Thursday 21 May 2020
When the Paradijs vessel was being fitted out in Cuxhaven in 1980 the ship was called Lieve, after the then girlfriend of Danny Vuylsteke. Shortly afterwards the owners sacked Vuylsteke for a number of reasons. But the name of the ship was not changed at that time. Because Vuylsteke had been so proud -but very loose-tongued- about the new venture, German and Dutch police were soon aware that a further offshore station was being prepared in the North German port. German police, being very efficient, started to make a note of the number plates of all the cars that parked in the neighbourhood of the Lieve. All these people were later interrogated by the authorities. ‘Die Polizei’ never managed to write down my number plate because I, probably being overly careful, always parked my car about half a mile away from the ship. It kept me in shape.. I got involved in the venture when the owners asked me to check the rather muddled accounts.
With the police and later Interpol sniffing around we were aware that we really had to high-tail it out of Germany. I went to look for a safe port. Ireland and Portugal were pretty safe bets. Both countries had not ratified the Council of Europe Strasbourg treaty which was put in place to prevent or at least hinder offshore broadcasting. From our (secret) office in Cadzand-Bad I started my search in Ireland. The first port on my radar was Bantry because it was probably an easy to reach harbour after rounding Cornwall, and not too much in the limelight. So I rang the harbour master in Bantry. As soon as he picked up the phone I knew that Bantry was off the list, a no go area. From the accented English of the harbour master I could tell that he was Dutch and hence would know all about offshore stations. It was too great a risk. So I made up an excuse and put the phone down. A few days later I was on my way to Ireland to find a suitable port for our vessel. To begin with I had quite a long talk with a very helpful harbour master in Dublin. He provided me with all sorts of information and documentation.
In the meantime the Lieve had left Cuxhaven but ran into severe weather in the Channel. In the end the ship had to be rescued and towed to Southampton. There was quite a bit of damage. At that time I stayed at Brian McKenzie’s. Brian and his wife always made me very welcome. As there is no rest for the wicked I was soon on my way to Southampton to talk to Ben Bode who was responsible for the project. He agreed to take the ship to Dublin and moor along the Liffey. He was especially pleased to learn that reading through the rules and regulations it proved that a vessel entering the port of Dublin for repairs as a result of storm damage sustained was exempt from paying harbour dues.
Days later the vessel limped into Dublin and moored on the Liffey along the North Wall Quay. Slowly but surely over time the ship was turned into an offshore radio station. Early in 1981 studios were installed disguised as presentation rooms in case there was an inspection by the Customs. The rumour we launched was that the ship was going to tour the Middle East to familiarise the Arab countries and Israel with the newest technology: IBM computers. To make it believable I photocopied photos of that company’s computers together with text cut from Hebrew and Arab newspapers and turned them into brochures. The text used had absolutely nothing to do with IBM, not even with computers. I didn’t have a clue what the content was about, but it did look quite convincing for the time. To prepare for a possible inspection of the vessel we even had the Israeli, Turkish and Egyptian flags on board… Later when the equipment was delivered and the press became interested in the ship we had to invent some different fake-news. So to keep the real purpose of the vessel a secret as long as possible Ben explained to the people of the press that the Magda Maria was being turned into a research vessel.
On April 4th 1981 the 26th Eurovision Song contest was to be held in Dublin. Somehow we were tipped off that beforehand television crews were going to film along the Liffey. High time to remove the ship’s name from the vessel. Good thing we did as the ship was clearly visible in one of the trailers that were broadcast. Some people in Belgium and the police in The Netherlands would definitely have recognised the name. In the event the United Kingdom won the contest with “Making your mind up” performed by Bucks Fizz. For weeks afterwards our vessel sat along the North quay without a name. More pressing things were at hand. Later in April I had to go to the States to organize the transport of the transmitters and antenna equipment to Europe.
