Given the recent licensing of the once pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview one of her legendary DJs.
Born and bred in Ipswich, Johnny Lewis grew up around farming. In his teens he founds his way to Hertfordshire where he first encountered the Radio Caroline team. Johnny was soon promoted from a general dogs body, expediting jobs like finding new generators for the ship to finally becoming a DJ on 17th December 1977.
“I was always interested in off-shore stations. The first ever radio I did was at The Stable Club in ‘76, in Woodbridge. I loved radio. I remember my granddad had a beach hut in Felixstowe, so I was always look for Radio Caroline which at the time was being broadcast from the ship, Mi Amigo. Listening to the excitement of the stations growing up in the 60s was incredible. I always listened to Radio Caroline and also Radio North Sea International. There was a buzz in radio in those days. That lacks a bit these days. It’s a job now as opposed to a bit of fun and you can really feel that difference. Radio Caroline is a fun station to be on! It’s like a hobby and I always look forward to DJ’ing.
Radio Caroline has a fantastic history; In the ‘80s it broadcast from The Ross Revenge (names by her previous owners at Ross Fishers), originally a trawler. In fact, that ship was the biggest side trawler ever built and was involved in the Iceland-UK Cod War around 1973.”
When the authorities favoured Icelandic law to protect its fishing zone, the Ross Revenge went into a period of idleness. After years, a 300 foot transmission mast was fitted, the body was painted bright red, and the ship set sail to broadcast in international waters in 1983 as the station for its new owner, Radio Caroline.
By autumn of 1964 Caroline had more listeners than the 3 BBC networks combines. Alan Crawford, founder of Radio Atlanta, was furious about this and aired right next to Caroline’s wavelength. As Caroline had the audience, a merger was seen to be inevitable. Crawford’s ship soon became Caroline South, while the original Caroline because Caroline North.
Johnny says, “We grew so popular, but as a pirate radio station, we were condemned by the government. In 1985, the government actually tried to stop us by cutting our supply lines, but we still kept on going. We hit the news because of this… it was like 20 million free ads… we were front page of every paper in the UK and Europe!”
At 12 noon on December 22nd 2017, Radio Caroline was back on air for a ten-hour special, broadcast from the radio-ship, Ross Revenge. After 53 years of hard work, the station is now a full-time AM channel!
When asking about the plans for Caroline, Johnny said, “Now that the station is licenced we stay on the ship and broadcast from the ship Friday to Sunday.
The one thing that we really enjoy is the freedom you get, which you don’t get on other stations. People still listen to it as they haven’t heard songs for such a long time. it’s not predictable like other radio stations and we can let our personalities shine.
Time is passing and us old-timers are getting on… we’d like to encourage fresh blood, so younger people are involved. – to come to the ship and broadcast. We do tours on the ship and one thing youngsters always say is that it isn’t what they thought and it’s amazing on the ship – the buzz and atmosphere.
We’d like to give lessons on how to do radio and the history on radio… and do this on ship! We’d make it as fun as possible. There’s new technology and also there’s the lovely old technology like vinyl, records, reel to reel tapes. It’s fun to show the kids the old technology as well as new.
I’ve actually taught media in Margate, and with no qualifications except life experience on board Caroline! It’s great how young people love our story. I think that’s the way forward with Radio Caroline – by taking kids who want to learn about radio, to the ship itself. It’s something totally different.
I’d like to thank everyone who has been part of Caroline all these years, and more recently in supporting her licensing. It’s a moment that’ll live with me for the rest of my life.”