1917 – 2005
Theodore Edward Le Boutillier Allbeury was born on 24th October 1917 in Stockport. After his father died when Allbeury was just five, the family moved to Birmingham. His first job was in a foundary, when he spent half the week in the iron works, and the rest in the drawing office.
At the outbreak of the Second world war, Ted who had become a fluent linguist in a number of languages including French and German, was recruited into the Intelligence service. Bizarrely he was interviewed in the back of a barber’s shop off London’s Trafalgar Square, which so intrigued him, that he worked the story into his later spy books.
After serving in a number of countries, including Africa, Italy, Germany and Ethiopia and rising to the rank of lieutenant Colonel, Ted returned to civilian life, working in sales management, and then in advertising. In a change of career, he spent three years farming, before returning to advertising.
Shortly after this, in 1965, a friend asked for Teds advice in helping a small offshore radio station, based on a wartime fort, that was stuggling financially. Ted managed to turn the station around, renaming it Radio 390 and presenting a middle of the Road format, which combined with new and efficient broadcast equipment, led to great success. After a boardroom battle in February 1967, Allbeury left 390 and ran the ship based Radio 355, until it was forced to close in August 1967, when new legislation came into effect.
When Ted Allbeury appeared on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs in September 1979, he mentioned that at first he wanted to be a bandleader. Among the records he chose for the programme were Harry Roy’s 12th Street Rag, and Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller, the latter being the first record played on Radio 390.
Following his offshore radio adventures, Ted started a career writing spy stories, based on his wartime background. His first book – A choice of Enemies was published in 1973, and a later book – The Alpha List includes a sequence on the Red Sands fort.
Ted went on to write more than forty books, both under his own name and the pen names Patrick Kelly and Richard Butler.
Ted Allbeury died on 4th December 2005, aged 88. Our condolences to his three daughters and his son.
During the production of the documentary album The Radio Forts, Chris Edwards interviewed Ted Allbeury, at the offices of Ted’s advertising agency, which was based in Tunbridge Wells.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you start in radio?
I was farming. I had been previously Managing Director of an advertising agency for a number of years. I decided to go farming and I’d been farming for about three years. After having got the farm going (which was on the Romney Marshes) I found it rather boring and an old client of mine that I knew asked me to start a PR outfit with him and I agreed to do that (out of boredom) and almost immediately my farm accountants got in touch with me and said that they had got some little men who had a pirate radio station (KING Radio) on a fort in the Thames but didn’t know anything about how to get advertising. Didn’t I know something about advertising? I listened to this station, which you could barely hear. It was quite dreadful and certainly he’d have never raised any revenue off it. So I went back to the farm and wrote overnight my idea of the format of the station and how much it would cost to put it on the air and make it a going concern and that came to about £25, 000. I didn’t know anything about radio and I was certainly not hooked on radio in any kind of way. It was just another thing. I didn’t expect to hear anything from these four men ever again but they had muttered about knowing men who owned racehorses and large businesses and so on, and lo and behold! At the end of the week they came back and said the man with the racehorses (or what ever) is going to buy us out -providing you will run the radio station. So I tossed with my partner Roger Coombes, as to who was going to run the radio station and I lost and ran the radio station. And that’s really how I got in it and of course having been in it a very short while I was hooked like everybody else who gets to the depths of a radio station.
What was your first impression on seeing the station, seeing the forts?
Dreadful, I thought that it was an absolute shambles but there was a kind of air going at that time where great enthusiasm was generated. Of course, I had more difficulty recruiting people to work on the radio station, than say Caroline or London, because all those people who wanted to hear their voices on the air and have fan mail thought that’s where the fan mail would come from and when they knew that they were going to be playing Ray Noble, Irving Berlin etc.. They were horrified but in fact in the end, they got far more fan mail from 390 listeners than I think Caroline and London’s people got and perhaps became better known.
What were the people on KING like?
