Laser 558, the last fun radio station

A gazillion years ago (well, back in the mid-1980s) there were two radio stations operating from ships in the North Sea.  There was the old establishment sound of Radio Caroline, and there was new kids on the block, Laser 558.

Radio Caroline was the plodder.  It played a large selection of songs, catering for the youth of the day as well as their grandparents, in a bizarre clashing medley of eras and songs, but it had absolutely no X-Factor.  The presenters were on the whole lifeless, lacklustre, railway-station announcer-soundalikes and took themselves so very seriously.  Presentation was something that had stopped being fun on Radio Caroline back in the 1960s.

Innovation, personality and individuality wasn’t encouraged, it was frowned upon.  Presenters weren’t even allowed to mention what songs they’d just played on Caroline.

Correspondingly, the listening public just wasn’t listening.  True, a bank of a few thousand ‘anoraks’ hung on and were happy to listen to anything and everything that Caroline broadcast, including the religious programming, but the ordinary listeners just weren’t there.

Then along came Laser 558.

Now then, Laser did have the X-Factor.  It sounded loud and it sounded fun, promised to never be more than a minute away from music, and had exciting new zapping noises as its jingles.  It immediately seemed like it had the energy and enthusiasm of the pirate radio of the 1960s.  It played a far smaller variety of songs, but all fitted with each other and had the same atmosphere about them.  The presenters sounded like they were enjoying themselves.  Within a few months Laser 558 was on everywhere.  The listening public was listening and enjoying what they heard.  Presentation was snappy, relevant and fun.

Soon so many people were listening to Laser that the commercial radio stations around the UK were complaining and goading the authorities to take action against them.  In a vague attempt at appearing to do something, the Department of Trade and Industry parked an observation boat alongside the ships transmitting as Caroline and Laser.

The Caroline reaction was to collectively clench buttocks and to pretend nothing whatsoever was happening. Boring programming continued as normal.

The Laser reaction was to laugh and point on the air and to re-broadcast their presenters shouting at the observation boat through a loud hailer in order to tell the occupants that their boat was ugly.  This and other antics ensured that listeners were not only tuned in to Laser for the times when they would normally be listening to ‘music radio’, but that they would rush home and switch on a portable and listen rather than watch TV.

For a short period of time, Laser became compulsive listening.  Not for radio anoraks necessarily, but for ordinary members of the public.

Of course, like all new ventures, Laser ran out of money and died after a sadly short life.  It left behind a legacy of its own legend.  The legend of Laser 558, a bit like the legacy of the pirate radio stations of the 1960s, is something that far outshone the reality and it grows greater with the passage of time.

Laser disappeared and Radio Caroline hopped over and occupied the frequency they’d been using.  Even with this advantage, within a few weeks of Caroline’s droning confused one-size-fits-all service, nobody was listening to offshore radio any more.

However, Laser is another example, possibly the last example, of how the public are looking for fun irreverent music radio. And yet, commercial music radio is sooooo boring.  Like Radio Caroline, it deliberately has nothing to offer to create that level of excitement and interest that could so easily be grabbing listeners by their balls and making them stay tuned in.

Why aren’t they bothering?

4 comments

  1. I first picked Laser up during a holiday in Caister, just 2 days after official transmissions began. My friends and I were hooked immediately. I can categorically state that I have never heard anything to compare since! I still have a wonderful selection of goodies and souvenirs, such as a signed photo taken on board by Erin Kelly, and Tommy Rivers' own Butwin 'Minnesota' jacket that he wore on the ship. I still enjoy listening to the hours and hours of off-air recordings that I still possess. RIP Laser!

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  2. Oh No, not more !
    Yes Chris, Laser was very good listening. Though I was doing work for Caroline in the mid eighties, I listened to Laser most of the time.
    But the comment ' like all new ventures, Laser ran out of money and died ' is a nonsense. In such a case every new business would only last about a year before closing. Laser failed because it had a not very suitable ship, had multiple equipment failures and because the crew became demoralised and gave up. The ship could still travel under its own power. It could have disabled its transmitters and gone to a foreign port rather than a UK one.
    Caroline survived by being canny and adopting a low profile. Laser goaded the authorities. Personally I dont prod a Tiger in the ribs unless the beast is on a strong andf short chain and I have a VERY long stick.
    But then, Laser was great and Caroline was rubbish. Yes Chris, you have told us that before and before that and before that.

    Hey, mail me and remind me how to post new topics.

    Ta,
    Pter Moore.

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  3. As a teenager at the time I thought both stations were great. I was disappointed when Caroline moved from 963 to 576 because the signal was ropey. Laser came along and filled the void. It was a relief when Caroline moved to 558 with much improved reception after Laser's demise.

    Whatever you say Chris both stations were far from the drivel that was pumped out by the mainstream. I have to say I miss Caroline and her current internet/sky incarnation lacks the panache compared to when she was out at sea. Like wise I miss some of the great urban pirates that cram the FM band now that I'm no longer a townie.

    Peter – will Caroline be back on MW or is the Early Day Motion just a damp squib. There's nothing on terrestrial radio where I live in the sticks.

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  4. what has brought this article on – is there a special anniversary coming up or are we on a slow news day? Happy to talk about it any time of course. Laser's niche was fast moving, few ads, American DJs and very familar music. The DJs were entertaining but not generally incredibly talkative apart for seawolf. I happened to hear the tedious yet telling comment on the day of Laser's demise by Gary ? on radio 1:- “welcome back to the fold” he said. yes real punters did listen to that station en masse. But Caroline did have its share of personality DJs – and there were a LOT flowing through from 83 to 87. Present company excepted, I single out the early crew of 83/4, perhaps Simon Barret, Kevin T, John Tyler and above all the dry wit and voice of “Peter Philips”. After Laser's demise 86 to 87 were regarded as happy days with a good format. It met a need of an arguably better format than ILR, less ads and more music. How good it was depended on the crew at the time. “Normal” people did listen though. a normal person heard me when looking for some semblance of music in the evening. It struggled mainly in my mind owing to being on AM. (Mr Moore do not worry I am right behind the plan to adopt AM now – you take what you can get/do not look a gift horse in the mouth etc)

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