The above photo needs no introduction.
You know the spiel by now.
25 years ago today/tomorrow, the night of the 15th/16th October 1987 saw The Great Storm, or The 1987 Hurricane, or whatever you would like to call it. Millions of trees uprooted, millions in property damage, 18 people killed, road, rail and power disrupted, and none of it forseen or foretold by the met office.
Amid great sniggering, the clip of Michael Fish reading the weather forecast on BBC TV at lunchtime on the 15th will be played, with him saying there is no hurricane coming, and the talk will be of how utterly the Met Office failed to prepare the Great British Public for the terrible storm.
That’s the collective memory, and everyone knows it is true.
Except . . it isn’t.
I was there, and I was right in the teeth of the storm in all it’s fury, and I had been watching that lunchtime weather forecast, and I had heard Michael follow his comment about there not being a hurricane (technically true) by telling everyone to “batten down the hatches” as there was going to be some very stormy weather overnight. Ah, but they never play that bit of the clip do they?
But more than that, I was expecting him to say this, and I knew several days earlier that the morning of the 16th would see a great and violent storm coming in from the southwest . . because the Met Office had told me, and other BBC viewers. Far from being unprepared, we were well prepared for a storm, and although, yes, it was much more severe than we expected, it is wholly unfair to say that the nation was not warned.
The nation was, you see, mostly indifferent to the weather warnings over the preceeding days, and much more concerned with waiting for Neighbours to come on after the news bulletin. But the warning was there, as far back as the previous Sunday.
I should clarify here that myself and my colleagues on board Radio Caroline were always very attentive to the weather, and always watchful and mindful of what it was going to do, as in our exposed anchorage 18 miles off the Kent coast the weather had a profound impact on our day to day life – on our level of comfort, on the ease of our doing our jobs, on our prospects of being resupplied at any given time, and on the quality of our sleep. So we were very attentive and invested in the weather forecasts.
You might expect me to tell you of the amazing struggles to stay on the air during the great storm, and the frightening moments and waves as tall as buildings that we encountered that day, but that is not the purpose of this article. I’ve written about it in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and there is another account of it written by myself, which you can read for free online at Soundscapes (EDIT: for some reason the article cannot be directly linked from here, but if you google “soundscapes conway hurricane” you will find it)..
No, this piece is my attempt to shout my truth unheeded into the wind yet one more time, and try to tell you that the story of Michael Fish and the sleeping Met Office is . . just a story, a popular narrative.
Unfortunately, it has over time become THE Story, the only one that is told.
So, did the Met Office warn about the storm, and how far in advance did we know?
We knew as far back as Sunday 11th October, four or five days earlier, that we were in for an almighty storm in the early hours of Friday 16th.
Needing to be conscious of the weather, and as Caroline’s Head of News, one of the things I never missed was the Farming Programme on Sundays on BBC1 (not sure if it was called Countryfile back then, but it was essentially a more down to earth and less jazzy version of the programme that still runs to this day). The programme always featured a long-range weather forecast for the next 7 days, and this was highly useful to us on Caroline for assessing if we were going to have some bumpy days, and when there might be a weather window for supply boats to reach us.
I was particularly conscious of the forecast on that particular Sunday, as we were short staffed (two presenters down), running short on certain supplies, and crucially had not received new records for a number of weeks (pretty essential for a contemporary music station). The large supply ship that came out from France that weekend did not have these people or items, but brought a message with it that there would be a small boat coming from the UK on Friday with fresh staff, supplies, and music.
Looking at the long-range weather forecast on the farming programme, we knew that this was just a pipe dream, and that there would be no new supplies on Friday – the weather would be far too rough for even the much bigger French tender to come to us, never mind a small fishing boat.
Thus we were well aware of a big storm on the Friday, and when Michael Fish made his comment about battening down the hatches, well as good seafarers, his advice was more literally true for us than for anyone else.
So although the ferocity of those mountainous seas at daybreak on Friday, 25 years ago, did astonish us, we could not, truly, say we were not warned.
Next time you see the clip of Michael Fish, and you hear the story about how forecasters did not predict a storm, don’t believe it.
I’d like to believe that my personal truth would counter the popular myth, but i know that, like on that morning a quarter of a century ago, my words will be lost in the howling wind.
I think it was John Denver who sang the words “He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before” (the song: Rocky Mountain High)
As Steve Conway I was born on the 6.30am news headlines exactly 25 years ago this morning, in the winter of my 23rd year, having just arrived at a place that would become home to me for a number of exciting drama and emotion packed years, and a sort of Tir Na Og or mystical lost land for me to look back at later in life.
This is a way of saying that today is the 25th anniversary of my joining Radio Caroline back in the days when it was offshore. Before that that day I had another name, but the practacalities of working on a radio station that was outside the law (not against the law, but actually outside it) made a name change advisible, and so Steve was born as a fully fledged adult, and Steve I have been ever since.
And, in a way, it was a rebirth of sorts, because joining Caroline so radically altered my life that the date 24th February 1987 is a dividing point in my life, which was very very different in shape either BC (before Caroline) or AD (after the drifting of November 1991 that ended my offshore years).
And what of the 4 years in the middle? They were, in a way, outside normal time and space – life on board a pirate radioship in International Waters being so strange and cut off from normal society, but so physically, socially, and emotionally intense that those involved seem to exist in their own little bubble. For a proper detailed description of those strange years, I would refer you to my 2009 book: Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and my forthcoming prequel, sequel and midquel “Running Away From The Circus – Everything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up”
No, what the anniversary has really made me think about this morning is time.
25 years – a quarter of a century. In one sense it has passed quickly, but in another, it is a very long span of time, especially if I view it in terms of the changes in the world in which I live.