Upon my return I really had to make haste and make my mind up about a new name for the ship. In order to register the new name I made an appointment with the Panamanian consul in Antwerp. A name change is quite a lucrative business for the so called flag-states. So the consul, who told me to call him Alejandro, took me for a Chinese meal near the Boerentoren (now KBC-tower), Europe’s first attempt at skyscraper. I had given the new name quite a bit of thought. Since our venture was all about ‘free’ radio, I believed that the name of one of Latin America’s most famous freedom fighters would be most apt. I told Alejandro that our favourite new name for the ship was ‘Simón Bolivar’, the leader who led Panama, Venezuela, and other Latin countries to independence from the Spanish Empire. To my surprise, Alejandro was not amused, not at all. In fact he was furious over my suggestion. Freedom was not really their thing in Panama. As the meal progressed I found out that Alejandro had been head of the Panamanian secret police. When he fell out of favour he was ‘promoted’ out of harm’s way by his powerful military friend Manuel Noriega, the later dictator. That’s how he came to be in Antwerp. During desert the consul pressed me to come up with a less controversial name for our ship. In the end, looking for a Belgian connection, I suggested “Magda-Maria” the name of Swedish Radio Nord’s former vessel, as she spent some time in Ostend in the early sixties.
Posted by oronieuws at 17:16
Monday 16 December 2019
Preparing offshore Radio Paradijs (14.04.1981)
It was a beautiful Tuesday in April 1981 when hundreds of hungry guests silently filed into the large breakfast room at the Rivièra Hotel in Las Vegas. In spite of the slight morning chill, clear skies promised another swelteringly hot desert day. The low murmur of conversation in the great hall made the sense of expectation all the more palpable in the air. Most people in the room had flown in from all over to attend the yearly Trade Show of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) at the famous Convention Center. A notice on the large promotion tower outside the Riviera welcomed the NAB members to town and also announced that Barry Manilow would be opening his show in a few days’ time.
Although residing at the much more modest Savoy Motel I attended the breakfast meeting in the luxury Riviera having been invited by Broadcast Electronics’ sales representative Paul Kudurshian and Peter K. Onnigian, the CEO of Jampro, the company supplying our floating radio station with its FM antenna bays. Suddenly, my toast barely buttered, the PA system sprang to life. An urgent voice advised everyone to go back to their hotel room and switch on the television set as the Columbia was closing in on Edwards Air Force Base. What followed was a not so orderly stampede to the elevators in the lobby. Our little group made it to Peter’s room with only a handful of minutes to spare. The first ever Space Shuttle was about to touch down. The screen showed the faint ghostlike unsteady image of the incoming spacecraft hardly visible against the blue morning sky. As I observed when motoring down from San Franciso the day before, thousands of Winnebagos had descended on the military base in the Mojave Desert. Their owners assured themselves a ring side view near the dry lake bed runway. Next, there was cheering all around when finally, seconds after the main body, also the nose wheel of the craft touched the ground and the mission, taking the astronauts 36 times around the globe, had been well and truly accomplished.
When the hotel guests returned boisterously to the Riviera breakfast room, it was patently obvious to even the most distracted observer that the successful landing of Columbia had given America its confidence back. That confidence had been thoroughly lost a decade before during the war of attrition in Vietnam. Attrition means the calculated death of countless young men and women of different races and places in a wearisome endless war until one of the opponents finally gives up. America had been forced to give up. But now, by the looks of it, the country felt back on top. The space shuttle had made America great again...
Later the same day, our meeting coordinating the delivery of broadcasting equipment for the future Radio Paradijs concluded, I was unexpectedly given the opportunity to visit the NAB Trade Show. Accompanied by Paul Kudurshian a courtesy shuttle bus took us to the Convention Center at nearby Paradise (how apt!). I was able to get into the members-only venue because Peter Onnigian (1921-2015), who had been a patron of the organisation for many decades, gave me his NAB badge to pin up. No sooner had I entered the lobby of the exhibition center than I heard a metallic voice call out “Welcome Peter”. I paid no attention to it until the message was repeated and I saw a primitive robot rolling itself in my direction. Only then I noticed that the creature’s glass bowl head contained a camera and realised that the contraption, having read my name badge, was actually talking to me. Luckily the robot never found out that I was an interloper who couldn’t afford the NAB’s forbiddingly high annual membership fee.
The exhibition was a veritable world of wonders for me. Stepping into the hall there were two television screens in which one could see oneself. On the second screen there was a slight delay. It was then that I realised that the picture was being beamed up and back down with the help of an orbiting satellite. To enable this, two low-loaders with the ground station and large satellite dishes were parked to the side of the Convention Center.
