Well it's tomorrow now and I'm searching media to see how they reacted to the news of Ronan's death and I'm not impressed. Maybe journalists and editors and tv producers are too far away from what he accomplished to pay tribute. So here's mine:
By Tony Prince
(Founder of United DJs RADIO)
I climbed the 180 foot mast of Radio Caroline South in a storm that had stopped a rigging engineer to sail out to us on the tender from Harwich. A few of us had a go. Tony Blackburn went a fair way then came back down because he needed gloves.
Dave Lee Travis made about ten rungs and came back defeated. I then made my attempt to reach the very top where a cable, clearly seen whiplashing in the fierce wind, had broke loose, short circuiting the most popular radio station in the UK.
At halfway I realised the safety belt clip couldn’t secure itself on the larger rungs where Irish shipbuilders in Greenore, Ireland, had welded on the extension.
I descended defeated, freezing but glad to be back on the swaying deck with my DJ pals.
Armed with gloves Blackburn set off on the longest journey of his life. Later in his career he would win “I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here” but this was the most dangerous challenge he ever faced.
As he scaled the first rungs, DLT chimed, “Blackburn, can I have your record collection”?
We watched with hands shading our squinting eyes from the vicious clouds which had turned the weather three days ago, hoping it wouldn’t start raining again as the breakfast show host arrived and then bravely (or stupidly) continued from the new mast on and on with no safety belt for the remaining 90 feet. At it’s height the mast swayed 20 feet side to side which was when Tony would need all his courage.
Seeing him wrestle with the rogue cable we held our breath. Then we watched with bated breath as the cable started to fall.
Three quarters of the way down it caught in the rigging. Tony came back down not attempting to release it, knackered and spent.
The engineer said we needed the cable to repair and it had to be retrieved. It never crossed my mind to think how the hell we were going to eventually fix it back in place. I made my second attempt.
As I arrived at the new mast, unbeknown to me, the tender that visited us twice a week with provisions and sacks of fan mail, had arrived on the scene. On board was the man who changed radio history when he conceived and built his pirate ship in his father’s Irish shipyard. Ronan O’Rahilly was on board having decided to come out and make the climb himself.
As the wind howled I failed to hear the panic below. Everyone shouting at the tender captain to stay away and pointing upwards to the tiny volunteer who now neared the cable. Had the tender tried to dock alongside us the fears were that it would shunt the Mi Amigo causing me to loose my grip. I knew none of this.
Only when I captured the cable and threw it down to the deck did I look down to see my boss clapping me from the tender. He’d missed the real heroics of Tony Blackburn who, with the other DJs now cupped a warm beaker of grog which the ship’s chef had made for everyone.
I recount this story to underline the passion and love we each had for this exciting radio ship and the revolution we were each contributing towards. To a man we were all what was known as personality DJs.
It was a time of learning. A time to understand what makes a good DJ. We learned from colleagues who had arrived from world’s where lots of radio stations and thousands of DJs were established. Norman St.John and Graham ‘Spider’ Webb from Australia, Emperor Rosko and Big Jim Murphy from the USA were our tutors. You learned the subtlety of talking too and not at the listener, (note non-plurality). You learned that although you may have millions of listeners, you directed your conversations to one person. “Imagine you’re talking to someone you really like”, was Spider’s advice.
And so it eventually came to pass that the Labour Government led by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, finally, after three glorious years, decided to bring in a law that would capsize the entire fleet of ships and forts which completely surrounded the UK.
Radio Scotland with it’s Stuart Henry, 270 with Paul Burnett and Mark Wesley,
Radio England with Roger ‘Twiggy’ Day, Radio Caroline South with Johnnie Walker, Robby Dale, Rosko, Mike Ahearn and Tony Blackburn (who had jumped ship from Radio Caroline to Radio London because he liked their Pams of Dallas jingle package better than the home-made jingles Ronan had commissioned in the UK). My last 18 months were on Radio Caroline North off the Isle of Man. My tutors here were ‘Daffy’ Don Alan, Jerry ‘Soopa’ Leighton, ‘Baby’ Bob Stewart, Mick ‘Luvzit’ and for the last couple of month, Dave Lee Travis (the Hairy Monster) who had been packed off north from the south ship.
The Marine Offences Act made it illegal for British subjects to work on the pirate stations even though they were anchored three miles out in international waters. The Government maintained the ships weren’t paying royalties for the music they played which effected musicians and, the biggest lie, they caused problems with the emergency services communications.
But the job was done. The BBC finally conceded to create a youthful pop station, Radio One. Here the mast-climbing hero launched the breakfast show. The BBC team was made up of a cacophony of DJ voices mainly pirates from the southern based ships. DJs who had become legends on the nightly Radio Luxembourg station were also brought in, Pete Murray, Alan Freeman, ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton, Jimmy Young and Jimmy Saville. These elder statesmen from 208 The Station of the Stars, had mostly been out of work actors or, in Jimmy Young’s case, a vocalist who made records or in slimey Saville’s case, a man who managed a ballroom in Leeds.
Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart and Kenny Everett made it to the Radio One team and John Peel came to Broadcasting House bringing his prog-rock programme ‘The Perfumed Garden’ from Radio London.
After the bill Caroline remained the only ship, Johnnie Walker, Robbie Dale and Bob Lawrence remained the only Brits willing to chance their arm. It meant, instead of a 45 minute tender journey back to shore, now a Caroline HQ established in Holland, saw a 24 hour boat trip to and from Caroline. Most became very seasick. Few were paid.
I had the same agent as Simon Dee who had left Radio Caroline before the bill was introduced and had now established himself as a TV star with DEE TIME.
