLs had never been used to promote a satellite radio station before - they hadn't thought of that one! So the RA changed the rules. No surprise there. Conspiracy theory would have it that the government of the day didn't want satellite radio to take off because that would take the spotlight away from large money-making radio groups running ILR stations (and therefore less money for the RA and the government). Plain old cynics like me would say that what do you expect to happen when someone comes up with a back door to the nation's listening potential?
What has this state of affairs got to do with Radio Caroline. Well, just about everything actually! They are, as DJs on the station will say, the station "that refuses to die". They are the station that, while not sounding anything like the 60s version that we know and love, keep bashing away at being different to everything else on the air. We may get fed up with, "When we went aground" or what the DJ lads were talking about in the pub, but we can't deny a part in satellite radio history for them.
Peter Moore and his colleagues have discovered what an uphill struggle it is in satellite radio. You can't persuade advertisers that anyone's listening out there. There are no RAJAR figures to support anything. A radio station that potentially covers Europe should be in a prime position, but sadly the facts don't change from one year to the next. How do you persuade people to listen to it? Followers of the station are already swapping stories about where to get digital satellite receivers cheaply, so that they can listen when Caroline comes back on Astra digital in May. But what about listening in the car, the bathroom, the Walkman - forget it!
I wish her well on digital satellite, but - well, you know... Caroline has the knack of surviving and turning up again no matter what. If she doesn't survive on Astra digital, who knows where she'll turn up next, but turn up she will!