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Pirate to Pop: Radio 1 at 50

Radio 1 launched 50 years ago this week, at 7am on September 30, 1967. This new station followed hot on the heels of the implementation of The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, which closed down pirate radio stations, such as Radio Caroline and Radio London, in August 1967.

Pirate radio sprang up because large sections of the younger audience had become frustrated by the BBC, who they saw (or heard) as not moving with the times- especially with the type of music they were playing. Unlicensed stations, the most famous being Radio Caroline, began illegally broadcasting on medium-wave frequencies from ships off the UK coast and disused seaports, to fill this gap in the listening market. The pop music played and conversation recorded on these pirate stations was unlike anything that had been heard on radio before. It immediately struck a chord with listeners, particularly those under thirty, and thousands of people were soon regular listeners to these illegal stations. David Clayton, former editor of BBC Radio Norfolk, who listened to Radio Caroline as a teenager said, “As listeners we didn’t care. They were playing our favourite records.”

As soon as these stations began running smoothly, attempts to disable them began; The government of Britain claimed the stations were blocking radio frequencies which would be required if the country was ever plunged into an emergency. By the time laws were passed to make the broadcasting of pirate radio illegal, however, over 22 million people were regular listeners. The BBC realised it needed to do something to accommodate this vast band of listeners, especially as the public outrage to the closing of the pirate stations was enormous. Their answer was to create Radio 1. Wisely, they invited many of the DJ’s from Radio London, Caroline and the other broadcasting ships, to join their presenting staff. Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker, Kenny Everett and John Peel were soon favourite Radio 1 stars, all moving onto Radio 2 (bar Kenny Everett, who died in 1995) in their later years.

Tony Blackburn was the first DJ to air on Radio 1, launching the station with his new programme Daily Disc Delivery with Robin Scott, then Controller of Radio 1, keeping watch to make sure he behaved. The first record played was Flowers in the Rain by The Move, followed by Massachusetts by the Bee Gees. In the Radio Times, Radio 1 was billed as ‘The Swinging New Radio Service’.

The popularity of Radio 1 was demonstrated in the year following its launch, when record sales increased by 10%. It wasn’t just Radio 1 that was created after the fall of the pirate radio stations, either. The network radio changed almost entirely on the morning of Saturday, September 30th 1967 with the birth of Radio 2, which took over from the previously known “Light Programme”. The classical “Third Programme” was renamed Radio 3, and the speech based Home Service became Radio 4.

Fifty years on, radio is a popular as ever, with Radio 1-4 pulling in tens of millions of listeners every year.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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