What Radio Caroline teaches business about user generated content

What Radio Caroline teaches business about user generated content

Yesterday marked forty five years since the first broadcast from Radio Caroline — the subject of a new film The Boat That Rocked. Radio Caroline was a pirate operation, using loopholes in the law and the difficulties in enforcement to serve pop and rock music to the general public outside of the establishment. Radio Caroline shows us that the issues surrounding user generated content, online piracy and the slow reactions of established business to underground consumer demands is not new to the internet. So if it isn’t new, what can be learned from the events surrounding Caroline?

Back in the early 1960’s the BBC’s output of ‘popular music’ each week was extremely low, and was normally interspersed between tracks by crooners such as Sinatra and Bennett. The traditionalist broadcaster was extremely conservative in its views on modern music, and saw the massive groundswell of listeners to The Beatles, the Rolling Stones et al as a passing fad. Other radio stations with a more open attitude to pop and rock – such as Radio Luxembourg – were heavily tied into the major record labels, cutting out the independents where the exciting new stuff was beginning to come through. But even Luxembourg only broadcast after 6pm each night.

Giving the people what they want

It was this failure to give the public what they wanted, unfettered by business deals and established practice, that prompted Ronan O’Rahilly to exploit a loophole in British maritime law. Radio Caroline started broadcasting to the UK from international waters on Easter Sunday 1964. Caroline created stars out of DJs such as Dave Lee Travis and Johnny Walker. Other pirate stations began to spring up, launching the careers of John Peel, Tony Blackburn and a host of others. These offshore radio stations allowed their DJs far greater freedom to choose the music and present to listeners what they wanted to hear. It was revolutionary and powerful and was a serious threat to the old guard radio stations. For the first time, radio listeners could have non-stop 24 music, without the talk shows, drama serials and soap operas in between.

Caroline was so influential that a record championed by its DJs could become a massive hit, propelling the artists onto television and eventually mainstream radio. The station – and the many others that copied Caroline in the following years – were funded by advertising, only the second station to do so after Radio Luxembourg. Just as online pirate networks such as The Pirate Bay and Demonoid are criticised by the establishment for making advertising dollars from illegal activity, Caroline was doing it first.

Big business learns the hard way

After a few years, the law caught up with Caroline. The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act was brought in, making it an offence to supply or advertise on an offshore radio station from the UK. Although Caroline continued broadcasting after the law came into effect, eventually dwindling European advertising dollars and the difficulties of being supplied from Holland resulted in the station closing.

But, just as happened when the law caught up with Napster, big business would fill the vacuum. The BBC launched Radio 1 mere weeks after the new law came into effect and many of the disc jockeys left over from the offshore stations found a new home at the UKs prime broadcaster. What had been frowned upon as an illegal operation fronted by personalities that would never have achieved success on the Beeb through traditional channels.

After four years, the BBC had finally realised the audience wanted something other than what they had provided for so long and they adjusted their business model accordingly. Apple launched iTunes in the same way, capitalising on the established audience for downloading music that Napster had proven was out there – despite continued record label resistence.

Content will always find its way around the law – always

Time and again, users have had to produce their own content, filling the vaccuum until business catches up. They produce their own programming distribute content and create methods of communication that go outside of the law to provide what the consumer wants from new technology and new trends. Will the illegal bittorrent networks eventually be seen as the template for future broadcasting, monetised by the very people who have fought it for so long? Will the underground bloggers become the journalists of tomorrow as the media cottons on to how we want to receive and interact with content?

User generated content and piracy are necessary steps on the way to societal change. Radio Caroline demonstrated that the user wants to decide what content they read / listen / watch and how to receive it, instead of being dictated to by a stuffy board of directors. If content providers fail to understand this, there will continue to be battles between the establishment and empowered consumers who decide to create their own solutions.