Purely by coincidence that afternoon I also met the manager of Ecos del Torbes, the Latin station from Venezuela in the 60 m band, that I used to listen to at night as a young boy. A little later Paul Kudursian introduced me to one of the Continental engineers who helped the original radio Caroline on the air in 1964. Subsequently I stood face to face with a 30kw Broadcast Electronics FM transmitter, built in Quincy Ilinois. The very transmitter, I was assured, that in a few weeks, was to be shipped to Dublin for installation on board the Magda Maria of our Radio Paradijs. Unobserved I walked to the back of the transmitter and drew a small sign on it with a yellow marker pen. Much later, upon receipt of the equipment in Ireland, Ben Bode confirmed that indeed there was a small yellow marking on the back of the transmitter. I couldn’t check it myself since in July 1981, when the broadcasting gear arrived in Dublin, I was busy setting up the land-based subsidiary of Paradijs in Italy. Never a dull moment.
Posted by oronieuws at 14:21
Friday 20 April 2018
In 1969, with my favourite (offshore) stations gone, my radio listening was at a low ebb. Professionally I was getting used to office life at the ferry company in Zeebrugge and the occasional trip to Camden Crescent in Dover, where the shipping company's HQ was situated. I remember one of my UK colleagues once made me don a hair cap and subsequently showed me around the large temperature controlled computer room in another part of town. It was the first time I came face to face with such a device. It was a big bulky beast that ingested large stacks of punch cards. Apart from subsequently disgorging reams of invoices it did very little else.
It was also the year that John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a “bed-in” for peace during their honeymoon in Amsterdam. To the delight of children in 1969 the bouncy Space Hopper hit the shelves. On Belgium's independence day (just a coincidence), to the amazement of grown-ups and youngsters alike, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went and proved once and for all that the moon was not made of green cheese. Music fans especially remember 1969 as the year in which the legendary Woodstock Festival took place.
In the meantime I didn't have an inkling that in an office in the Albisriederstrasse* in Zürich two young Swiss gentlemen were preparing my happiest adventure in radio. Erwin Meister and Edwin Bollier knew each other from school and after graduating they went into business together. To begin with they purchased a car-radio patent. Later, in 1968, they made good installing a communications network for the International Red Cross between Europe and Eastern Nigeria. This was to fascilitate the aid operation during the war of secession in Biafra in the late 60's. The technology made the largest humanitarian airlift possible since the Berlin blockade in 1948. It is estimated that the relief effort by all the agencies involved saved the lives of 2 million Biafrans. However it may also have prolonged the conflict. Then after a few other lucrative business deals, with money in the bank, the Swiss duo set out to realise a long held dream, to equip an offshore radio station for the German and British market.
Mebo Telecommunications AG, owned by the Züricher businessmen, acquired a Norwegian coastguard ship the Bjarkoy and renamed it Mebo. As the vessel proved too small to serve as a radioship it was demoted to the role of occasional supply tender, a purpose for which she really was too big. As base for the marine broadcaster a larger craft was sought and found, the 630 tons former freighter MV Silvretta, which was duly assigned the name Mebo 2.
To the best of my recollection it wasn't until early january 1970 that I heard the news that a new offshore station was being fitted out in the port of Rotterdam. There both vessels were also psychedelically painted in a multitude of colours, an image which at the time was humorously described as “an explosion in a paint factory”. With hindsight this word picture would prove to be an ominous one...
Monday 12 March 2018
After my studies in Ghent and with really only RadioVeronica left for musical enjoyment, the reality of life set in. The idea of gap years not having been hatched yet, employment had to be found straight away, if not sooner. For the longest time I had been dreaming of working in English language radio, but with Caroline and even the smaller offshore stations gone there was little chance of that wishful thinking ever coming true. So I went hunting for more mundane jobs. Being a bit stubborn however, I only applied to positions of employment where knowledge of English would be an important factor.
At the Irish Embassy in Brussels they were most surprised to receive my application since -although not specified in their ad- they “were only looking for females”. In the late 60's 'emancipation' apparently did not apply to men. I had more luck when seeking a position at the Zeebrugge office of Townsend Car Ferries, the company which had started a roll-on/roll-off service between Dover and the Belgian port in 1966. Because traffic was increasing steadily the company needed someone who could look after the Belgian side of the accounts and explain things in proper English to the Dover 'overlords'. I started work at Townsend Belgium on December 6th 1968.
