Don’t be a pirate, buy a licence! Archivist Helen explores records of a pirate radio station and the Post Office's involvement.

In the swinging sixties, pirate radio was hugely popular, especially with the younger generation. It provided an alternative to the limited choice on public radio stations. However pirate radio was less popular with the authorities who changed the law in 1967 to make pirate radio stations illegal.

Don’t be a Pirate Poster 1951 (POST 110/4328)

Before the passing of the Marine Broadcasting Act (1967) Radio Caroline approached the Post Office in 1964 to request a slogan die (the metal item applied either by hand or machine to a cover) to use in their franking machine. The first slogan die proposed was rejected by the Post Office as it was potentially embarrassing.

‘He [Mr Wolstencroft] felt therefore that the Postmaster General would be embarrassed if we authorised the issue of a frank bearing the slogan referred to’ POST 72/1087

A second design was submitted. This one avoided any mention of Radio Caroline and was approved.

Radio Caroline rejected slogan design, POST 122/8093

Radio Caroline approved slogan design, POST 122_8090

In 1977 a Daily Mail investigation reported that the Post Office was renting a private post box to Radio Caroline. Further enquiries by the Post Office confirmed that a private box in West Sussex was granted to Caroline Newsletter, but the Head Post Office was unaware of any connection between this organisation and Radio Caroline. The Post Office asked the advice of the Home Office:

‘anyone assisting Radio Caroline could be contravening the law, but prosecutions must be authorised by the DPP. For our information only at this stage Home Office is playing it cool and not actively enforcing the law’ POST 128/85

At this stage, the decision was taken not to withdraw the private box immediately but to continue to investigate the possible link between Caroline Newsletters and Radio Caroline.

Pirate Poster 1952 (POST 110/2509)

The Post Office’s involvement in broadcasting was more wide ranging than issues with Radio Caroline. From the start of radio transmissions in 1922, the Post Office had an interest in controlling broadcasting.

The early radio signals were thought to interfere with wireless telegraphs. This lead to a licencing system which applied both to those transmitting signals (such as radio stations) and those receiving signals (radio owners). Not having a licence was referred to as being a pirate-hence the term pirate radio station.

In the 1950s the Post Office ran a few campaigns encouraging people to buy the required licence. Part of this campaign involved the use of posters with the message ‘Don’t be a pirate-buy a licence’.

Don’t be a Pirate Get a Licence 1959 (POST 110/1380)

Today TV licencing is the responsibility of Ofcom and the Post Office now longer sells TV licences. In 2006 the contract for the sale of licences was awarded to PayPoint, ending an 84-year association with the Post Office.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist