Laser 558

Laser 558

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Laser 558 was an offshore pirate radio
Pirate radio
Pirate radio is illegal or unregulated radio transmission. The term is most commonly used to describe illegal broadcasting for entertainment or political purposes, but is also sometimes used for illegal two-way radio operation...

 station launched in May 1984 by a consortium of British and American business and broadcasting executives, some of whom have never been named. Laser 558 used disc jockeys recruited from the USA. The station was aboard the ship the MV Communicator in international waters in the North Sea. Within months the station had gained an audience, popular because of its alternating format of playing one current record followed by one oldie, but poor management and lack of advertising starved the station off the air in late 1985. In 1986 an attempt was made to return as Laser Hot Hits, but the same problems arose.

The beginnings of Laser Radio


A London-based car salesman and DJ called John Kenning convinced a rich Irish businessman to fund a new offshore radio station. Kenning recruited Paul Rusling who in turn introduced the project to Roy Lindau, who had previously been involved in Radio Caroline
Radio Caroline
Radio Caroline is an English radio station founded in 1964 by Ronan O'Rahilly to circumvent the record companies' control of popular music broadcasting in the United Kingdom and the BBC's radio broadcasting monopoly...

. Lindau was a marketing executive for Major Market Radio, an airtime brokerage owned by Gene Autry. He joined the Laser project in mid-1983 and became president of Laser's sales company Eurad, but left owing to disagreements over control. There were reports that the tobacco giant, Philip Morris
Altria Group
Altria Group, Inc. is based in Henrico County, Virginia, and is the parent company of Philip Morris USA, John Middleton, Inc., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, Inc., Philip Morris Capital Corporation, and Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. It is one of the world's largest tobacco corporations...

, pulled out following pressure from European authorities, although their sponsorship of some programmes continued to be announced.

The team planned an offshore venture with two stations on one ship. The music was initially programmed via satellite from the New York offices of Music Media International. This was scaled down to a single station called Laser after early disagreements on policy. The self-contained radio station was built on a former hydrographic survey vessel, the Gardline Seeker, which was renamed the Communicator. The plan was to use an antenna held aloft by a helium balloon - an inflatable dirigible tethered to the deck.

The conversion work was carried out in autumn 1983 at Tracor Marine in Port Everglades, Florida and the ships sailed via the Azores and Ireland to an anchorage off the Thames Estuary.

Antenna problems


The early days were overshadowed by problems with the antenna; the balloons were not tethered to the ship correctly and were lost in storms. The short-lived transmissions on 729 kHz could be heard in several countries, and a change to more traditional antenna supports (two masts) and a frequency at the bottom of the band were effected for the station's launch in May 1984 as Laser 558.

Operations


The near non-stop music format, using a strap line "never more than a minute away from music" was in stark contrast to the 50% speech mandate imposed on the UK's commercial radio at the time, and the similar proportion of talk on BBC Radio 1. The lack of advertising on Laser, plus the unique line up of an all-American DJ brigade, resulted in the station attracting a huge audience - BBC research at the time indicated that some four million in the UK and a similar number on the continent were tuning in to Laser.

By using only American DJs (it was illegal for British DJs to work on such stations in 1984) and claiming supply tenders ran from Spain, Laser claimed to be 100% legal. Surveillance by the UK authorities revealed that Laser was however being supplied clandestinely from Kent and the UK commercial radio stations campaigned to have Laser and Caroline removed claiming the two radio ships were "stealing their listeners".

Technical information


Laser played most of its music from tape cartridges as the American management wanted to retain control over material broadcast and also thought the stylus on vinyl records would jump in rough seas. The former research lab at the stern of the ship was converted into two broadcast studios plus a newsroom, which contained a Kaypro
Kaypro
Kaypro Corporation, commonly called Kaypro, was an American home/personal computer manufacturer of the 1980s. The company was founded by Non-Linear Systems to develop computers to compete with the then-popular Osborne 1 portable microcomputer...

 4 computer and telex link for communicating with the station's office in New York. This link was achieved initially by a COMSAT installation on the upper deck, which used the Inmarsat birds; it could access regular telephones, although at $15 a minute was an expensive way of getting messages across. Later the ship used a private marine VHF channel back to its Kent base.

The broadcast transmitters were a pair of CSI 25 kilowatt AM transmitters, built in Boca Raton, Florida. Usually only one of these was in use at half power, due to the limitations of tuning components in the antenna. This was an "inverted L" array running up to the top of a 100 feet high fore mast, and then across to a similar construction at the stern of the ship. Coverage was remarkably good with the "commercially marketable" core area of the signal travelling around 140 miles over land, which included most of England, all of Holland and Belgium and much of northern France down as far as Paris.

