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Remembering 'Radio Caroline' Founder Ronan O'Rahilly, A Pioneer Of Pirate Radio


The founder of pirate radio, Radio Caroline, has died. Ronan O’Rahilly passed away April 20 at the age of 79. He was part entrepreneur, part buccaneer who broadcasted rock 'n' roll from a dilapidated Dutch ferry in the North Sea to 20 million listeners in the days before the BBC would ever sully their signal with such music. The 2009 film "Pirate Radio" portrayed those days in the early 1960s with Ronan O'Rahilly played by Bill Nighy.


BILL NIGHY: (As Ronan O'Rahilly) Here's the simple situation. The authorities already dislike us. If you do this, they will hate us. And by hook or by crook, they'll find a way to close us down.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, they can't close us down. We're pirates. That's why we're sitting out here in the middle of the freaking ocean.

NIGHY: (As Ronan O'Rahilly) Believe me, they will find a way. Governments loathe people being free.

SIMON: Johnnie Walker is a broadcaster in the U.K. He was one of the early Radio Caroline deejays and joins us now.

Mr. Walker, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNNIE WALKER: Scott, very good to be with you.

SIMON: And remind us - in the early '60s, why did you folks have to go out into an old Dutch freighter in the North Sea to play - just to play rock 'n' roll to a British audience who loves it?

WALKER: There was three radio stations for the entire United Kingdom. When pop came along, when The Beatles happened, the BBC thought it was going to be a five-minute wonder. It's just a craze. It'll come, and it'll be gone. And so you couldn't hear The Beatles. You couldn't hear The Stones. You couldn't hear The Kinks. You couldn't hear The Who.

And Ronan O'Rahilly, who was a great rebel, whose grandfather was shot by the British Army in 1916 in the famous Easter uprising - so he had that rebellious streak in him. So he thought, to hell with this. I'll start my own radio station. He bought a ship. He had a very big advantage in that his father owned a port in Ireland. So that port was used for fitting out an old Dutch ferry called the MV Frederica (ph). And that was the original home of Radio Caroline, which started in 1964.

And as long as the ship was anchored more than three miles from the coast, it was in international waters, and there's nothing the British government could do about it. When Radio Caroline first arrived in Easter '64, the customs decided that they wouldn't supply the ship with any food or water, which would make it impossible for it to continue. Ronan discovered an ancient English maritime law that any ships at sea should be offered support and should be supplied. So he managed to get through to the home secretary, a fellow called Reginald Maudling, informed him of this ancient law. Reginald Maudling checked it out and said, you're quite right, Mr. O'Rahilly. I'll recommence supplies to your radio station.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

WALKER: Ronan thanked him by going out with his daughter...


WALKER: ...Which, for a conservative MP and home secretary, must have been somewhat embarrassing to have this Irish rebel taking your daughter out on the town.

SIMON: I gather Ronan O'Rahilly bought the ship and outfitted the ship to play rock 'n' roll, but he wasn't much of a seaman, was he?

WALKER: No, he very rarely went down to the ship. So in the film, Bill Nighy sort of portrays Ronan. And he's always on the ship, hanging out with the deejays and everything like that. In reality, Ronan really had to be forced to go out to the ship. He hated it. So he'd rather stay in London where Swingin' Sixties was in full swing, hang out around the King's Road, eat in fine restaurants and basically live the life of Riley, as they called it. Not O'Rahilly, the life of Riley. It's an old Irish expression when you're kind of living it up.

SIMON: Sounds like a singular character.

WALKER: Yeah, he was - he was a one off.

SIMON: Well...

WALKER: And he worshipped the Kennedys.

SIMON: I've read that. And I guess that is one of the many theories as to why it was Radio Caroline.

WALKER: Yeah, there was. It was a wonderful photograph of John F. Kennedy's daughter Caroline disrupting the works of the Oval Office in the footwell (ph) of his desk laughing and smiling. And he thought, what a wonderful image - happiness and laughter disrupting the works of government. He said, that's the name for my radio station.

SIMON: There's still Radio Caroline today, isn't there?

WALKER: There is. Radio Caroline always would come back, and there still is Radio Caroline today on the Internet. There still is a ship, the Ross Revenge, which is anchored in Tilbury, which is a - docks not far from London. And they sometimes broadcast from the ship. So it still goes on. There still is Radio Caroline. It's quite incredible.

SIMON: Johnnie Walker, still in broadcasting on BBC's Radio 2. Thanks so much for being with us. And thanks to Radio Caroline for everything it's done for this meeting.

WALKER: Good to talk to you, Scott. Many thanks for having me on.


THE FORTUNES: (Singing) With her forever, we'll dream together. Just me and Caroline, Caroline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.