I’m not talking about the micro world of radio – though that has changed dramatically, offshore pirates now a thing of the past, onshore radio multiplied in number by a huge factor – nor am I thinking about the political world, which, to be honest, despite governments coming and going, wars and alliences changing, is curiously unchanged from 1987 (I have a couple of my Caroline news bulletins on tape, and apart from the names of the participants, many of the actual stories would seem perfectly normal if broadcast today, indeed an old bulletin might almost be played out instead of a new one with few realising there was something wrong).
I’m thinking of the more general world as it personally affected me an an individual, then and now.
Information has been the defining change of those 25 years. In 1987, information was something which you were given, in limited quantities. It was not something which, in the run of the mill that you accessed, unless you have a job which specifically involved accessing files and databases.
On board the radio ship we had a television (and no, we didn’t have a licence for that either!) and it gave us the diet of entertainment and slices of news that were deemed suitable or needed for the population at large. There was no hint of customisation – you had the choice to watch or not, but could not influence that content in any way. Also on the TV was teletext, a few hundred pages of information judged to be of popular appeal, so you could look up things like sporting results, the current UK Top 40, news headlines, weather etc. No deeper dive into this information was possible, and there was no such thing as search.
Onshore it was not much different. You could go to a library, but getting hold of any kind of information outside the daily norm required a lot of effort. What exactly was said during a debate in the House of Commons last night? What are the times of the bus that goes past my friends house in a city 400 miles away? What is the history of Danzig before 1939? All of these kinds of questions were, indeed, capable of being answered, but not on the spot, not at 8am on a Sunday morning, and often not without considerable time and effort.
When I made the snap decision to join Caroline, my family and friends back home in Ireland did not find out about it for many weeks. There was no Facebook to keep in touch, no text messages, and no way for them to listen to me even if they had known I was on there.
Whenever I wanted to take a trip back to Ireland to see them, booking it was a big undertaking. I had to visit a travel agent or ferry or airline office, where first of all I would have to wait, patiently, while many other people in front of me were served, slowly. Then I would explain my needs to a person seated in front of a booking system which I could not see, and they would outline the various options of flights or ferries to me. I had no way of seeing those options myself, no way of knowing if what I was being told and sold was really the best for me, or the best for them.
When I went home to ireland, I was in a different world from the UK. No Caroline, no London Evening Standard, no access to my London friends other than making an international phone call (house to house in those days) which would seem . . well, strange.
I don’t have to tell you how vastly different all these things are now. I listened to Caroline on my way to work on the bus this morning in Dublin in clear FM quality via my smartphone, which will also give me the Evening Standard if I want it, let me search and book my flights, even act as my boarding pass. Any of the pieces of information I mentioned above are at my fingertips instantly. Travelling is hugely different, through apps and alerts I know what is going on at airports, can be certain when the next bus or tram is arriving, and can text Geoff in Surrey to tell him that I’m just about to get onto a fishing boat in Harlingen, Netherlands. Or research the history of Danzig should I be hit with a curiosity to do so at 8am on a Sunday morning.
When we look forward in time, we generally don’t see and can’t see the real changes which are going to happen. We think of faster planes and spaceships and wars for water, but we can’t forsee the changes that are gestating which will affect the more intimate, everyday world we live in.
There are other ways of predicting the future however. A couple of the Dutch crew on the Caroline ship had this thing going with a piece of string and a weight which they used to divine the future for the small but important events – such as when the next supply boat would arrive (FOOD! NEW FACES! NEW RECORDS!), who might be on it, and other such things.
The future was predicted based on which direction the string would move when held with the weight on the end, and whether it would stay absolutely still or move around.
The fact that we were doing this on board a ship which even in the calmest weather would move gently may tell you that we were not neccessarily applying the strictest of scientific methods here!
After a string (!) of successful predictions they started asking it some bigger questions.
Who would find love? Who would marry? When would the Ross Revenge make its final broadcast at sea? (the string correctly predicted 1990, but then wrongly told us that the ship would be bought by the Voice of Peace and move to the Israeli coast).
The human curiosity for the future is strong, despite our almost always predicting it wrongly. Looking back today at this junction in my life a quarter of a century ago, I can’t help but wonder what changes there will be in the next 25 years of Steve Conway. Hopefully, when “Steve” is 50 he will still be alive (his body will be 73, so that’s a reasonable hope). Beyond that I can’t really say what will happen.
Whereas before, everyone talked of flying cars, now in the information age we predict brain chips. People will be able to access everything without any external devices, our memories will be preserved forever . . .
But perhaps we are failing to see the real future, and the changes to come will be just as unexpected and profoundly altering as the ones of the last quarter century.
I just hope they are as liberating.
Anyone got a piece of string I can borrow?
The past is indeed another country, but the future is a map that we can draw for ourselves if we dare.
It was 20 years ago this morning, (20th November 1991) that I came to the end of the roughest night I had ever known in all my years at sea with Radio Caroline, and faced what I came to believe would be my last ever dawn.
Aground on the infamous Goodwin Sands, which have claimed hundreds of ships and thousands of lives, we were gradually rolling over, each wave pushing us a little closer to the tipping point where the ship would capsize. Ironically, although there was not enough water to float her, there was more than enough to flood into her and fill her up if we went sideways . . more than enough to drown in.
The waves were towering in the North Easterly Force 11 winds, the seas icy – we wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes if we went over.
The brave men of Ramsgate Lifeboat had already tried to rescue us and failed, running aground themselves, losing a man overboard in the process (happily quickly recovered by safety line). Now we were waiting for the helicopter, but it seemed we would be in the water before it arrived . .
