Adrian Johns


On his book Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age

Cover Interview of December 07, 2010

A close-up

A casual browser could do worse than start around p.189, with the story of Oliver Smedley and Kitty Black’s raid on the Shivering Sands fort.

Shivering Sands was an old World War II anti-aircraft installation sited a few miles offshore from the Thames Estuary in southern England.  It comprised a set of rusting metal chambers atop 60-foot legs, linked by rickety walkways.  The complex had been abandoned after the war, but had recently been commandeered by a pirate radio outfit called Radio City.  City’s boss, Reg Calvert, had arranged for a huge aerial to be built atop the fort, and begun broadcasting pop music into London. 

Smedley’s rival pirate radio broadcaster was by this point facing collapse, and he saw the facility as his last chance to salvage his dream of a commercial broadcasting operation capable of beating the BBC.  He decided to take it over.  He and Black organized a gang of stevedores to capture the fort, which they did at the dead of night.

It was this raid that brought about the fatal confrontation with Calvert.  It ended only a week later, after the dockers and DJs had spent a week in enforced proximity aboard Shivering Sands.

By that time Calvert had met with Smedley and Black, and leveled a series of bizarre threats against them—including an announcement that he had invented a deadly form of nerve gas and was hoping to use it against the usurpers.

On the night of June 21, he showed up at Smedley’s country house, and after a brief altercation—the details of which remain murky to this day—his rival shot him dead.

By the time the dockers left Shivering Sands a few days later, Smedley was facing a murder charge, and the British government had set in train the measures that would end the golden age of Sixties pirate radio.

This part of the book tells the story of the plot, the killing, and their consequences.  It is quite a dramatic tale, involving skullduggery, threats, fantasy, and, in the end, tragic violence.

But it also has a broader point, because these events led to a transformation in Britain’s sound broadcasting.