Britt Wadner became known as the “pirate queen” in the 1960s when she – despite being fined and imprisoned – continued to run the Radio Syd commercial radio station which broadcast from international waters in the Sound.
Britt Wadner was born in 1915. She was the first of five daughters born to a well-off military family. She grew up in Östermalm in Stockholm and was sent to the French school in the city. Her mother, Tyra Wadner, was known as the founder of the Swedish ‘lotta’ (Women’s Voluntary Defence Service) movement. As a child Britt Wadner was displayed in the Swedish press dressed in the very first ‘lotta’ uniform which her mother had had made for her. When Britt Wadner was a teenager the family moved to Växjö but she longed for Stockholm and the glamorous film and theatre world of the capital. The chance arose for her to move back to Stockholm when she was 17 years old and she took up a job as an office clerk for Postgirot. After winning a modelling competition she picked up a few acting jobs, some of which were in advertising.
When Britt Wadner was 22 years old she married Thure Alfe, the head of AB Kinocentral which was a heavyweight in the world of advertising films. He was 20 years her senior. This put an end to her brief acting career which, within a couple of years, instead saw Britt Wadner become a housewife and mother to two children, Marie and Karl-Gustav. After meeting a businessman called Tage Enhörning Britt Wadner obtained a divorce so that she could marry him. On a visit to Båstad the couple discovered a magnificent villa called Jägersborg which they moved into in May 1945. Britt Wadner was at this point expecting her third child. They led a life of luxury, with employees including servants and a retained carpenter. Following the birth of the couple’s daughter, Constance, Britt Wadner began to get involved in local charitable activities whilst her husband Tage Enhörning seemed happier in Stockholm. The couple spent less and less time together until they finally divorced a few years later.
Britt Wadner carried on living at Jägersborg, converting her home into a hostelry which served as a local entertainment spot from the mid-1950s onwards. After just a couple of years she tired of this lifestyle and sold the enterprise, and found herself lacking options once she had paid off her debts. For a while she made a living as a travelling salesperson selling protective furniture pads. In September 1959 she got a job in Landskrona as an advertiser for a newly-established radio channel called Skånes Radio Mercur. Nils-Erik Svensson had set up the radio station a year earlier and it was part of the Danish Radio Mercur which broadcast on the FM frequency band from a Panama-flagged vessel named Cheeta, anchored in international waters in the Sound. The programmes, which involved pop music alternating with adverts, were taped in a studio in Landskrona and then delivered to the vessel. The programme format varied distinctly from what Sveriges Radio offered at that time and were aimed primarily at teenagers and housewives. In the summer of 1960 Skånes Radio Mercur became an independent company based in Malmö, in which Britt Wadner was a part owner. When Nils-Erik Svensson left the company the following year she became the majority share-holder. Skånes Radio changed its name to Radio Syd and acquired the broadcasting vessel Cheeta using money which Britt Wadner had borrowed from some students in Lund. At its height the company had a staff of 20-30 people.
Up to that point the enterprise had been legal. The advertisers included state-owned companies such as SJ and SAS. However, political campaigning on the subject of “radio pirates” gained speed, particularly after the businessman Jack S. Kotschack was inspired by Britt Wadner to set up Radio Nord. Radio Nord, which had significantly greater financial resources than its rival, started broadcasting from a vessel in Stockholm archipelago from March 1961. These broadcasts could be heard in the capital city and included news reports, which made the matter a sensitive issue for the government. Nevertheless, it was Britt Wadner the “pirate queen” and her vessel in the Sound that ended up being the focus of dramatic developments.
Sveriges Radio had already responded to their competition in the late autumn of 1961 by introducing Melodiradion, the first pop music-based programme. The next year a new channel, P3, was established in the hopes of regaining listeners who had defected to Radio Syd and Radio Nord. At this time the Nordic governments were collaborating in preparing new laws aimed at deterring “radio pirates”. The Danish government was the first to put a stop to Radio Mercur through new laws which banned Danish citizens from owning radio equipment which was used to broadcast across Danish territory. Sweden followed suit in the spring of 1962 when a similar law was hammered out by a parliamentary majority comprising the Social Democratic party, the Communists, and some of the Centre party. The only party to consistently defend commercial radio was the Liberal People's party whilst liberal newspapers such as Expressen campaigned in support of Radio Syd and Radio Nord.
The new law was initially known as “Lex Radio Nord” but by the time it came into force on 1 August 1962 Radio Nord had already decided to cease its activities. Britt Wadner was, nevertheless, determined to continue broadcasting Radio Syd. To complicate matters the law was unclear. However, as it was probably illegal to deliver sound recordings to the broadcasting vessel Cheeta it was decided that they would move the entire radio enterprise – including the company employees – into the North Sea. A few months later Britt Wadner was fined. The third time she was fined her punishment was a month’s imprisonment, which she served at the Hinseberg women’s facility in the spring of 1965. Thousands of demonstrators protested against this judgement in Malmö. Whilst Britt Wadner was inside broadcasting duties were managed by her daughter Connie.
Britt Wadner, with the help of a support group called Club Radio Syd, held a number of galas with pop music, including a concert by the Rolling Stones, in the summer of 1965. Somewhat paradoxically she became a bit of a symbol for the new young people’s music despite herself being a member of the older generation which preferred jazz and popular melodies.
During the 1964 electioneering year Britt Wadner campaigned on behalf of the Medborgerlig samling, a Scanian attempt at uniting the conservative parties. However, she did not want Radio Syd to broadcast political messages. It was only in 1965 that she began to present her campaigns as a fight for freedom of expression as Radio Syd was preparing to send TV broadcasts. She may have been the first person to broadcast commercial TV from the sea in December 1965. It was only a short-lived experiment. Winter weather forced the Cheeta II to leave the Sound and by the time spring had returned the Swedish parliament had managed to enact a tighter law concerning radio broadcasts. Although Radio Syd never returned to the Scanian airwaves Britt Wadner’s cocky attitude did inspire a wave of pirate broadcasters across the North Sea. When one of the best known of these, British Radio Caroline, suffered shipwreck in 1966 Britt Wadner lent them her vessel, Cheeta II, thereby saving the enterprise.
Despite her debts and legal troubles Britt Wadner successfully restarted Radio Syd in 1970 – albeit this time in The Gambia, and licensed by the Gambian government – along with her daughter Connie and her life companion, Ingvar Hjulström. She also set up a hotel enterprise, Wadner Beach Hotel. In 1981 she returned to Sweden and appeared on the classic Sommar programme on Sveriges Radio.
Britt Wadner died in 1987, six years before the Swedish parliament decided to legalise commercial advertising radio in Sweden. She is buried at the Båstad Nya cemetery.