By John Walsh
This week in 1989 two radio giants hit the Irish airwaves: Century Radio and Atlantic 252. Both left lasting impressions on the radio landscape but for different reasons. Century was Ireland’s first national commercial radio station and was launched with great fanfare on September 4th. Atlantic 252 was a joint venture between RTÉ and RTL (Radio Luxembourg) and had gone on the air just four days previously.
I remember listening to the launch of Century in my grandmother’s house in Dublin before heading for the train to college. The first song was Pride in the Name of Love by U2. Century’s schedule was ambitious, the sound was slick and the station had attracted high-profile broadcasters including RTÉ’s Marty Whelan although they famously failed to poach Gay Byrne from the state broadcaster. Other household names from the pirate era could also be heard on Century such as Declan Meehan and Bob Gallico who presented a lively drivetime programme similar to their breakfast show on Radio Nova in the mid 1980s. I worked part-time for Century as a journalist from the spring of 1990 until the station’s closure. More about that in a future post.
Despite the star line-up, Century was plagued from the outset by financial and reception difficulties. AM was still alive and kicking in Ireland following two decades of the pirates but Century never had a single powerful AM frequency which would be audible throughout the country. It had to rely on two local transmitters on 1143 kHz in Dublin and Cork, FM coverage was never quite nationwide either and outside Dublin there was confusion about frequencies. The format changed regularly in a desperate attempt to shore up the dwindling listenership figures. As well as enduring pay cuts, as journalists we often had to adjust to changes in the branding of the news service. The Mahon Tribunal on corruption subsequently found that Century’s licence was issued illegally as the then Minister for Communications, Ray Burke, had received a large bribe to grant it. Century closed down suddenly in November 1991 with an enormous debt of £7 million.
Atlantic 252, on the other hand, was hugely successful until at least the mid 1990s. Broadcasting on a high-powered 500 kW long wave transmitter from Co. Meath, it was audible across Ireland and in most of the UK. The launch on September 1st 1989, complete with long wave crackle, is available here. Local residents had objected to the plans for a number of years and were less than happy with the giant mast when it was erected but the commercial potential was clear to both RTÉ and RTL. The mainstream pop and rock diet proved extremely popular with listeners in the UK where there were no national commercial FM stations until 1993. The ability of high-powered long wave to beam into the UK had been realised by Chris Cary in 1985 when he tested Radio Nova on 254 kHz. Eventually the emergence of British and Irish competitors and the increasing popularity of superior quality FM sound led to the demise of Atlantic 252 at the beginning of 2002 but for many Irish listeners the station was as iconic of the 1990s as Nova had been of the previous decade.
Burnt by the success of Nova and other pirates, RTÉ was nervous about the roll-out of licensed commercial radio in 1989. Long before the findings of corruption, Ray Burke was known to be very supportive of the new commercial broadcasters; indeed, ideological objections by Labour in the coalition government of 1982-1987 delayed the legalisation of commercial broadcasting. Ironically, RTÉ was to become involved in a commercial competitor to Century, Atlantic 252, which never sounded very Irish but had a vastly superior signal and clear identity from day one. Atlantic influenced the stations which eventually led to its demise such as Virgin Radio (now Absolute Radio) in the UK. In Ireland, the national commercial licence was not advertised again until 1997. The successful applicant, Radio Ireland, almost went under itself after a few months but may have learned from Century’s mistakes before re-branding itself as Today FM in January 1998. RTÉ Radio 1 has occupied 252 kHz since 2002 but high-powered long wave broadcasting from Ireland may soon be a thing of the past.