Allan Crawford – The unsung Offshore Radio Pioneer.
(see OEM 135)
During research for his new book about RADIO CAROLINE NORTH, Bob Preedy spoke to many people who wished to see a proper recognition of Allan Crawford’s contribution to the pirate radio story in the UK.
Although Allan Crawford is mentioned briefly in many offshore radio studies, his enormous contribution to the establishment of viable offshore radio is largely unknown. His early life in the music business was considerable and his post Radio Atlanta career was equally as intriguing. His life encompassed major musical compositions, oil deals, and the financing of a huge loan that ultimately brought down a government. In his latter years he lost a small fortune to religion but remained eternally optimistic to the end even though struck down by disease and disability.
Throughout his life, Allan Crawford had a profound love of music. His interests ranged from pop, jazz, country, show tunes to classics. In Australia he discovered and recorded the then16 year old Frank Ifield. In contrast Crawford later worked with the French composer Raoul Breton.
Here in the UK his name came to prominence in the early 60s when he tried to buy the Swedish offshore station Radio Nord. The Swedish government followed the course of other European countries in closing stations that dared to break the national state broadcasting monopoly.
Crawford’s scheme to start offshore radio in the UK had been planned for a few years. In 1960 he was part of a consortium, with Kitty Black and Oliver Smedley, who formed CBC (Plays) Ltd – a company described as "Commercial Radio Agents".
On a business trip to Denmark, Kitty Black had heard the excitement caused by Radio Mercur – broadcasting on FM since 1958. Miss Black shrewdly noted that the ship was registered in Panama and a company in Liechtenstein handled advertising.
Meanwhile Radio Nord was experiencing the full opposition of the Swedish authorities when a bill was introduced to outlaw pirate broadcasting. The station was given the deadline to close by 1st August 1962, but ceased transmissions in June once negotiations were at a final stage with Crawford’s consortium.
The dream to bring offshore radio to the UK was within sight and by late September the Radio Nord ship had returned from servicing in north Spain and was moored in the Thames estuary. Radio Atlanta, on board the renamed Mi Amigo, was reputed to have made a number of short test transmissions but at the last moment, a raid on the Danish Radio Mercur (16th August 1962) caused panic amongst the Atlanta shareholders and one of them, John Delaney, eventually withdraw his finance. The owners of the boat wanted a quick deal and refused any offers from Crawford of a lease. Consequently the boat was given orders to sail for the US where she would be refurbished into a pleasure craft – a safer option than continuing to defy governments.
Allan Crawford’s optimism took a battering but he continued to negotiate with backers and eventually did buy the ship and it sailed back to the UK in late December 1963. Much time had been lost and most of the radio equipment and the mast had been removed, making the project a far more costly enterprise that was planned.
During 1963 many financiers had been approached but it was the music entrepreneur Ronan O’Rahilly who immediately saw the potential. He, like many before and after, had sensed the frustration of a BBC monopoly and a record company stranglehold on Radio Luxembourg. O’Rahilly was well aware of the Dutch station Radio Veronica and had already been thinking about a similar project for the UK. Crawford’s detailed planning galvanised O’Rahilly into action. Instead of joining Project Atlanta he would co-operate but plan his own station in parallel.
Talking on BBC TV’s Arena documentary about the experience, Allan Crawford shows his benevolent attitude
– Ronan was one of many people who used to visit my building. I was talking to many people by this time about my idea for a radio on a ship, because I was looking for backers.
– He’s always full of praise when he wants something. He offered immediately to take me over to meet his father who was a rich man in Ireland. I was very keen to meet possible backers. So I flew with him, within a day or two, to Ireland. His father took me in his car – a beautiful car – to the border, where he had control of a port, which was no longer in use, but which would be very convenient for surreptitiously erecting a new radio mast on the ship, when we had it. Part of the plot, which I didn’t know when I first met him, and met his father, was that the father would get possession of the key, which was a copy of the QC’s opinion as to why it could be legal. Innocently I gave him a copy, and he must have given it to Ronan, who was then able to run around and show it to his backers. I couldn’t find another port into which to fit out my ship, the Mi Amigo. It had to be his father’s port as originally agreed. We were tied up against his ship which was bigger, and all the time getting a kind of Irish mafia treatment – things disappearing, and so on. You could never put your finger on who was doing what, but we were being delayed all the time. A comedy in a way.
Naturally Caroline was the first to broadcast and Atlanta had to be content to be the race runner-up. And with two stations competing for the same audience, advertisers were reluctant to buy airtime. An uneasy alliance was formed with the merger in July 1964 and O’Rahilly’s Caroline North sailed for the Isle of Man where it enjoyed a northern monopoly. Within six months Crawford’s Caroline South faced awesome competition from Radio London and entered a year of low morale and a slump in ad revenue.