Certain that we would be drowning in minutes, the floor beneath us already at a 45 degree angle, we hugged each other, shook hands, and said goodbye. We knew we were going to our doom . .
The story of that morning, and our eventual rescue by the RAF helicopter R166 is described in detail in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, but even the printed word cannot do justice to the memories which are still vividly seared onto my brain, even all these years later.
I absolutely believed that I was about to die, and that morning, and in particular that moment, has changed my life since then.
The 20 years I have lived since that morning on the Goodwins is a bonus, and the older I have got, the more I have appreciated this, and the more I have lived my life with zeast and purpose. The sudden seeming end of Caroline in 1991 (though not the final end, as it has bounced back and is adpating to a new age) instilled in me a knowledge of the impermanance of states of being, and ensured that when I got involved with Phantom FM in later years I treasured each moment, and drove myself to both give and take the maximum from every day that I worked there.
In life too, I reach out with lust for living to take the most from each day, and push myself to do and experience more and newer things.
Life is a bonus, and I am determined to spend that bonus to the full.
Many people around me comment on my seemingly unflappable calm when faced with difficult situations. This too comes from that morning on the Goodwins, for as I see it, I have been minutes from an icy drowning death, so why should anything that happens in a more normal work or life based situation cause me to panic?
Time has been kind to Radio Caroline too, and that morning, seemingly a point of closure for the station was to be in fact the first step in forcing it to adapt to a new path, which though seemingly bleak for much of the 1990s, has blossomed in latter years into an unprecedented period of stable broadcasts, with new technology enabling the station to be heard in undreamed of quality in previously unreachable countries.
20 years on I have spent the night of the 19th/20th November sipping wine with close friends, and thanking my lucky stars for all the richness of life and the benefits of new technology that both I and Radio Caroline have enjoyed in the last 20 years.
It’s right to raise a glass and look back, but the biggest gift of all is to be able to raise my gaze and look forwards.
20 years on from the most terrifying morning of my life . . aground on the Goodwin Sands with hopes of rescue seemingly dashed as the crew of the Ross Revenge shook hands and prepared for the ship to roll over . . .
Seven Towers Agency, East Wall for All and The Sean O’Casey Community Centre present:
Radio Caroline, former Phantom FM DJ and Best Selling Author
Reading from his book
Shiprocked, Life on the Waves With Radio Caroline
Sean O’Casey Community Centre, East Wall, Dublin.
7pm Monday 21 November
free parking, admission free
20 Years ago this November, Dubliner and East Wall resident Steve Conway survived the shipwreck of the Ross Revenge, the last of the Radio Caroline off-shore Radio Ships. Reading from his book, Shiprocked he tells of this event and of his life on the famous Pirate Station, Radio Caroline.
Steve will also read a preview excerpt from his new book, due out next year, that covers his career beyond Caroline, including the 10 years spent working for Dublin’s alternative station Phantom FM / Phantom 105.2
This event is free, but an opportunity will be available to give donations and to RNLI and Sean O’Casey Community Centre.
Just a very quick note – I’ve paid for a couple of upgrades from WordPress to enhance the enjoyment of your visits.
As of today, we are ad-free, so there will no longer be adverts popping up for services that are beyond my control.
I’ve also upgraded the storage space which adds the ability for me to directly host audio on the site, so I can now include clips of off-air recordings etc if they add to the article.
By way of trial, below is a clip from half a lifetime ago, back in my newsreading days with Radio Caroline, at sea on board the ship Ross Revenge. The microphones and audio processing used on Caroline were very good at pulling in background noise whenever there was silence, hence the fact that on music programmes we tried to always speak over song fades and intros rather than dead air. This was not possible in the news of course – just listen to the amount of ambient ship noise (mostly generator rumble) being pulled in behind me on this bulletin – not to mention how dilligently the system amplified my between sentence wheezes!
We could have used a news bed (music behind the news) but a huge poportion of the audience find this really intrusive, so we lived with the background noise instead! The location of the newsroom just off the bridge, the closest to the generator room of any of the on board studios, did not help either. The best studio on board for silence was studio 2 (the “overdrive” studio) situated right at the back of the ship. On the clip, the news is followed by Peter Philips reading the latest Lotto 6/49 results (the Canadian Lottery was our biggest advertiser at the time) – this would have been pre-recorded in studio 3, and you’ll note that although generator noise is much reduced, it can still be heard in the background between sentences.
Anyway, I shall add in the odd audio piece here from time to time, and hope that you continue to visit and enjoy this blog.
I’m now halfway through my week on board the Ross Revenge at Tilbury Port in Essex as part of the 11 days of live ship- based broadcasting to celebrate Radio Caroline’s 47th birthday.
I’m having a great time on board, along with other ex-offshore folk such as Dave Foster, Bob Lawrence, Cliff Osbourne, Jeremy Chartham and others. And we are joined by a new generation of people who have come to Caroline in the post-offshore years, including an amazingly talented presenter and engineer called Ollie, who is about the age that I was when I joined Caroline, and keen as mustard.
Caroline has been on Sky for 12 years, and these days gets a huge proportion of listeners online through streams and apps, and we have emails coming in from all around the world.
So why keep the ship? What purpose does it fill when we are no longer required to be in international waters in order to reach out and touch our audience? Those are questions that would be asked in the business world, where the upkeep of the Ross Revenge would be an “opex” problem.
Well, ignore for a moment the fact that this ship, and the others that preceeded it are to an extent hardwired into the DNA of Radio Caroline. Ignore the fact that every room, every corridor and every nut and bolt on the ship is infused with our history, our memories, and our dreams. Ignore these things, as although they are substantial and important, that could be said to be based on emotion and sentiment.
