THE LASER STORY - PART 1


Reproduced with kind permission of "Offshore Echo's Magazine."


When Radio Caroline's ship Mi Amigo sank during storms in March 1980, many people thought that that was the end of offshore radio. Caroline had battled on through government legislation against the station, as well as numerous smaller battles, not least the elements of storms and the sea. It was these latter that achieved what governments had been unable to do.

Soon after the Mi Amigo was lost, plans were launched to start afresh with a new ship. There were many delays and difficulties, mostly legal and financial. By the time Caroline eventually relaunched - over three years later - in August 1983, the original group had split. One part set up Caroline, the other went on to set up another offshore radio station.

The other station was to become Laser 558. Only a short while after Laser's official start in May 1984, the station had become cult listening. Cult soon became general - and before long it seemed as if every shop, house and car radio was tuned to Laser.

After only a few months, Laser was claiming an audience of 10 million people in Europe. The stations success was also to prove it's downfall.

In the first part of the Laser story, we look at how it all started......

SETTING UP SHIP
On the 11th February 1983, John Kenning (John Ashley) phoned Paul Rusling about setting up a new offshore radio station. John called again the following day and a meeting was set up in London for the 16th, in the Pizza Pie factory in Hanover Square. An ideal ship was located on 13th February, the former coaster "John Mitchell" in a port about fifty miles from London. Paul and Anne Rusling meet John Kenning on the 16th and John hired Paul as consultant for the new station at L200 a week.

Paul and John flew to New York on the 28th, to spend a few days trying to find radio airtime salesmen interested in the project. They flew to Fort Lauderdale on 1st March, to negotiate with a company called Transcom for broadcasting equipment. After being wined and dined, Kenning would not sign any contracts to supply equipment. Paul Rusling then realised that Kenning did not have the backing he'd claimed. The next day, Paul Rusling formed an alliance with Bernard Gelman, President of CSI and his counter part at Transcom, Martin Cooper, to establish a similar station. Over the next few months, plans were put together. In August, Roy Lindau, President of airtime sales company Music Media International, flew from New York to London. Meetings were arranged and the idea of two stations broadcasting from the ship was put forward. Radio Star would have a super hit format and Radio Waves would have a solid gold format. By the end of the meeting, Radio Star had changed name to Laser.

THE GARDLINE SEEKER
On the 31st August, Paul Rusling made enquiries about the availability of the "Gardline Seeker", a ship that they'd looked at earlier. It was still available for purchase, as the previous potential purchasers had not come up with the money. The next day, Paul took two TV's and a collection of books to Lowestoft Docks. After a meeting with Gardline Survey he was given permission to instruct the captain to sail the ship to Port Everglades, Florida, USA. The TV's and books were put on board the ship, the TV's were needed to obtain news from the BBC & ITV teletext services for use on the stations news reports. Supplies were taken on board, and despite storm force winds the Gardline Seeker set sail.

The "Gardline Seeker" was sold through the Swiss law firm of Ivan Cohen and Company of Geneva to Deka Overseas Ltd of Madison Avenue, New York. Before handing the ship over, Deka asked for her to be delivered to Florida. After the twenty-five day crossing, payment of L3513 was made with two cheques to Gardline at the Barclay's bank branch at Mile End Road, London. Both of these cheques were stopped. The payment was for the ship, installing a satellite receiver, fuel and labour charges for sailing the ship to Florida. Gardline claimed that they were owed an extra L1408.

The Gardline Seeker arrived at the Tracor Marine quayside at about 08:00 local time on 28th September. An office was made available and the stations first telephone number became (305) 463 1211 extension 327. The next day the ship was moved into dry dock number four to enable the hull to be cleaned. The fully cleaned ship was removed from drydock on 10th October after having her hull cleaned. The name "Communicator" had also now been painted on the ships bows and stern.

THE MV COMMUNICATOR
The 489 ton gross, (218 tons nett) "Gardline Seeker" was built in 1955 by Yacht and Bootswerf Abekeing and Rasmussen in Lemwerder, West Germany. The ship, then named "Tananger" was originally built to carry cattle. In 1973 she was converted for use as a survey ship and renamed "Charterer". In 1976 the ship was again renamed, this time to "Gardline Seeker". In late 1983, the Panamanian registered ship was renamed "Communicator". The 56.95 metre long x 8.95m x 3.17m draught ship has an ice strengthened hull and is powered by a 600bhp Kloeckner Humboldt Deutz engine. The Lloyds registry number is 5351923 and the callsign HO2573.

LEAVING PORT
On 13th October, it was announced that only the pop station would go on air. This was due to a row between Len Muller and the second stations backers, resulting in their support being withdrawn from the project. Their equipment was removed from the ship. The "Communicator" left Port Everglades, and via the Azores, sailed to New Ross in Ireland, where work commenced to wire up the studios.

During the third week of December the "Communicator" dropped anchor a few miles north of the Drill Stone Light Buoy in the Thames Estuary. A force eight storm greeted them, and shortly afterwards the ship moved to calmer waters, eight miles from Margate. On the 24th December, repairs were carried out to damaged equipment on the "Communicator". With rumours that the government were going to investigate the ship, she was moved into international waters, near Long Sands, on the 27th. The East Anglian Daily Times published its first picture of the new ship on the 29th.

LASER 730
All that was need now to get the station on air was an aerial system. A helium filled balloon had been agreed by the backers as the means to hold the antenna about three hundred feet above sea level. In storm force eight winds on 8th January, the stations engineer battled out to the Communicator to assess the feasibility of erecting a tee aerial between the two forty foot masts on the deck. The next day, Roy Lindau and attorney Glenn Kolk went out to the Communicator in a large stable vessel.

