Part 1: INTRODUCTION
The history of unlicensed – or pirate – radio in Ireland is a unique and colourful one. The first-ever unlicensed broadcast from within the state was in 1916 when rebel forces broadcast a short ‘state of the nation’ message from Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), Dublin, on a continuous loop, from the heart of a battle scene. As a result, many people within miles of the battle zone in Dublin’s city centre were unaware of what was developing, whilst people thousands of miles away were better informed.
Laws against unlicensed broadcasting were introduced in the early part of the twentieth century; proving a deterrent, not surprisingly, pirate stations appeared only very sporadically over the decades. Of course it was also much harder to source the equipment required in those days.
There was, however. a relative explosion in the 1960s. Up to this point many of the few pirates were of a political nature and had a very short lifespan, on air as they were to serve their own ideals and interests rather than that of the listener.
From the ’60s stations mainly took the form of small-time hobbyist stations broadcasting for very limited periods and raids were frequent.
However, by the mid-70s, with the fines for unlicensed broadcasting unchanged since 1926, the scene exploded with full-time stations – some broadcasting around the clock. Cheaper, more accessible, equipment also played a part.
Radio Dublin, who had been around since 1966, raised the bar by being the first to broadcast around the clock.
In Dublin, ARD took pirate radio out of the bedroom and into professional studios. As did Big L in Limerick.
As the ’70s drew to a close many of the stations had very much raised the level of radio in Ireland. They paved the way for a radio explosion, and two men who had worked the offshore radio ships arrived in Ireland in 1980 very much ready to exploit the loopholes in the law exposed by the existing stations.
THE GREAT IRISH RADIO EXPERIMENT
Robbie Robinson and Chris Cary brought Sunshine to Ireland in 1980 (not the ball in the sky I hasten to add – we’re still waiting for that to arrive), and with Radio Nova launched by Chris Cary going it alone a year later, full-time, professional, independent radio stations had arrived with a crash and a bang and the ’80s exploded into a golden age of broadcast radio the likes of which had never been heard before anywhere on the planet.
It seemed that the government had silently acknowledged that the ‘problem’ grew from lack of choice but the promised new legislation always seemed to be pending and, of course, the stations were still breaking the law.
RAIDS IN 1983
In May 1983 the two biggest stations in the State, the aforementioned Radio Nova, then Sunshine Radio, were taken off the air by the authorities. This sent shockwaves across the country. The tactic of hitting the biggest hoping that the rest would come crumbling down appeared to work. Most stations took, at the very least, precautions, whilst many others simply stopped broadcasting for fear of losing valuable equipment.
However, it didn’t take long before the situation returned to ‘normal’ and by the mid-80s, the nation’s FM and medium wave bands were awash with a huge variety of stations, from out and out professional outfits to part-time ‘community’ broadcasters – and everything in between. There had been mention at the time of the raids that the stations would be left alone until such time as legislation was introduced, which was promised within a few months. This left them, and the airwaves, free to develop and grow.
Although many perceived the situation to be out of control, ironically in today’s fully-controlled licensed environment there is much less choice available to the listener. In the free radio environment, by the time 1987 rolled around and the promised legislation a long-distant memory, saturation point had been reached and surpassed. Stations that could no longer sustain themselves disappeared, others took their place, and just about every format imaginable was catered for by at least one of the stations – in many cases 24/7. Compare that to today when stations that have little or no listeners – and are not turning a profit – are kept alive artificially rather than allowed to die a natural death.
In June 1988, the Minister for Communications Ray Burke finally announced a new broadcasting Wireless and Telegraphy Act. This requested all interested parties in proposed new licensed services around the country who were presently on the air to cease broadcasting by midnight on December 31st 1988.
In addition, tough new fines for unlicensed broadcasting were introduced – two years in prison and a £20,000 penalty. The threat of prosecution had the desired effect – Ireland’s airwaves fell eerily silent at the start of 1989.
The Golden Age of radio broadcasting in Ireland had finished – never to be repeated.
Many had criticised the method, and the madness which was bound to ensue. By forcing all stations off the air, with no new services to come until March – at the very earliest – listeners would be deprived of a choice in entertainment which they’d taken for granted; small to mid-sized advertisers would have nowhere to advertise for months; and hundreds of former presenters were set to swell the already over-long dole queues when social welfare offices reopened in the new year. Worse still, some of the very best talent would likely head overseas seeking out employment and might never return.
Recognising this, there was a last minute attempt by TDs to allow the stations to continue until new services were ready to start, but it failed.
Guesstimates vary, but between 70 and 120 stations turned their transmitters off as 1989 approached. We know many of the names, but they were more than just names. Even now, decades later, memories of the stations resonate strongly with former listeners and presenters. Many of those radio stations were at the heart of their communities. Communities had had their hearts ripped out. The tears you hear in a number of the recordings presented on the pages to come are genuine and heartfelt.
Nothing since then has come close to recreating the special history which unfolded on our (relatively) small island. Nothing ever will. All we can do is keep the memories alive…
HOW IT ALL UNFOLDED
…so here, in chronological order, is the story of those few hectic days at the end of 1988.
Presented is a selection of press coverage along with broadcasts, and closedowns, exactly as they went out on air all those years ago…quality varies but they serve as a fascinating historical document and point to a time that most people under 30 wouldn’t believe existed.
If you have anything to add – whether it be a snippet of information; a memory of the time or any of the stations; a press cutting; or a full recording; or anything we’ve missed – please contact us at email@example.com.
To set the scene we follow the press coverage in December leading to the first of the closedowns…