Radio Kaleidoscope first began transmission from Essex in 1967, broadcasting on 223 metres MW using home-built equipment. It was the brainchild of Steve Taylor and Tony Mendoza, better known on-air as the “Jolly Orange” and “DD”, and was run from Steve’s family home in Benfleet, as well as various other locations around Essex. Broadcasting music via a mixture of live and pre-recorded material, the station aimed to compensate for the loss in the free choice of music caused by the closure of the main pirate radio stations – the only music radio station of the time being BBC Light, the forerunner to Radio 1. As part of its weekly transmissions, Kaleidoscope used to run phone-ins using different telephone boxes in the local area, it was during one of these that the team first came into contact with Roland “Buster” Pearson, who would become a vital link in the station’s operations in the following years.
Kaleidoscope’s regular broadcasts soon caught the attention of the GPO, and Steve’s sister opened the door one morning to two operatives from Southend’s Radio Tracking Service Department holding a portable radio tuned to the radio station’s frequency. She refused them entry, however, saying Steve’s parents were not home, and giving Steve ample time to dismantle his equipment, hide the transmitter in the loft and lower the other equipment onto his neighbour’s oil tank. Although they found the transmitter, the GPO turned a blind eye and acted favourably, merely issuing a written warning, rather than imposing a hefty fine and confiscating all the equipment.
Undeterred by the raid, Radio Kaleidoscope carried on broadcasting at weekends and bank holidays into late 1967, when Steve began enquiring about driving lessons at the Benfleet School of Motoring. It was here that he met Jon Langston and his partner Maggie, and it was when John’s driving school began receiving free plugs on Kaleidoscope between songs that Jon guessed Steve’s involvement in pirate radio. He confided that he was running regular fishing boat trips from Leigh-on-Sea out to Radio Caroline to ferry DJs, supplies and equipment across from the mainland, and asked Steve if he would be willing to construct equipment that Caroline was struggling to obtain. Steve readily agreed, and, after a few visits to Bill Flemming’s Radio Constructor Centre and Shoffron’s Army Surplus shop, Radio Caroline began receiving its new parts.
Jon introduced Steve and the Kaleidoscope team to other key figures from the local pirate radio scene, both DJs from the offshore radio stations who often stayed at Jon’s house whilst they were on the mainland, and other contacts who provided invaluable information and services to the free radio network. One of these people was “GY”, working for the GPO in Southend, who would regularly pass on information and advanced warning on the GPO Radio Tracking Service movements to that targeted pirate stations.
These new-found contacts, as well as college friends, prompted Steve to restart regular transmissions of Radio Kaleidoscope in 1968. It was this year that listeners first heard the song that served as the signature tune for the station – “Kaleidoscope”, by Tangerine Dream – as well as Kaleidoscope’s slogans: “Where you dial for kicks on 226”, and “Sounds fine on 219”, reflecting its new frequencies of 226 Meters MW and 219 Meters MW.
Very soon, offers came flooding in of cars and houses to be used as temporary broadcast locations, which enabled Kaleidoscope to set up a number of different transmission sites across Essex, which could be switched to at a moment’s notice, in order to combat the GPO’s increasing efforts to locate and shut down the station’s operations. Buster and his family, who had been some of Radio Kaleidoscope’s first callers during its early days, offered the team the use of their house in Avondale Road, Benfleet, as a studio. This was gratefully accepted, and Buster’s house was soon kitted out with the necessary equipment to run a studio. The regular contact with visiting DJs and the technical team opened up a whole new world to the haemophiliac Buster – a condition that in those days rendered him housebound. Even Ronan O’Rahilly himself came to see Buster, and privately funded a much-needed USA drug for Buster’s treatment. Buster took advantage of the comings and goings in his home to launch “Monitor”, a radio magazine listing the shows presented by the various DJs on different stations at different times, and featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes information on pirate radio. The publication ran for over a decade, even after Buster’s untimely death in 1985.
1968 also saw the arrival of Mike Baker, and the Free Radio Association, on the Radio Kaleidoscope scene. As well as supplying regular pre-recorded shows, which soon became some of the most popular and professional shows on the station, Mike also provided Kaleidoscope with a new set of jingles. Gradually, the station increased in notoriety, gaining listeners and supporters, and even attracting a certain degree of attention from the local press, being featured in several headline articles over the next few years. Kaleidoscope forged links with other pirate radio stations, such as Radio Universe, Swinging Radio England (Hornchurch) and Radio Free London, who commemorated the first anniversary of the passing of the Marine Offences Act by hanging a wire off the BBC’s offices in Shepherd’s Bush, London . For the first time, too, listeners could post feedback to the station via an address in Rainham provided by Alex McKenna from the Free Radio Campaign. All this success came at a price, however. There was the ever-present threat of another raid, not least of all since Radio Kaleidoscope was now virtually the only land-based pirate radio station broadcasting regularly across the south east of England.
