'I'd only meant to stay a few months aboard Radio Caroline. Ronan O'Rahilly's magnetism kept me there for years'

Steve Conway pays tribute to the founder of Radio Caroline, the original radio pirate.

THE MANY NEWS stories and tributes following the passing of Ronan O’Rahilly underline the fact that as the founder of the pirate station Radio Caroline, he played a massive role in changing the face of radio in the UK, praise which he richly deserves.

But to my mind what is more remarkable is how he kept the station going, decade after decade, against all the meddling and obstruction that the UK and other governments could throw at him.  

For Ronan, Caroline was a dream rather than a money-spinner, and he kept his ships afloat (mostly) and his crews engaged and enthused (always) by blagging money where he could, selling one dream to advertisers or other investors, and an entirely different one to his hard-working and sometimes unpaid crews. The DJs and engineers always look back on their involvement with Caroline with fondness, the investors somewhat less so. 

simon-dee-radio-caroline Disc jockey Simon Dee smokes his way through a pile of records in his small glass fronted studio on board Radio Caroline, a floating transmitting station operating in international waters off Felixstowe, Suffolk. 1964 PA PA

Ronan believed that Caroline was a force rather than a brand and that it should be a force for good. With the concept of “Loving Awareness”, he used his station to talk to the listeners about love, understanding and mental positivity decades before it was cool to talk about emotions and feelings on broadcast media. 

Rebel with a cause

I came to work for Caroline early in 1987, intending to stay a few months, but like so many before me, I was quickly sucked in by Ronan’s sheer magnetism and drive. When times were good he would make you feel as if you were king of the world but when times were bad, he would make you feel even better, restoring your faith in the dream and your part in it, no matter what calamity had just befallen the station. 

In November of 1987, when we lost the 300-foot broadcast tower on the ship during a gale, things looked bleak. This was a disaster that would take us months of hard work through a bitter winter at sea to recover from. But Ronan told me I should be thrilled to be with Caroline when it was going through such exciting times, and that when, years later I would look back, these would be the days I would remember. And he was right.  

Notoriously cagey after battling officialdom for two decades, he would often pass instructions in code, chopped and changed meeting venues regularly, and on one occasion interrogated me for what felt like hours to see if I was really who I said I was or an Irish Secret Service agent.

“Don’t be stupid?” I said (naively I now realise), “there is no such thing as the Irish Secret Service.

“That’s what they want you to think” he replied.

simon-dee Radio Caroline DJ Simon Dee (second from left) presenting the Radio Caroline First Birthday Bell Award to the Beatles at the Twickenham Film Studios. 1965. PA PA

Creative payments

Coming ashore and seeking out Ronan to get paid was always an adventure. After waiting for several days, you would be contacted, and an arrangement made to meet him at one of the many fashionable cafes along the King’s Road in Chelsea. 

You would spend hours nursing the one cup of coffee you could afford while waiting for his arrival. When he eventually came, there would be a long pep talk building you up before money was eventually passed under the table.

You were told not to look at it, not to draw attention. People might be watching. The amount was highly variable and bore no relation to the length of time you had just spent on the ship. It was whatever Ronan could afford, at that particular moment. But you left the café walking on air. Somehow he had made you feel a million feet tall.

Caroline-Payslip The closest thing Conway has to a Radio Caroline 'payslip'. Steve Conway Steve Conway

The bundle of money would often be in foreign currency – another tactic to ensure you were never quite clear how much (or how little) you had been paid until he was safely away. 

I still have in my possession a receipt from a branch of Barclays Bank on the King’s Road, Chelsea, for an exchange of a thousand Dutch Guilders into sterling. It is the closest thing I have to a Radio Caroline “payslip” and one of my most treasured mementos of those years. It worked out at less than 300 pounds for a stint at sea that had lasted 101 days – and yet, I walked away from that meeting with Ronan filled with purpose and confidence. He was just like that. 

Adventures, with heart

Ronan cared passionately for Caroline’s independence and resisted all attempts to sell the name or the station to those who would have made it corporate and gutted its soul.  When the 1990s brought an end to Caroline’s adventures at sea, and it was reborn, first on satellite, and later online, he was dismissive of those who said it was over, that it could never be the same. 

“Caroline is not metal or steel,” he told me often. “Caroline is not a fixed point. Caroline can be anywhere.”

One night at the end of the 1990s, when we were running a low-powered temporary licence broadcast from the ship, by that stage moored at the end of Southend pier, I got a call from Ronan enthusing about the show I had just presented. 

28032009431 O'Rahilly in 2009 at a Caroline reunion. He is centre, with Paula McKenna (right) and station manager Peter Moore (left). Steve Conway Steve Conway

“That was amazing, man, you could feel the love and good vibes pouring out of you and across the airwaves,” he said. 

I was surprised, I thought he was in central London, well beyond the range of our by then very limited transmissions. I asked how he could hear me.

“Hey, don’t get hung up on the whole hearing things with your ears thing,” he admonished me.  

“That’s what they’d like to tell you, that you can only hear things with your ears. This is Caroline baby, and you hear it with your soul Steve, you hear it with your soul.”

Steve Conway is a broadcaster, writer and journalist. He is the author of “Shiprocked” and his new book, “Unsound – Anything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up” is due out by the end of 2020.

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