Oh well, there’s one who stood out. That was Mike Raven, who was treated dreadfully, he was sometimes left for three weeks practically without food on the fort because ‘the original guys couldn’t scrape payments together to hire a ship to go out and fetch him off or take him some food. I put a stop to that straight away. We closed it down, we didn’t do a crossover and we ordered new equipment, that was an RCA (brand new) transmitter, which came from Italy, via Holland and we didn’t pay any tax on it because it came across by ship and never entered what we thought were territorial waters. Then the aerial was put up. I knew nothing about the technicalities of it but I was told about ‘K. W. Electronics’ and I asked them to do it, which they did very very efficiently. They did feel that they were not going to make it on the date concerned and I pointed out that I would not send a boat to them until I’d heard it on the air. I think the only other paramater that I laid down at all was that, whatever happened, that the first piece of music was to be Glenn Miller playing Moonlight Serenade.
Why did you change from KING to 390?
I was going to change the name to Radio Eve, because I reckoned that the
pop audience in this country was over-served if anything. I felt that the
middle-of-the-road people had been totally neglected by everybody and that the
housewife at home particularly had been neglected and she was what I felt was
the natural radio audience. So I was going to call it “Radio Eve” -“Woman’s
Magazine of the Air” and in fact I got the stuff printed on that
basis. Then I realised it was just at the time when the press were realising
that we might be taking some of their revenue away and that they might mention
Radio Eve because it was a novel conception, but may never mention our
wavelength, so that was when I decided to call it 390 because that was our
wavelength in metres .
Why do you think it was so successful?
I think it was successful because we genuinely cared. I think our audience identified with us very, very quickly. We represented several kinds of protest: a protest against monopoly radio, a protest against silly government attitudes towards radio, after all, anybody with the appropriate money and foolhardiness can start a newspaper. In America the FCC regulations say that providing you are a citizen of the United States and that you are a responsible person, you are entitled to apply for a radio licence and if there is one available, you’ll probably get it. I think radio’s treated in far too holy fashion in this country. We like stopping people doing things. So, of course, after a time it became a bit of a crusade, and I think that people supported us in this. They felt that there were other ways of doing radio than the BBC, that there were other things than pop music. We had no bad language, (you know, it makes me sound a bit like Mrs. Whitehouse, which I hope I’m not). I reckoned that I may swear like a trooper -but I don’t in front of my children. It’s no good saying “well, you can always switch off” because you can’t. It’s happened by the time and if you’ve got to explain to your children what ‘rape’ means or some four letter word, you’re stuck with it, you’ve got to explain. So my attitude was -in fact I had a little note stuck up in the studios on the fort which said “if you wonder who you’re talking to, you’re talking to your mother” and I think this worked because our audience was very, very closely related to us. We got (in the early stages) I suppose about 2-300 letters a week, which were all favourable. I don’t think we ever had an unfavourable letter, but I did a broadcast one Sunday evening and by accident I mentioned the problem of loneliness and that, I suppose, really set the pattern, the image of the station. On the Tuesday morning I had 2,500 letters and they just rolled in by the thousand. I found it a very sad thing at the end as to how many people were so very definitely dependent on a silly thing like a pirate radio but people wrote in and said that after we’d gone off the air, that their wives had had nervous breakdowns and so on. I found it very sad that I couldn’t do anything about it, that people had come to rely on us and we’d proved unreliable not because of our own fault but by government law. I felt that people like governments, people like politicians had proved that they really don’t care about what people want. They have their own mysterious things that they want, and are going to allow us to have or not allow us to have and that they didn't care. I had very distressing letters from people who had mentally retarded children, not little children, but sons and daughters who were perhaps in their thirties who had been so taken by 390 that they had bought them their own special radio -very often at considerable sacrifice- because they weren't rich people and it had just been knocked out of their hand. You know, we'd just disappeared. I had hoped, perhaps, that the BBC would fill the gap but although I'm on the BBC's Advisory Council now, they have not filled the gap.
