Held together with sellotape and soldering iron: memories of Big Beat Radio 1986

By John Walsh

Big Beat Radio started on June 17th 1986 in a room belonging to the Baldoyle Community Centre beside the church in Baldoyle. There were six founders, all of whom were 16: Brian Greene (Bobby Gibbson* on air), Dónal Greene, Michael Redmond, Peter Walsh, Brian Hegarty and Mark Tynan. I was a year younger and knew Brian from school. He was my main contact and station anorak and when I told him that I had asked David Baker of KISS FM for summer work he suggested that I get involved with Big Beat instead.

BBR studio
The BBR studio overlooking the Baldoyle Estuary (pic: Brian Greene)

Big Beat went on air for a happy seven weeks of the summer holidays from school. The original plan was to go on AM with the copper wires running along the seafront behind the studio but we ended up on 96.2 FM in the end. ERP was only 15w and the mast wasn’t more than 20 feet off the ground so the signal didn’t travel far but we were on air with our own radio station and that was an achievement in itself. We weren’t in stereo and the sound was terribly over-modulated and a dead ringer for AM although we were supposedly on the superior quality band. Levels were all over the place and there was plenty of dead air with needles scratching in the groove at the end of records. The station was held together with sellotape and a soldering iron. Our one microphone was wrapped in a cloth to prevent popping and taped to a wooden banister which protruded from a scratchy mixer dating from the 1960s. Two turntables, a cassette deck and headphones completed the studio set-up but despite the crimes against audio it was the buzz and the music that mattered.

I presented the news from 11am until 6pm each day. During a visit to Sunshine Radio in Portmarnock a year or two previously I had heard newscaster Cathy Cregan replay a bulletin from Radio 2 on a cassette deck in the newsroom as I walked by. If recording Radio 2 was good enough for Sunshine, it was fine for Big Beat too so the sole piece of equipment in our ‘newsroom’ was a small radio-cassette recorder and a couple of biros. There was no typewriter so I wrote out the news long-hand in block capitals on foolscap paper. In a flash of imagination, I began recording BBC Radio 4 for international stories so at least I could claim that we had more than one source. To add a bit of local flavour I also tuned in to Boyneside Radio in Drogheda which boomed down the coast on AM and often featured stories from Fingal not covered by RTÉ. Occasionally someone would drop in with community news. We were sorted: local, national and international sources streaming into the newsroom in Baldoyle.

The location of the newsroom was about as bad as it gets: a disused toilet complete with a mildew-covered cistern and no window, stifling and smelly in the summer heat. After a day or two of hell in there I came back into the main room with the DJ and sat there for the day writing up my headlines. An urban myth persists that someone once flushed the toilet live on air during the news causing much hilarity but because we only ever had one microphone it wasn’t possible to read the news from the box room with the cistern. There was an actual toilet off the main room and someone may have opened the door and flushed the loo on purpose during the news but no audio evidence of the alleged incident survives.

I started on the 26th of June, a late arrival because of a family holiday to Limerick where of course I fitted in visits to some of the local pirate stations. My first day at Big Beat coincided with the referendum to remove the constitutional ban on divorce, one of the biggest news stories of the summer. It was a baptism of fire given that I had never compiled or presented news before but we were all learning on the job. Polling day wasn’t too bad as there wasn’t much breaking news to report other than turnout figures from around the constituencies. Of course we were never really up to date and limited to repeating what RTÉ had reported an hour earlier. On count day we might have broadcast our very own news flash a few minutes after RTÉ announced the final result. I think Brian helped me with the results so the news team was doubled for count day, just as any respectable broadcaster would do.

When we got a bit more adventurous we included recorded inserts in the bulletins, an epic feat given the basic technical set up. I remember using a scratchy clip of Kenneth Kaunda – then president of Zambia – opening the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, which I had recorded directly from Radio 4 LW on the cassette recorder. The relevance of the Commonwealth Games to the loyal listeners of Big Beat was questionable but that did not deter me. I don’t remember Big Beat having any jingles of its own, or even generic jingles lifted from another station, but we lifted the news stings from alternative station Capitol/Nitesky 96 and later Radio West from Mullingar, both recorded directly off air. I listened a lot to both stations and the idents sounded slick enough so I thought they would be just fine on Big Beat. Radio West didn’t have a Dublin FM relay in 1986 so we would have recorded the sting directly from AM and edited out the West newsreader. No doubt the quality was ropey but our sound was dire anyway, we were broadcasting in glorious mono and it was all a great experiment so we weren’t too bothered. We never quite called ourselves ‘ABC Network News’ or claimed that the news was compiled from the wires of Boyneside Radio but our experimentation didn’t stop with the resources of other Irish pirates. In an effort to further spruce up the presentation of Big Beat news, Brian mashed up a sting based on the BBC Radio 1 ‘Newsbeat’ ident, again recorded from AM as it would have been impossible to receive the station on FM in Dublin. In true BBC style, Big Beat had a longer bulletin at 6pm which was a round-up of the day’s news and not to be outdone we also had a ‘review of the week’ on Friday which consisted of me re-reading all the scripts of the week, more or less in the order in which they happened. Once or twice someone tried to drop an ashtray on the scripts during the bulletin but generally we took things fairly seriously and there was a rule of no swearing on air no matter what was going on.

