Radio Nova: Part 3 – Chapter 03

On January 12th 1989, Chris Cary and Sybil Fennell presented their case for running a national radio service to the IRTC. Considered, in advance, by many to be the rank outsiders of the four consortiums who would bid for the licence, in terms of radio expertise and knowledge it was widely accepted afterwards that Nova’s was the most professional. It certainly did not lack in innovation and, in hindsight, a lot of the problems which bedevilled the eventual licensee would have been avoided had the Commission gone with Nova.

Unfortunately, some ghosts from the past came back to haunt Cary and the new licence would have been shrouded in controversy should it have been awarded to Radio Nova International. The NUJ strongly objected as soon it was announced that Nova would be making a case, and an unpaid tax bill was also hanging over the original incarnation of the station, which had closed in Dublin in 1986.

During the presentation, Chris Cary and Sybil Fennell indicated that Radio Nova would use slick presentation and a diet of pop music, and would relocate from Surry to Kildare Street in Dublin.

They said that the type of programming Radio Nova would offer would be 70% national and 30% regional programming and advertising. The news service would initially be provided by the British-based Independent Radio News who planned to set up an outlet in Dublin for the purpose.

Calling the Irish language requirements a ‘hot potato’ that he didn’t know how to handle, Cary said that Nova would not carry Irish language programming, but instead would carry an educational series offering a word a day. He admitted that Irish was not their strong point.

The morning programme would allow for regional optouts in both content and advertising and after 10pm Nova would link up with other European countries via satellite.

Nova also proposed that, unlike the other applicants, they would provide their own network of transmitters without being reliant on RTÉ and that distribution would be via satelllite.

Recognising the need for cooperation with the unions, Cary proposed to make the NUJ problem go away with a cash incentive, which they could use for training “or whatever”.

A few days after the presentations the new licence was awarded to Century Communications. Cary refused to blame the NUJ problems and indicated that he would still be open to returning to work in radio in Ireland, maybe as a shareholder in one of the new local services.

The licence rejection appeared to put an end to Radio Nova International with the service closing down at this time, despite newspaper reports which said that Cary had sold to his rival Richard Branson of Virgin Radio.

There is no doubt that a lot of baggage would have accompanied Chris Cary if he’d been accepted back onto the Irish airwaves. However, his innovative ideas would have been a boon to the local industry. Some of the ideas he had put in place for running the Nova Night Network are still in use to this day, 33 years later – that’s three decades in which technological advancements have been rife and today’s radio studio is a very different beast to the one that was the norm back in the pirate heyday. Indeed, just a decade later, local technicians involved in some of our top stations were struggling to implement similar ideas that Cary had been using in 1988, believing that although possible they would be very, very difficult to operate.

Radio Nova did make a return in the summer of 1990. The Nova Night Network was no more but, as usual, Cary had a new innovative service up and running. With the main station only on air during the peak hours, after 7pm the Club Music service kicked in. This was another sustaining service, offering a non-stop music feed to clubs and bars. However, this time around, Radio Nova never really set the world alight and instead burnt itself out, finally being extinguished on March 26th 1991, just a month short of a decade on from when it first burned brightly over Dublin.

Never one to miss an opportunity, later that year Chris Cary spotted another chance to return Radio Nova to the Dublin FM band when he attempted to buy one of the failing licensed services for Wicklow. Horizon Radio had fallen on hard times and Cary’s audacious plan was to take over the franchise, rename it Radio Nova and point the antennae in the direction of Dublin. The deal fell through and Horizon went on to merge with the other local service in Wicklow, Easy Radio, and are still broadcasting today as East Coast FM (and for the record, easily tuneable all over Dublin).