“Be patient”, he told me. “The BBC have passed your audition, it’s now a question of them finding a slot for you”.
Unlike all the other DJs I’d come into my career through Top Rank’s ballroom circuit and landed a spot each week on a TWW television pop show ‘Discs-a-Gogo’. This was why Chris Moore, Caroline’s Programme Director, had selected me. It was usually the other way round, a radio DJ going to television. So he was impressed.
Before the BBC offered me the job I craved, an offer came from Radio Luxembourg. In answer to the pirate radio format of live ebullient DJ teams, I, Paul Burnett, Noel Edmonds and David ‘Kid’ Jensen were ferried to the centre of Europe to bring a more modern sound to the station which had been entertaining listeners in the UK and throughout greater Europe since the 30’s.
As on the pirate ships we conceived our own jingles and promotional gimmicks and made the best we could of living in the grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Noel was really the new boy with no experience whatsoever but he adapted quickly and learned from we who had been taught.
People ask how Luxembourg (208) went from strength to strength after the pirate invasion and this was for two reasons. Firstly pirate radio had made the advertising agencies keener to use the radio medium, Luxembourg was entirely commercial, the BBC of course wasn’t. Secondly the new fledgling Radio One was still encumbered by the Musician’s Union and had to adhere to a limited number of records it could play each day. They called this ‘Needletime Restrictions’ which played into Radio Luxembourg’s hands. Whilst the BBC had to employ bands and orchestras to cover the popular hits of the day leaving poor Kenny Everett to introduce The Beatles ‘Sgt Peppers’ followed by Bob Miller & The Millermen’s atrocious cover version of “A Hard Day’s Night” and other huge chart hits Luxembourg was playing every night.
The only thing I ever had in common with the BBC was the MU’s drive to rid the world of records which they maintained was putting musicians out of work. That was far from the truth because most radio play royalties go to the songwriters.
As a singer guitarist with a fifteen-piece Top Rank Bristol ballroom band I had been playing records whilst the musicians had their breaks. Tuesday nights had become total record nights. It’s what the people wanted. At a union meeting in a Bristol hotel one Sunday afternoon, I was expelled from the union and joined Equity.
We had our problems at Luxembourg. Before the pirates, the station, was sponsored by the major record labels, The Decca Show, EMI, CBS all sponsored shows featuring only their own releases. As teenagers we hadn’t realised this, we didn’t care, it was, after all pop music fed to our music starved world.
The idea for the Radio Caroline pirate ship was inspired by this situation and when Ronan O’Rahilly managed to get a meeting with 208’s MD, Geoff Everett, (himself a former DJ who once lived in Luxembourg), he was told he couldn’t play the new Georgie Fame record an artist who Ronan managed whilst also running a small club in Soho. Making to leave the room at 38 Hertford Street in disgust he turned to look at Everett and uttered the eternal words, “Well I suppose I’ll have to start my own radio station”!
Everett had laughed.
In 1968 as the Luxembourg audience figures supplied by Gallup Research went through the roof, we inherited two problems. The paid for plays, no longer in their own sponsored shows were slipped into all our programmes under orders, each paid for by record companies. We eventually persuaded our boss to stop this practise if he wanted to compete with the newly launched ILR network.
Then, having come from self-op studios on the ships where you are completely in charge of the output, Luxembourg provided the traditional studio with a DJ in one room and an engineer through a glass window playing the records and commercials. RTL, the company behind what they called the English Service of their mighty network, were also under the cosh from unions. The engineers could not be moved.
DJ Chris Carey (aka Spangles Muldoon) joined the team. Of all the Radio Caroline DJs Chris was closer to Ronan than any other and had great broadcasting know-how. Chris joined 208 as others left. Noel, (who’s great regret was that he had missed joining the pirates), had gone to the BBC, Paul Burnett and Kid Jensen would end up there also. Chris made a side-business by erecting aerials on Luxembourg roofs so the English speaking community could receive American Forces Network television from Germany.
He also knew and claimed he’d helped with the original design of the ‘chip’ which revolutionised our media a knowledge that would get him into a great deal of trouble in due course.
It was Chris who somehow persuaded the RTL hierarchy to install self-op studios in the DJs side of the glass with cartridge machines that spit out our jingles, commercials and self-made promos. Now we felt like proper DJs.
Chris left Luxembourg to start his own radio station in Dublin. Radio Nova was an astounding success and where he made his fortune in a country that had no radio offences laws. Then he got greedy counterfeiting Sky chips at a fraction of the price. He went to prison for this, escaped to New Zealand and was finally extradited back to the UK to complete his prison sentence.
In 1997 I received a call from Ronan and we arranged a lunch at Langans. He was enthusiastic again, his pupils dilated as he discussed his idea to bring Radio Caroline back. He wanted me to invest in it but I argued the job was done, there was no longer a need for pirate radio.
“Come on Tony”, said my Irish hero, “I gave you your job back when Phil Soloman fired you”.
Phil had become his partner. When I auditioned for the job his Programme manager Chris Moore had insisted I leave Solomon’s agency, even providing me with legal support to do so. When he brought money into Caroline and sat at the top desk in the Mayfari office, he instructed Tom Lodge to fire me. Soloman's revenge.
Weeks later after being flooded with letters from listeners who wanted me back, Ronan over-ruled Soloman.
“You owe me”, he said with a rye smile as we left Langans.
“The world owes you Ronan”, I said. “But I paid you back when I climbed that swaying mast”.
We had our last hug before he jumped into a cab on Piccadilly.
Ronan died at 2pm Monday 20th April 2020 having battled with Parkinson’s disease in a Dublin care home.
RIP you magnificent man.
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