Wonderful Radio London
Radio London, also known as Big L and Wonderful Radio London, was a top 40 (in London's case, the "Fab 40") offshore commercial station that operated from 23 December 1964 to 14 August 1967, from a ship anchored in the North Sea, three and a half miles off Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, England. The station, like the other offshore radio operators at the time, was dubbed a pirate radio station, and its offices were located in the West End of London at 17 Curzon Street, just off Park Lane.
The station broadcast from the MV Galaxy, a former Second World War United States Navy minesweeper originally named USS Density. The majority of programmes were presented live from a studio in the hold. The ship's metal bulkheads presented problems with acoustics and soundproofing that were originally solved by lining the walls with mattresses from the crew's bunk beds, which meant none of them could sleep during the day.
Origin of the station
Radio London was the brainchild of Don Pierson who lived in Eastland, Texas, United States. In a 1984 interview, Pierson said that he got the idea in 1964 to start the station while reading The Dallas Morning News. The daily carried a report of the start-up of Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta from ships at that time anchored off the coastline of south east England.
Pierson said he was captivated by the fact that these two offshore stations were the first and only all-day commercial radio broadcasters serving the UK. Pierson was an entrepreneur – and he compared the number of stations then serving the population of his native Northwest Texas with the two stations serving the entire UK. He had an idea that would be worth a lot of money while bringing enjoyment to many people, he told Gilder. He caught the next available "red eye" flight from Love Field in Dallas to the UK where he investigated the British broadcasting scene. On arriving, he chartered a small plane and flew over the two existing radio ships on the North Sea and after taking photographs, returned to Texas determined to create a station bigger and better than either of them. However, owing to a disagreement with its members, Pierson had to leave the Radio London consortium. His participation came to a complete end several weeks before the radio station went on air except he was allowed to keep a small shareholding in the venture.
The disc jockeys included Chuck Blair, Tony Blackburn, Pete Brady; Tony Brandon, Dave Cash (who also teamed-up to present a very popular Kenny and Cash Show), Ian Damon, Chris Denning, Dave Dennis, Pete Drummond, John Edward, Kenny Everett (co-host of the Kenny and Cash Show, and ultimately fired for continual on-air criticism of the religious program "The World Tomorrow"), Graham Gill, Bill Hearne, Duncan Johnson, Paul Kaye (who became the station's main news reader), Lorne King, "Marshall" Mike Lennox; John Peel (see The Perfumed Garden (radio show)), Earl Richmond, Mark Roman, John Sedd, Keith Skues, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart, Norman St. John, Tommy Vance (who came to the station late via Radio Caroline South and had been a DJ on KHJ Los Angeles), Richard Warner, Willy Walker, Alan West, Tony Windsor (who had begun his offshore career with Radio Atlanta) and John Yorke.
In August 1966, The Beatles started their last US concert tour. After the storm John Lennon's “more popular than Jesus” had caused in the US, the group’s reception was a cause for speculation – and the Beatles' management company arranged for a number of British journalists to accompany them. Radio London's Kenny Everett (a Liverpudlian), Caroline's Jerry Leighton and Swinging Radio England's Ron O'Quinn were invited to tag along. Because the UK Post Office – then the country’s monopoly telephone service provider – had cut ship-to-shore communication with all the pirate vessels, Everett had to call a number on land.
The station’s news chief Paul Kaye would go ashore, take the call in Harwich and tape the conversation before heading back to the ship where the recording was edited and music inserted to make a 30 minute programme, sponsored by Bassett's Jelly Babies, allegedly The Beatles' favourite sweets; the shows went out each evening at 7.30pm for 40 days of the tour. In 1967, Radio London got an 8-day UK exclusive on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, playing it first on 12 May 1967 – the album was in the shops on 1 June 1967 – but Everett had left the station on 21 March that year.
A Cadillac car dealer in Abilene, Texas who became one of the investors associated with Pierson in his offshore project, nominated Philip Birch, a J. Walter Thompson account director who had relocated from JWT's offices in the US to their offices in London. Birch was appointed Managing Director and was responsible for the entire management of Radio London and of its sales company Radlon (Sales). Birch, a hard-headed businessman, was largely responsible for the station's success, tailoring the American-style format to give the broadest appeal to a British audience.
The cost of running the station was covered by local and national advertising revenue and the half-hour religious commentary The World Tomorrow presented by either Herbert W. Armstrong or his son Garner Ted Armstrong. The Armstrongs' Worldwide Church of God sponsored the station to the tune of £50,000 a year. The World Tomorrow aired at 7 p.m., outside prime-time hours.
