Robb Eden: Radio Caroline in the late seventies

Hans, I am writing to your trusted newsletter as over the years I have read various articles and books criticising the way that Caroline was run in the late ‘70’s which led to the Mi Amigo sinking in 1980. With that in mind I was disappointed to read the article written by Peter Moore for the Radio Caroline Support Group January 24 newsletter.

Peter Moore photo Hans Knot

I have great admiration for the way Peter has pulled the station up by the bootstraps but must take him to task when he states that “the operation of the station was chaotic”. It may have seemed chaotic to outsiders but one of the reasons we survived was that it was organised chaos. True to Ronan’s philosophy no one person knew what the other was doing and therefore any thought by the authorities of stopping one area of operation would cause problems in the short term but would not stop the radio station broadcasting. When taking on the management of the station in 1977 I had to quickly assess what was working and what was not and quickly came to realise that the guys on the ship were incredibly aware of what needed to be done to keep things going under extremely difficult circumstances. With that in mind I then looked to see how we could increase awareness whilst keeping a firm eye on what the authorities allowed us to get away with.

Robb Eden Caroline Roadshow: photo Jan Hendrik Kruidenier

One of the ways we did this was to launch the Caroline Roadshow as a way of testing the water. At the time, we honestly thought the authorities would act but we had one trick up our sleeve which may have stopped any attempt to raid us. Ronan asked me to include Simon Dee in the line up as he was destitute. Initially, I wasn’t happy about this as Simon’s history was well known. It was also difficult to see how Simon would fit in as he wasn’t a fan of the Caroline format. That said, I quickly concluded that having Simon on board may well stop any action being taken.

As we know, the roadshows went from strength to strength and for three years we played to packed houses everywhere from Bangor in the north to Folkestone in the South. Roger and Carol Carr were the backbone, lining up the bookings and then spending days in advance putting up posters, organising security and ensuring that everything would run smoothly on the night. On the ship front their dedication was matched by Albert and Georgina Hood who organised most of the tenders, bought essential supplies and the fuel to keep the generators turning. To keep one step ahead I sometimes had to come up with different methods of supplying the ship. Perhaps the most innovative of these was to call upon our friends at Greenpeace who agreed for their ship, the Rainbow Warrior, to come to our aid.

Tendering by Greenpeace. Photo: Marc Jacobs

Despite what Peter says in his article we were all aware of the fragility of our situation as the Mi Amigo was well past her sell by date. The search for a new ship started as early as 1978 with many aborted attempts, some thwarted by unscrupulous solicitors and agents who realised why we needed to purchase a ship. After numerous contacts with shipping agents and trips to various ports, I heard, through a trusted and reliable agent, that due to the depression in the market, there were several ships for sale in Grimsby. Whilst there I became interested in the Ross Tiger which was berthed nearby. I struck up a conversation with one of the crew who mentioned that another of the Ross fleet was sitting in Cairnryan and about to be scrapped. The rest is history.

It’s easy, in hindsight, to find fault with what I consider to be entrepreneurial and innovative thinking hence I also disagree with many of Peter’s comments about Ronan. Yes, many of the projects failed but in some cases this failure came about because of vested interests and the political power of those who just didn’t want things to happen. Seeing the faces of the family earmarked to live in the Caroline Home in Hackney was a testament to the vision and forward thinking that had the potential to help solve the housing crisis. The “engine that ran on water” was also ridiculed but now everyone is taking hydrogen power seriously. You don’t need to try to convince me that Ronan’s Kennedy documentary was a dud. I tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain a UK release for Christopher Lee’s Gandhi but the powers that be just didn’t want it to happen, it was a political hot potato, cinemas wouldn’t touch it. Subsequently, it was released on DVD but the damage was done. Christopher was passionate about his work and he, like me, felt let down by the industry that should have been there to support him. Failure is usually associated with a lack of success but sometimes failure is orchestrated by others who just don’t want you to succeed. Yes, I regret that, over the years, l may have failed to obtain licences for various radio projects but can look back with pride, particularly our application for a Greater London FM licence.

Mi Amigo 1979 Photo Marc Jacobs

With my good friend and colleague, Greg Edwards, we put forward what we considered to be an outstanding application, backed by the Zomba Group of Companies, called LFM (The Soul of London) but the Radio Authority were swayed by the vested interests who, time and time again, have held back innovative, forward thinking which could have dramatically changed the radio landscape for the good. Just so you know, Melody Radio was awarded the licence and look what happened to them!

On reflection I can pluck out two words that sum up the very people I’ve been talking about ‘dedication’ and ‘passion’. Despite Peter’s comments I believe that he is one of these people. At a time when network radio has decimated radio across the globe Peter has held firm. Caroline has always been different, is different and, I believe, is once again showing others how it should be done. In 1983, if Peter had made his feelings known, we may well have got together to persuade Ronan that copying others was not the Caroline way.

At a recent Caroline reunion, Jon Myer suggested that I write a book. I can’t see that happening as it seems that everyone is an author or a DJ these days but what I can tell you is that, as part of the Radio Caroline 60th anniversary celebrations, I will be revisiting the Ross at Easter, with Johnny Lewis and again in August with Bob Lawrence. I hope you’ll join me.