The audio quality was a little better than most other AM broadcasters heard in western Europe, as the equipment had been set up to modulate with frequencies up to around 8 kHz, whereas the UK for example rolled off treble frequencies at 4.5 kHz. The programme feed was modified by an audio processor made by CRL (Circuit Research Labs) of Arizona, while Radio Caroline (based on another ship nearby) used an Optimod processor. The extended bandwidth did however lead to complaints from Irish
Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 Expatriate listeners in London and elsewhere as it allegedly interfered with RTE Radio
RTÉ Radio 1
RTÉ Radio 1 is the principal radio channel of Irish public-service broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann and is the direct descendant of Dublin radio station 2RN, which began broadcasting on a regular basis on 1 January 1926...

(then on an adjacent frequency of 567 kHz). This problem was compounded when Radio Caroline, in an attempt to grab some of Laser's listeners, began a 24-hour pop service on 585 kHz, shortly moving to 576, with a power of approximately 5 kW, so that in England RTÉ's frequency suffered sideband interference from both pirates.

Other media in the UK ran several stories about who the mysterious owner(s) might be, and the Evening Standard "outed" a BBC TV journalist alleging his involvement. While many assumed the station was American owned, it was in fact funded by just one very private Irish businessman, who preferred to remain incognito. His secretiveness appears to have alarmed many establishment figures, who were persuaded by the licensed commercial radio stations to mount an intense investigation into the station's operations.

Eurosiege


On 9 August 1985, the UK's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), chartered the Dioptric Surveyor to anchor nearby to monitor Laser and Caroline, at a reported cost of £50,000 a month. It was replaced by the larger Gardline Tracker. This had been chartered from Gardline Surveys, whose history dates back to Grace Darling
Grace Darling
Grace Horsley Darling was an English Victorian heroine who in 1838, along with her father, saved 13 people from the wreck of the SS Forfarshire.-Biography:...

. Gardline Tracker was a sister ship of the MV Communicator, purchased from Gardline in Great Yarmouth
Great Yarmouth
Great Yarmouth, often known to locals as Yarmouth, is a coastal town in Norfolk, England. It is at the mouth of the River Yare, east of Norwich.It has been a seaside resort since 1760, and is the gateway from the Norfolk Broads to the sea...

 as the Gardline Seeker.

DJs at Laser made frequent references to the DTI vessel, poking fun at the ship and staff, releasing a parody song titled I Spy For The DTI by the Moronic Surveyors. The term, Euroseige, was coined by disc jockey Charlie Wolf. On one occasion the MV Communicator moved temporarily to a new anchorage away from the MV Ross Revenge only to be followed by the DTI ship, confirming that Laser rather than Caroline was the main target of the DTI.

Business failure


The backers failed to secure the advertising they had hoped. Radio Caroline continued broadcasting and attracted little attention from the DTI. Shortly after the start of Laser558, Radio Caroline
Radio Caroline
Radio Caroline is an English radio station founded in 1964 by Ronan O'Rahilly to circumvent the record companies' control of popular music broadcasting in the United Kingdom and the BBC's radio broadcasting monopoly...

 began simulcasting with a 5 kW transmitter on 576 kHz, although this channel suffered more interference.

The Last Broadcast


Due to the blockade and lack of business, the MV Communicator was eventually forced into port, escorted by Gardline Tracker, where it was impounded by the Admiralty marshall on behalf of several unpaid creditors, including Gardline Surveys who had sold Laser the ship, and Paul Rusling, its first engineer and coordinator who had sourced the transmitters and paid staff on behalf of the owner, an Irish businessman. The ship was offered for sale in a blind auction and despite its cost being almost £1million just two years before, was sold for around £35,000. The ship contracted by the UK Government to observe the radio ships off the Thames Estuary, a former sister ship to Laser 558, the Gardline Tracker, did not return to continue its watch on Radio Caroline. The day after Laser's closure, Caroline moved from 576 to 558 kHz, a much clearer frequency.

Laser Hot Hits


The MV Communicator was bought by East Anglian Productions and left unhindered during restoration work that was carried out in Essex. The ship returned to international waters in late 1986 and on 1 December began test transmissions as Laser Hot Hits using the 576 channel abandoned by Radio Caroline, since Caroline was still using 558. The station resumed broadcasting officially on 7 December.

Kirk Clyatt (KC In The Morning) was one of the last breakfast show hosts for the resurrected Laser. The link below is to part of a "slightly edited" but real life journal Kirk kept about what it was like to be on the radio from the open water of the North Sea in December.

Journal from Laser & The View From The Bridge

Below is a link to what part of the Breakfast Show from 8 and 9 December 1986 sounded like on Laser. The technical quality of the aircheck is only fair to poor since it was recorded in Scotland, by a member of the pirate radio fan club known as the Anoraks, the ship was several hundred miles away in the North Sea off the south-east coast of England.

