More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism – Part Three

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

I can recall quite clearly first tuning into what was then a truly innovative phenomenon in radio. It was a Sunday morning in the spring of 1964, and The Observer newspaper had a story on the front page about test transmissions from a so-called ‘pirate’ radio ship, called Radio Caroline, anchored somewhere off the Thames estuary.

Portable transistor radios were, in those days, still a relatively new arrival on the consumer goods shelves and they lacked the power and sensitivity to receive such weak signals. True enough, I could not receive Radio Caroline from my home in the north of Scotland on a transistor radio but, being the radio aficionado that I was, I connected the RAF communications receiver to a 120 foot-long wire antenna in the garden below. I worked out the length of aerial required to form a full wavelength and switched on . . . I was not altogether sure why at the time, but I felt a very distinct thrill of excitement as I tuned the dial and heard, loud and clear for the very first time, “Good morning, this is Caroline on 199. Your all day music station.”

At the beginning of the 21st century, it’s difficult to comprehend what a world virtually without popular music radio was like. At the beginning of the 1960s, most of the time there was no pop music at all to be heard on the airwaves. Indeed, some of the time there was no music of any type at all. In the UK, the airwaves were then the exclusive and unquestioned prerogative of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which still strictly operated under the Reithian principles imposed by its eminence grise in the 1920s and 30s.

The rights of musicians and composers were ‘protected’ by so-called needle time agreements which severely restricted the amount of recorded music played on the radio. The most popular records, or discs, were then ‘covered’ by live bands playing vaguely ludicrous imitations of the real thing. There was no local radio at all, apart from Manx Radio which operated as a result of the peculiar constitutional status of the Isle of Man. There was no Radio One. There was, of course, the BBC Light Programme.

Of a Sunday afternoon, Light Programme announcer, Alan Freeman (“Hi there, pop pickers”), presented Pick of the Pops which was regarded as the treat of the week with a couple of hours of authentic recorded popular music. A good ten minutes before the programme was broadcast, the family radiogram (1960s terminology for a combined radio and record player) was warmed up and tuned in. Usually, we recorded the programme, for later delectation, using a bizarre tape recording machine which fitted over the record deck and was driven by the motor of the record player. Apart from the odd disc played on lunchtime shows, that was your lot, so far as pop music radio from the UK went.

There was, of course, Radio Luxembourg, which broadcast from the Grand Duchy of the same name with its transmitters located far away in a distant foreign land. The signal you might receive reflected this. Luxembourg did not come on the air in English until seven in the evening and although the signal on 208 metres medium wave did improve as darkness fell, it was subject to many variables of weather, sun spot activity in the heavens, and the time of year. Inevitably, as your favourite new disc was played, the signal would fade so as to become virtually indistinct. Incredibly, millions of listeners put up with these travails to hear some decent new music.

The pirate radio ships arrived in a radio world bereft of any real choice in broadcasting; virtually bereft of pop music; and which made no concessions whatsoever to popular culture or mass tastes.

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