Even without tear things, returning to the ship to broadcast brings a unique benefit to the station which translates into better programmes and a better “buzz” for the audience.
Living on board during a broadcast, presenters who never normally see each other are forced into close proximity and develop a bond that dies wonders for the overall sound of the station. We wake together, breakfast together, work alongside each other all day, listen to each other’s shows and spend evenings laughing and debating in the record library, where old tall tales and new music releases are swapped in equal measure.
We bounce off each other musically, emotionally, technically. We share our passion and as we share it, that passion grows. A passion for music, for radio, for communication.
The ship is the soul of Radio Caroline, and the ship-based broadcasts let us get in touch with that soul, and drink deep at the well of friendship and creativity.
There are some thing that never appear in the financial entries of a corporate spreadsheet, but which are beyond value nonetheless.
As I write this, Cliff Osbourne is playing “Goin’ Back”
“A little bit of freedom is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I’m going back”
M.V. Ross Revenge
After 11 very happy and eventful years with the Dublin Indie-rock station Phantom, I presented my last show on St. Patricks Day. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with Phantom, but increasing time pressures from my other activities mean that I have had to make some choices about what to focus my energies on.
I can still be heard every Saturday 6-8am (repeated 6-8pm) on Radio Seagull(AM in The Netherlands and online) with a show devoted to rock in all its forms and featuring a minimum of 50% newly released material, and each Monday 2-4pm on Radio Caroline (Sky Digital ch.0199 and online ) playing album tracks from the last 50 years, including new releases. And I am currently in the planning stages of a new venture that will give exposure to independent and unsigned Irish bands and artists.
I have very many happy memories from my 11 years with Phantom, and I will post some of them here over the next little while.
For now I’d like to thank everyone from all of the eras of Phantom, pirate to temporary to commercial, for making me so welcome, and to wish the great team charged with taking the station into the future all the success in the world.
I’ll leave you with a little memory from my early days with the station, when we broadcast from a secret base above Whelans of Wexford Street, and an “unexpected splash of colour” on the breakfast show:
Phantom Breakfast – Aug 2001 (click to play – format: mp3)
Those were the days my friend . . .
It’s now 10 years since, arriving back in Dublin after years living abroad, I discovered a darn good pirate radio station broadcasting rock and indie music on 91.6fm – Phantom FM (as it was known in those days).
Within a few weeks I had approached the station and become involved myself, my two years on the weekday breakfast show kicking off a very happy 10 years involvement with the station through it’s various phases as a full-time pirate (till May 03), temporary licenced station (twice in 2003/4), web only (while waiting for licence and legal results 2004-2006) and the current incarnation as the fully legit commercial station Phantom 105.2 from October 2006 to the current day.
I’ve had the best of times during these 10 years, and even though I finally had to cease doing regular weekly shows earlier this year due to other commitments, I still can’t tear myself away entirely, and crop up from time to time filling in for other presenters who are away.
I’m going to be doing a series of posts over the next few weeks looking back at my fondest memories from the last 10 years.
To start off, here is a look at the music and ads being played on Phantom back in my earliest days on the breakfast show.
I’ve transcribed this from a recording I hold of a complete shoe from 18th December 2000 - 10 years ago today.
News & Weather was written and produced by myself as was travel, in addition to presenting the show itself.
In my first months back in Ireland I did not have a car, and there was no bus which would get me in to Phantom in time for the start of the breakfast show, so I would arrive in as live programmes were ending at 11pm the night before, and spend the night in the studio, sleeping on the floor with a cushion for a pillow, a coat over me for warmth, huddled up against a little heater.When the show ended at 9am, I took a bus across town to a fulltime job in the IT industry, worked till 7pm, got home by 9, and had an hour to relax before getting the bus back in to Phantom for another night on the floor.
Ah, those were the days . .
The show below would be absolutely typical of the music played by me at the time. The tracks with an asterix * are A-List tracks, everything else being my own free choice. For the A-lists there were about 30-35 in the studio, refreshed regularly, split between new Irish and new International.
18 December 2000
(7am – news & weather)
*Marvin – No Good At Maths
Damien Dempsey – Chillin
Turn – Antisocial
Whistler – Faith In The Morning
(link + travel)
(ad – Phantasm)
*The Yo Yos – Home From Home
Offspring – Self Esteem
(7.30 news headlines)
*P J Harvey – Good Fortune
Therapy – Screamager
At The Drive In – Cosmonaut
Limp Biscuit –No Sex
(link + travel)
(ad – Wild Eagle tattoo studio)
(ad – Temple Bar Music Centre)
*The Crocketts – 1939 Returning
The Pixies – Here Comes Your Man
Pedestrienne – Soundwaves
The The – Infected
(ad – Whelans)
(ad – MCD Finlay Quayle & Primal Scream)
(8.02am – news & weather)
*The Walls – Some Kind Of A Girl
Smashing Pumpkins – Rocket
*Green Day – Minority
Bell X1 – Offshore
(link + travel)
(ad – Wild Eagle tattoo studio)
(ad – Temple Bar Music Centre)
(ad – Phantasm)
(link – competition for NPB tickets)
*Amen – The Price Of Reality
(link – winner of tickets to NPB)
Rush – Spirit of Radio
(link + 8.30 news headlines)
The Frames – Rent Day Blues
Liz Phair – Ride
(link + travel)
(ad – Wild Eagle tattoo studio)
(ad – Temple Bar Music Centre)
*Juliet Turner – Dr Fell
Eels – Novocaine For The Soul
Candice – Maybe I
*JJ72 – Snow
Ash – Shining Light
(ad – Whelans)
(ad – MCD Finlay Quayle & Primal Scream)
This weekend, and the week that follows is going to be one of the high points of my year, as I go back offshore and broadcast from a ship again, surrounded by fellow crewmembers from the offshore stations of years gone by.