The video portion includes some pictures taken on board the ship. The one of the Bellatrix is the tender that came all too infrequently from Holland because it was legal for a British boat to supply the ship, another pictures shows the North Sea the way it looked much of the time.

Part of the 'Breakfast Show' from December 8th & 9th, 1986

The ship had on board twin 25 kW transmitter, but the five wire horizontal array antenna on the ship at that time could only accommodate the use of one of the transmitters at a time.

Laser Hot Hits lasted less time than the original and had much poorer coverage due to a powerful German station sharing the frequency. After losing masts in a storm in January it closed. The station went off the air in spring 1987.

The station has been much copied by hobby pirates. A local radio company in the UK used the name "Laser Radio" until its seven strong network folded in Autumn 2008.

Aftermath


Charlie Wolf
Charlie Wolf
Charlie Wolf is a British-based American radio talk-show host, disc jockey and political commentator, originally from Boston, and formerly the Communications Director of Republicans Abroad UK. Wolf is best known for the TalkSport show he hosted on Saturdays and Sundays from 1am to 6am, following...

 was the most popular Laser DJ. Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, he was working in Salt Lake City, Utah, when he answered an advert in Radio & Records Magazine, a weekly industry paper in the USA. Wolf told friends that he joined for a free trip to London. After Laser's closure he became one of the first DJs on Atlantic 252
Atlantic 252
Atlantic 252 was a long wave radio station broadcasting to Ireland and the United Kingdom on 252 kHz from its 1988 purpose built transmission site Clarkstown radio transmitter, which provided service to Atlantic 252 from 1989 until 2002. The station's studios were located just 12 km away in...

. He has worked for stations in the GWR Group (now Global Radio). He presented on TalkSport
TalkSPORT
Talksport , owned by UTV radio, is one of the United Kingdom's three terrestrial analogue Independent National Radio broadcasters, offering a sports and talk radio service broadcast from London to the United Kingdom....

 Radio (2000–2006). Dave Lee Stone, the only DJ to return with a pre-recorded show on Hot Hits on Sundays, died in 1997 after a drinking binge.

Jessie Brandon, who travelled on the MV Communicator from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Europe, worked for Radio Nova
Radio Nova
Radio Nova may refer to one of several different radio stations, among them:*Nova , a network of radio stations in Australia:** Nova 96.9 , Sydney 96.9 FM** Nova 100 , Melbourne 100.3 FM** Nova 106.9 , Brisbane 106.9 FM...

, Capitol Radio and Radio Luxembourg
Radio Luxembourg (English)
Radio Luxembourg is a commercial broadcaster in many languages from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. It is nowadays known in most non-English languages as RTL ....

. She returned to the US and worked with Simon Marks's FeatureStoryNews in Washington, DC. Steve Masters was last heard of working for Voice of America and running a consulting business in the US. Rick Harris left in 1985 to work on Radio Nova.

The most surprising appearance on Laser Hot Hits was Andrew Turner as a DJ. Turner had been as a newsreader on BBC Radio One and was the only UK resident to stay on board after Laser Hot Hits closed. During test transmissions he was almost single-handedly doing the presentations.

MV Communicator


After Laser Hot Hits went off the air, the MV Communicator was again impounded. This time it was stripped of studio equipment, although the transmitters and generators were intact. The ship was sold many times, until the early 1990s, when Holland FM bought the ship and broadcast to that country. Communicator was sold again, to the Veronica Broadcasting Society, which sold it to Quality Radio. The ship was then sold to Dave Miller's The Superstation, broadcasting to the Orkney Isles on 105.4 MHz in 2004.

Miller sold the ship for £1,000. The MV Communicator lies beached near St Margaret's Hope pier in Orkney. Soon after purchase, the generators and the hatch covers were removed, exposing the interior. The mast has been removed and the hull and superstructure have been partially cut up for scrap. A tribute with a photo of the ship being broken up appeared on the Radio Caroline website in 2007.

Station Theme


The theme song for Laser 558 and Laser Hot Hits was Thank You For The Music by ABBA
ABBA
ABBA was a Swedish pop group formed in Stockholm in 1970 which consisted of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Agnetha Fältskog...

.

DJ Themes


Charlie Wolf's theme song was Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf? by The Three Little Pigs.

Singles


I Spy For The DTI, a parody by The Moronic Surveyors was released on the 23 September 1985 (Farce records 7" single DTI 007, 12" single DTIT 007). Laser Radio, by The Communicators, praising the station, was recorded and written by Laser fans Roger King and Yanni Tsamplakos. Laser Rap by Jazzy E. The music for the station's promotional video.

External sources