How former DJ Robin Ross swerved the law to broadcast his show and has now turned to art at Rock Factory Print Studio, in Blackpool

Robin Ross. Photo by Kate Yates
Robin Ross. Photo by Kate Yates

Former broadcaster and artist Robin Ross has admitted to finding some cunning ways of escaping the clutches of the law in his youth.

The 69-year-old, who grew up in St Annes, was one of many budding DJs pursuing a career in radio and started out the only way he knew - on pirate stations.

Robin Ross at Rock Factory Print Studio, in Blackpool

Robin Ross at Rock Factory Print Studio, in Blackpool

As officers from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) were storming up a tower block in Merseyside, Robin brazenly walked passed them on the stairs, hiding his transmitter in a cereal box.

He recalls: “I worked for Merseyland Alternative Radio in a tower block. If you put copper wire between the tower blocks, you could cover the whole of the North West with illegal transmission. The DTI can trace the building, but not the floor where it is being transmitted, so they couldn’t see where we were. The DTI was easy to spot as they would park up in a massive lorry with an aerial on the roof. On one occasion where we were coming down the stairs with transmitter still hot inside a Cornflakes box. The DTI and police moved aside to let us down the stairs without knowing what was in the box.”

Robin’s brush with the law went up a notch as he later moved onto Radio Caroline in 1983, founded by Ronan O’Rahilly, and became associated with ‘illegal activity’ whilst on one of its broadcasting ships in North Spain.

He adds: “I was doing community radio in America, when Johnnie Walker had heard me. He asked me to work on a new radio station - Caroline. Johnnie didn’t end up staying as he got a job with the BBC not long after. This ‘ship’ didn’t end up going anywhere, so I moved back to St Annes.

Robin Ross, of St Annes, with Paul McCartney

Robin Ross, of St Annes, with Paul McCartney

“One day, I got a message that I needed to go to Spain and I met Ronan. He gave me a plane ticket with a different name on and he said no-one ever looked at the ticket and the passport at the same time and in those days, they didn’t. So I flew to Bilbao and found the ship.

“Not long after, the ship’s chandler had heard there was a warrant for arrest for the guy whose plane ticket I had. That was scary. Luckily, no-one from the ship had contacted the police and the immigration must not have checked incoming passengers. As soon as I landed in Spain (and on the ship) I was under my own name - able seaman Ross.

“And then, the whole ship was under arrest as Ronan had borrowed money from an American guy and only had receipts for some of it. So there was me and this other guy who were under arrest as part of the boat.

“I needed to come back for a dental treatment, so I bought a ticket from Santander to Plymouth. I was about to get on the boat when I saw an American girl and asked her to come through customs with me and hold my hand and look all starry eyed at me, because technically I couldn’t leave Spain as I was under arrest. Anyway, I did and I got back on the ship to the UK. ”

One of Robin Ross's screen printing works: The Rolling Stones

One of Robin Ross's screen printing works: The Rolling Stones

Shortly after landing back in the UK, Robin moved back to the Fylde area and got his first legal job at Red Rose Radio, where he was made head of music. He proved so popular that he was head hunted by Picadilly Radio in Manchester. Later he was on Marcher Sound, Fortune 1458, Jazz-FM and Magic 999.

He had built up a huge reputation and was tasked with flying around the world to interview big stars, such as Cher, Phil Collins, Meatloaf, Bryan Adams and Paul and Linda McCartney.

He adds: “Whilst on pirate radio, you couldn’t really get interviews. But I did manage to get Robert Palmer in his hotel in London and U2 while on tour in Liverpool. I did that on an old ghetto blaster. I had Bono on one end of it and I was on the other speaking on a microphone.

“As my career went on, people trusted me to do really good interviews. It is all about research and getting the interviewee’s confidence. Every person I interviewed has said ‘no-one had ever asked me that question.’

Robin Ross at Rock Factory Print Studio, in Blackpool

Robin Ross at Rock Factory Print Studio, in Blackpool

“I was interviewing Robbie Roberston, leader of The Band, and he said he had been working with Eric Clapton and nobody knew.

“I loved interviewing Paul and Linda McCartney. Linda was one of the most impressive women I have ever met. She told me she wished she had been able to photograph Bob Marley before he died. It was my birthday and she gave me two of her photobooks, signed.

“Paul told me he used to go to Blackpool as a child. He also asked me if I wanted a cup of tea and he made me one. Bryan Adams did the same thing. It is all a bit surreal.”

After more than 35 years in radio, Robin said goodbye after realising he didn’t want to restrict his creative freedom.

He explains: “My aim was to be head of music and get a silver disc. I was head of music at three radio stations and I got 35 gold, silver and platinum discs.

“My first silver disc was for Sinitta’s So Macho, which was hugely popular in the Preston and Blackpool area. The guy who released the song rang me up to thank me for putting it on the station’s A-list. That guy was Simon Cowell.

“It was a great job and I felt very blessed and lucky. I met people I never imagined I would and I had to pinch myself.

“But one day, one of the bosses listened to one of my links and it was 31 seconds. He said that’s brilliant, but we only do 30 seconds. That was my last day in radio. You can’t expect someone to finish a good link in 30 seconds.”

Going back to his passion for screen printing and pop art, Robin set up Rock Factory Print Studio, in Blackpool, in 2011.

Specialising in creating his own art via screen printing, the studio is also a venue for artists and creatives in the arts scene in the Blackpool area. The father-of-two explains: “I had been influenced in music and art from the San Francisco and Cuban poster artists to Warhol, Rauschenberg, Malevich and Jasper Johns. Before radio, my friend, Paul Singleton and I set up P and R Productions in St Annes and we organised music promotions. I booked Fleetwood Mac at Lowther Gardens in the days before Stevie Nicks joined and I did the posters for that.”

Robin has exhibited in solo shows across the globe, including New York, Austin Texas, and Lisbon and he took part as the only International Artist at the 2017 Moscow Print Market. He curates the Sand, Sea & Spray Urban Art event in Blackpool and even before he set up Rock Factory, he launched Art in the Park, which was developed from his lifelong interest in images and style. He won the Gold Award for Innovation of the Year 2004 with a display which featured paintings on eight feet square sheets of aluminium; punk musicians, and images of New York.

He has been on TV as he worked with the DIY SOS team to redevelop Blackpool Carer’s Centre with Children in Need in 2016 and eralier this year, he appeared on the BBC’s Home Is Where The Art Is.

He also gives inspirational talks on cruise ships, where he travels around the world. As he is ready to turn 70 next year, Robin doesn’t plan to slow down. He admits: “I was diagnosed with diabetes five years ago and my pancreas had stopped working. For three months I thought I was going to die. I also realised when there is trauma in your life, your real friends are there. I have a strange mix: David Siedel; of Preston, who used to frame my work; photographers Dawn Mander and Kate Yates, who is also a LGBT campaigner; and rockstar David Knopfler from the Dire Straits, who still rings me to make sure I am okay.”