Radiowaves Special Feature: The Radio 4U Story


Chapter Four

In the late afternoon of the May Bank Holiday (Monday 25th May 1987) I left London and arrived Tuesday morning, at dawn, in Larne.
My second time stepping on Irish soil and this time I had no intention of leaving. The plan was to sleep before setting off for Donegal, but it was a nice sunny morning and I was much too excited so I kept the engine running to arrive at about half six in, still sleepy, Derry.

The planned prime position was Muff, or maybe the hills of Inishowen just north of it. My second choice was Burnfoot, another village further to the west. Both places were less than five air miles from the city centre. Actually, from what he could see on the map, Willy recommended Burnfoot. But the planning stage was over; I was on my own and all I had was the hope of finding a place at all to use as the studio and transmitter site. Setting off north I passed the Culmore Road army checkpoint and thought I was now in the south.
Foolish me !

All my worries about customs were gone and I already started to browse for some suitable premises when I saw this customs check point appearing in front of my eyes. I felt like Smuggler King when I passed through with all that gear on board.

I examined the area but did not seem to be too lucky in finding something suitable. So I remembered Willy’s advice and aimed for Burnfoot. An old burnt-out nightclub and a seemingly disused garage gave me hope so I asked at the local shop. The keeper advised me to approach somebody down the road who might have a suitable place.
When I knocked at the door his wife opened, I was asked in and offered a cup of tea.
Yes, I was in Ireland!
After explaining my plans she said that she had to see her husband about it and asked me to come back in the evening.
Ah well, at least I knew myself to be in good hands and approaching high noon on this summer-like hot May day I left and found a place to sleep on Fahn Beach.

Once I woke up I started spying on my competition. There was the British Broom Cupboard (BBC), not too much to handle; the ILR, Downtown Radio, which is extremely unpopular in the city; and, of course, RTÉ, which I feared strongly. I already knew and respected Radio 2 from my previous visit.
And then there were the south border pirates, more than I expected: all of them with an FM signal so terrible you would not even expect anything like it in the remotest parts of Italy.

NWCR was the strongest and longest established station in the area, popular mainly west of the Foyle. They were feeding their medium wave signal into a 300 watts FM transmitter (great engineering!). The station format was country music (need I say more?).

Radio North also played country, popular mainly east of the river.
Much as I appreciate country music, to listen to their presentation you had to be braindead; at least that is what I assumed.

A mixture of country and MOR, reasonably well-presented, came from Letterkenny’s DCR, but they could never establish an audience in the city, partly due to permanent trouble with their relay north of Strabane.

And, lastly, there was Radio Nova (not related to Dublin’s Nova). This Nova aired pop and chart music and was run by the local mafia, to say the least. Regarding the music format this station was probably Radio 4U’s most likely local competitor, but then again, maybe not.
More about the station with the pinched name later…

In the evening I returned to see the man in charge, who was not too happy about the idea of me running a radio station from his premises. It was one of those cases: “I can’t help you but I know a man who will,” and so he took me up to see Tom Brolly, who had a cottage which was previously used by City Sound Radio, a predecessor to the local Radio Nova.

Tom’s only objections were the proposed changes in the law – and there was me, a foreigner, telling a local about his country’s laws.

“Well, come back in the morning and have a look at it”

That certainly made my day and the worst fear I had had been overcome. I now had my station premises and from now on the future was looking bright, even though I was not entirely sure about the legal situation…

Next morning I was back, right on time, just to see a police car parked outside Tom’s house.

“Argh!!” Running a radio station was probably not quite as legal as I thought. I suppose I could set up a station in Portugal instead…
But so far I had not done anything illegal as far as I knew.
“Lets go into the house to get kicked out of the country,” I thought.
So I knocked on the door and Marie, Tom’s wife, opened. I was asked into the kitchen where the guards were. Marie offered me a cuppa.

They all chatted away about local stuff and my hopes were raised that they would not know what I was up to. Then Marie left the kitchen and the guards turned to me: “So you want to open up a radio station?”
All hopes were down the drain now.
“Ahm…yes…but it is supposed to broadcast only to the North…” “We wish you good luck with it,” was the most sensational reply I have ever got in my life. Now I knew that I was alright.

Marie took me up to see the cottage and the rest is history. The place was usable and I was more than happy to have reached that far, even though the straightest optimist would not assume this as the headquarters of an up and coming business empire.

It took me a whole day to clear out a massive pile of garbage which had accumulated in the cottage, and at the end of this first day I just got my van unloaded but no installation had been touched yet.

Radio 4U’s cottage as it looked in 2018

I achieve most if I get up late in the morning and carry on non-stop for about 18 hours. So, one night at about 4am, a police car pulled up outside the studio. After their initial surprise to find me still working they asked if I was already on the air, but I had to keep them in suspense for a few more days.

Considering the circumstances I did not do too badly, finishing the studio the following Sunday, on the seventh day since leaving London.