You did ask for a licence once?
I did, yes. It was turned down with a one sentence reply: no licences were available. Of course, a lot of reasons were given as to why we were called pirates - that we were operating on wavelengths that conflicted with the saving of life at sea, which of course was arrogant nonsense. I happen to hold a sea going radio licence and it's operated entirely on VHF and short wave on 182 Mc, nowhere near where we were, and in fact we did rescue somebody at sea - a capsized fishing boat. The other thing was of course that we were using an unallocated wavelength and I did point out at the time that if really that was a sensible criterion, then you had to cross off Radio Vatican, The Voice of America and roughly 90% of all the stations operating in Europe. If you took the whole of the Spanish government stations, they were not members of the EBU. and had not been even allowed to attend the Congress where the wavelengths were apportioned. You know, we were in very good company -us and the Pope!
What were conditions like on Red Sands at the beginning?
They weren't bad actually. We improved them quite quickly as we went along. They were not good. To save money, of course, people are on for two weeks and off for one week. And two weeks on those kind of forts was no great fun but between their egos and their love of radio, I think my guys put up with it very well. We ran it rather strictly. I suppose it was really like a senior boys' prep school at sea. In other words I didn't allow drink on the forts; I assume that from time to time a bottle crept on without me knowing. We did everything we could to make them comfortable -everything legal and illegal (...) we did pass illegal messages by radio, crouching in sand dunes off Whitstable for which of course, we got eventually summonsed. Far from ideal, but for enthusiasts, O. K. - and all my guys were enthusiasts (because nobody would have stayed with us if they weren't).
What about the actual studios and transmitting equipment?
Oh, the transmitting equipment was RCA. All the equipment was first class. It would be Garrard players, good arms. We had a little bit of (what shall I say) under the counter help from the BBC engineers from time to time. They would ring me up and say "I think one of your guys has left a knife or a fork a bit near the microphone and you're getting mild feedback at about 50 cycles". It did happen. I think people thought I had an all-seeing eye when I was able to get a message transmitted "please shove that spoon or fork away from the microphone" and people would look and find one was there! How did he know?
Was there any stuff left over from war, generators for example?
No, no, nothing. Nothing except rust! Actually the forts themselves were not in too bad a condition. They were obviously beautifully made and I can remember on one of the catwalks sort of idly turning a screw and, you know, it actually turned after all those years and I was only using my thumb and my fore-finger, they had been kept well greased, I think roughly 450 men had been on those forts with a brigadier on each of the forts during the war.
What about the people on the fort - the engineers, the deejays? What do you remember most about them?
Well, all very talented, I felt in one way or another some obviously more talented than another. I was very lucky to have Mike Raven although he was interested in the kind of music that didn't interest me. He had a great ear for what our listeners would like and I thought he buckled to very well bearing in mind that most of what we played wasn't what he would have ever listened to. But he was able to interpret what I wanted our listeners to hear and to see that it got on the air. He was an intelligent man, apart from music. A well educated man and he and his wife, Mandy, who was a sort of show-biz type personality... In fact Mandy and I, we checked with a lady, a radio astrologer who did horoscopes (we had horoscopes every morning). We found that it was too expensive to employ her, and Mandy and I did the horoscopes. We were amazed that from time to time ladies would ring us up and say "you were absolutely right about my horoscope. I've just won £45 on the pools, but please don't mention this on the air because I haven't told my husband. "
What about the engineers?
The engineers were very competent. I think, perhaps under-rated at the time - certainly by me because I didn't understand anything about what they were doing but we had very, very few breakdowns of any kind. I don't think we were ever accidentally off the air for more than say a minute or a couple of minutes. No, they did an absolutely stir-ling job for us.
What about the shore staff?
