“…pirate radio is still under hefty supervision after the clampdown thirteen years ago in May 2003 on a day since known as Black Friday.”
The space for alternative music on the airwaves has taken a bludgeoning in the past few years. With the demise of pirate radio in the mid-noughties as a result of the newly set up Commission for Communications Regulation in 2003, which began a series of crackdowns on independently run radio stations, a space for alternative music is struggling to emerge.
With commercial radio being outlawed in Ireland up until 1989, an hospitable environment existed in which pirate radio thrived on the airwaves, allowing music aficionados’ the opportunity to share their love of tunes to a community of avid listeners. By 1997 however, when the first major commercial radio station Radio Ireland was founded (now Today FM), the days of pirate radio were numbered.
In this article I’m going to explore the disastrous impact that the commercialisation of radio has on the quality of music radio and also highlight that under the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s own remit, that it has a duty to provide quality music programming for a diverse audience. Something that is not happening when you look at the extremely limited range of music permitted with the rise of weekly playlists constraining the music choices of any radio presenter on both public and commercial radio. I spoke to a number of radio heads that have worked in commercial, community, pirate and internet radio to understand the landscape of contemporary radio more. All may come from different background but all share the same passion for quality music. Their drive seems to be the sole reason that the pitiful few quality music programmes exist on Irish radio in a landscape that doesn’t seem to give a shit.
Independent radio in Ireland operates under the BAI’s remit. Basically set up as a regulatory framework for independent radio stations in Ireland, it operates more as a protective base for the interests of commercial radio rather than providing any type of diverse range of programming. A bit of history may be useful. In 1989, disgraced Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice and Communications, Ray Burke, paved the way for independent broadcasting provided they had a license. One of the significant things coming out of the Flood Tribunal a number of years ago was the hefty bribes paid to Burke by the owners of Century Ireland, the first commercial radio station here and his efforts to deregulate the industry. The landscape of Irish radio as it is today is as a result of the seeds set way back in 1989, when Century Ireland paid these hefty bribes to Burke, knowing the lucrative nature of commercial media.
Speaking to Aoife Nic Canna, a stalwart of pirate radio’s heyday in the nineties and early noughties (and producer of the brilliant Folklore from the Dancefloor Series), one of the things of note is the diversity of the pirate scene, of its DIY aspect and the passion and love that went into making such radio stations operate daily.
“You had radio Friendly in Cork, there was great ones in Limerick as well where I was from and the pirate radio down there became Wired Radio which is the community radio. I was in Jazz FM early to late nighties and then I went to Power FM and they were brilliant. I only stopped in Power FM in 2006/2006 when it actually became a digital online radio.
“I remember saying to the station manager how lonely I was because we had no listeners anymore and there was no DJ on before me or there was no DJ on after me. Years ago when I started on Jazz FM we were just in a small apartment on the north side of the city and there’d always be a DJ on before me to let me in and then I’d always let the DJ on after me in so I’d get to know a lot of the people. One thing which helped me was the consistency. I literally did the show every week, as professional as a commercial radio station. You couldn’t miss your radio show. The amount of listeners I had in the nineties and the phone calls. Sometimes I’d be like ‘will people stop calling me’. Like I don’t even know if we had mobile phones back then but people were constantly calling. It was all about DJing, playing records on the radio.
“There was loads of secrecy involved with Pirate Radio. We couldn’t tell the address to friends even though we all knew. It was the first thing that people asked you when you were on Power FM ‘Where is Power FM?’ We’re not allowed say, stop asking us. But there was also that fear of being busted. I always remember thinking ‘I will not let them confiscate my bag of records. There is no way in hell. Because they were going to confiscate the equipment and they’d confiscate your records and possibly arrest you. I never felt like a criminal. I felt we were doing something good and important.”
Nowadays, pirate radio is still under hefty supervision after the clampdown thirteen years ago in May 2003 on a day since known as Black Friday. It was not so much that pirate radio was spreading radical political messages or playing the devil’s music that the Broadcasting Authority deemed it necessary for it to be regulated i.e. shut down or forced to apply for a radio license and thus enter the land of commercial radio (an approach taken by the now defunct Phantom).
Rather, it was more to do with the fact that major commercial interests were at work and the fact that pirate radio stations were taking listeners from the newly formed commercial radio stations. Also, by existing outside of the new licensing structure, the days of pirate radio were numbered as their survival on the radiowaves meant having access to a license and not an FM transmitter. As soon as commercial radio stations defined the modus operandi of radio as about the listenership they could offer advertisers, the days of pirate radio (and later national radio) were fucked.
I spoke to Muiris, manager of Radio Na Life, a community radio station based in Dublin that thrives on a combination of the Irish language and great tunes, who explains to me why Radio Na Life has acquired such a great reputation for the quality of its music programming.
“As a community radio station we are non-profit, so we’re operating on a noncommercial basis. We are not motivated by profit whereas commercial stations you are going to go to your top ten. They want to get the maximum number of listeners. They are essentially there to make money through the medium of broadcasting. They are motivated by profit and basically that means in a lot of cases you get the lowest common denominator. So popular music is what the largest number of people listen to.
“In my opinion good music does not necessarily equate to what most people are going to listen to. But going back to the fact that we’re a non-profit station, we’ve a lot more freedom because we’re not trying to sell to advertisers that we have half a million listeners and your ad is going to be heard by those listeners and you’re more likely going to have an effect on those purchasers. So we have that freedom.”
Radio Na Life and other community radio stations are lucky in this case. They have a freedom not even afforded to the national broadcaster in that RTÉ are stuck in the same rat race for advertising as the commercial radio stations. As of the Broadcasting Act of 2009, RTÉ is required to “exploit commercial opportunities in pursuit of its statutory objects” i.e. the objectives as enshrined in law in which the national broadcaster has to fulfill.
