The Amazing Radio London Adventure
75 Miles from the office
Initially, one of the most demeaning facets of offshore radio was the fact that the Labour Government had branded us all as 'pirates'. However, as Keith Skues has pointed out in 'Pop Went the Pirates', the offshore stations of the Sixties were not the first to wear this label. It seems that early in the 1930s, any continental radio station that broadcast to England commercially was designated a 'pirate' operation. It would appear that the BBC had appointed itself the divine-right English-speaking radio station, and all others that played to that audience were taboo.
(Left) The distant Radio London office – Radlon (Sales) Ltd, 17 Curzon Street, London, W1
(Photo courtesy of Hans Knot)
In defence of the BBC, I might point out that in the early days before television, radio broadcasting was the most expedient means of communication. In as much as this was true, if a party wished to form a coup d'etat against a country, the first line of attack would have been to capture any and all of its radio stations in order to quickly disseminate that party's propaganda to the masses. I am not suggesting that the BBC or the British government was ever concerned that such an event was likely to take place, but it is a reasonable explanation as to why all countries at the time held very tight reins on radio transmissions.
By the 1960s, the British Government had come up with a new reason to extend the name 'pirate' to the offshore stations. The suggestion was that these stations were pirating their frequencies in opposition to the rules drawn up by the European Council. Furthermore, the marine-based stations were not registered with the Council at the Hague.
The argument that most of the offshore stations put forward was that they were operating in international waters and that the European Council had no jurisdiction over them. However, most of them tried to avoid confrontation with any of the European governments, choosing always to operate within the guidelines of the Council's broadcasting policies.
(right) Swedish group the Mascots pose in 1967 teeshirts next to the Radlon registered office sign.
A case in point was when Radio London occupied a frequency too close to that of Radio Zagreb in Yugoslavia, causing a heterodyne whistle to accompany Zagreb's night-time signal. Thinking that Radio London was a part of the BBC consortium, Zagreb sent a message to the BBC telling them to get off their frequency. The BBC forwarded the message to Radio London and we immediately changed frequency so as not to interfere with the Zagreb station.
It was my observation that the name 'pirate' was more often offensive to the station owners and managers than it was to the deejays. Those in charge thought the term demoralising and insulting, while the deejays regarded it as a romantic accolade which recalled the days of the swashbucklers in all their glory.
It is likely, after a few generations, that the descendants of these radio pioneers will trace themselves back to their pirate ancestors, just as the Aussies trace themselves back to the original prisoners who occupied Australia. There is oneexception to this analogy. The prisoners who first occupied Australia had previously been convicted of a crime. The so-called pirates were perfectly legal except for any that operated in territorial waters, or the ones in later years who set up stations ashore.
As a Programme Director, my one great problem was the distance of the ship from the office. Considering that programme directing is one of the most challenging jobs in broadcasting, and that deejays are the most high-spirited, devil-may-care groups in society, the PD always has to be at his very best. It is his job to control the output of the deejays without limiting their audience appeal. Sometimes this is an almost-impossible job, and it is even more difficult when the station is 75 miles away from the office!
(Left) Brenda Cogdell and Dave Cash pose for the camera with an unknown lady inside the office, with a huge photo of the Galaxy as a backdrop.
Much of my time was spent outside the office in Curzon Street, but the staff and our traffic manager Roger Seddon always had their radios tuned to Radio London. If the deejays made unsavoury comments on the air, I was informed upon my return to the office. I usually kept a list of criticisms of the shows, which I shared with the deejays in a not-too-pleasant way when I made my weekly Saturday trip to the ship. I lashed out at the worst offenders, hoping that my presence would be felt until my return a week later. Of course, this kind of problem would have never occurred had the station been located on land.
Attention from Big Brother
I had first arrived in England on November 11th, 1964, with a three-month visa stamped in my passport. During those three months, life was very hectic. So, when it came time to renew my visa, my mind was elsewhere and I was eleven days late getting to the Home Office to sort out a renewal.
I had a great amount of apprehension about the possibility of the Labour Government not allowing me to remain in the country. They were highly opposed to pirate radio. Furthermore, Philip Birch [MD of Radlon] had informed me that one of his friends, a Member of Parliament, had told him that a weekly report about me was being placed on the desk of Harold Wilson the Prime Minister. The fact that I was being carefully watched by the government and that I was late renewing my visa, led me to believe that I might be deported before I had a chance to complete my job at Radio London.
