Laser 558

Laser 558 was an offshore pirate radio station launched in May 1984 by business and broadcasting executives. Laser 558 used disc jockeys from the USA. It broadcast from the Panama registered ship MV Communicator in international waters in the North Sea. Within months the station had a large audience due to its strong signal and continuous music mixing current records with oldies. However, insufficient advertising starved the station off the air in late 1985. In 1986 an attempt was made to return as Laser Hot Hits, but the same problems arose.

The beginnings of Laser Radio

A London car salesman and DJ named John Kenning convinced Philip Smyth, a wealthy Irish businessman, to fund an offshore radio station. Kenning recruited Paul Rusling, who introduced the project to Roy Lindau, who had been involved in Radio Caroline. Lindau was a marketing executive for Major Market Radio, an airtime brokerage owned by Gene Autry. He joined Laser in mid-1983 and became president of its sales company, Eurad. He left after disagreements over control. There were reports that the tobacco giant, Philip Morris, pulled out following pressure from European authorities, although their sponsorship of programmes continued to be announced.

The team planned two stations on one ship, the music programmed via satellite from the New York offices of Music Media International. This was scaled down to a single station called Laser after early disagreements on policy. The station was built on a former hydrographic survey vessel, the Gardline Seeker, renamed Communicator. The ship was registered via a Panama based company, Deka Overseas Inc.[1] The plan was to use an antenna held aloft by a helium balloon - an inflatable dirigible tethered to the deck.

The conversion work was carried out in autumn 1983 at Tracor Marine in Port Everglades, Florida, and the ship sailed via the Azores and Ireland to an anchorage off the Thames Estuary.

Antenna problems

The early days were overshadowed by problems with the balloon aerial. Due to weather in the North Sea, several balloons were lost. The short-lived transmissions on 729 kHz could be heard in several countries but not in London due to a Radio 4 relay on the adjacent channel of 720 kHz. A change to two masts and a frequency at the bottom of the AM band (558 kHz) were effected for the station's launch in May 1984 as Laser 558.


The near non-stop music, "never more than a minute away from music", was in contrast to the 50 per cent speech imposed on UK commercial radio, and the similar proportion of talk on BBC Radio 1. The lack of advertising on Laser, plus the American DJs, resulted in a huge audience - BBC research indicated four million in the UK and a similar number on the continent.

By using only American DJs (it was illegal for British DJs to work on such stations) and claiming supply tenders from Spain, Laser claimed to be legal. Surveillance by the UK showed Laser was supplied from Kent, and UK stations campaigned to have Laser and Caroline removed, saying the ships were "stealing their listeners".

Technical information

Laser played most of its music from tape cartridges as the American management wanted control over material broadcast and thought the stylus on vinyl records would jump in rough sea. The former research lab at the stern of the ship was converted into two studios plus a newsroom, which contained a Kaypro 4 computer and telex link with the station's office in New York. This link was achieved initially by a COMSAT installation on the upper deck, which used Inmarsat; it could access regular telephones, although at $15 a minute. Later the ship used a private marine VHF channel to Kent.

The broadcast transmitters were a pair of CSI 25 kilowatt AM transmitters, built in Boca Raton, Florida. Usually only one was in use at half power, due to the limitations of tuning components in the antenna. This was an "inverted L" array running up to the top of a 100 foot high fore mast, and then across to a similar construction at the stern of the ship. Coverage was good with the "commercially marketable" core area of the signal travelling 140 miles over land, which included most of England, all of the Netherlands and Belgium and much of northern France as far as Paris.

The audio quality was a little better than most other AM broadcasters in western Europe, as the equipment had been set up to modulate with frequencies up to around 8 kHz, whereas the UK for example rolled off treble frequencies at 4.5 kHz. The programme feed was modified by an audio processor made by Circuit Research Labs of Arizona, while Radio Caroline (based on another ship nearby) used an Optimod processor.

Other media in the UK ran stories about who the owners might be, and the Evening Standard named a BBC TV journalist, Roger Parry. While many assumed the station was American, it was funded mainly by Philip Smyth.


On 9 August 1985, the UK's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), chartered the Dioptric Surveyor to anchor nearby to monitor Laser and Caroline, at a reported cost of £50,000 a month. It was replaced by the larger Gardline Tracker. This had been chartered from Gardline Surveys, whose history dates back to Grace Darling. Gardline Tracker was a sister ship of the Communicator, purchased from Gardline Shipping in Great Yarmouth as the Gardline Seeker.