Just before joining the working classes I had a “gap-10-days” in Austria. (My only true vacation ever) In Ostend my friend and next door neighbour Walter and myself were joined by a busload of mostly elderly English holiday makers for the trip to Seefeld. And yes in the end we knew all the words to “She'll be coming round the mountain”...
It was whilst swimming at Die Kanne that we first heard Ö3 (Euh drei), the new third programme of Austrian radio, a pop music station that sounded somewhat Caroline-ish (it still does to some extent). As a result we spent quite a bit of time soaking up the hits at the swimming pool.
Working for Port Manager Noel A. Johnston MBE (photo above) at Townsend Car Ferries in those early days was an absolute pleasure. The office people busy in the small cottage near the old lock in Zeebrugge formed a tight-knit family, all trying to get the ships loaded and out on time through the very narrow Visart sluice gate. That was especially important since one of the captains was said to consider just two speeds when negociating the lock: “dead slow and stop”.
Only weeks after I began my employment the highlight became the first Christmas office party. It was held at the renowned “Chez Willy” restaurant with succulent “râble de lièvre” (saddle of hare) on the festive menu. In fact it was also my first time in a chic restaurant. Little did I know that this classy eating house would some time afterwards become one of my regular stomping grounds entertaining visiting company dignitaries, nor that a year or so later, in early 1971, “Chez Willy” would turn into a favourite dining place for Messrs Meister and Bollier of Radio North Sea International.
Wednesday 7 March 2018
It was a cold and fairly somber Sunday when I got out of bed on March 3rd 1968. As always the first thing I did was switch on the radio. But all remained silent. Caroline was not there! It was only when I got downstairs and tried Caroline North on the big Saba receiver and found that her frequency too remained completely quiet, that a feeling of forboding set in. The next day my fearful apprehension was confirmed by the newspapers. In the early hours of Sunday both the Caroline and the Mi Amigo had been boarded by Dutch seamen in the pay of the suppliers Wijsmuller and towed to the Netherlands because of outstanding debts.
As a matter of principle I did not turn to Radio 1 for my music fix. In the months to come it was Radio Veronica that brought some solace, and sometimes also Radio Kuwait on shortwave. Few people remember this, but for a time Kuwait, with a stable and strong signal, was one of the best pop stations around. Truth be told, I had less time for music in those days, because my exams were drawing near...
In the wider world too it was a troublesome period. It began in May 1968 with a student revolt in Paris which turned into a general strike involving millions of workers and the worst rioting for decades. President Charles de Gaulle resorted to brutal police force to counter this attempt at revolution which immobilised most of France.
Subsequently also students in Belgium, especially in university cities like Ghent and Louvain, took to the streets. Suddenly that brought two plain clothes members of the secret police to my house. I was upstairs studying and unaware of the fact that these men threatened my mother not to let me join the protests, or “worse would follow”. The then Belgian prime minister Gaston Eyskens had just formed a coalition government with the help of the Christian Democrats (CVP) and the Socialists (BSP), two parties that had lost seats during the elections in March '68. Eyskens feared that if the protests continued they would bring down the government and revolution would ensue... With hindsight, it wàs the year that the Beatles brought out their hit “Revolution”, not that the Belgian prime minister would have been aware of that.
In the Netherlands all remained calm during the disruptive May days of 1968. It has been said that this was partly due to the existence of Radio Veronica. The station went some way in making the country a happier place and functioned as a valve to diffuse any pent up tension among students and workers alike.
Friday 2 March 2018
Being a 60's offshore anorak, like so many others, it was with dread that I followed the ominous countdown to August 14th 1967 when the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act would take effect at midnight. Even before the ultimate day stations were closing down for all sorts of reasons. On July 23rd came the end for Radio 227, one of the twin stations on the Laissez Faire. Next was fort based Radio 390. The “Woman's Magazine of the Air” ended its transmissions on July 28. On August 6th it was Radio 355's turn, the second of the twin stations.
