Radio Nova: Part 1 – Chapter 03

You could not get on Energy 103 or Radio Nova unless you were professional. I had no degree, no nothing, just a voice, and Chris Cary and Sybil Fennell took me on. They took a risk because that’s how Nova worked, it was a station that took people at their merit, regardless of their background.

Henry O’Donovan

Listen to a jingle

Testing, without a moniker, the name Radio Nova was fallen upon by accident – it seems inconceivable in the aftermath that it could have been called anything else. Just as the station would soon wow everyone else, Cary was himself wowed by a jingle, sung in French, for a Radio Nova planned for Nice by a friend of his who’d given him a cassette containing a recording of the Nova package of jingles.

…by another coincidence/quirk of fate, the ill-fated Radio Paradijs boat pulled into Dublin harbour for some maintenance work before it set off for the Netherlands. Here I met A J Beirens again (who was involved with RNI – Radio Northsea International and the launch of the Italian off-shoot which was called Radio Nova International).

We were busy testing our Dublin radio station – with no name. A.J. asked what we were going to call the station. I said: “You tell me.” As brain-storming goes a thousand names were thrown into the hat during the meeting and he thrust this cassette into my hands saying: “Look after this, it’s the only one there is. See what you think.” I was down the pub with Brian McKenzie that night and lo and behold spilt my drink over this damn cassette. Knowing how fastidiously correct A.J. was, I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d wrecked his tape – and hadn’t even yet listened to it. As luck would have it, after a good shake and a blast of a hair-dryer, the tape played back perfectly in Brian’s house that night, and then we heard this wonderful French rendition of the Radio Nova jingle (which of course made sense as it was to be broadcast in the Nice area of France). I was spellbound by the melodic sound of the jingle (made by Steve England). So what the hell – Radio Nova it was to be.

The very next day the jingles were transferred to cart and played out on air and the station identified itself as Radio Nova! A brand new star was born…

The test transmissions included the French and English versions of the Radio Nova jingles. They played every 30 minutes as they were the only station IDs we had. The name was now set in stone. My previous contacts in California had already told me that Jam was the only jingle company to use, so I contacted Jonathan Wolfert and commissioned the original Radio Nova 88FM jingle package. Jonathan in turn pointed out the importance of the loyalty/feel-good factor and we added to the package the ‘I’d rather be in Ireland with Radio Nova’ jingle.When all the jingles arrived and were duly carted up I was the first station announcer. Ken Harley was our first Music Adviser, who worked his clogs off (literally) bringing to fruition every mad idea I had. Tony Allan (once we’d got him out of the pub) was already in Dublin doing voiceovers for Brian McKenzie’s Bay City Recording Studios and was added to the Radio Nova team. My knack always seems to have been to make the best of what’s given to me – and I was really lucky this time with Bay City, Tony, Jean (who wrote many of Nova’s commercial scripts) Brian and Ken already in town.

The first employee of Radio Nova was Mike Edgar (as Newsreader and Disc Jockey). Then came the impromptu arrival of John Clarke (who was auditioned on-air, given twenty ‘idiot’ cards with the only phrases to be said – which were ‘Nova Clutterfree’ and ‘Nova Playing Your Favourites’). Anne Laird was the first member of the administration team (and remained to the end of Radio Nova). Our first on-air ‘star’ was Terry Riley. Our first local advertiser was the Red Corner Shop, and Silvikrin Shampoo was our first national agency ad.

Because 88FM is predominantly used in the UK for BBC Radio 2, in odd parts of Dublin they clashed, to put it simply. Paul Cotter was seconded to change the exciter frequency until we found a slot – I think 88.5FM was the most successful). We hopped about quite a lot around 88FM trying to find the best and clearest spot. Clearly not the most professional way – but it worked. As we usually undertook this experimentation at 2am and had to hare around the streets of Dublin to see if the signal had improved. The phrase that summed it all up for me, at the time, was ‘Chris Cary – undercover, Paul Cotter – under stress and Tony Allan – under the influence!’

John Clarke and Chris Cary in Radio Nova studio

John Clarke (pictured with Chris Cary in the Radio Nova studio) tells the tale of how he began on the station during an anorak visit, a story which serves as an indicator of how quickly Chris Cary’s eye for talent could kick in…
“June the 1st 1981 was a Monday and the station was ‘testing’ on low power. Declan (Meehan) and I just dropped in to see what was going on!
By 4pm I had switched on the microphone and back-announced ‘There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ by Kirsty McColl.
By 6pm Chris gave me a job on Nova’s first breakfast show (which began the following morning) and ‘the great radio experiment’ began…from humble beginnings to the top of the mountain.”

