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Pirate Radio!

Tom Rivers, radio correspondent for ABC News London Bureau, dropped in to interview AWA Wrestling star Al DeRusha and George Schire, author of Minnesota’s Golden Age of Wrestling, at the Museum’s book-signing event in December.

We’re grateful for the visit and the national publicity, but to be honest, Tom was in town to visit old friends, including a few former co-workers from KJJO Radio.

Tom is a native Minnesotan, born in Eveleth. After working the Twin Cities market for four years, first as a KRSI morning newsman, then as a KJJO overnight DJ, and finally as Uncle Sven the Mailman on Channel 29’s Breakfast with Casey cartoon TV show, he headed off to work at the largest radio station in the world (in terms of listenership), Laser 558.

Al DeRusha, George Schire, and ABC's Tom Rivers
Al De Rusha, George Schire, and ABC's Tom Rivers

Laser 558 operated at 558 kHz aboard the ship MV Communicator in international waters 18 miles off the coast of England in the North Sea. The station was launched in May 1984 by a consortium of British and American business and broadcasting executives, some of whom have never been named. Laser used American disc jockeys to avoid prosecution by the British Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The station’s format of alternating a current record with an oldie became instantly popular, drawing 12 million listeners per week in Europe.

In 1984 and 1985, Tom would spend three months on the ship – a rusting 500-ton coaster – for every month on land. They were great times, more exciting than the fictional account depicted in the Richard Curtis film, Pirate Radio. In fact, the actors in the movie interviewed Rivers after he interviewed them.

While working for Laser, Tom found out that another former KJJO talent, Jonell Pernula, was between gigs. Aside from having one of the greatest summers of her life, Jonell took a lot of pictures, some of which she shared with us.

Here she is on-air in the “studio” aboard the ship. The wall of cartridge tapes behind her would spill every time the ship listed. You’ll notice that there are no turntables in the studio. The North Sea was generally too rough to play records. However, a few syndicated programs like Scott Shannon’s Rockin’ America Top 30 Countdown were played out on vinyl on the weekends.

Jonelle in 558 studio
Jonell in the Laser 558 Studio

Radio Caroline, the other pirate radio station, and subject of the movie Pirate Radio, was anchored nearby. Jonell says the DTI ship parked right between them, cutting off any supplies to either vessel. DJs at Laser made frequent references to the DTI ship and staff, even releasing a parody song titled I Spy For The DTI by the Moronic Surveyors.*

Laser 558 shut down in the fall of 1985 due, in part, to the blockade. The MV Communicator was eventually forced into port and impounded by the Admiralty marshal on behalf of several unpaid creditors. The day after Laser’s closure, Radio Caroline moved from 576 to 558 kHz, a much clearer frequency.

The MV Communicator

Jonell came back to the states and became the first full-time female talent on Cities’ 97, working there from 1986 to 1995. Later she worked with John and Pam Lundell at Metro Traffic.

After Tom’s year-and-a-half adventure at sea he returned home to do news at 1500 KSTP Radio. In 1986 he returned to Europe, working first for UPI Radio and then NBC/Mutual Radio as London bureau chief before moving over to CBS as a radio correspondent. Eleven years ago he joined ABC Radio as a London-based correspondent. Over the past 25 years he’s covered some of the biggest stories including the Lockerbie disaster, the war in Bosnia, the London terror attacks, and the Royal Wedding. He has interviewed thousands, including Margaret Thatcher, Salman Rushdie, and now, George Schire and Al De Rusha!

Radio Caroline managed to elude British authority for another five years until November 1991, when the last ship to broadcast a Caroline signal lost its anchor in stormy weather and drifted onto the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel.

In its 27 years on the air, Radio Caroline operated on at least 15 different AM frequencies, often encroaching on other stations, even bumping up against Laser a few times.

Laser Crew
Some of the talent at Laser 558.
From bottom up: Liz West (music director),
Tommy Rivers (program director)
Jonell (DJ), Charlie Wolf (DJ),
Erin Kelly (DJ)

The station owners may not have always gotten along, but the crew and the cast did. Here’s a coffee mug from Caroline’s stint at 319 metres in the 1970s that one of the crew gave to Jonell. It’s now on display at the Museum.
Thanks, Jonell!

*“I Spy for the DTI” hit #99 on the British Hot 100 in the late summer of ‘85. Background singers included Laser’s own Erin Kelly and the late Liz West.

S. Raymer      

Coffe cup inscribed "Caroline 319"

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Museum of Broadcasting