My transistor radios and the offshore radio stations

By Martin van der Ven

Radio stations on ships (always wrongly called “pirate stations”) fascinated millions of listeners not only in Europe in the sixties, seventies and eighties of the last century and were known to be accompanied by many dramas and adventures. Thus, for more than 50 years, I have intensively experienced and followed the history of the offshore stations. The transistor radio (also known as suitcase radio in Germany) played a very special role in this, because it was the portable radio that made listening to the radio a mass phenomenon – and made pop music known worldwide.

My parents’ house was in a district of the town of Rees on the Lower Rhine, close to Emmerich and only a few kilometres from the Dutch border (Arnheim is not far). After I had used my parents’ radios in the living room and dining room as a little boy (a receiver in the living room cupboard and another somewhat larger, non-portable set), I wanted my own “transistor radio” all the more, which I finally got at the age of 10 for Christmas 1965. It was a rather small Japanese device, the manufacturer of which I unfortunately no longer remember (possibly Sharp). To be honest, I was a bit disappointed (but I would never have dared to tell my parents at the time), because the medium-wave reception, which I preferred because of the “music stations” like Radio Luxembourg, left a lot to be desired, but I tried it extensively at all times of the day and night.

My dissatisfaction with medium-wave reception led to the urgent desire for a better set, which I then bought with my pocket money in the course of 1966 or at the beginning of 1967. Unfortunately, I do not remember the manufacturer here either. In any case, it had a finer channel separation and probably also a better ferrite rod. I especially remember using it regularly in the evenings to listen to “Hallo Twen” with Manfred Sexauer on Europawelle Saar, whose daily programme at 6.05 p.m. was quite up-to-date with all the new records from England and the USA.

On Good Friday 1967, I was sitting in my parents’ car with my brother Thomas, when my parents were attending the service. I can still remember turning up and down on the medium-wave dial and being enthralled by the English offshore stations, which I was aware of for the first time, playing “my music” and always new singles I didn’t know yet.

In 1968 and 1969 I mostly switched to BFBS and Hilversum III. The main advantage was the largely interference-free FM reception. And I was so enthusiastic about the English and Dutch languages that I hardly listened to German-language radio any more. As a present for my confirmation in spring 1969, I got a new receiver from my parents, which I had critically selected for a long time and which was to provide me with faithful service in receiving the offshore stations until the sinking of the broadcasting ship MV Mi Amigo in March 1980: The “Touring 101 International” by ITT Schaub-Lorenz had a spread 49-metre shortwave band and also very good mediumwave reception. I was able to connect it to my new tape recorder (Saba TG 446 automatic), which I bought a year later and with which I was to make many recordings from the offshore stations.

In the summer of 1969, I spent a holiday with my family in Katwijk on the Dutch North Sea coast. For a pubescent teenager of just under 14 at the time, it was extremely impressive that “his” current hits could be heard in every boutique and beach café and always came from the same and, at the time, only (offshore) station: Radio Veronica from the radio ship Norderney. “Venus” by Shocking Blue and “Ma belle amie” by The Tee Set were my absolute Veronica summer hits of 1969, and in Katwijk the suitcase radio almost burst, so well did “Veronica op 192” come in.

From the beginning of August 1970, the second RNI shortwave transmitter in the 31-metre band was also in regular operation. During our holiday in Milano Marittima on the Italian Adriatic coast, it proved to be an excellent way to receive the beloved offshore radio station from the Mebo II even in southern European countries. Before departure, we stayed in a hotel near Düsseldorf airport. I still remember vividly how I heard Mark Wesley there in the morning in excellent medium wave quality. Everything was perfect: the snappy music, the modern jingles, his professional announcements. During the subsequent holiday in Italy, my parents regularly took a nap, and we children were then also supposed to stay in our hotel room. So on Saturday 29 August I heard in good time that there was “danger ahead”. The excited announcements of Carl Mitchell and Spangles Muldoon (Chris Cary) still ring in my ears. Kees Manders ultimately failed in his attempt to hijack the ship, and the RNI fan from Germany, just 15 years old, heard it all “live” on shortwave in Italy, switching back and forth between the 31- and 49-metre bands while his family enjoyed themselves on the beach in the afternoon.