By the end of 1965 Caroline South was almost bankrupt and a furious Allan Crawford was bought out by Ronan O’Rahilly. The whole year had been an intense battle of wills as each boss plotted to undermine the other. In Tony Blackburn’s biography he recalls that Crawford’s open and pleasant manner was no match for the "mafia ways" of the other side.
Allan Crawford stayed on with the group for a number of months selling airtime and perhaps quietly observed the growing influence of Phil Solomon, brought in to save the whole company – and eventually to outmanoeuvre the other boss.
Returning to the music business, Allan Crawford put his musical experience to good use by producing the most successful series of albums ever. He produced tracks for the Pickwick label’s "Top of the Pops" cover version LPs. On Radio Atlanta he had extensively plugged cover version 45s on his Cannon and Sabre labels – so he was no stranger to recreating the hits – he had even produced a cover of the Fortunes "Caroline".
Speaking about how his cover version records were produced…
We ended up with a system, it was like a railway station, with trombone players, violin players arriving. We were doing one hit copy every twenty- three minutes.
My favourite singer of them all was a man called Ross Macmanus, father of Elvis Costello, who was Joe Loss’s main vocalist, and he used to always be there recording for me. Whenever we did Elvis Presley’s numbers, he was magnificent and better than Presley. Presley often used to sing off key - I don’t know why he was such a worldwide success, because he was not very good in my opinion.
Allan also continued to write and publish music. His early experience in London after the war had introduced him to many big names and in 1948 he had met Ralph Peer, owner of Southern Music, who wanted to establish an Australian office. In the mid 50s Crawford was asked to take over the London office and later established his own record labels and publishing house, Merit Music. He added to this group a number of record shops in the West End, as well as a talent agency and management office. With all this enterprise he soon came across the barriers at the BBC. Only established publishers and record companies seemed to have access to the airwaves and, as we know, Crawford’s mind slowly turned to offshore radio.
After Radio Atlanta and Caroline and during his time with Pickwick Records he tried to set up a European radio station capable of broadcasting to the UK. He almost concluded deals with Spain and Andorra but the costs proved too much and reception was unsatisfactory. During the seventies he also became involved with Scientology and even studied in Spain to be a high priest. What little money he had was enthusiastically committed to the religion.
Also at this time Australian radio stations were locked in a battle with record companies over the payment of broadcasting royalties. Familiar arguments were used – like the promotion value of airplay – but the state broadcaster ABC agreed to pay for needle time, making life more difficult for commercial stations. Their solution was to set up a record label, M7, which eventually Allan Crawford ran very successfully producing many contemporary rock tracks.
His next move was into the brokerage business. He teamed up with an Indian businessman, Tirath Khemlani – and proposed a massive loan to the Australian government. The 1972 Labour government needed the loan to exploit mineral and energy reserves. They also had plans for electrification of the railways and for a uranium enrichment plant. The loan was raised not along the usual route of America or Europe but from Saudi Arabia. Tirath Khemlani negotiated with the son of the Crown prince for the loan – the Gulf was awash with dollars following the quadrupling of oil prices from 1973. The secret loan was available but never called down and no commission was paid to Khemlani but the government was portrayed as reckless – and suffered political consequences. After some months the Governor- General sacked Gough Whitlam, the Prime Minister. Many stories appeared in the press about the influence of the American CIA in the downfall. Australia had been opposed to the Vietnam War – describing the bombing of Hanoi as the work of "maniacs and mass murderers". An ex-CIA officer revealed in 1980 – "The CIA’s aim in Australia was to get rid of a government they did not like and that was not co-operative."
After this Allan Crawford kept a low profile but in 1979, in a letter to his brother, he talks about oil contracts that he and Khemlani had signed with Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Iraq. He estimated that by Christmas 1979, their profits could be a million dollars a day – which, within ten years, could rise to twenty million dollars a day. From this income he dreamt about staging his musicals on Broadway, and perfecting his many inventions. He had already patented a "Master Conductor" device for conducting a tape recording, which responded to your tempo without the music going out of pitch. Another invention was a method of allowing a boat to sail directly into the wind without tacking. Perhaps his most fantastic patent was that of producing artificial oil.
Sadly by the mid 80s Allan was suffering ill health. He was afflicted by diabetes and in 1994 had a leg amputated. A year later his second leg was removed and his eyesight also failed. But even during these dark days he remained in fine spirits, planning new inventions, writing music and holding a firm belief in the power of religion. He was firmly convinced that God would help his legs to grow again.
He spent his last few years in a North Wales nursing home where he died in December 1999. His enthusiasm for life and living was with him to his last day and he will be remembered for optimism against adversity. One leading musician described Allan as "a musical genius." We affectionately recall his pioneering efforts to break the BBC monopoly and bring fresh vibrant radio to the UK. Those four years of vitality on the airwaves would not have existed without Allan Crawford’s passion for turning ideas into action.