Digest>Archives> August 2005

Radio Veronica: The First Pirate Radio Ship

By Bob Fraser


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Illegal radio broadcasters are as old as radio itself and while these “pirate” stations delight some and infuriate others, they are a fact of these broadcasters put out to sea benefiting from international law to avoid arrest. The first of these floating pirate radio stations was Radio Veronica off the Netherlands.

The station was aboard the former Borkum Riff Lightship. This German lightship station existed from 1875 to 1988 (Germany’s last) off the mouth of the Ems River and some 54 miles northwest of the city of Emden. The lightship, which concerns us, is the third of the four to mark the station.

She was built in 1911 and the graceful 141-foot, 485-ton, red vessel resembled the two earlier ones in having a clipper bow, bowsprit, and three masts. The main (center) mast was taller and was topped by a black conical basket as a daytime marker and shone a red light at night. The fore (front) and after (rear) masts were each topped by a black, spherical basket daymark and had white lights. Each light was by a group of three small Fresnel lenses with kerosene burners. In 1918, they were electrified and in 1925, the mainmast was replaced by a thin tube tower holding a revolving optic. The ship was in port during both world wars but returned to station once peace was restored. She was the Borkum Riff Lightship until 1956.

The world’s first coast radio station was established on the first Borkum Riff Lightship, officially going into operation on May 15, 1900. In 1905, its call became FBR.

Retired in 1959, the lightship was sold to VRON (Vrije Radio Omroep Netherland), the Verweij Brothers of Hilversum, in November of 1959 for 6900 DM expressly for a pirate radio station. The light tower was removed and a two-wire flat top antenna stretched between the masts some 66 feet high. The radio ship was anchored 3 miles offshore between Scheveningen and The Hague. Going on the air in April 1960, it broadcast the latest pop music to the Dutch people from a 10-kw transmitter on 1562 kHz. As the official broadcasters of Europe generally refused to broadcast modern music, the pirate radio business took off with great success. The very famous Radio Caroline, another pirate radio ship, followed in 1964 and it was so popular that many people believe it was the first, tending to overlook the others.

The governments, particularly the British, fought back against these pirate stations but with little hope. In 1964, the Netherlands passed a law against the offshore stations, in particular, those on fixed structures. The law was primarily aimed at Radio North Sea, which went out of business as a result, but returned as a floating station in 1970.

Radio Veronica retired the old lightship in 1966 and got a newer vessel. Besides being the first, Radio Veronica was the most successful of them all, broadcasting for over a decade before shutting down.

This story appeared in the August 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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