Martin Fisher

Martin Fisher

 Interview by Roland Beaney.

Where and when were you born? In Chelmsford Essex a long time ago.


Where do you live now? In the house I built a few years back, in a lovely Essex village just a couple of miles out of Chelmsford, a place with some real radio heritage, not far from the location of the UK’s first radio broadcasting station, 2MT – Writtle.


What is your favourite part of the country? Well apart from Essex, and Kent where I also spend a lot of time, I love the rest of East Anglia, Suffolk and Norfolk, and I suppose further a field my favourite part of the UK would be North Wales


How did you get into radio? Difficult, it feels like I always have been, if you mean ‘into’ as in interested rather than working in radio. It’s in the soil in these parts you know. I well remember my grand parents giving me a big old radio to take apart, I was only about five, but I was fascinated by all the valves and strange looking components, it was not long before I discovered how to build my own crystal sets. When Radio Caroline started in 1964 I was only eleven, what a time to be growing up in the 1960’s with that heady mixture of offshore stations to listen to, they just served to feed my passion for the music and the technology that made it all happen. So on leaving school, I headed straight to the local factory – lucky for me that meant the then mighty Marconi Co. where I would be paid to learn all about radio and electronics. My spare time was spent building various projects, amplifiers, audio mixers, tape recorders; you name it, until I had pretty much built my own radio station. Many happy hours were spent playing in ‘the studio’, editing tapes, making my own recorded programmes etc. The thought certainly crossed my mind that it would be more fun to work somewhere using the equipment rather than in a factory making it for others to use, and with the second wave of offshore radio in the 1970’s underway I often dreamt of getting involved. In the summer of 1976 I heard an announcement on Radio Caroline that they were looking for a transmitter engineer. It was time to act, the years of dreaming over, I wrote to the Spanish address, but nothing. A couple of months later I heard Radio Caroline giving out a different address ‘A321 Rosas Gerona Spain’ I thought I must write to this new address in case my previous letter had been lost in the change over. I could not believe my luck when a letter dropped on the doormat a week or so later. A letter that was quite literally, to change my life, a letter that was to lead to a phone call, that was to lead to an interview, where I would be offered a job of transmitter engineer and DJ on Radio Caroline.


When did you first join Radio Caroline? Well, this ‘interview’ took place a few days after Christmas 1976, the first of two London meetings that I had prior to joining the ship. I think it was 6th January 1977 when I set off from London Victoria Station, together with Stevie Gordon. We had to wait in France for a day for the weather to improve, and finally arrived on board the Mi Amigo a couple of days later. My first show was at 4am on Tuesday 11th January.


What are your earliest memories of Caroline? So long ago now that my memory of early Radio Caroline is a little sketchy, although I do remember that it was great to have a station playing music all day. Later as more stations joined Caroline I well remember tuning my new transistor radio up and down the band searching for favourite songs. I can still picture the dial with Caroline easy to find down at the end on 199. I can vividly remember the transmissions from the Mi Amigo when she returned from Holland following the grounding on Frinton beach with the new transmitter on 259, and the calls for listeners to retune from 199 to 259 metres, exciting times. But it was the 6 months after 14th August 1967 that really turned me into a confirmed Caroline fan. I loved every minute, listening to the likes of Roger day, Spangles Muldoon, Stevi Merick, Bud Ballou and Sir Johnnie Walker, you could almost feel the struggle for survival, this was wonderful radio. I was devastated when the ships were towed away in March ’68. I never really gave up hope, and it was truly magical listening as Radio Caroline returned in the 1970’s. I was glued to the radio as each new twist in the Caroline saga unfolded, eventually developing into some of the best radio I had ever heard, as ‘Europe’s first and only album station’ and ‘The voice of loving awareness’, yes, Caroline was definitely back.


What changes have you seen with the Caroline organisation since you joined? Like most things in life, it just keeps on evolving. When I first started there were really the two halves of the organisation the English, Radio Caroline and the Dutch, Radio Mi Amigo, basically we ran the ship, and the Dutch provided most of the supplies. The first big change was the introduction of the Caroline Roadshow, at the beginning of 1978. This provided a major boost to the station at the time. Then there was that really bleak period thorough the winter of  ’78 into ’79, Radio Mi Amigo had left the organisation, and we were off air, most of us took turns at looking after the ship. I remember spending some weeks just before Christmas 1978, with a crew of only three, Tony Allan, Johnny Lewis, and myself. How the organisation struggled though the next few months was a miracle, the ship nearly sunk at one point, but triumphantly returned to air at Easter 1979. As we continued though the summer, although things were clearly loads better than during the preceding winter, we were at least now broadcasting again, it did feel that the organisation were now finding it more of a struggle to keep us supplied. My last visit to the Mi Amigo was in the autumn of ’79. After that I briefly visited the Ross Revenge in the mid 1980’s, where it seemed like a good day in the 1970’s. Fast forward to the present day Radio Caroline, Peter Moore and the team have done a fantastic job preserving the Ross Revenge, and keeping Caroline going on satellite and the net. I suppose the biggest difference in the organisation between our offshore days and now, is that for obvious reasons there used to be a lot more secrecy than there is now. There are now many volunteers all doing their bit to keep Caroline running smoothly. Things really have come a long way since the beginnings of the satellite broadcasts more than a decade ago. Whilst there may still be those that reminisce about the past, the fact is, that these days we have just as much freedom in our programmes as we had offshore. So although it may sometimes seem that it used to be easier just to hop on a tender and head off for few weeks on ‘the lady’, the truth is rather different.