Since about 1979, I mostly used my father’s “Nordmende Tansita Spezial” when visiting my parents’ house, leaving my veteran Touring International in Münster.

In 1983, as a young doctor, I bought a new world receiver, the Grundig Satellit 300, from one of my first salaries. Because of the constant rumours about new offshore stations, I constantly searched for the first “suspicious” signals on medium wave. Nevertheless, I missed the restart of Radio Caroline from the MV Ross Revenge by a few days. On Sunday evening, 21 August 1983, I couldn’t believe my ears before going to bed (the new set was on my bedside table): I heard Dixie Peach with a station announcement from Radio Caroline on 963 kHz (“319”) – one day after the official start.

When we went on summer vacation to a holiday home on isle of Ameland (Netherlands) in September 1986, I had bought another receiver, as the medium wave reception of the Satellit 300 did not seem optimal to me. With the Panasonic GX10II I actually had better results. However, on Ameland, for Caroline 558, the ferrite rod had to be aligned with millimetre work to minimise interference with the East German transmitter on the same frequency.

At Anoraks UK in 1987, a loop antenna was offered at an affordable price, which could simply be placed next to, behind or even on top of the radio (without power supply) and where one could also make an exact adjustment with regard to the frequency to be amplified. It all sounded rather implausible. Mainly because of the weak Laser Hot Hits reception, I nevertheless dared to order it and then, at the beginning of the year, I received one of the largest packages ever sent to me. And my expectations were exceeded by far. This was the best investment in my hobby for a long time! The respective medium wave signal could be almost doubled in quality with little effort, and due to the precise alignment of the loop antenna (similar to ferrite rods), moreover, interfering transmitters on the same frequency could usually be faded out very well. I was absolutely thrilled and only a little sad that I had probably got this device twenty years too late. The only disadvantage of the loop antenna was its bulky size and the resulting lack of space in the boot of our car.

In 1989 I bought two new receivers: the Grundig Satellit 500, which was mainly suitable for shortwave reception (the mediumwave part was very disappointing), and a Russian device, the Euromatic 217, which produced a particularly good, clean mediumwave signal. During the short lunch breaks I compared the Radio Caroline reception on 819, 558 and 6215 kHz, tried to set up and adjust the loop antenna optimally and made many a recording with the cassette recorder.

In 1995/96, “Radio Brod” on the broadcasting vessel Droit de Parole united numerous journalists from the different ethnic regions of former Yugoslavia and addressed the people in the war zone with its peace broadcasts. At home in Meppen (Emsland, Germany), I programmed a timer with which I controlled the cassette recorder, which then made a corresponding recording in the middle of the night (i.e. when Radio Brod‘s medium-wave frequency was comparatively unoccupied and at the same time range reception became possible), with the loop antenna providing the necessary amplification of the signal.

At Easter 1999 we went on holiday to the Danish North Sea coast. I had left my radio equipment, the cassette recorder and the loop antenna at home this time. Therefore on Easter Sunday, I only had the car radio to listen to “Offshore ’98” on 1566 kHz. So I became a DXer of this unfortunately very short-lived and probably very last European offshore station.

Before a trip to Israel in autumn 1999, I had bought myself a Sangean ATS 818ACS with integrated cassette section. So in Tel Aviv at the Crown Plaza Hotel I made recordings of the FM signal on board the Arutz Sheva radio ship Hatzvi (but insiders also rumoured that at least the FM transmitter was somewhere on land). During our tour of Israel, I repeatedly tested the signal on both Arutz Sheva medium wave frequencies with their different programmes. I made the well-known experience that reception near the coast (for example in Haifa) was usually unproblematic, but further inland (for example at the Sea of Galilee or in Jerusalem) left a lot to be desired due to the sandy soil.