Shortly before midnight on 18th January, the long winded saga began to launch the helium balloon. At 09:35 on the 19th, the 25kw transmitter was switched on and full power was applied to the three-hundred and fifty-four feet of tinsel flex - a special mixture of copper and aluminium available in the USA, and not for export, at a frequency of 729khz (411 metres). The aerial system seemed OK, power was lowered so that tests could be carried out to make sure that interference would not be caused to BBC Radio 4 on 720 Khz. A few minutes latter a loud crack was heard, and the transmitter was turned off at 09:40. The cables to the balloon were sagging into the sea, and the balloon was nowhere in sight.

At 04:00 on 21st January, a sheet of galvanised sheet metal was being made into a corona shield for the aerial. A short time later after a near fatal error, the second balloon was airborne. A test broadcast was made on 729 Khz, with part of Led Zeppelin's Communication Breakdown being the first record played. This was quickly replaced by non-stop Beatles music, a few bars of Back in the USA, With a little help from my Friends, followed by Lucy in the Sky. At 11:00 the transmitter was put back on air and the official start of Radio Laser commenced, the first record being Baby you're a rich man.

The next day, 22nd, the balloon cable broke at 02:15, and another balloon broke loose and drifted away. It was reportedly found at Colchester in Essex, wrapped around a traffic bollard. With the loss of the second balloon, which each cost about L6000, the backers agreed to put up another $200,000 but this would be their limit.

SHIP FOR SALE
On 1st February, Kolk offered the Communicator and all the equipment on board for sale for $80,000. Money was raised by Yorkie the station's main engineer, but this was stopped by Kolk when he realised the station could go on with little or no extra funding. Yorkie was given control of the ship and all the American crew were dismissed. The deejays also wanted to leave the station as they had been on board for seven weeks, two were allowed shore leave. On 2nd February, work started on erecting a tee aerial system. Work continued over the next four days, to allow lower power broadcasts of about 15kw. On the 13th, tests with the tee aerial started and the signal just about reached East London. On 18th February, it was decided that the low power tee aerial tests were a waste of time, and the station should close while two one hundred foot towers were erected.

From just after 14:00 on the 19th, American deejay Blake Williams was joined by an Englishman called Johnny. Reception reports were asked for, to be sent to MMI, 341 Madison Avenue, New York 10017, USA. The information was also given out in Dutch and German. Before the station closed at 16:03, with Communication Breakdown, DJ Johnny said "back in ten days to a couple of weeks, maybe not on 729, but keep tuning around this area of the medium wave".

The 4th March, saw the transmitter switched on at 12:45 to expel any condensation in the transmitter room. It was intended to feed the transmitter into a dummy load, but this was not the case. During the broadcasts the English deejay previously known as Johnny revealed "It's John Lewis with you on 729khz in the medium wave". He was followed by Blake Williams, who continued until the transmitter was switched off at 19:04. This was the final broadcast on 729khz.

NEW MASTS SEIZED
New masts, that were secretly being built on land, were delivered to Chalk Wharf, Queensborough on 13th March. But the police had been watching the Laser group for over a week and seized the masts and arrested American David Irvine and the wharfs owner. David Irvine appeared in Sheerness court on 13th April. Irvine, a qualified marine engineer, had been hired by Laser to sort out their technical difficulties. Mr. Gary Patten, from the Department of Public Prosecutions said that some of Laser's early broadcasts had interfered with reception of BBC Radio 4 in London and there was a danger that signals could interfere with distress channels. He added "the defendant was in charge of the project in the UK and had been paid 3750 dollars by a Panamanian company. The masts were being welded together at Queensborough and 10,000 was paid to the contractors as anticipated costs of labour and materials".

For the defense, Mr. Gregory Treverton-Jones said Irvine, a graduate of the US coastguard Academy was a man of good character and would not have undertaken the job if he had realised it was against the law. He said "Mr Irvine realised the British Government did not aprove of what the ship was doing, but he made inquiries before he came over in December and was told there were no illegalities involved provided the ship remained outside the 12 mile limit. He has fallen foul of a fairly elaborately drafted criminal law. He was bought over to be master of the ship and sort out certain difficulties the ship was experiencing with its original mast. The mast it had was not sufficiently efficient to enable broadcasts to be made. He designed and was supervising the construction of new masts for the ship and it was that work he was doing Queensborough which was in breach of criminal law". Irvine admitted agreeing to furnish another ship with equipment, knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that broadcasts were to be made while it was on the high seas. He was fined L500 and ordered to pay L50 costs. This was later quashed due to an error in wording on the DPP's original summons.

The main anchor chain on the Communicator snapped on 1st April, during a storm. The vessels on-board anchor was dropped and drifting was arrested. Another source was found for the new masts and these were built on board, being completed by 5th May.

LASER 558
The following day, 6th May, a carrier signal was heard from 12:01 on 558khz and continued for several hours. The next day, test tones and continuous were aired and ran through until after midnight. A strong signal, estimated at around 5kw was reported throughout Europe. These tests continued on and off until the 10th and then nothing was heard until the 16th May when non-stop music tests restarted and continued until the 23rd.

Listeners tuning in to Laser on Thursday 24th May 1984, were surprised to hear that Laser 558 had officially launched at 05:00 that morning. First on air was Rick Harris, followed at 10:00 by David Lee Stone and then Jessie Brandon and Steve Masters.

The Laser story _ Part 2.

THE LASER STORY compiled by Chris Edwards, editor of "Offshore Echo's" magazine, with special thanks to Jim Parkes on whose text the story is based.