In 2014, commercial revenue accounted for 48 per cent of RTÉ’s operating costs. Perhaps this can explain so much of the current similarities between commercial radio stations and the public broadcaster, as the public broadcaster neglects its role for catering to the myriad interests of an Irish populace by being required to exploit commercial opportunities. In the process, an appreciation for their having the space for alternative music programmes becomes neglected in favour of mass commercial appeal. Listen on any given day to 2FM and Today FM and you’ll be hard pushed to distinguish a different approach taken to programming.
The linchpin of alternative music on Irish radio waves Cian Ó Cíobháin, whose show An Taobh Tuathail has carved out an oasis on Radio na Gaeltachta for nearly two decades spoke to me about how his show has gone against the current, both musically and survived against the culling that so many other pioneering Irish DJ’s have fallen victim too.
“I heard a talk that the head of RTÉ 2FM gave over in Cornwall a few years ago and he was saying that in his opinion it doesn’t matter what music is being played on the radio anymore, that personality is the most important thing. That the kind of DJs they were looking for on 2FM were quirky, zany because – due to being playlisted – that they’re playing all the same music anyway. I was with a mate of mine who introduced me to many great bands growing up, the likes of The Velvet Underground, Mercury Rev etc … anyway, after the talk he cornered the 2FM head and said “I take huge umbrage with what you’ve said. Where were you the first time you heard Teenage Kicks, where were you the first time you heard City Sickness by Tindersticks? Bet you heard them on the radio.”
Unlike many other radio presenters who suffer the ignominy to their musical intelligence of being beleaguered by playlists passed down from station managers, Ó Cíobháin so far has managed to escape this resulting in a freedom nowadays relatively unheard of on radio.
As shown by the treatment shown to Donal Dineen’s Small Hours Show, a show filled with essential listening in the pre-nocturnal haze, the role of the DJ and their opening up of a space for a musical culture to survive is no longer existent. The relationship between a DJ and their listenership, as Dineen beautifully rendered it here in this Irish Times article, is that of a community, an opening up of isolated individuals that are connected through the space of music. As Ó Cíobháin argues, such a role is bordering on the remit of a public service, exposing the young and naive to the wonders of the wild and the weird that are abound on the spectrum of sound.
“We were driving home from the airport late one night recently and flicking through the radio channels, trying to find something… and I said to my girlfriend that it was no wonder An Taobh Tuathail has a following. We couldn’t find anything to listen on the radio that night that we liked. Maybe ATT isn’t even actually that good, it’s just that there’s nothing else like it on the radio. You remember those five hours where John Kelly did two and Dineen did three on Radio Ireland in the nineties? People didn’t watch the TV, they actually sat down and listened to the radio or programmed their nightly schedules around those shows… Donal’s show is gone a couple of years and it was heart wrenching for everybody that it went but I was actually surprised that it lasted so long on a station like Today FM, a station which is driven by commercial interests. I always thought Donal should be on RTE under some kind of public broadcast remit.”
Under the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Broadcasting Services Strategy from 2012, they declare that under the authority’s remit, there is an obligation to ensure that there is a variety of programming that reflects “the imaginative potential of its country and its people” and that the authority will have an important role in “maintaining plurality of ownership, content and viewpoint in broadcasting services”. Ironic then that since the introduction of the BAI, the landscape of plurality that once existed with pirate radio has been so knocked on its head.
Does the salvation then lie with internet radio? I spoke to Jack Olohan of the sadly defunct Radiomade about the trials and tribulations of running an internet radio station, where by its very nature, its audience is often fragmentary and difficult to amass a listenership on its live recording.
“The day to day running was so impossible. Like you’d find yourself coming in here at ten in the morning and you wouldn’t be leaving until twelve at night. It just became this kind of thing where we don’t have the management. We don’t have the funds. Nobody’s getting paid so people are really flaky about whether they’re coming in or not and that kind of shit. So if you’ve got no budget to pay anybody or even to pay yourself it’s literally just a vocation, it’s a labour of love.
“I always thought it was going to go online. Everyone always asks why don’t you go FM, why don’t you do that? Number one is we can’t afford it. (On FM) you have to censor yourself. On here you can say whatever the fuck you like. But I always thought that’s the way it was going. If you look to the States you have satellite radio, you have also stuff like Vice and everything is just going online. And TXFM I thought were going to be the first guys to do that on a commercial level (here) because they were thinking ahead. And of course they’ve got the likes of Denis O’Brien backing them and you’ve got Today FM which is kind of the mother station.”
Since interviewing Jack, the trials of commandeering an alternative space to give a home to alternative music on the airwaves whether they be radio or digital is looking like a mammoth task. If the idealism that exists within the management structure of the major commercial radio stations i.e. Communicorp’s Today FM, TXFM, Newstalk, 98FM, Spin deems the role of the alternative music DJ redundant, is it not up to the BAI to ensure that the Public Broadcaster operates outside this structure, that it reflects the interests of a public. And under a cultural remit, the pioneering exploits and efforts of musicians both local and abroad that veer away from the mainstream are clearly of interest to a listenership, that goes beyond the niche, that have an interest in the music of the day. Especially when this is at the helm of a DJ that dedicates their week to listening and scouring the wilds of music out in the wilderness and bring it back to a nightly home to share to all who tune in, whether out of habit or fluke, affording both musicians with an audience, and the audience with a desire to share and seek out more of the same.
Wasn’t that always the beauty of radio? And should anything less be demanded to make radio a medium of meaning again? Radio someone still loves you.
Illustration by Johnny Brennan