To receive the offshore radio stations, it was necessary to have the appropriate radio equipment, preferably a portable transistor set. Even as a boy, I examined every radio set I discovered to see if an offshore radio station was listed on the dial. Unfortunately, I was never successful in my search – and that in the period from 1970 to 1990… Again and again I heard and read that such devices were absolute exceptions.

In the meantime, however, many radio enthusiasts have found them, especially with the help of the Internet. In fact, I was able to acquire 44 devices in the past 2 decades, on which mainly Radio Veronica, Radio Caroline, Radio London, Radio Noordzee (broadcasting from REM-eiland in 1964) or also Radio Mercur are noted.

I have compiled a list of 228 such receivers – and this list is by no means complete. These are both tube and transistor sets from 1958 to about 1973. Even before the end of the 1950s, high-quality Danish sets from the manufacturers Bang & Olufsen and Eltra were found, which listed the radio ship Courier on the dial, a forerunner of the later offshore transmitters. From the Courier off Rhodes, the Voice of America broadcast programmes for Eastern European listeners. In 1958, Radio Mercur began broadcasting in Danish and later Swedish. The first stereo transmissions were even made on 2 different frequencies in the FM range. An astonishing number of receivers from the above-mentioned brands Bang & Olufsen and Eltra, but also from Arena, Linnet & Laursen and Neutrofon bear the designation “Mercur” (sometimes differentiated as Mercur I and II) on their dials. For a period of only two months in 1961, the Danish offshore station DCR (Danmarks Commercielle Radio) joined them, which is surprisingly listed on the B&O Beolit 609 unit and on the Piccolo 622 box by Linnet & Laursen.

The beginning of the offshore radio era off the coast of Great Britain was also the starting point for corresponding (mostly portable) radio stes with the names of individual offshore stations on the dial. The popular and internationally known Radio Caroline was particularly affected by this. The brands Kolster & Brandes, Sobell, Pye, GEC, Murphy, Fidelity, Pamphonic, RGD and Bush stand out here. Individual “ring doves” of the sets produced in the period 1964 to 1966 even feature the names of the offshore stations Radio London, Radio 390 and Radio City.

Two sets produced in the former Yugoslavia for the British market seem almost exotic, bearing the broadcasting vessel MV Caroline of Radio Caroline North on the dial. Small devices from Hong Kong were sold in large numbers as Caroline or Veronica transistor radios and are today particularly sought after by collectors.

Radio Veronica was the best-known Dutch offshore radio station, active from 1960 to 1974. From 1964 and until the end of 1972, numerous German radio sets with the designation “Veronica” (which could be heard on 192m at that time) came onto the market. Surprisingly, they were mostly manufactured in the former GDR and sold as export units in the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany. This concerns all receivers of the sales brands Bruns, Quelle and RFT (VEB Stern-Radio Sonneberg). The Körting-Werke, located in Grassau at the lake Chiemsee after the Second World War, acted for decades as the main supplier of the Neckermann mail-order company. Under the names Körting, Neckermann-Körting, Körting-Transmare and Transmare, they manufactured many appliances with “Veronica” on the scale, but exceptionally also with “Caroline”.

In contrast, only a surprisingly small number of devices from the Netherlands bore the name “Veronica” on their scales. Individual exceptions can be found in receivers of the Philips and Erres brands (some of which were also manufactured in the then Eastern Bloc). A combined radio/phono set made by Amroh B.V. in 1963 also indicates Radio Veronica. Up to now, only one Erres device has been found, which shows Veronica on the wavelength of 538m (used from September 1972) and even RNI (Radio Nordsee International) on 220m.

By the mid-seventies at the latest, the offshore stations on the radio scales had come to an end, even though Radio Caroline, Radio Mi Amigo or Radio Monique continued to operate until 1990 at the latest. Apparently, the manufacturers increasingly shied away from the supposed illegality of the radio stations…

The above-mentioned list of the individual devices can be found here.

Numerous other photos can be admired on Flickr: