By John Walsh
KLAS 98 was set up in November 1986 in a garage behind a house at 312 Sutton Park, the same suburban estate where I lived, bringing to three the number of radio stations broadcasting from the same few square miles in Dublin 13 at this time. Hugh Hardy (RIP) of the Radio Carousel network in the northeast lived in the house and KLAS was his latest foray into radio broadcasting following the phenomenal success of Carousel. KLAS specialised in easy listening and classical music, a gap in the Dublin market at the time, and had a strong signal on 98.5 FM with a low power transmitter on 94.8 FM serving Bray and north Wicklow although this was never announced on air and didn’t last long. The station used the very respectable 16 Hume Street, Dublin 2 as its postal address. Emboldened by my stint at Big Beat Radio across the railway tracks in Baldoyle, I approached Hugh Hardy (two of whose children were attending the same school as me), sent him a demo tape and asked him for work. By the spring of 1987 I was getting paid on-air experience on KLAS in both news and presentation. I was only 16 at the time – when I think back, I really had a hard neck!
KLAS consisted of an on-air studio at the end of a long corridor leading through the garage with a small newsroom beside it. A glass window separated both rooms. The entrance to the garage opened onto a reception area. Despite the more professional operation than what I was used to, news gathering had few additional resources to Big Beat other than a typewriter, a better tape deck on which to record RTÉ and a television with Teletext and Aertel which had just been launched by RTÉ. KLAS did not always have dedicated newsreaders so often the presenter would have to do his or her best to record Radio 2 and scribble down a few headlines from Teletext during records. As a result news bulletins were never very long. At one stage the news was relayed on FM to Radio Carousel in Navan and Dundalk. One lunchtime I got a phone call from Dundalk asking me to leave longer gaps at the beginning and end of bulletins so that the Carousel presenter could open and close the faders before the KLAS jingles started. The fact that KLAS could be picked up clearly enough in Dundalk to be relayed was testament to the strength of the signal at the time.
The KLAS on-air sound was professional with a crisp signal, agency ads and a mixture of experienced and new presenters including David Baker, Dan O’Sullivan, Brian Craig, Nick Adams, David Bradshaw and Lee Davis (previously known as DJ Lee while he worked on Radio Dublin). Programmes were live from 8am until midnight and overnights were covered by a series of eight-hour long video cassettes on which music and links had been pre-recorded by all of the presenters, myself included. There were never enough cassettes prompting complaints from listeners that the overnight material was repeated too frequently. I remember one person commenting how it was impossible that David Baker could be on air both day and night, a reference to the fact that David was heard in the small hours as well as on his live daytime show. As we had no separate production studio the overnight cassettes would also be used for periods during the day when ads had to be recorded by the presenter. In the early days Hugh Hardy presented the first live hour from 8-9am before heading north to Dundalk for his popular lunchtime programme on Radio Carousel.
Advertising revenue was strong at the beginning and included income from big brands such as Stag cider and established Dublin businesses like Budget Travel and the Nutgrove Shopping Centre. Jingles were professionally produced and in the easy listening style. One included the line ‘tranquillity on CLASS 98’, although Hugh Hardy reminded us that the station was called K-L-A-S and that CLASS should not be used (the jingle in question was recorded in error and phased out in case of confusion about the name). There was strong interest from listeners with a steady stream of phone calls and correspondence. I have a particularly strong memory of Lorna who called from Ringsend night after night. She seemed very lonely and needed someone to talk to but the calls were disruptive to presenters who had to do everything from reading news to recording ads as well as keeping the music going. Hugh came into the studio one morning to tell me that he had spoken to Lorna and that she wouldn’t be bothering us again.
Despite the strong first few months, financial problems set in at KLAS during 1987. Hugh was managing a network of three radio stations in the northeast and didn’t have time to concentrate on building another successful operation in Dublin. As a result, by the summer both on-air standards and advertising had slipped. Ads were recorded on cassettes but because equipment wasn’t being maintained regularly, tapes would sound muffled on air in contrast to the music, most of which was on CD. It didn’t make financial sense to have the ads sounding worse than the music when the former was paying for the latter. David Baker joined around that time and took over as station manager, leaving Hugh more time to devote to Carousel. As a result, on-air standards improved and the station received a positive write-up in one of the Anoraks UK weekly reports in September where it was predicted that KLAS would become ‘a force to be reckoned with’. Carousel’s advertising rep, Angela McQuaid, was brought in from Dundalk to chase advertising in Dublin. I remember her on the phone in the reception area at the entrance to the garage asking potential advertisers if they had heard of KLAS. Professional brochures were printed featuring a photo of Angela sitting at reception with a painting on the wall and a plastic plant behind her.
I recorded voice-overs on several ads myself; I remember playing one down the phone to the owner of a carpet shop to see if she was happy with the dirge from Phil Coulter chosen at her request. At that time the Sunday World advertised heavily on all the pirates and a racy script would arrive by fax every Friday to titillate listeners about the contents of that week’s paper. Hugh would censor the script to make it more acceptable to the more sensitive demographic of KLAS listeners; he changed ‘wild Irish sexploits’ to ‘exploits’ for an ad that I was to record myself. The antics of the Sunday World always seemed out of place amid the tranquillity of KLAS.
It was a fantastic opportunity to get so much experience in KLAS at such a tender age and I will always be grateful to Hugh for giving me a break and paying me for it. I was told I had a mature voice beyond my 17 years and listeners could hardly have imagined that a schoolboy was reading the news or presenting the latest bland musical offering from James Last. My granny was my number one fan but the job wasn’t me. Most of my colleagues at KLAS were a good bit older and I never felt one of them. Although they never scoffed openly at my youth I remember one presenter smirking when he met me in my school uniform one day. KLAS was my first taste of semi-professional broadcasting with a large listenership and it was an experience (if not an adventure) but there was none of the edge associated with Big Beat and our other local station Centre Radio. That was why I never gave up Centre even while working with KLAS. Dublin’s easy listening station was the source for my pocket money whereas Centre was what I really enjoyed doing.
In the spring of 1988, KLAS moved from Sutton Park to 76 Dame Street in the city centre. Hugh Hardy stepped back from management and leased the station to a new company. Day to day operations were managed by David Baker. Because of the school term, I didn’t have much involvement during that period although I remember opening up nervously one Saturday morning at 7am for an early shift with drunks from the night before still staggering around the street as I pulled up the shutters. I presented occasionally during that time and also produced a classical music programme for Nella Allen who had built up a considerable listenership in the early 1980s while on Radio Leinster. Nella was a very kind and courteous lady with a comforting voice and an impeccable BBC accent but she couldn’t manage the equipment on her own. I did the technical jobs for her – lining up commercials and tracks and taking phone calls – while she concentrated on presenting. Having a producer was unusual in the lean pirates of the 1980s so Nella was lucky to have the extra support. My father had been a fan of Nella on Radio Leinster and he listened to her on KLAS too. She always thanked me profusely at the end of every programme.
In early summer 1988, KLAS moved to spacious and bright studios at 59 Harcourt Street beside the Harcourt Hotel and despite Hugh’s reminders to the staff in Sutton about the name, the station re-launched as CLASS 98, playing a broader range of music than before but still recognisably different to other broadcasters. Hugh had sold up entirely at this stage and the new owner was John J. May who ran an aerials business in Tallaght. John had become a weekend presenter during the short stint in Dame Street and gained a following for his Saturday talk show which was tabloid in style compared to the staid offerings of KLAS in the past. John owned an aerial company in Tallaght and ‘John May Aerials’ was one of the regular ads aired during his tenure featuring a somewhat startled voice-over by his American wife Yvonne who also presented a show on the station. I spent the summer reading the news from a small room divided from the studio by a glass window. News gathering was similar to Sutton with the additional perk that newspapers would be bought every morning and afternoon, giving an additional source of information. The newsroom had recording equipment, a television and a typewriter, there was a professional news sting and the main headline was read over it at the top of the bulletin. Weather forecasts arrived by fax from the Met Office but otherwise the news service was fairly rudimentary. Bulletins were rarely broadcast exactly on the hour prompting complaints from listeners that we weren’t on time even though, ironically, Glycine Quartz watches sponsored the top-of-the-hour ident. I was the main news presenter that summer although I didn’t start until 9am and the last bulletin was at 5pm, a strange state of affairs given the higher listenership in the morning and evening. Susan Jackson (now of RTÉ) read news that year also, but there was never a shift system of a morning and afternoon newsreader like other bigger stations so it remained a shoestring operation. In advance of the closedowns many stations cut back on news during the second half of 1988 so that could have influenced the decision of CLASS management not to invest heavily in a service which would last only a few months.