We had very broken down offices in Pimlico in a condemned building and I can remember the "Financial Times" put a photograph of a black couch that I had there and said, this is where this guy (me) lives and works and so on. They put a picture alongside it of my desk covered with snow because the roof had a hole in it and when it snowed which it did in that particular first winter the snow used to lay on my desk in the morning before I realised that a piece of plastic... So they were pretty primitive. A great deal of gusto, you know, everybody enjoyed it. I think we were probably the poorest at selling our advertising although we got a lot of advertising. I think it was mainly because the station itself was listened to very extensively by advertising people that we got the advertising -rather than our own skill in doing that. Nobody knew how to sell radio time in those days.
Did you actually sell advertising yourselves or did you have somebody else look after it?
No, no we did it ourselves.I think our very first advertiser was Raleigh, our second advertiser was 'News of the World', Beechams were on, we launched 'Mother's Pride Bread' and in fact that was placed with us by JWT. (J. Walter Thomson). They were the first people who really cared about matching an ad, to an audience. They did five launch ads, for Mother's Pride Bread and they were so good that ladies would ring us up and say "Somebody told me there were five Mother's Pride ads, I've only heard three, can you tell me when the other two are coming up. I've heard the one that goes something or other" and, you know, you can't have better than that!
You mentioned other things planned for 390 - A northern service...
Yes, there were two things that I wanted to do and that I was very, very keen on doing. One was to have one off in the Irish Channel to be '390 North' to cover that side of the country. We covered up to Hull and perhaps in to Coventry and down to Bournemouth but I wanted (because I come from the North) the North to be covered as well. But the more important thing to me was that I wanted off the money that we made on 390, to run a children's radio station with no advertising at all so that nobody could say your Daddy's nasty because he didn't buy you 'Smarties'. I feel that no matter how careful people try to be in advertising things for children, there is going to be an element of exploitation in that and I thought I could show that it was possible to run a children's radio station all day long that would cover a very wide spectrum of age, but most of the time during the day it would mean that a mother could sit a small child in its high chair and it would be told stories and nursery rhymes and all the usual jazz. It would be rather repetitive because there isn't all that much material around but small children like repetition and as the day moved on it would pick up the older age groups as it went on and hopefully in the early evening it would deal with typical 'O' level subjects, and things that could be done on radio to be talked about in a plebby sort of way, in a non educative sort of way; we'd still try to educate with the carrot that, O.K., after that we will play your pop for you.
What about your planned FM service?
Yes, we had in fact - or I had laid my eyes on a second hand VHF transmitter. That came to nought I'm afraid. It was a bit late in the day and the shareholders would not allow us to spend money on that.
How did you feel about the various court cases that the station was involved in?
Well, I think they were entirely understandable -from the government's point of view. I think it was significant that they chose 390 rather than any other -because they recognised our popularity and that we were beginning to matter and also I did a programme on Sunday evenings which criticised and exposed the lies of the second Postmaster General that I dealt with. When Wedgie Benn was Postmaster General he was absolutely civilised, made nonsense about it at all and said no of course these people aren't criminals of course, they're not pirates, they're just ordinary businessmen who have found a loophole in the law, which eventually we shall close - which I found sane and perfectly all right. When Edward Short came on the scene - I can well see why he never proceeded beyond being a captain in the Army because that was about the extent of his talent, I thought. He was a spiteful man, tried to connect 390 with the murder of three policeman at Hammersmith and he did that on the day when I had been summoned so I brought a libel action against him for that (Unfortunately my solicitor fell ill and it went out of time as I should have been very determined to proceed with that but my solicitor happened to be a friend of mine and he was dying and there was nothing much could be done about that). The court cases themselves - the one at Canterbury was perfectly straightforward, dealt with by the magistrates perfectly properly, I thought. The one in the High Court was interesting because, of course, it was not a unanimous verdict. Lord Justice Summer, as he now is, disagreed and said no, he found no offence