In 1969, Radio Kaleidoscope began simultaneously broadcasting on medium and short wave bands (Canadian WS 43 Set TX), assuring it an international coverage, with listeners as far away as Holland and Germany feeding back on its shows. The team had a rather a close call during this period whilst using a transmission site in Rochford, after a member of the public had noticed an antenna affixed to a farm building, and alerted the local police, who arrived whilst Radio Kaleidoscope was still on air. Despite the awkward situation, the team showed the attending policeman a hastily-filled out ham radio licence, claiming they had permission for an experimental radio station . When the constable took the information back to the station to investigate further, the team took advantage of his brief absence to dismantle the equipment and make a run for it!
Life for pirate radio stations became increasingly difficult at the turn of the decade, with the Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, focusing heavily on pirate radio. He saw pirate stations as a particular threat to him given the upcoming elections, concerned they would lobby people to vote for other parties, and therefore made it a priority to shut them down. The government set up a number of jamming stations around the country to try and drive the pirates into silence. The offshore stations were the hardest hit, with Radio Caroline off-air, and Radio North Sea International finding it difficult to continue in the face of the government’s action.
In response to this aggressive policy, Radio Kaleidoscope joined together with over a dozen other pirate stations to form the Pirates’ Protest League (PPL), who organised a collective jamming of the BBC’s Light programme at 11.30 am on the 18th April 1970. Given the phenomenal power of the BBC’s transmitter, this was more of a token gesture of defiance than a protest, but it did receive attention in the local press.
The political tension surrounding the run-up to the election culminated in the disastrous raid of Buster’s home by MI5 in 1970. They seized a good deal of the equipment and pre-recorded tapes stored there, as well as Buster’s address book and his list of contacts. The family was devastated, and although their house was being kept under surveillance, Buster managed to put the word out to other members of the team to let them know what had happened.
With just a few weeks to go before the election, the majority of the other pirate stations had been forced off the airwaves or had shut down voluntarily. Radio Kaleidoscope chanced a brief transmission from a site in Southend-on-Sea, urging its listeners to “Vote Today! Vote For Free Radio!” Within its first ten minutes on air, the team received a telephone call from an excited Buster, who announced that Kaleidoscope was being jammed, and was therefore the first and only land-based pirate radio station to be jammed by the Government. In response, Radio Kaleidoscope played a dedicatory record to the staff on the jammer – “Fool on the Hill”, referring to the jamming station’s location at Beacon Hill in Kent – which the GPO acknowledged on-air, before Radio Kaleidoscope closed down, and ceased transmissions until after the general elections.
Subsequently the jammer was moved from Kent to somewhere in Essex, and after a great deal of searching it was finally traced to the Marconi site in Canewdon by Chris McCarthy, who used the adjacent telephone box to spread the word to other pirate radio stations and supporters. The removal of the transmitter to this new location caused a great deal of resentment, both among residents, who could no longer listen to the radio nor use their telephones properly, and among Free Radio supporters, who descended upon the town in a matter of days, and remained there for several weeks. After the elections, many telegrams were sent to the newly-elected Conservative government saying, “CONGRATS TED WHAT ABOUT THE JAMMER?” Unsurprisingly, the jammer disappeared.
One of the highlights of 1970 was the Isle of Wight Pop festival, attended by a number of the Radio Kaleidoscope crew. On discovering that they were from Kaleidoscope, the organisers of the festival granted the team a free pass , allowing them and their Land Rover to drive into the backstage area!
For a variety of reasons, transmissions by the original Kaleidoscope team grew gradually less and less frequent over the following years and others began to take over the running of the station’s operations. It continued successfully until it ceased transmission in 1976, its 10 years making it one of the longest-running land-based pirate radio stations of the period.
There is still a large amount of material in existence from the original Radio Kaleidoscope (1967-1973) – reel-to-reel tapes of shows and adverts, the station’s original master jingle set, plus all the press cuttings and fan mail to the DJs about their shows. There are also some early photos, and recordings of pub interviews with Ian Dury and Alan Freeman, the former of which features the line “I know Radio Caroline but who the f*** is Kaleidoscope?”! All of this has now surfaced after 40 years and provides a fantastic snapshot of one of the most successful land-based pirate stations to have existed in the UK. In many ways, the early Radio Kaleidoscope set the trend for the clandestine radio scene for many years to come.
The team’s activities did not end with Kaleidoscope – the Radio-K Roadshow, first started in 1968 by Steve and “H”, under the name of the ‘Discophonic Discotheques‘ continued until the early 80s, notably entertaining guests at a street party for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations on the Westwood estate in Hadleigh, and in 1984, the team also set up a 24-hour radio station “Radio Strass” broadcasting night club music and daily radio shows to British and Dutch holidaymakers in the Austrian Tyrol.