20160806_171943
About to read the retro news from 1986 on Big Beat 2016

The room was large but heated up easily and there were double doors opening onto the green outside. Buses trundling by to Portmarnock could be heard in links between songs or during the news itself. Because there was only one microphone we had no way of doing a two-hander before or after the bulletin. Of course there was no red light either so the DJ had to shout ‘cue’ before each link and hope that everyone in the room would shut up in time. This was often a feat because DJs would bring their friends with them and the room would often be crammed with curious teenagers. Once during the news I remember coming to the end of a page and turning it over only to find a blank page. I froze with fear when I had nothing else to read, looked in panic at the presenter (I think it was Brian Hegarty) and he started the next record, bringing Big Beat news to an abrupt end.

The Queen concert in Slane on July 5th was another major news event that summer, as was the incursion by up to 500 Loyalists into Co. Monaghan on August 7th and Big Beat dutifully covered both stories. The Spanish golfer Seve Ballestreros won the Carroll’s Irish Open Golf tournament which was held in Portmarnock from June 19th to 22nd. By the time I began doing news a few days later, all of the paraphernalia had been packed away but the fact that an international tournament had been played across the Baldoyle estuary 400 metres from the studio was still a talking point. Another reason for our interest in the golf was that RTÉ set up a dedicated radio station for the tournament on 96.6 FM, forcing Big Beat to move down to 96.2 just before going on air.

phone box
Reunion at the phone box in August 2016. L-R: Dónal Greene, Brian Greene, Peter Walsh, Mark Tynan, Michael Redmond, Brian Hegarty

Apart from news, I only remember presenting one or two programmes myself towards the end of the summer which no doubt featured the latest hits from Big Country, Simple Minds and Depeche Mode. Someone would probably have pushed the buttons for me in the studio as no respectable newsreader knows how to use the decks although at Big Beat it was hardly rocket science. We announced the number of the phone box across the road – it was 322215 – to take requests and I was amazed that a few people actually rang in. I remember running down the street to take calls so I must have only done an hour or so on air myself before answering the phone for another DJ. Unless we played a 12-inch, there wasn’t time to run down to the phone and back and as we couldn’t afford many 12-inches help was needed if we wanted to take requests. The phone box still exists, with the same number, but is on the decommissioning list. All summer long we used 3A Brookstone Road, Baldoyle as a postal address. I’m not sure if we received many reception reports but it felt very important indeed to give out an address on air.

I was there during the infamous visit by engineer Peter Gibney (RIP) of Sunshine, after our transmitter caused interference to the Portmarnock giant a few miles up the coast. That was an achievement in itself of course. Gibney was a young man at the time – maybe ten years older than us – but I remember him being surprised at how really young we were when he arrived at the door that evening. We didn’t carry any official ads on Big Beat but created some dummy versions based on actual local businesses and Bobby Gibbson dutifully thanked all our loyal ‘advertisers’ on the final day. The station founders ran discos for visiting Spanish students on Friday nights in the Community Centre next door which we promoted on air. I don’t remember being at any of the discos as I was probably grounded by my parents but there was always talk about them the following Monday.

Big Beat closed suddenly at 6pm on Friday August 8th with Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds featuring – inexplicably – some of the Angelus bell at the end of the song. It’s not clear if this was coming from the church next door or if someone managed to relay RTÉ through the ancient mixer. I know now that Big Beat closed because of a rumour that a group of rival kids from Kilbarrack were on their way over to cause trouble. I have no idea why I missed the closedown; it was a Friday so normally I would have been there to do news. For whatever reason, I wasn’t around for the drama and perhaps the need to close at short notice meant that the guys in the studio couldn’t contact me in time. The priority was probably to bundle everything into a shopping trolley and scarper before the marauding hoards from Kilbarrack arrived.

Extracts from the Big Beat Radio reunion in August 2016 and a recording of the original closedown in 1986 are available here.

* No, it’s not a typo: the extra ‘b’ in Gibbson was deliberate because the name was fake.

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