How much music freedom do you have on Caroline? Lots, when I first started there was total freedom, but that does need qualification. Back at those initial meetings before I joined the ship, music policy was discussed at length. It may have sounded like we could play as we pleased, but in fact there were rules, that had a lot to do with musical taste, and what you should or probably more importantly should not play. I was even required to produce an audition tape prior to joining the ship. After my first year a simple format was introduced, this basically ensured that a proportion of the output came from the Caroline top forty albums, and helped to introduce a bit more consistency between the shows. In reality there was still an enormous amount of freedom and I had no difficulty using this new system. To my mind musical freedom is most important and is the one thing that separates Radio Caroline from the crowd. As we say these days ‘real people real music’ just about sums it up, it is the Caroline difference.


What other radio stations have you been involved with? In my capacity as a broadcast engineer I have been involved with quite a number of UK commercial radio stations. As a broadcaster however, I remain totally loyal to Radio Caroline, as I really don’t think that any other station would allow anything like the freedom we have at Caroline.


What’s your favourite station other than Caroline? Hmm let’s see, I know what it is not, I think probably LBC, or XFM depending on whether I want speech or music.


Who is the most famous person you have ever met?Throughout my years as an engineer at the BBC and in commercial radio I have certainly bumped into or rubbed shoulders with endless so called rich and famous, whether this counts as having met them, I leave you to decide. I remember John Cleese in the BBC canteen, and I quite literally bumped into Bette Midler on the Parkinson set during my BBC induction, and only a few days later I was on the studio floor as Debbie Harry and Blondie were rehearsing for Top the Pops. As far as famous radio presenters are concerned I have worked with and met lots over the years, from legends such as Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman, Kenny Everett, Tony Blackburn, right though to Simon Bates and Chris Tarrant, and many more in between.


Who do you particularly remember in your offshore days? Where to start? So many amazing characters, Tony Allan used to say that everyone who worked on the ship was a star, and he was so right. I set off on that first tender with Stevie Gordon, Mike Stevens, Roger Mathews and Stuart Russell, or Nigel Harris, as we now know him. Once on board I also meet up with the Dutch Jocks, Frank Van der Mast and the inimitable Marc Jacobs. As the weeks passed and some crew changed I found myself also working along side Tom Anderson, Ed Foster, Mark Lawrence and James Ross. James was the chief jock at the time, and I can thank him for giving me some prime weekend time slots to compliment my regular late night show. Those early weeks of 1977 also saw the return of Johnny Jason. JJ had been one of my favourite presenters, earlier in the 70’s, and it was great to be working on the ship with him. I will never forget the lovely Samantha Du Bois a complex, but likable character, with that unique New Zealand / Dutch accent. On the engineering side of things I worked along side Caroline’s legendry Chief engineer, Peter Chicago, and together we moved Caroline from 259 to 319 metres. In the following years I got to work with such Caroline legends, as ‘Buzby’ yes, our own Bob Lawrence, Johnny Lewis, and the completely mad Mike Barrington, and not to forget Ad Roberts on the Dutch side, and the crazy cook Kees Borrell. Working with these characters life on board was certainly not dull, and I have great memories of everyone I spent time on board with.


Who influenced you the most?Although it’s nice to think of oneself as unique, and indeed the best advice to any aspiring broadcaster is to be yourself, it’s true that we are all influenced. Having been an avid listener since 1964, I must have picked up a wide range of influences along the way. However, Caroline in the ‘70’s was completely different to anything that had gone before, and required a new approach. Without doubt my greatest influence would have been Tony Allan, his presentation so perfect it was something to aspire to. When I finally got to work with Tony I found him to be like the wise old owl, he had plenty of advice to give, and he was very supportive, whether it was my efforts on air or working on the transmitter. I count myself privileged to have worked with one of broadcasting’s legendry greats.


What is the best and worst thing about radio today? The best thing is that there is a lot of it, and the worst thing that most of it sounds the same. Bland boring and the same songs over and over, but who am I to say, I’m only the engineer! Actually I left the very best bit till last – the best thing about radio today is that Radio Caroline is still broadcasting, and available to a worldwide audience.


What is the most embarrassing or funny thing that’s happened to you? Soon after my arrival on the Mi Amigo the water pump that supplied the running water for the ship failed, so there were no working taps or flushing loos, things that we all take for granted on land. Because we had so little water anyway this was never fixed Now we had this rule on the ship that the boys, i.e. most of us, needing to go for a wee, went over the side, taking care which way the wind was blowing of course. Anything else and it was a bucket job. That is, you needed to remember to lower a bucket on the end of a rope into the sea to collect enough water to flush the toilet. My most embarrassing moment was when I threw the bucket over the side, but forgot to hold the rope! As I watched the bucket slowly disappear below the waves, I then had the highly embarrassing task of owning up to Chicago as to what a stupid thing I had just done. Luckily for everyone we did have another bucket.