To add to the tension, as I was leaving the office for the Home Office, one of my fellow workers jokingly called out, "Good luck, Ben, we'll see you this afternoon – if they don't run you out of the country on a rail!" Needless to say, by the time I arrived at the Home Office, I was well keyed up.
I walked through the front door and went to the lady who was in charge of visa renewals. I noticed that her name plate said 'S.J. Wilson' and I wondered if she might be related to the PM. I told her that I was very sorry that I had allowed my visa to expire, but that I had been extremely busy with my work and the expiration date had just slipped past me. I then informed her that I would like to have an annual visa this time rather than a three-month one. She asked, ''Mr Toney, where do you work?'' I told her that I worked on a ship off the English coast, whereupon she gave me a rather curious look and queried, "You don't by any chance work on one of those pirate radio ships, do you?''
That was it. I knew at that moment I could not deny being a part of the offshore radio gang. I confessed that I was the programme director of Radio London and that I hoped to be coming ashore very often. At that moment the stolid demeanour of Mrs. Wilson changed to a noticeable frown as she remarked, 'Mr Toney, wait here for a moment. I have to check something."
Mrs. Wilson was gone for about five minutes, but it seemed like an hour. Finally, she returned with another lady. My mind told me at this point that the woman had brought in reinforcements to usher me out of the country. As the pair neared the window, Mrs. Wilson broke into a broad smile and announced, 'Mr. Toney, I would like to introduce you to Mabel. She is one of Radio London's biggest fans!'
I all but fell over. As I was collecting my senses, Mrs. Wilson stamped my passport, and both of these wonderful ladies wished me the best of luck with Radio London. There is indeed something to be said for the British sense of fairness and sportsmanship.
An old adversary
Looking back to Miami in 1964 and the days when our ship was being readied for her long voyage, Don Pierson and I had been in the habit of meeting for drinks at the end of the working day at the Dumont Plaza Hotel, before going into the restaurant for our evening meal. It seemed that every evening while we were in the bar, Don would be approached by the ship's Greek former owner Captain Pandelis Tsirbis about the money owed him for the sale of the MV Manoula, which was now registered as the MV Galaxy. Tsirbis spoke very little English and when Don told him that his money was in the bank in an escrow account, he failed to understand. Don finally got to the point that he paid little or no attention to the captain's rantings, but this led to some of his men trying to hijack the ship. Their attempt was futile, but this was not to be the end of the affair. On April 23rd 1965, it came back to haunt me.
I was standing in the reception area at 17 Curzon Street when the door flew open and the figure of Captain Tsirbis appeared with a member of the London constabulary. Tsirbis pointed his finger directly at me and in a loud voice said to the bobby, ''This man is going to kill me. He's Don Pierson's bodyguard and he's going to kill me. They stole my ship and this man's going to kill me.''
The bobby took me aside and asked me my name. I told him that I was Ben Toney, whereupon, he asked in a very sober voice, "Do you really intend to kill this man?" I said, "No, I have never given it a thought!" Then the bobby asked, "Why does this man think you have stolen his ship?"
By this time Philip Birch (right) had heard the ruckus outside and had joined me and the bobby. I could almost read Phil's mind. He was probably thinking that this was just another end that Don Pierson had left untied. Don had his faults, but he was foremost a businessman and would never have made a serious mistake on a sales contract.
Finally, Phil chimed in with, "Ben, why does this man think we stole his ship?'' I told Phil and the bobby about the scenario in Miami with Tsirbis and informed them that all the man had to do was go to his bank and sign a few papers to get the money. Phil immediately went to his office and called our lawyer in Miami and asked him to help the Greek get his money from the bank. Phil then gave Tsirbis the lawyer's address and phone number, and we presumed that we had seen the last of Tsirbis. We were all wrong. The following day Tsirbis got onto the press and revealed to them that he no longer wanted his money, but wanted his ship back.
This threw Philip Birch into a tizz. Of course, there was no need to be bothered by Tsirbis's actions. He was a born troublemaker and there was not a chance in hell that he could take the ship back. Any lawyer could have told Birch that the sale was perfectly legitimitate and the only mistakes that had been made were those of Tsirbis himself.
Sometime later, we found out that Tsirbis had given up his plan to take the ship back and had returned to Miami and collected his money.