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Tony Blackburn

April 2009

THE image of the pirate radio days as portrayed in The Boat That Rocked is misleading, says original Radio Caroline DJ Tony Blackburn.
"A lot of parties and girls on board... well, it was nothing like that," says the British radio icon, who was 21 when he first hopped aboard in 1964.
"We didn't have the fun that they obviously had in the film."
But Blackburn, who marks his 45th year in broadcasting this summer, says they were good times. And the output was far superior than today.
"We were all young, there were no scripts, it was all ad lib... and unfortunately nowadays a lot of it isn't. It's three (songs) in a row and a time check. Whereas then it was much freer and much better."
He had yet to see the film when we spoke but had been told by one of its stars at the Baftas that he was an inspiration.
"It was an Irish actor. I can't remember his name. But one of the actors came up to me and said 'I've been studying you'. I said 'what for?' and he said 'I'm doing this film.' I said 'what, you are playing me?' He said 'well, it's a character based on you but not actually you."
The actor was The IT Crowd's Chris O'Dowd who plays Simon in the movie.
Blackburn remembers the exact date of his broadcasting debut: July 25, 1964.
"I'd just passed my diploma in business studies at Bournemouth college and I was singing with a dance band. I wanted to get in to broadcasting."
He spotted an advert in the New Musical Express looking for DJs.
"(The advert) said, send a tape introducing five of your favourite songs and I did."
Being stuck on a ship three-and-a-half miles off the Essex coast sounds horrible.
"No, it was fabulous. It was a real adventure. I love the sea, anyway. It did get very rough out there and actually I did get shipwrecked. We came in to Frinton-on-Sea in a force ten gale. But when you're young you don't realise how dangerous it is."
It is difficult to imagine these days but mainstream radio in Britain was dominated by the BBC. Even though rock'n'roll had been the soundtrack to an emerging youth culture years before, radio was still the preserve of big bands and easy listening.
The pirates, like Blackburn, set out to change all that.
"You had the Light Programme, the Home Service, and the Third Programme. Then in the evening Radio Luxembourg fading in and out. On the BBC, the breakfast show was always the Northern Dance Orchestra and things like that.

"The whole idea of us going out there was to alter the broadcasting system. It wasn't just a load of people having fun. There was a serious side to it. All of us believed that a monopoly of the BBC was a bad thing.
"I remember going out for the first time and doing the first programme and thinking 'this is going to revolutionise the whole of radio'."
Two years later he joined Radio London or "Big L" as he calls it.
"Everybody remembers Radio Caroline but it was Radio London really that every radio station nowadays is modelled on. I think it was the best station there's ever been in this country."
Blackburn is perhaps still most famous for opening Radio 1 in 1967, playing The Move's Flowers In The Rain.
"They are certainly glad that happened. It's like my opening Radio 1, it certainly didn't do my career any harm."
He broadcasts shows on four different stations these days and gets to pick the music on three.
"Which is unusual these days. My main criticism of radio in this country is that you hear the same thing over and over again. I can't stand the way it's so formatted. Less chat more music. For me that's awful because where I come from, with the pirates, it was all personality."

Tony Blackburn presents Weekend Breakfast on Smooth Radio every Saturday and Sunday at 7-10am.

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