String Theory: My Quarter Century As “Steve Conway”

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)

View from Radio Caroline 1987 – an empty sea

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.

Steve Conway in the Caroline newsroom in late 1987.

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).

It's not our fault we ran the ship aground in 1991. The string never warned us!

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?

Steve


The Music of Radio Caroline (late 80s)

Chris Kennedy, John Bibby, Steve Conway (holding record), and Mike 'Coconut' Dixon in the Caroline studio on Christmas Day 1987

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?

Steve replies:

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 . . .

Steve


Brothers In Arms updated

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!

Brothers In Arms 1987 - Chris Kennedy (left) and Steve Conway at sea on the Radio Caroline ship Ross Revenge (photo: Caroline Movement)

Brothers In Arms 2009 - Chris Kennedy (left) and Steve Conway safely on dry land.