“Radio Seagull” is a rock music station which broadcasts the overnight service on the Dutch station Radio Waddenzee, which is based on a former lightship, the Jenni Baynton, normally moored safely alongside the pier in the town of Harlingen.
But for the month of May the Jenni Baynton is putting out to sea again, and will be anchored some 8 miles off the Dutch coast, bringing radio back to the North Sea and providing a great opportunity for former pirates to relive the old days while bringing quality rock music, old and new, to an audience on AM and online.
I’m thrilled to have been invited to spend some time out at sea onboard the Jenni Baynton, and I will be on air each night on Radio Seagull from 10pm-1am CET (9pm-midnight BST) from Sunday 2nd to Thursday 6th May.
Over the month of May a whole host of people from the former Dutch and British offshore stations will be joining Seagull, and indeed I will be on board with my brother, Chris Kennedy, just as we were on Caroline back in the eighties.
Depending on mobile reception, I may be able to share pictures and update this blog while on board, if not, I will certainly do so on my return.
So watch this space, and tune in to Radio Seagull each night for some great classic and progressive rock from the last several decades.
It’s funny how places grow on you. For a long time after Phantom went legal, I missed the cosy intimacy of our pirate-era studios in Wexford Street, the classic pirate-type location up flights of stairs in an old building. Looking out the old studio window you could see the bustling street below, a giant neon sign flashed “Eat!” “Eat!” “Eat!” all night long, and the studio was just the right size, with everything within easy reach.
Our current day mansion on North Wall Quay seemed soulless by comparison, although it offered the luxury of space and all mod cons. Not the prettiest building in Docklands, it stood on a section of quayside that could be pretty bleak in winter.
But the river . . and the ships. They won me over.
Not since my Caroline days had i been able to to glance out the studio window and see cargo ships passing by, tugs and navy vessels, or watch the ever-changing moods of light and water.
I’ve fallen in love with the building now every bit as much as the old one, and am totally at home in my (almost) floating studio.
The days of the radio ships are past now, but I’m still spinning music by sparkling salt water, and I love it.
Another highlight of my trip to the UK last weekend was the chance to set foot on the Radio Caroline ship Ross Revenge again, my first visit in more than 6 years!
I’ve taken lots of photos, and will put them into a large article showing the ship’s many different corners after the weekend.
In the meantime, the pics below show her in her secure location at Tilbury, and myself back in the old 558 studio*.
(*Someone at one of the readings hearing one excerpt from Shiprocked – Life On The Waves with Radio Caroline asked me “what is a 558 studio?”. Well, it is the main Caroline studio, used for most transmissions in English from 1983 to 1989 (until the raid that is) and because the bulk of that time we were on 558Khz medium wave, it was often referred to as the “558 studio” as at certain times there would be multiple versions of Caroline transmitting, with a rock orientated service on a second frequency from a different studio).
A wonderful visit, and thanks to Peter Moore for arranging it for me.
Today, Saturday 27th March 2010
Reading in aid of the RNLI Ramsgate Lifeboat
from “SHIPROCKED – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline”
3pm, Ramsgate Library.
Tel: 01843 593532
Admission FREE, donations to RNLI welcomed
I was somewhat baffled to receive the following link from the Google Alert that tracks online mentions of Shiprocked – Life On The Waves with Radio Caroline around the world.
For one fleeting moment I wondered if I had wandered into a strange alternate universe in which I was cool enough for people to base clothing lines on, before remembering that one online retailer in Ireland had by accident listed the book as a T-shirt. This has obviously resulted in other associated sites using this supplier taking it on as part of their rock and roll clothing lines . .
Still, nice to know that you can now buy the book in small, medium, and extra large!
It’s just 5 days now till the reading I have been most looking forward to for the last year, when I return to Ramsgate in Kent to read and thank the RNLI Lifeboat crew for their efforts on our behalf when the Radio Caroline ship Ross Revenge ran aground on the Goodwin Sands almost 19 years ago.
Below is a clip from TVS (the former ITV station of the area) news on the day of the grounding on the Goodwin Sands, 20th November 1991. By the time the film crew flew out to shoot the footage, the ship, although still aground, was upright again, as it was high tide.
My book, Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline tells many stories of my time at sea with the station, but it is the final chapter, with the shipwreck which always drawns the most comments, and the most rapt attention, at public readings. Whenever I read from this, I always talk about how, although it was a helicopter which eventually rescued us, the dedicated crew of the Ramsgate Lifeboat stood by us for three hours, and braved treacherous seas on the Goodwins to try to come alongside in a rescue attempt.
I’m therefore really pleased that this time, I will be reading in Ramsgate itself, and the local RNLI crew, including at least one of those who was on board that morning in 1991, will be there to receive my thanks.
The event takes place this Saturday, 27th March, at 3pm in Ramsgate Library.
Admission is free, and all donations to the RNLI are welcomed. I’ll be donating my royalties from any books sold at the event to the RNLI of course.
Sadly the RAF base at Manston, where the TV footage was shot, and from where the rescue helicopter came, is now long since closed, although a museum remains on the site.
The lifeboat though continues, and I hope that this reading will be able to contribute something useful to them by way of publicity and funds.
After a series of public readings from Shiprocked – Life On The Waves with Radio Caroline at venues around Ireland I’m pleased to be able to announce a pair of UK readings on March 27th and 28th.