John and Yvonne May’s children visited CLASS frequently in Harcourt Street and hung around the studios, sometimes watching me through the newsroom window. Some of them were my age and I remember one asking me if I was a Cure-head because of my haircut which must have resembled Robert Smith’s. If I was a Cure-head I was certainly the only one working on an easy-listening station but deep down I wanted my own show on the home of the Cure, Capitol Radio/Nitesky aka ‘Dublin’s Real Alternative’.
I presented a programme on CLASS on Sunday nights for a few weeks in the autumn of 1988 from Harcourt Street but had to finish by 10.30 to catch the final DART home. This meant leaving a stack of CDs running on automatic until the next presenter arrived at midnight. The station manager wasn’t happy but wouldn’t pay for my taxi home so there was no other option but to leave the station an hour and a half without a presenter. One night while listening on my Walkman radio on the way to the DART I heard the CD slipping followed by the dreaded dead air but if I turned back then I wouldn’t have got home that night.
Harcourt Street was a more professional operation than the previous incarnations of KLAS and a raft of experienced new presenters came on board including Pat Courtenay, Bryan Lambert and Mike Swan. I remember Mike playing a birthday request for my father on the 25th of July and wondering on air whether ‘he had started into the free Guinness yet up at St. James’s Gate’ (my father worked in the brewery). However the new professionalism was accompanied for a time by a very restrictive practice of 10-second links after every three pieces of music which had to include the artists’ names and the name of the station. That didn’t last long as it was too close to the depressingly predictable and formulaic presentation of the super-pirates and not welcomed by CLASS listeners. Based on phone calls and letters listenership seemed to be strong throughout 1988 but there was a spectacular failure when a planned on-air charity auction of a football signed by members of the Euro 88 team failed to generate any interest. The idea may have been too innovative for CLASS listeners who probably preferred the relaxed easy listening format to something as frenetic as an on-air auction.
KLAS is an important radio station in the history of Dublin radio as it exploited a niche market which was not being catered for by other stations, a decade before the advent of RTÉ Lyric FM. However similar to other specialist stations of the 1980s, KLAS suffered from a crisis of identity from time to time. Hugh Hardy couldn’t concentrate on it fully with a result that after a strong start, programming failed to develop a consistent style. Music policy was frequently confused and the balance between classical and easy listening music was never resolved. Some of the presenters were less than comfortable with the more serious material and occasionally stumbled over names of composers, a sure-fire way of alienating listeners with an interest in classical music. Others just couldn’t bring themselves to play Phil Coulter’s latest medley or insipid pan pipes and were too fond of obscure classical composers for a general audience. Some of the easy listening material was pure drivel and the love songs didn’t always go down well with the public. The arrival of Heartbeat – ‘the love station’ – on 95.5 FM removed the pressure for similar material on KLAS. With the benefit of 30 years’ hindsight I would argue that it was a mistake not to invest more in news. The KLAS listenership was similar to the RTÉ demographic and more likely to be interested in current affairs than the kids tuning in to hot hits on Q102 and NRG. Apart from Linda Larkin who joined from Radio West for a while in 1987, I don’t remember other regular newsreaders and coverage was often patchy and sporadic. It was ironic that the older listeners to KLAS relied on a schoolboy to bring them the day’s news for much of the station’s existence.
See archival material and photos from KLAS on www.dxarchive.com