BBC Pirate Radio Documentary Published 57 Years Late

I recently received this recorded BBC radio documentary programme about the 1960s pirate radio stations called “The Pirates Of Pop” from my friend, John Ker, who says the tape was given him many years earlier by Graham Bunce, who in 1966 worked for pirate Radio City and later joined the BBC as Engineer and Studio Manager until his retirement in 2013. It is now published at Mixcloud and after all these years Graham can’t now remember how he originally obtained the recording.

Voices heard in this programme include Simon Dee, Radio London Managing Director, Philip Birch, Donald MacLean of the BBC’s Popular Music Department and Brian Emmett of BBC Audience Research.

There are several unknowns about “The Pirates Of Pop”. Why the peculiar programme length? What was the name of the programme’s producer? When was it produced? And most importantly, was it ever broadcast?

We don’t know for sure who presented the programme but it was most likely John Benson, for many years famous as the voice on Nicolas Parson’s “Sale of the Century” from Anglia TV. As for who produced the programme, I asked now retired BBC Radio 1 producer, Johnny Beerling, and he suspects that John Muir, who did the programme’s interviews, was also the producer.

When was “The Pirates Of Pop” Produced?
We know this documentary was made in January 1967 because its interviews clearly suggest this and additionally some content is mentioned in Robert Chapman’s 1992 book: “Selling The Sixties” where on pages 228/229 he quotes Donald MacLean of the BBC’s Popular Music Department. This is heard about 5-1/2 minutes from programme start.

Why is the Programme Length Peculiar?
BBC radio programmes of the time usually ended by naming the producer and other credits, which is not the case here. Instead, the programme ends somewhat abruptly with a few bars of the 1945 melody “We’ll Gather Lilacs” by Ivor Novello.
Also, the quality of the recording is very good, unlike off-air recordings of the 1960s, which were prone to hiss with possible crackles or tape “drop-outs”. So the excellent quality suggests it is probably a pre-transmission listening copy for later editing down to a final 30 minute version.

Was “The Pirates Of Pop” Ever Broadcast?
I believe that the BBC never broadcast “The Pirates of Pop” programme because its content was not approved by the UK government represented by the then Postmaster General, Edward Short.

Firstly there is no trace whatever of this programme in the extensive and very detailed BBC online Genome programme listings.

We must also remember that in 1967, the then UK Labour Government was not only vehemently against offshore pirate radio, they were also dogmatically opposed to the introduction of any land-based commercial radio stations in competition with the BBC, even though such competition would likely improve job opportunities and conditions of service for radio employees, many of whom would be likely Labour voters.

This very point is raised at about 15 mins. from programme start, when an anonymous union member (Association of Broadcasting Staff) makes the case for greater job opportunities and better conditions of service if more employers existed — a comment which the then Labour government would have obviously not wanted aired.

It’s intriguing that the then Postmaster General, Edward Short, when debating the Bill to outlaw pirate radio in Parliament on 15th February 1967 chose to mention: “We’ll Gather Lilacs” when plenty of other memorable melodies of the 1940s exist. He claimed there was no demand for non-stop pop and continued: “Clearly the housewife who is at home during the day – and some still are – likes to hear something like “We’ll gather lilacs” and that sort of nostalgic music. She likes a rather different kind of light music.”

My hunch is that the BBC had submitted a copy of “The Pirates of Pop” to the Postmaster General for approval before broadcast – approval that wasn’t given. But, as we know, the programme ends with “We’ll Gather Lilacs” which Edward Short remembered since he had listened to this programme tape only a few days earlier.

Free Radio Campaigner David Prewett RIP

Free Radio Protest 8 Nov 1967 at opening of BBC Radio Leicester

David Prewett leading an FRA free radio protest on 8th November 1967 at the opening of BBC Radio Leicester

It is with deep sadness we report the death of leading UK free radio campaigner, David Prewett, who died on 27th August 2023 aged 87. David worked tirelessly in the 1960s and early 1970s for ending monopoly radio on the UK mainland.

Starting in 1965, David was the leader of a listeners organisation based in Oxford campaigning for the introduction of UK commercial and non-commercial radio in addition to the BBC. By early 1967, with the UK government poised to ban the very popular offshore “pirate” stations, David became a founder member and hon. Secretary & Public Relations officer for the Free Radio Association (FRA) and a year later, together with other FRA colleagues, David formed and was leader of the National Commercial Radio Movement (NCRM), later to become the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting (CIB).

David possessed both the technical radio knowledge and the skills for getting publicity combined with the mild-mannered knack of working well with colleagues and being tireless at parliamentary lobbying. In short he was an indefatigable campaigner.

It was David’s technical knowledge which enabled a practical plan setting out how radio stations in addition to the BBC could be established in Britain despite limited available medium wave frequencies as set out in CIB’s 1969 “Sound Broadcasting Study“.

This provided an invaluable argument for David, together with CIB’s Press & Public Relations colleague, Martin Rosen and others for gaining media publicity as well as for intensive lobbying of MP’s in the House of Commons after the government changed in 1970.

A few examples:

November 1967 : See photo above with David Prewett, centre, leading an FRA free radio protest on 8th November 1967 at the opening of Radio Leicester, the BBC’s very first local station. This protest was not only against BBC monopoly radio but also because the BBC had stated that their local stations would be financed out of the national license fee – clearly unfair because all listeners would pay even when located outside the range of any local station. Note: David’s wife, Jill, also in this photo.

August 1968 : Article in “The Times” newspaper re. Free Radio “Coffin Demonstration” at 10, Downing Street, London marking 1st anniversary of outlawing of offshore radio stations with amusing annotation by David P.

1968 : David Prewett’s “Sound Broadcasting Study” published by NCRM-CIB.

December 1968 : Article in “Record Retailer” magazine about proposals for commercial radio including the “Sound Broadcasting Study“.

May 1970 : Letter from David Prewett to Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, castigating his government for manipulating UK sound broadcasting policy with examples of their misleading statements.

14th June 1970 : David Prewett speaking at the Free Radio rally in London’s Hyde Park a few days before the 1970 General Election. Radio Caroline’s Ronan O’Rahilly and CIB’s Martin Rosen are also included in this recording.

July 1970 : Meeting with Chris Chataway – Minister Of Posts & Telecommunications

2013 : David Prewett remembers…

More examples


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