What do you do for your day job and relaxation? Well as I have already mentioned, I work in technical support in broadcasting, that is, as an engineer. As for relaxation, what is that?  I do seem to have won the title of chief cook in the family, so I am busy in the kitchen most nights preparing the latest chefs special. Over the past year I have been lovingly restoring an old vintage broadcast mixer of the type we used on the Mi Amigo. I am hoping it will soon be in use in my home studio. I have recently been keeping my son, Olie Fisher company studying for the amateur radio exam, we found that far too easy, and are continuing straight to the next level. It’s good that Olie is getting some fast track technical training on good old wireless technology; he will soon catch me up if he has not done so already. I am also involved in model engineering, that is miniature steam engines, Oh, and of course I do show for Radio Caroline each week.


What’s your favourite food? I don’t know if I actually have a favourite food as such, I am definitely a bit of a foodie, and love good food. It may seem strange but my interest in food was awoken during my time on the Mi Amigo, when times were good they were really good, I think back to when supplies were coming from France and we had a really good chef on board, these were the times when you tried to learn a few tricks in the galley, which came in really handy when times were not so good and we having to cook for ourselves from very meagre rations. One of my most memorable meals was of Scallops, the tender that I was returning to France on after my first trip to the Mi Amigo was fishing for them, and any that had slightly damaged shells were used to make the most amazing Scallop dish for lunch, straight out of the sea, fresher than any restaurant, lovely. But in answer to the original question, if it’s good I’ll eat it, whether it’s a nice steak, fresh fish, or a good curry, I like most things.


What do you dislike doing most? Answering questionnaires.


Who would you like to get stuck with on a desert island? Is that a trick question? Surely it would no longer be a desert island if there were someone else there? No, I think I will stick to the eight gramophone records. Oh, and the 50kW transmitter to tell the world where I am.


What’s the most important thing you learnt about radio? Keep it musically entertaining, don’t be predictable; keep links short and sweet, the element of surprise. Ronan used to describe my shows as anarchic, from the big boss this was actually a compliment, and sort of what I was trying to achieve, i.e. not following any of the usual rules. Just the unwritten Caroline rules that helped make us a very listenable alternative radio station.


What was the first record you bought? That’s actually a very difficult question. Santa bought me my first record player complete with a selection of records for Christmas 1963, and yes I did used to spend my pocket money on singles, but I really don’t remember what was first. However, I do remember the first Album. Santa bought me ‘Beatles for Sale’ the following year, and I went out and bought ‘With the Beatles’ this marked the start of my album collection.


What are your favourite bands and who is your hero? There really are so many, and the list keeps getting longer. As I have mentioned in the last question, my first favourite band was undoubtedly The Beatles, but quickly joined by the Stones, The Who, and The Small Faces. Then there was the sixties soul scene with the likes of Booker T and the MG’s, Otis, Aretha, Sam and Dave etc. As the sixties became the seventies I added loads more to the list, such as The Doors, Yes, Pink Floyd, Barclay James Harvest, Allman Bros Band, Eagles, to name a few. The nice thing is, that I am still discovering new favourites, and from more recent times I would list, Radiohead The Strokes, Elbow, Doves and the White Stripes. As for hero, I guess it has got to be Bob Dylan.


What are your 5 most iconic tunes? Presumably iconic in relation to Radio Caroline, if I know what you mean. I’m afraid I will have to pick the same number one iconic tune as Buzby did in the Jan – Feb issue, because it quite simply is just that. The Who – ‘Wont Get Fooled Again’. After that it would have to be The Beatles – ‘A Day in the Life’. Roland this is a difficult, but interesting question. After those I think I will go with, The Rolling Stones – ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, then Eric Clapton – ‘Let it Grow’ and Bob Dylan – ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, preferably the live version from ‘Before the Flood’.


When did you last go on board the Ross Revenge? Depends on when you are reading this. At the time of writing it was last New Years Eve and New years day. However, it is planned to be on board this Easter, so if all goes to plan the answer will probably be, last Easter.


How do you see the future of Caroline and its ship? After coming through so much it’s now hard to imagine a time without Caroline. It’s amazing to think that the satellite years have actually been the longest and most reliable period of broadcasting in the stations history. In this digital age many stations have seen their former audience levels reducing, but Caroline is actually in an enviable position. As more and more people around the globe rediscover an old friend, this can only be good for Caroline’s future. As for the ship, it is of course both a tremendous asset to the station, and a huge headache for the management. I look forward to a time when she can be suitably located, and enjoyed by a wider pubic, as a permanent reminder of our offshore broadcasting heritage.


What are your plans for the future? To keep on doing what I do, and hopefully find more time for the things I enjoy most, like Caroline.


Thanks Roland for asking some most interesting questions, it’s been a pleasure.


Martin Fisher.