British authorities would not allow registration of a British sales company called "Radio London" because the name was considered "too similar" to that of an existing company, Commercial Radio (London) Ltd and so it was registered as "Radlon (Sales) Ltd." and was owned by Philip Birch and was the name on the air for advertising sales. The investors were based in Texas and used a series of different names for interlocking companies outside the UK and USA that represented their ownership in order to disguise, primarily for tax reasons, their financial interests.
After the closure of Big L, Birch became the founding managing director of Piccadilly Radio, which was awarded the UK licence for Manchester during 1973 and became one of Britain's most successful radio stations. He also founded Air Services Ltd, a leading radio advertising sales company responsible for selling national advertising for stations located throughout the UK. He continued as CEO of Piccadilly Radio and Chairman of Air Services Ltd until his retirement in January 1984.
The name of the station was to have been Radio KLIF London because the floating station was to have used recorded programmes from KLIF, Dallas. When it was decided that the sound should be live instead of recorded, Pierson hired Ben Toney as programme director. Philip Birch was appointed CEO in charge of the radio station and of advertising sales. Birch suggested calling the station Radio Galaxy, in anticipation of its star making ability. As a compromise the minesweeper was renamed MV Galaxy while the station became Radio London. However, the PAMS jingles caused a further refinement of the name so that it was known as Wonderful Radio London and Big L; just as KLIF in Dallas called its hometown Big D.
The station's American-manufactured RCA Ampliphase transmitter was rated at 50,000 watts (50 kW) – An on-air slogan ran 'Your 50,000 watt Tower of Power', although initially it operated at 17,000 watts. In contrast, Radio Caroline, its main rival, operated with a Continental Electronics 10 kW transmitter. In 1966, Caroline South upgraded to a 50 kW Continental transmitter and, for a time, Radio London pretended to retaliate by increasing its transmitter power to 75 kW.
The station's antenna was a vertical guyed tubular steel mast positioned aft of the bridge house. Radio London's official publicity always claimed that the mast had a height of 212 feet (64.6 metres), but this was another exaggeration. A recent estimate based on photographs of the ship puts the actual height at around 170 feet (about 52 metres). 
While the wavelength was always announced as "266 metres" the station experimented with various frequencies between 1133 and 1137.5 kHz and tended to suffer nighttime heterodyne interference from stations in Zagreb and elsewhere.
At midnight on 14 August 1967, the Marine, etc., Broadcasting (Offences) Act came into effect in the United Kingdom. The intention and effect was to create a criminal offence for any person who supplied music, commentary, advertising, fuel, food, water or any other assistance except for life-saving purposes, to any ship, offshore structure such as a former WWII fort, or flying platform such as an aircraft used for broadcasting without a licence granted by the regulatory authority for broadcasting in the UK.
Despite some initial plans to the contrary Radio London decided not to defy the law and to close before the Act came into effect.
It was decided to close at 3pm on 14 August 1967. The timing was chosen partly because it would guarantee the station a large audience and also to enable the broadcasting staff on board the MV Galaxy to return to shore and board a train to London. A one hour recorded show was broadcast from 2pm to 3pm to allow the staff to get ready to leave the ship. The time also described an "L" shape on the clock face, though whether this was a consideration is unknown.
Their Final Hour, as the programme was called, celebrated recorded greetings of farewell and remembrance from recording stars of the day. Included were the voices of Mick Jagger, Cliff Richard, Ringo Starr and Dusty Springfield. Managing director Birch thanked the DJs and staff and others involved throughout the station's life, as well as the politicians and others who fought for the station – and its 12 million listeners in the United Kingdom and 4 million in the Netherlands, Belgium and France'. This was followed by the last record A Day in the Life by The Beatles. This was followed by Paul Kaye's final announcement: "Big L time is three o'clock, and Radio London is now closing down." The station's theme tune, the "PAMS Sonowaltz", popularly called Big Lil was the last music heard before the transmitter was turned off just after 3pm.
Just after Radio London closed down, Robbie Dale on Radio Caroline South (previously Radio Atlanta) broadcast a brief tribute to the station, thanked its staff and DJs, and held a minute's silence.
Most of the offshore stations had already left the air. Radio Scotland and Radio 270 closed at midnight. Radio Caroline South announced that both it and Radio Caroline North (the original Caroline) would continue. Owner Ronan O'Rahilly said they were defending the principle of free broadcasting, rather than being mere business assets. (Caroline's offshore broadcasts continued on and off until 1990, after which the station pursued legal means of broadcasting.)
When the Radio London staff arrived at London's Liverpool Street station later that night they were greeted by large numbers of fans (some wearing black armbands and carrying placards with slogans such as "Freedom died with Radio London") the fans attempted to storm the platform leading to minor scuffles with police.
The MV Galaxy sailed to West Germany, where Erwin Meister and Edwin Bollier attempted to buy it for what became Radio Nordsee International. When the deal fell through Meister and Bollier set about finding another ship. In 1979 the Galaxy, with its 170 ft mast still erect, was sunk in Kiel harbour as an artificial reef. By 1986 concerns about pollution from the ship's oil tanks led to its being raised and broken up.