According to my diary in spite of a southerly wind there was nothing summery about August 14th 1967. The temperature barely reached 14 degrees C. And all day the sun refused to put in an appearance. In fact it was very very cloudy, perfectly reflecting my somber mood. Like one waiting on death row I listened to Radio London, as the minutes ticked by in the life of the station. And then "their Final Hour" was upon us. At 16,00 hrs (3 pm in the UK) Paul Kaye's became the last voice to be heard on Big L. It had also been the first voice on the station.
After the close down, like so many thousands, I retuned to 259, to hear Caroline welcome the Radio London listeners. But then it was time for me to make tracks, as duty called. I had a Summer job to get to at the Games Arcade in Blankenberge.
Later that evening also Radio 270 and Tommy Shields' Radio Scotland closed down. In spite of interference from the electric games in the Arcade I did manage to hear Caroline turn into Radio Caroline International as the pioneer station defied the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act at midnight (1 in the morning my time). To this day hearing Johnnie Walker's “Man's Fight For Freedom” still makes my eyes go moist. (Lyrics)
Tuesday 27 February 2018
Very much like Marcel Proust's 'madeleine moment' it was the smell of fresh paint at a friend's house that today brought another personal highlight from the offshore days back to mind... I remembered that there was a time when three Radio Carolines were on the air. At that crucial occasion it so happens that I had to spend a few nights in the spare room. My own bedroom was being repainted, by my dad and myself. In fact the smell of paint permeated much of the house.
Months before the threat of anti-pirate legislation doomed, it was mostly the power of water and winds the wireless buccaneers off Britain's coast had to contend with... So during a massive storm late on January 19th 1966 the MV Mi Amigo, home of Radio Caroline South started drifting and subsequently ran aground on the snow-covered beach at Holland Haven (Frinton-on-Sea). At the crack of dawn radios remained silent as transmissions had ceased when the ship entered British waters. After failed attempts by the tugboat Titan, the Mi Amigo refloated herself at high tide by winding on the repositioned anchor. Upon inspection it proved that the hull was damaged and the vessel was towed to Zaandam in the Netherlands for repairs in dry dock.
In those days -not to be unfaithful- I did my best to regularly tune in to Radio Caroline North off the Isle of Man. But then suddenly Caroline South was back, but from a different ship. Mrs Britt Wadner (1915-1987), the blonde 'Queen of pirate radio', had offered Ronan the use of her Swedish Radio Syd* ship 'Cheetah 2”. The vessel having been driven from its usual anchorage in the Baltic by pack ice.
Much technical wizardry and many dead-airs later the programmes of Caroline South resumed on 199 m from the Cheetah on February 13th 1966, be it at fairly low power. Then on April 5th the Mi Amigo appeared alongside the Swedish vessel after repairs and a refit had been finalized. It was time for the fun to kick off.
The idea was that the Cheetah would relay the programmes on 199 m from the Mi Amigo which was now broadcasting on an announced 259m (253 in fact) with 50 kWatts of power. That did happen, but for a time also separate programmes were aired, resulting in two Caroline Souths, and off course, in the Irish sea, there still was Caroline North. What is more, a lot of on air banter was at times going on between both South ships. Evenings for me in the spare room, my paint-free refuge, were full of laughter during the link-ups between the vessels. I remember listening to Dave Lee Travis and Graham Webb on the Cheetah and Tony Blackburn with Norman St.John on the Mi Amigo. The fun wasn't to last though. On May 1st Britt sailed her radioship to Spain and later on to The Gambia, where she obtained a broadcasting license. And in our neck of the woods Caroline South sounded as loud as Big L. It's an ill wind...
* Syd means South and is pronounced more or less like Sud in French.
More of AJ's radio- and other anecdotes.
Sunday 25 February 2018
Musicwise 1967 stands out in my mind as the year the Beatles' iconic album “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released. There was a rush among the students at university, myself included, to get a tape copy of the album to coax us more or less gently through study time leading up to the exams... Luckily by that time I was the proud owner of a sturdy Grundig tape recorder.
