RTÉ’S JAM SCRAPS
There have, of course, been many jamming campaigns in the history of mass media. Broadcasters jealous of a rival’s success or jamming for political reasons – most obviously in wartime…there are instances galore. Our focus is the Irish radio scene of the early to mid-eighties.
May 1979 saw the launch of RTÉ’s answer to the growing pirate scene of the late ’70s. The new national pop station, RTÉ Radio 2, gave Ireland’s youth – for the first time – a homegrown legal pop channel to listen to. It did have some success, albeit mostly outside Dublin.
The battle for Dublin listeners took an unrelated but massive new direction at the start of the new decade. Before 1980 it is fair to say that most of the stations broadcasting around the country had been hobbyist in nature. Even 24 hour broadcasting was still a relatively new phenomenon when RTÉ Radio 2 arrived. The fact is, though, that the pirates were giving the youth what they wanted to hear. Listeners tuned in to hum along to the latest pop sensations on Radio Dublin, despite the constant hum on the station’s signal. Independent stations were satisfying their needs quite adequately. When RTÉ Radio 2 launched it gave listeners another alternative. Many made the switch.
SHIP TO SHORE
All that was to change with a sea-change that started with the arrival of UK offshore radio veterans Robbie Robinson and Chris Cary to Ireland’s green and pleasant land.
Sunshine Radio came first in September 1980, based in the coastal town of Portmarnock in north co Dublin. Even before their launch it was clear that this was going to be a new breed of station, so much so that the owner of one of the local pirates sabotaged their launch by destroying their huge mast after just one day of test broadcasts.
Undeterred, Sunshine almost quietly – but very professionally – went about building a large and loyal listenership and, more importantly, gave advertisers a cheaper and more localized outlet to advertise their wares.
A BRIGHT NEW STAR
In June 1981, quietly running tests on FM only, another new station arrived on the airwaves.
It officially launched under the name Radio Nova at the end of the month, and even though they broadcast on FM exclusively for the first few weeks of their existence, at a time when there was next to nothing on VHF, people were discovering that there was a band other than MW on their radio receivers. Chris Cary was the man behind Radio Nova – he had left Sunshine in their early days. Where Sunshine had attempted to fit in and not cause a huge stir, Nova was brash and in your face.
Lots of pirates were coming, and almost as many were going, during this period. However, Sunshine and Nova were a new professional breed, the likes of which Ireland had not heard before. The audience had responded by switching over in droves – both from other pirates and from the national services.
Even worse – from an RTÉ point of view – was the fact that advertisers recognised the place where their product would gain most exposure and responded in kind. Any listenership survey at the time put both stations in and amongst the RTÉ’s, in some cases bettering the nationals by some distance. Although the figures were always bitterly disputed by RTÉ, in the absence of anything official such as today’s JNLRs (simply because there were no official stations other than RTÉ), the results had to be accepted as being the only real gauge there was.
Having said that, there was another gauge. Across Dublin, every shop floor; every factory floor; every home you went into: receivers were tuned to Radio Nova, and to a lesser extent, Sunshine. It was hard to ignore the cold, hard, evidence that the ears were subjected to.
TAKING CONTROL OF THE AIRWAVES
Unhappy with this situation, and also with the lethargy of successive governments and their incessant, but ultimately fruitless, promises to introduce legislation to rid the airwaves of these ‘upstarts’ (and replace them with what RTÉ envisaged as a network of stations at least partly under their control), the state broadcaster decided to take the law into its own hands.
As Radio Nova prepared to celebrate their first birthday, RTÉ launched the first of a series of jamming campaigns against Radio Nova, Sunshine Radio and other high profile stations that was to stretch over two years and left behind a trail of destruction. Ireland’s green land was no longer pleasant. Ultimately, the jamming campaigns proved very effective.
However, it all stopped almost as suddenly as it began…