When his second radio ship venture closed and the vessel returned to Miami, Florida, in 1967, Don Pierson attempted to restart Wonderful Radio London from there. His plan was to interest investors in restarting Radio London from off New York. When that failed, he began a venture involving yet another ship which would restart Wonderful Radio London off San Diego, California. That, too, sank.
In 1982 Pierson helped promote a syndicated Wonderful Radio London Show, first aired over KVMX, a station he owned in Eastland, Texas. He promoted the show at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. When Ben Toney, the original offshore Radio London program director, became involved, the show was aired on KXOL in Fort Worth, Texas and as a daily show aired over 250,000 watt XERF in Mexico. Further plans were made to extend the early morning airtime of XERF into Wonderful Radio London as a full service station and to send a new ship to the UK as Wonderful Radio London International' (WRLI), in the hopes of replicating Radio London's success of the 1960s. However, these further plans failed to materialize beyond their syndication stage.
Pierson died in 1996.
Swinging Radio England and Britain Radio
As a result of his Radio London initiative, Pierson created Swinging Radio England and Britain Radio on board another ship in 1965. However, these stations did not get on the air until 1966 when their vessel anchored close to Big L on board the MV Galaxy. The twin stations were not commercially successful due to technical problems and mismanagement. Dutch station Radio Dolfijn replaced Radio England in November 1966. Radio 355 replaced Britain Radio and Dolfijn gave way to Radio Twee Twee Zeven (227) in early 1967.
In pop culture
- Wonderful Radio London is referred to (and some of its jingles used) on The Who's album The Who Sell Out.
- Wonderful Radio London also featured in The Who film Quadrophenia.
- The station features in the 1966 film Dateline Diamonds, which includes a few external shots of the Galaxy and a fanciful studio re-creation of its interior.
- Radio London was parodied in the film The Boat That Rocked.
- See Radio London for other stations that have used this name or its variations in whole or in part. Several stations are listed.
- Toney, Ben. "The Amazing Radio London Adventure". radiolondon.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-12-31.
- Kenny Everett tours the USA with The Beatles – Pirate Radio Hall of Fame, undated.Accessed on 20 August 2007.
- Kenny Everett 25 December 1944 – 4 April 1995 – Everett interviewed by Richard Porter, Radio London website, undated.Accessed on 20 August 2007.
- The Times 15 Aug 1967.
- Mass Media Moments in the United Kingdom, the USSR and the USA, by Gilder, Eric. - "Lucian Blaga" University of Sibiu Press, Romania. 2003 ISBN 973-651-596-6 - Contains reprinted work from 'The History of Pirate Radio in Britain and the End of BBC Monopoly in Radio Broadcasting in the United Kingdom' by Eric Gilder, North Texas State University, 1982. "London My Hometown", the second chapter, tells the Pierson story from his perspective and from original and exclusive archives. The chapter began as a 2000 audio-visual symposium called "Infinite Londons" sponsored in Romania by the British Council. The symposium's expanded proceedings later appeared in this book.
- The Wonderful Radio London Story, by Elliot, Chris. - Ray Anderson doing business as East Anglian Productions, Frinton-on-Sea, United Kingdom. 1997 ISBN 1-901854-00-0 - This was derived allegedly without permission from the archives Eric Gilder and Associates claim. (see note above.) The publisher was declared insolvent under UK law and it later turned out that the printer, designer and author had received no payment. The origins of this book's connection with Gilder lay in 1984's Wonderful Radio London International (WRLI) project, for which Elliot recorded the Wonderful Radio London Fab 40 in the UK – for KVMX and KXOL in Texas and XERF in Mexico to rebroadcast. When the WRLI venture came to an end, Elliot (born Christopher Gaydon, 1953) allegedly kept files on Pierson borrowed from Gilder – and later arranged for their publication under his name in two publications before the book appeared. This contains photographs and some hitherto unknown information, but it is not documented and it gives no credits. .
- Wonderful Radio London in the Pirate Radio Hall of Fame - Contains many audio, visual and text biographical stories relating to personal involved in the 1964-1967 venture.
- Wonderful Radio London story by Eric Gilder - Contains an in-depth sequence of events relating to the history of the Don Pierson archives and publications that have drawn upon them.
- The Radio London website - Run by Chris and Mary Payne of Radio London Ltd, the site contains over 1600 pages, a full collection of Big L Fab Forties and many "Where Are They Now?" biographical stories about personnel involved with both Radio London and many other offshore stations.
- Bassett's Jelly Baby Show ' report by Kenny Everett on the Beatles' 1966 tour of the US (Requires player for Real Audio files)