committed at all. Lord Widgerey sort of balanced between the two extremes and I think, you know, went on the basis that obviously the government wanted us out, so if he was going to over-balance one way or the other he had better over-balance for the Establishment, which is totally understandable. I said that I was always prepared to do something unauthorised but was never prepared to do anything that was illegal so I arranged that as soon as that verdict was given the station closed down and I had already pre-recorded a closing down message. The whole of that case depended upon whether we were in or out of territorial waters and an archaic piece of law was dragged up by the government which said that if a sandbank dried out for 24 hours on any day of the year you could measure another three miles from there because it had already been proved that we were outside the three mile limit but when you measured another three miles on -then obviously they got us. Charts were brought to show that they were corrected to the appropriate dates and so on and that the sand bank was shown as drying out. I then had a telephone call from one of Her Majesty's Hydrographers -who shall be name-less (but a very important one) - who said you realise you've been conned, don't you ?" I said, no I didn't and he said "well when it says on a chart, that a chart has been corrected to such and such a date, it doesn't mean that it's been corrected, all it means is that any corrections that have been done are no later than that date so a chart can have an awful lot of errors on it because sand-banks move". So having felt I was conned, I started this up again, and said, OK, you know, we'll fight the second round and on that occasion I did a little introductory message to say "we're back on the air, and this is what I al-ways intended playing if we went back on the air" and I played Frank Sinatra's 'Second time Around' which I think amused the press at the time and got us back into publicity which is what it was meant to do.
Why did you resign from 390?
Oh, a sad story really. The Post Office then brought another prosecution against us, were also working on the Marine Broad-casting Offences Bill and I could see that there was going to be a gap before that came, but quite possibly we were going to be knocked off before everybody else. A lady named Mrs Wadner, who owned a boat called 'Cheetah', offered it to me for a very, very small percentage of our profits, something like 1%. It was a very generous offer because she was an enthusiast about alternative radio and that meant all the equipment was there the boat was already laid out for doing this. For some reason, (which I've never really fathomed and I have my own views why) this was refused by the Board. I said "look you are concerned with it in terms of money, I'm concerned with it in terms of millions of people who listen. Therefore my views are going to be different from yours. You are putting us in a position where we'll have to go or possibly go off the air before everybody else does and we now have a chance of staying on the air till the bitter end and I want us to take that chance,... and they said no. They dug their heels in on this. I said "all right, I mean it, I'm leaving" and I resigned and I was immediately asked by some Americans to run the other operation (Radio 355) that I ran on the boat.
In what ways did that differ from 390?
Except that it had a Dutch station, too, it didn't vary at all. In fact a lot of deejays came with me, and a lot of the staff came with me. I mean we were by then, you know, very much a team. We sort of belonged to one another - if we'd ended up selling cabbages, we didn't know any better than being with one another.
What do you most remember about 390?
I felt, what I cared about most, I felt it did actual good. It was visible, letters came in to show that people had been helped and I cared about that very much. And also that it did show, it did demonstrate that there were other ways of doing radio than the existing ways.
One final question: would you do it again?
Ouch!... (long pause) Yes,
yes I would do it again. Yes. I think I would do it now even more readily than
I did it before. In other words, I got into that in ignorance and only found
out why I was doing it afterwards. In other words I got into it as a
straightforward piece of commerce and very, very quickly it ceased to have
anything to do with that, at all. And I think now I feel more strongly about
what radio should be like in this country than I felt right at the beginning of
that or even at the end of that because I know more now about it. We've seen
the BBC's answer to the pirates; we've seen the IBA's answer to the pirates...
If they're the answers, they didn't even hear the questions. So yes, I would.
I'd hate to manage a radio station; I mean I would hate to have to bother as I
did before with the diesel oil, with the money side of it, that bores me stiff.
But I'd love to image a radio station -I'd love to decide how it was going to
(The complete interview can be found in the Best of OEM available from Offshore Echos)
© OEM 2005