On Sunday 28th March, I’ll be reading at a special Seven Towers event at The Hammersmith Ram (time to be announced shortly), along with a number of other Irish authors and poets. The Ram is a great, friendly pub, very accessible by public transport, just a couple of minutes walk from the tube and on many bus routes. More details here soon.
The special event of the weekend though is my long wished for return to the town of Ramsgate, virtually on the doorstep of Radio Caroline during its days at sea, and embarkation point for many clandestine tender runs in the late 1980s.
I’m coming to Ramsgate to fulfill a long-standing wish to return to the town and thank the brave team at the RNLI, whose Ramsgate Lifeboat came out to our assistance when the Ross Revenge ran aground on the nearby Goodwin Sands in November 1991.
Since the publication of Shiprocked a year ago, I’ve done a number of fundraising readings for the RNLI in Dublin, Dun Laoghaire and Galway, but I’ve always wanted to go back to Ramsgate, and give a personal “thanks” to the actual lifeboat station which came out to our assistance on the darkest day of my life. Although we were eventually rescued by helicopter, the Ramsgate lifeboat crew braved incredible seas to come to our assistance, and came close to losing lives when their craft ran aground on the sands beside us, and a crewmember was washed overboard.
As well as giving the profits of each book sold at the event directly to the RNLI, I look forward to reading the tale of what happened that morning to illustrate just how desperate things looked for us, and how glad we were to see them. Plus, there will be several of the lighter tales of life at sea with Radio Caroline too, and I’m hoping that many of the local people who remember Caroline from the 80s will come along to hear what it was all about.
The event takes place at 3pm on Saturday 27th March at Ramsgate Public Library, which is close to the RNLI station in the town. Admission is free, but a donation to the RNLI will be appreciated.
Comment from “Peter B” about Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline
Loved the movie. Read this book and liked it. What a story. My only complaint was that music played such a small part of the story. If music so important to risk your life, at least give us play list. Songs listed were weak…no Clash, U2, Cure, Pfurs, Who, RStones etc. What gives?
The above comment, which came in to me recently, raises a very valid point, and one that was indeed on my mind when the book came out.
The music played, and various music formats of Caroline have been a subject of huge debate over the years, not least amongst the presenters themselves, so I thought that rather than a quick reply to just Peter, it might be better going into more detail for a wider audience. So this post serves as both a reply to Peter’s question, and an introduction to some more detailed information that I will make available here over a period of time.
During Radio Caroline‘s long life, it went through many different musical phases, so much so that it could almost be regarded as different stations in its different eras (though, through continuity of Ronan O’Rahilly, the ships, and some staff members from era to era it was demonstrably the same operation). I know that in the 60s it was quite pop and chart orientated for a while, whereas during the 70s it was prog rock and album focused, but my own area of speciality would be how it sounded in the late 1980s, which was when I was personally involved.
To answer Peter’s question about music in the book, he is correct to say that as what we were doing was all “for the music” that it features surprisingly little in the text. It was not always thus – my first draft of the book was 220,000 words long, and the more polished version submitted for publication was 176,000 words, a portion of which documented in detail the day to day running of the music rotations under my control in 88/89, the long running disagreements between various factions of staff about what Caroline should be doing musically, and a number of behind the scenes changes I made to the standard 558 clock format in late 88 and early 89 to give the station more musical variety, and defuse some of the criticisms from staff uncomfortable with the tight formatting.
However, when the book was accepted for publication, I came face to face with some of the realities of commercial publishing – for a normal “trade paperback” which is what we eventually got, the ideal length would be 80,000 words, or roughly half of my already pared down first draft. In the end, we bargained it up to 90,000 words, but I still had to make pretty substantial cuts throughout the text of the book, losing many stories, and a great deal of repetitive comings and goings.
For this book, I really needed to keep the main bones of the two narrative stories I was telling intact – my own story of joining and growing as an individual, and the timeline of the series of events, disasters and recoveries that took Caroline from being a fully functioning, well run, high power station when I joined, to a near deserted and silent hulk when we finally went aground on the Goodwin Sands. There was a lot of stuff I couldn’t afford to lose without disrupting the timeline, which made the cuts to the more general background stuff deeper still.
Stripped of a lot of the detail to reduce wordcount, the bits about the music format discussions came across more as a series of petty arguments, and did not really reflect well the more complex situation whereby although almost everyone involved had different opinions, and often argued fiercely, we did so in a mostly supportive way. So in the end I settled for some simple descriptions of how the late 80s Caroline format worked, and a couple of references to the fact that there were mostly good-natured disagreements about it, which is about as much as I could get in a book of that length. If there had been a few less disasters in the 87-89 period, then there would have been more room to write about the music, but then, I suppose, the story might have been very different!
The artists Peter mentions, and many more besides, were indeed all played in the Caroline 558 era, and not just the obvious songs, but a great back catalogue including lesser known singles and album tracks. To take Bob Dylan as an example, you would be as likely to hear “Isis” or “Desolation Row” played on the breakfast show as “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “It Ain’t Me Babe“. The same could be said of artists who were new at the time – just about the only Suzanne Vega track played on mainstream radio was “Luka” but Caroline playlisted “Small Blue Thing” and “Marlene On The Wall” as well as other tracks.
Likewise in the mid 80s, Caroline was playing all of REM‘s stuff, first as current tracks on release, then later as back catalogue, years before they became fashionable on mainstream radio in the UK (which, if I recall correctly, happened with “Losing My Religion” in 1990 – Caroline had REM playlisted at least as early as “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” in 85).
