By John Walsh
I went to the ‘Century of Radio’ event at the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland last Friday in Dublin. Organised as part of Culture Night the event was billed as an exhibition of historical radios from the Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio in Howth and a chance to hear two short talks by veteran broadcaster and radio historian Brendan Balfe. The BAI reception area was adorned with a variety of beautiful and intriguing vintage radios perched on every available surface in front of a security man who wasn’t the least fazed by the crowds posing for selfies in front of the more unusual sets. The American radio in the shape of a petrol – sorry – gasoline pump was particularly popular as was the home-made African radio featuring parts of a Coca Cola bottle. Removed from the cramped conditions of the Martello Tower, the radios were positively beaming in the reception area and the museum’s founder Pat Herbert was on hand to answer any questions.
Listening points were installed around the reception area containing historical radio clips provided by RTÉ and independent broadcasters. Galway was particularly well represented: the opening of Raidió na Gaeltachta in 1972, an outside broadcast by Galway Bay FM and two clips from Flirt FM, one of the 20th birthday broadcast and another featuring part of my interview with Pat Herbert on Wireless last month.
Since parting company with RTÉ in 2010 Mr Balfe has been popping up in theatres around the country with his show based on archival recordings. Having never made it to any of the shows, I was particularly looking forward to his two talks for Culture Night. ‘Ireland Calling’ featured the highlights of RTÉ radio since 1926 including Raidió Éireann’s iconic ‘O’Donnell Abú’ interval signal, de Valera’s renowned radio address in response to Churchill after World War and Balfe himself opening RTÉ Radio 2 in 1979. ‘Clips on the Ear’ included hilarious bloopers from the archives: newsreader Maurice O’Doherty falling off a chair, actors laughing hysterically during the recording of an advertisement for cheese and the hapless continuity announcer Treasa Davison shrieking on air when a mouse ran across the studio. It was nearly all about RTÉ, perhaps unsurprising given Balfe’s unparalleled knowledge of the broadcaster’s history. There were occasional references to other stations, such as the launch of the ill-fated Century Radio in 1989, although the extract in question was from the Morning Ireland coverage of the launch. Ronan O’Rahilly of Radio Caroline fame got a mention and the pirates were alluded to but only as a source of presenters for Radio 2 when it started.
With the exception of the launch of Radio 2, Balfe’s talks, and the information panels downstairs, were largely silent about Irish radio from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. There is probably a simple reason for this: the pirates are not part of the official history of radio, from either the RTÉ or the BAI perspectives. They were a thorn in the side of the establishment but thrived due to the failure of politicians to legislate. Yet despite their absence from the official record, their influence on broadcasting was significant. The proliferation of pirates in Dublin in the late 1970s spurred the launch of Radio 2 and the roaring success of the likes of Radio Nova in the 1980s sparked deep concern in RTÉ. Peter Mulryan’s book Radio Radio on the Irish pirate era claims that a car with a Radio Nova sticker was prevented from entering the RTÉ car park at the height of Chris Cary’s audacity and of the state broadcaster’s paranoia. RTÉ jammed Nova’s signal on several occasions from 1982 until 1984, prompting angry protests from listeners. As well as training a generation of broadcasters, myself included, in everything from news to editing promos and jingles, the pirates offered air time to new bands and to local events which were off RTÉ’s radar. They were innovative and creative, sometimes chaotic and incoherent, but never dull.
Obviously I am biased in favour of this period but its historical importance and influence deserves to be recognised beyond anorak circles. I’m looking forward to a new book about Irish radio by historian Eddie Bohan which will include a detailed account of pirate broadcasting since 1916 (I’ll be talking to Eddie on the November edition of Wireless). In the meantime, I’d like to suggest a few personal pirate radio highlights of the 1980s:
- Bob Gallico (RIP): an iconic voice for a generation of Dubliners growing up in the 1980s. Bob read the morning news on Nova and co-presented the breakfast show with Declan Meehan. He was professional and authoritative on news but his quirky sense of humour shone through when chatting with Meehan or in one of his renowned comedy sketches. In the early 1980s I could only dream of being behind a microphone but I was lucky to get the opportunity to work with Bob in Century in 1990 and 1991. This recording includes Bob reading the news about an earthquake that hit the east coast of Ireland in 1984.
- Radio Nova: as influential in the 1980s as Atlantic 252 was in the 1990s, Nova would hardly stand out now but in 1981 it was a bolt of lightning in the radio landscape with its high-powered AM and FM transmitters and slick on-air style. RTÉ jammed Nova repeatedly and the station was raided by the then Department of Posts and Telegraphs on a number of occasions. Here’s a Nova news bulletin from 1982 during one of the jamming episodes (note the reference to one of their newsreaders, Bryan Dobson!). Featuring the unmistakable voice of Tony Allen (RIP), the station closed dramatically on the 19th of March 1983, prompting angry protests and marches, only to return within a few days. That closedown (listen here) is indisputably a highlight of Irish radio history: a highly professional and popular but illegal radio station closing down in a deeply political way and sparking protests from its loyal listeners.
- Bray Local Broadcasting: BLB boomed across the bay on AM and FM to where I grew up in Bayside and was a pioneer in community broadcasting almost two decades before the sector was licensed. Some of BLB’s programming was too serious or too local for teenage me but even then it was clear that it was striving to be a responsible local voice for north Wicklow. The first two Independent Radio and Television Commissions prioritised commercial over community radio, causing a real void in the radio landscape. In 1989 BLB was licensed as Horizon Radio, a commercial station, but the business model did not sit easily with those who had campaigned for so long for a community station and it soon merged with Wicklow’s other commercial broadcaster, Easy 103, now East Coast FM. The IRTC did not get around to licensing community radio until the mid 1990s and only after vociferous protests by community groups. Read about BLB here.
- Capitol Radio/Nitesky 96: A personal favourite, playing alternative and independent music and promoting new Irish bands. An early precursor to Phantom, Capitol showcased the kind of music normally sidelined to Dave Fanning’s evening show on Radio 2. It was everything that was good about radio: relaxed presenters passionate about music playing their favourite songs with neither the American slickness of Nova nor the crackly amateurism of Radio Dublin. Here’s a recording of Matt Dempsey from 1986. One of my happy memories from the time is doing an hour or two on Sundays courtesy of Matt.
- New Year’s Eve 1988: the night that most of the country’s pirate stations closed down. No doubt that Eddie Bohan’s book will have an accurate figure, but I reckon there were more than 70 full-time radio stations on air at the end of 1988. Some closed on December 30th or a day or two before but many carried on until the bitter end and only switched off the transmitters at midnight on the 31st, just before the new Radio and Television Act came into force. I was on air that night on Centre Radio in Bayside, a successor to Big Beat Radio from 1986. It was indeed the day the music died as radio dials went dark throughout Ireland. We were stuck with RTÉ and Radio Dublin until July 1989 when the first of the licensed stations came on the air but the new broadcasters were bland and homogenous compared with what we had known. Hear many of the closedown recordings here.