By the time Cary’s station launched, Sunshine had managed to capture a fair proportion of the available audience and was making big money. Cary apparently had tried to buy his way back in but Robinson decided against it. The two men had different ideas. Cary’s idea for Sunshine had been for a high-powered station hitting as much of Britain as possible to tap into the largely untapped lucrative advertising market there. Robinson was not so brash.
Sunshine’s signal found itself outputting a community-style of broadcasting with plenty of chat. It had become a great radio station and Dublin was already lucky to have it.

Dublin was even luckier to be touched by the whirlwind genius of Chris Cary and Radio Nova had now embarked on what was destined to become an incredible journey.

Commentary by Ronan Segrave

Dublin in the ’80s had a young population and plenty with money in the middle class southside areas who were more liberal and really frustrated as hell with the Catholic conservatism etc.
RTÉ really was a different world – Radio 2 at the time focused a lot on the rural market.
Dublin was set up for Chris. Nova was the station people wanted – it had a west coast liberal feel, playing a lot of brilliant US music produced to sound great on FM stereo – so right place, right time with an owner who knew exactly what he was doing.
Chris also had an uncanny knack for unearthing great on air talent and he gave so many an opportunity that has led to near 40 year careers. For me Chris Cary was the most influential person in Irish radio over the past 40 years.

Listen to a jingle

August 1981

On August 15th 1981, with Radio Nova broadcasting now for just over two months, a touring party from our associated website DX Archive paid the station a visit, or stumbled upon it might be more accurate.
At this pont Radio Nova were broadcasting from a makeshift studio which was temporarily located at Greenacres in Stocking Lane in Rathfarnham whilst the microwave link which was to connect 19 Herbert Street with Rathfarnham was being fine-honed.
Here’s their story…

Whilst visiting Treble TR in Greenacres Country Club, Rathfarnham, the presenter said to the lads:-
“Have you been to the big station in the hotel?”
“What station?”
“Did ya ever hear of Radio Nova”, Mick asked with a straight face.

Here we were at one of Dublin’s smallest stations, and being dwarfed by the new powerhouse FM station, Radio Nova.

Radio Nova mast at Greenacres, Rathfarnham
A view of Nova’s mast from the door at TTTR

“They won’t answer the door to you”, he went on, in his thick Irish accent, “But if you wait ’til the TTTR station manager comes back in, he’ll get you in no worries. Either that or you can hang around outside the window, and try and attract their attention!! 

Simon had seen a bald-headed chappie up at the window but had failed to attract his attention. We decided to have a pint in the bar and wait for a little while to see if the manager fellow would return. He never did.

Someone had asked the barman if there was any chance of getting up to see the station, only to be told there were absolutely no visitors allowed.

As we sat listening to Nova on the hotel PA, Woodstock came on by Mathews Southern Comfort. This song had a meaning to us all, as the theme tune of the well-known Scottish SW pirate, Radio Woodstock.

A man came through a door at the back of the lounge, and went up to the bar for drinks. Simon recognised him as the same bald gentleman who was at the upstairs window. He waved him over and we began to grill him.

“Are you Brian McKenzie?” I asked, rather anorakishly.
Brian had been a Scottish DJ on Radio Northsea from off the Dutch coast in 1973/4. He was now in Ireland recording commercials along with Tony Allan.
“No”, was his reply, although he never did say who he actually was.
We later found out that he was a guy called Terry Riley, an American newsreader on Nova.

We were eventually allowed to have a look upstairs, after some negotiation, but under no circumstances were any photographs to be taken. The place was a basic empty room with thick cable running along the uncarpeted wooden floorboards, probably the audio lead to the transmitter which we never saw.

DJ John Clarke, who I had heard on the air so many times on ARD, KELO etc, was sitting in the drab surroundings, with the carts playing 3 or 4 in a row. John was about 35, bearded with glasses, and was fast and sharp.

The studio consisted of a stack of cartridge machines, with back to back music on them. They were basically still on test at this stage, and we were told to expect something better in 4-6 weeks. There never was any sudden change in gear. These “transitional broadcasts” were simply cranked up gradually. Little did any of us realise then what we were standing in.

Radio Nova mast at Greenacres, Rathfarnham
Another view of Nova’s mast
Radio Nova visitor's pass

August images and text by courtesy of DX Archive

September 1981

On September 11th 1981 Radio Nova, the FM only station, turned on medium wave on 846kHz.
This recording is from the following morning with John Clarke on the new MW service…

October 1981

Radio Nova briefly flirted with 891kHz – the Mighty 890 – but returned to 846kHz.

November 1981

Listener surveys were showing that the pirates, and particularly Nova and Sunshine, were attracting big numbers.

Part 1 Chapter 2: The Seeds are Sown

Part 1 Chapter 2: The Seeds are Sown

Part 1 Chapter 4: Medium for Long Range

Part 1 Chapter 4: Medium for Long Range