Throughout the 558 era, alongside the 50% of playlist that came from the huge back catologue, and the 30% made up of Top 40 singles, 20% was playing new music on medium and high rotation, and here we really put our heart and soul in giving airplay to releases by new artists who you wouldn’t necessarily hear elsewhere. Some of these went on to be well-known names, others were never really successful, but all were given a chance.
The era of “Caroline 558″ is often dismissed as “mindless pop” by people whose tastes did not include the Top 40 stuff, but to do so is to neglect the wide variety of other material also included in the format, and the sheer genius of the system designed by Peter Philips. This format rotated the back catalogue in such a way that once played, an oldie would not be heard again for 6 weeks, and then guarenteed to be in a different timeslot. This was in contrast to the ILR stations on land where the same “oldies” were rotated just days apart, or current day classic stations where you hear the same one or two best known tracks from each artist every single day.
I will, in a follow-up post to this, examine the 558 format in some detail, with details of the catagory breakdowns, the rotation periods, the “new music” from the period, and some sample playlists which I will cull from checking back over off-air recordings of the period. It will take me some time to put this together, so expect it in a few weeks, say the end of February.
To finish with a musical memory, and one of the bands mentioned by Peter, there is a particular Cure track which brings back a very vivid memory of Caroline for me. It’s not one of those dramatic moments, not a time of crisis, just an ordinary everyday moment, and all the more precious for being so. It dates from my early days on Caroline, when I was still new enough not to have any responsibilities other than the news shifts, and weekend overnight programmes. I didn’t have the weight of keeping it all running hanging on my shoulders at that time, and life was pretty sweet.
Sometime in the spring/summer of 1987, the song “Just Like Heaven” was released as a single by The Cure, and we were playing it on out C+ high rotation, new music list. It was the middle of the night, about 2.40am, and I had gone down to the galley to make myself a cup of tea. Everything was played off vinyl in those days, and we had no way of judging the length of a track other than by experience of already having played it (if the time was not marked on the record).
Anyway, somehow, the record was shorter than I imagined, and I was still in the galley when I realised they were in the final chorus. “Just like Heaven” has a great sort of ending which seems to hang in the air for a couple of seconds after it ends, and I can remember legging it along the corridor at great speed, the final notes of the song coming from the speaker in the Galley behind me, and seeming to almost be lasting forever as I hurtled up the stairs in a sort of slow motion, managing to hit the “start” button for the next track barely a second after the sound died away, even though I would swear the song had ended to silence while I was still in the galley.
I can never ever hear that track without being instantly transported back to that night. Whenever I hear it I immediately feel anxious because I know I need to get back to the studio. I can see the corridor, I can smell the mix of diesel and rust as I pass the engineroom, I can feel my finger pressing on that start button, all as I hear the ending of the song.
If they ever invent a time machine, I know where I’ll be going . . .
When writing Shiprocked, the tale of my days with Radio Caroline, it was never my intention to “kiss and tell” about various relations and private goings on aboard the Ross Revenge. There were enough funny, scary, and sometimes downright weird things that happened to us as a bunch without having to expose people’s private lives.
There were a couple of incidents however, which were too funny to leave out, and for which the identity of the people involved was not pivotal to the narrative. So these made it in to the book, with the identity of any parties (other than myself that is) suitably obscured.
One of them is the tale of “Lucy“, and of Carry-On style chain of events that unfolded when I went to wake her for her show one morning.
This story shows my shy, catholic-school bumbling persona to great effect, and my confusion and the effect on my morning news shift is the main focus of the anecdote. However, for the sake of the poor lady involved, who did nothing wrong other than imbibe too freely the night before and become “confused and semi-comatose” I have heavily disguised her identity in the book, with a time-shifting of her period on board, and some blurring of her physical description and origins.
I’m asked from time to time to confirm the identity of the lady in question, which of course I won’t, other than to say that her timescale of involvement with Caroline was brief (so not one of the big names then!).
All the events described in the anecdote happened as portrayed, indeed it is a morning that is vividly imprinted on my mind, even all these years later. But it’s not important to the overall tale of the last years at sea to know exactly when, and whom.
It’s the sort of thing that happened from time to time on radioships.
But not on Radio 4 of course !!
Have just come back to Dublin after spending a weekend with my family in co. Kerry, including my brother Chris.
Chris and I both worked for Radio Caroline at the same time in the 1980s, and indeed were often on the ship together. In fact, there was a time in December 1987 when acute staff shortages after the collapse of the big mast meant that ours were the only two voices on air for a period of about two weeks!
Sometime during the autumn of 1987, John Burch got a photo of the two of us together, which he published in the Caroline Movement Bulletin under the title “Brothers In Arms” (referencing the best-selling Dire Straits album which had been huge a couple of years before.
More recently, I was pleased to be able to borrow the picture from John for use on the front cover of Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline.
This weekend, Chris and I decided that it might be good fun to recreate the photo – the 1987 and 2009 versions are seen below. It will be noticed that a few changes of physique and hair colour have taken place over the years!
I’m taking part in two readings this week, one of which is very special for me.
On Wednesday 25th November Seven Towers will be holding their usual “Last Wednesday” open-mic at Cassidys of Westmoreland Street, with poets and authors including Oran Ryan, Ross Hathaway, Eamon Lynsky and Bob Shakeshaft.
I’ll be reading a newly-written short story, my first real piece of fiction.
Doors open 7pm, admission free.
On Thursday 26th I will be going back to my roots, with a special reading at Dundrum Public Library, at 6.30pm. I’ll be reading excerpts from SHIPROCKED – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline.
Dundrum Library is where, at the age of 5, I was taken by my mother for my first introduction to the world of books, over the years I borrowed hundreds of titles there as I was growing up, so to return as a published author is a special treat for me.