During the Summer of 1967, -the so called Summer of 'Love'- when the US was rocked by race riots, also the end was in sight for most of the British offshore stations. I took a job to help pay for my studies, working for two months at the Sportland Lunapark on the seafront in Blankenberge. At the time many British holiday makers flocked to the popular Belgian seaside resort and were regulars at the games hall. Among them one of the sons of Spike Milligan. I also made the acquaintance of quite a few Southwalians like Nigel Jones from Barry Island and Michael Hibbs (photo) who lived at Treherbert in the Rhondda. For any Flemish readers of this blog I can further add that also the famous revue artist Charles Janssens (1906-1986) religiously played a few games at Sportland after finishing his performance at Blankenberge's well known Wit Paard.
At the games arcade I had opted for the late shift which meant I was working from 5 in the afternoon until about 3 at night. As a result I had most of the day to go to the beach and tune in to the 'pirates'. Cycling home at night I used to carry two small transistor radios in my pocket, listening to Caroline in one ear and to Big L in the other.
Saturday 24 February 2018
Already in late 1966 the writing was on the wall for the radio stations off Britain's coast. The government of Harold Wilson, egged on by Post Master General Tony Ben, was determined to bring in legislation to make it illegal for British citizens or companies to supply the pirates, work for them or advertise on the stations.
On January 1st 1967 there was a bit of good news for a change. As announced earlier by Caroline on New Year's Eve, Radio 390 returned to the airwaves. I remember, the next day, writing a letter to Prince Charles protesting against the British government's actions to sink the pirates.. “Why not”, I thought “the crown prince is a paid-up member of the Big L club and has a Radio London T-shirt...” After a few months I got a reply from the Home Office with the usual lies.
The imminent demise of the offshore stations was not the only problem at the time. I also had to try and commit professor Hesman's German “Kulturgeschichte” to memory. I found that this was best done with the deep brown voice of Jim Reeves in the background. Luckily both Radio 390 and Radio 355 (former Britain Radio) now had a Jim Reeves Show on Sundays. The reason being that after a boardroom battle station manager Ted Allbeury left 390 and went on to run Radio 355, taking most of his middle-of-the-road programming ideas with him and some of the dj's. Theodore Edward le Bouthillier (Ted) Allbeury (1917-2005) had been a real-life spy during the Second World War, decades before he got involved with radio and then started writing best-selling novels.
Not only Britain Radio had changed name... As it proved unsuccessful Swinging Radio England went Dutch and turned into easy going Radio Dolfijn and still later into Radio 227. It was hard to keep up with the changes. Later more upset as one by one the fort based stations fell by the wayside and my exams doomed...
Wednesday 21 February 2018
In 1965 and 1966 it really kicked off along the British coast. Although because of my studies in Ghent I had somewhat less time to monitor the goings on at stations like KING, 390 and Radio Essex, the start of Radio Scotland from the Comet and the moment when Swinging RadioEngland and Britain Radio rocked up on board the Laissez Faire did not go unnoticed.
In Ghent, after lunch in 'De Brug', a handful of us would hang out at the Blandijnberg talking about the music of the day and about offshore radio. Often, when we had an hour to spare, we went to the closeby 'kot' of Jos Borré to listen to Radio Caroline. During lessons we even 'pestered' one of the assistant professors, McCauley, with tales about the pirates. So much so that, for our benefit, the young Scotsman later included a question about the offshore stations in the written English exam.
In the day Germanic philology still consisted of the study of three main languages: Dutch, English ànd German. For me listening to the offshore stations had been a great help to get a good grasp of colloquial English. That came to the fore when one day, during a talk about the poet Keats, professor Willem Schrickx (1918-1998) told a joke in English and in a packed auditorium I was the only one who laughed. Which made an unhappy professor comment in his native Antwerp dialect “d'er is er ier mor ene deen Engels kent”.
At university my German didn't quite match my knowledge of English. But it wasn't too bad either since for a number of years I had been obsessed with Franz Kafka. In fact I had read every single word this Jewish author from Prague, who wrote in German, had ever committed to paper.
By sheer coincidence my professor German, Herman Uyttersprot (1909-1967), had written extensively about Kafka. Uyttersprot was good fun in spite of the fact that he stood before us making jokes whilst dying of throat cancer. One of his last bits of fun was teaching us a new German word to describe the French scantily clad film star Brigitte Bardot. He called her “eine Nacktrice”. My time in Ghent was not always plain sailing, especially the Logics course proved somewhat of a nightmare. But in spite of a very heavy workload every night I tried to hear at least one hour of the Johnnie Walker Show on Caroline.