DJs at Laser made references to the DTI vessel, poking fun at the ship and staff, making a parody titled "I Spy For The DTI" by the Moronic Surveyors. The term Eurosiege was coined by disc jockey Charlie Wolf. On one occasion the MV Communicator moved temporarily away from the MV Ross Revenge only to be followed by the DTI, confirming that Laser rather than Caroline was the target.

Business failure

The backers failed to secure advertising. Radio Caroline continued and attracted little attention from the DTI. Shortly after the start of Laser 558, Radio Caroline began simulcasting with a 5 kW transmitter on 576 kHz, although this channel suffered more interference.

The Last Broadcast

Due to the blockade and lack of funds, the MV Communicator went into port, escorted by Gardline Tracker, where it was impounded by the Admiralty Marshall on behalf of creditors, including Gardline Surveys who had sold Laser the ship, and Paul Rusling, its first engineer and coordinator who had sourced the transmitters and paid staff on behalf of the owner. The ship was offered for sale in a blind auction and, despite its cost being almost £1 million two years before, was sold for around £35,000. The ship contracted by the UK Government to observe the radio ships off the Thames Estuary, the Gardline Tracker, returned to sea to watch Radio Caroline, but the monitoring ended a little more than a month later, on 12 December 1985.[2]

The day after Laser's closure, Radio Caroline moved from 576 to 558 kHz, a clearer frequency.

Laser Hot Hits

The MV Communicator was bought by East Anglian Productions and left unhindered during restoration in Essex. The ship returned to international water in late 1986 and on 1 December began test transmissions as Laser Hot Hits using the 576 channel abandoned by Radio Caroline, since Caroline was still using 558. The station resumed broadcasting on 7 December. The ship had twin 25 kW transmitters, but the five wire horizontal array antenna could only accommodate one transmitters at a time.

Laser Hot Hits lasted less time than the original and had poorer coverage. After losing masts in a storm in January it closed temporarily. The station went off the air in early 1987.


Charlie Wolf was from Boston, Massachusetts. He was working in Salt Lake City, Utah, when he answered an advert in Radio & Records Magazine, a weekly industry paper in the USA. Wolf told friends he joined for a free trip to London. After Laser's closure he became one of the first DJs on Atlantic 252. He has worked for stations in the GWR Group (now Global Radio). He presented on TalkSport Radio (2000–2006).

Dave Lee Stone, the only DJ to return with a pre-recorded show on Hot Hits on Sundays, died in 1997.

Jessie Brandon, who travelled on MV Communicator from Fort Lauderdale to Europe, worked for Radio Nova, Capitol Radio and Radio Luxembourg. She returned to the US and worked with Simon Marks's FeatureStoryNews in Washington, DC.

Steve Masters worked for Voice of America and ran a consulting business in the US.

Rick Harris left in 1985 to work on Radio Nova.

Chris Carson (Skelley) went to Rock KFMH/99 in the Davenport/Quad Cities (US), on air and helping with promotions.

Manager John Catlett went on to consult for Atlantic 252 and manage Radio Luxembourg and Radio Star India. He then was the COO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He is now a broadcasting consultant in New York City.

MV Communicator

After Laser Hot Hits went off the air, MV Communicator was again impounded. This time it was stripped of studio equipment, although the transmitters and generators were intact. The ship was sold many times, until the early 1990s, when Holland FM bought the ship and broadcast to that country. Communicator was sold again, to the Veronica Broadcasting Society, which sold it to Quality Radio. The ship was then sold to Dave Miller's The Superstation, broadcasting to the Orkney Isles on 105.4 MHz in 2004.

Miller sold the ship for £1,000. The Communicator is beached near St Margaret's Hope pier in Orkney. Soon after purchase, the generators and the hatch covers were removed, exposing the interior. The mast has been removed and the hull and superstructure partially cut for scrap.

Station theme

The theme end song for Laser 558 and Laser Hot Hits was "Thank You For The Music" by ABBA.

DJ themes

Charlie Wolf's theme song was "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?" by The Three Little Pigs.



  1. "Deka Overseas Inc.". Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  2. Conway, Steve (2009). Shiprocked. Liberties Press. pp. 13–16. ISBN 9781905483624.
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