Again, admission free, and signed copies of the book will be available.
Have just come back from my first ever visit to Amsterdam where I was a guest at the wonderful annual Radioday run by the Foundation for Media Communications. At least a couple of hundred former offshore pirate staff and listeners attended, making it both a reunion with people I haven’t seen for years, and a chance to put faces to names of people who have been buying Shiprocked.
There were some great panel discussions, including a very interesting one on Laser 558 / Laser Hot Hits, an interview with Keith Skues and a talk about AFN.
I spent an hour on stage in conversation with Nigel Harris, who also has a book out about his radio days (review here when I manage to get hold of a copy – it was sold out on the day). Nigel is such an easy and interesting person to talk to, the hour just flashed by.
A great day, very well organised – can’t wait for next year’s one!
Here are some pictures that I meant to put online back in April, but with all the stuff going on with the book launches etc, it just slipped my mind.
I’ve posted before about Radio Jackie, and how its modern-day operation still keeps that local flavour and feeling that it had in the pirate days back in the 1980s. Indeed, many of the same people still work for it, including one of my longest-standing friends in the world of broadcasting, Geoff Rogers, who after the closure of Jackie in February 1985 moved to South East Sound, where he helped me prepare and record my first ever programmes.
When I was over in London in early April for the launch of Shiprocked, I made sure to call out to the Jackie studios in Tolworth, where Geoff made me really welcome. And I was amazed to see that even though it has been legal for a number of years now, and is a really successful and thriving commercial business, that they haven’t forgotten where they came from. When you enter Jackie’s studio complex on Tolworth Broadway, the first thing you see is the “Jackie Museum” a little display of press cuttings, photos, and original equipment from the pirate era. It’s a nice touch, harking back to their roots in the community, and great for the anorak in me too.
I came to know a number of the Jackie people over the years after it closed, working with some of them on South East Sound (Geoff) or Radio Caroline (Richard Jackson, Peter Philips) but my only involvement with Jackie was as a listener. When I arrived in South West London as an Irish emigrant in 1984, I quickly found Caroline for music (joined shortly by Laser) and within a week or two had come across Radio Jackie, which told me everything I needed to know about the area I was now living in, and entertained me too.
I did actually have one, tiny and insignificant part, in the Jackie pirate era. Six months or so after the final closure in Feb 85, a group of us from South East Sound came to a house on a suburban road in Cheam one Saturday afternoon, to assist in the lowering and dismantling of Jackie’s mediumwave aerial array, a sad and symbolic task.
I didn’t think Jackie would ever be back after that, but time proved me wrong.
It’s great to see the station remembering its past with the display at the Tolworth studios, though the great and truly local content they are broadcasting is a better monunment still.
READING FOR VOLVO OCEAN RACE, GALWAY, SAT 6TH JUNE 2009
Seven Towers Press Release
We would like to invite you, your friends and guests to a wine reception and reading to celebrate the recent launch of ‘Shiprocked, Life on the Waves with Radio Caroline’ by Steve Conway, in the City Museum in Spanish Parade in Galway at 3.30pm on the 6th of June – just after the boats leave the bay.
Steve Conway, a former newsreader, DJ and programme controller on the famous pirate station Radio Caroline has just released this ciritcally acclaimed memoir – described as ‘the radio obsessive’s version of Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch” by the Sunday Business Post; as ‘hard to resist’ by the RTE Guide and former Galway Bay abd current 4FM presenter Gareth O’Callaghan praises ‘Steve’s wonderful ability to tell stories and create pictures’.
Steve will also have a thing or two to share about life on the high seas, and the perils that are likely to face the the sailors who have just left the bay – including treachorous currents, high and sometimes unpredictable winds – and the possibility of running out of chocolate.
You will also be given a chance to donate to the brave members of the RNLI who daily risk their lives to rescue people on the seas around Ireland and England and €1 from each book sold on the day will be donated to the RNLI
You can RSVP to this email address, which can also be used to send your messages on to Steve.
Steve’s agent can also be contacted on 0872283351.
Looking forward to seeing you there
The official Irish launch of SHIPROCKED – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline took place on April 15th, attended by a good crowd including many from the world of radio in Ireland.
The book is now available in all major bookstores, including Easons, Hughes & Hughes, Chapters, Hodges Figgis, as well as through the major online retailers.
The BBC are celebrating the 45th anniversary of Radio Caroline‘s launch in 1964 by running a special “pirate” station from a former lightship at Harwich Pier all over the Easter weekend – see details and listen here.
It’s great fun to listen to, they have got a lot of the original 60s presenters from the various offshore stations, and are drawing huge crowds down to the pier, and lots of listeners around the UK and further afield.
As part of my UK visit to promote the book I called in to the Radio Caroline sales stand that is nearby to deliver and sign more books, and was delighted to be invited on board the ship to be interviewed on Pirate BBC Essex about the publication.
I also caught up with many old friends from the Caroline days, including Roger Day, Albert & Georgina Hood who used to run tenders, and now run the sales stand, ex Caroline and Laser engineer Mike Barrington, Paul Grahame and the Balls brothers.
Don’t forget that Radio Caroline themselves have special broadcasts over the Easter weekend, live from the Ross Revenge, though sadly the ship i not accessible for visitors.
Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline had the first of its two launches, in London, on Wednesday 8th April, at The Hammersmith Ram, King Street, Hammersmith, in an event attended by a number of former Caroline associates as well as media and a good turnout from the pre-Caroline pirate station, South East Sound.
The Dublin launch takes place on Wednesday 15th April, at 6.30pm in Cassidys, Westmorland Street – all welcome! For details visit www.seventowers.ie