And, so, that was it. Radio Nova was consigned to the history books ten incredible years after the first test transmissions had enthralled Dublin listeners. Who knows how different it all might have been if Chris Cary had’ve swallowed his pride and worked with the NUJ rather than against them. Many benefitted from the knowledge and ideas he introduced to this country, and he certainly seemed to want to make a return in whatever guise he could. That says a lot for the local audience and talent but also for the potential he had seen in the radio landscape here, a landscape that these days seems devoid of anything out of the ordinary; of somebody ready and willing to take chances. In 1989 when the pirates had been outlawed and moneymen, rather than radiomen, stepped in to the breech, it is a real shame that room could not have been made for a moneyman who was also a radio man. How different it all might have been.

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January 1989

On January 12th Radio Nova International appeared before the IRTC making their case for running the new national radio service.

Less than a week after the presentation, the IRTC announced that the new national licence had been awarded to Century Communications.

Chris Cary did not think that his pirate past or the NUJ dispute had been a factor in Radio Nova not receiving the licence.

Chris Cary admits that he would still like to be involved in radio in Ireland and said he would strongly consider any offer to become a shareholder/director by an applicant for one of the new local services.

A few days after the licence announcement a report in the Irish Press suggests that Chris Cary had sold Radio Nova to rival Richard Branson. Although this did not happen, nevertheless Radio Nova ceases to broadcast.

The Final Chapter

In March 1989 Chris Cary tells a team from Anoraks UK at a satellite convention in London that Radio Nova will be back, quite probably on the Astra satellite located at 19East, which is now carrying dedicated direct to home domestic services for the UK and Ireland.

The station does not make a return until the summer of 1990, as expected on the Astra satellite using the audio subcarriers of the Lifestyle TV channel.

The Nova Night Network is no more, the evening and overnight hours are taken over by ‘Club Music’, another Cary initiative which supplies a dedicated music feed to clubs and bars delivered by satellite.

Later in 1990, during a chance encounter with Kevin Branigan in the Stillorgan Park Hotel in Dublin, Chris Cary was upbeat and bullish about his current plans. He had just launched Club Music and, while confident about his current ventures, he commented (almost lamented) that satellite radio wasn’t as much fun as the old pirate days.
According to Kevin, he was in ebullient form and was eager to chat.

The station makes it to March 26th 1991 but closes down with three months of leased transponder space remaining, this time for the final time. Nova had failed to take off, even on the smaller direct-to-home domestic dishes with Cary even telling a story that the cable to the uplink had been cut accidentally at one point and no one had noticed Radio Nova was off for a day.

Following Radio Nova’s closure, Chris Cary utilises the transponder space by playing pre-recorded Radio Caroline programming until 6pm each day and this lasts until April 12th 1991 when Chris pulls the plug once and for all – but not before an infamous on-air phone call from Spain with Caroline staff discussing Caroline’s future.

Later in 1991, Chris Cary makes a failed attempt to take over Horizon Radio, one of the licensed stations serving Co Wicklow. With the service in trouble, Cary hoped to buy it, use it to bring back Radio Nova and turn the antennas around and point them towards Dublin.

Cary makes another foray into legal radio by buying Buzz FM in Birmingham in 1992 but is hampered by technical and licensing restrictions.

The ‘Final Chapter’ was compiled with huge thanks to Tom Colgan and Kevin Branigan. If you can fill in any of the gaps please get in touch at RadioNovaStory@radiowaves.fm

To be fair, a word a day ‘as Gaeilge” was a great idea. Irish language gets shunted off to early of a Sunday most places nowadays. Useless zzzz… they just did anything to turn Robbie & Chris down. The press bias against them at the time was sickening. Nova would have been fantastic as a full service national licence. It would most likely be still on the air and in profit too. Unlike the licence that was awarded covered in a brown coating of the infamous ‘brown envelope’ variety. There was a definite stunting of growth with those licences all of them – and how they were ‘awarded’. And LOOK at how many of them are non Irish owned now. The best of that story is yet to come. Wall to wall pop indeed. Keep the radio people out.

Enda Caldwell

The Radio Nova Story was compiled from a number of sources and is open to correction…if you have any additions, contributions, opinion pieces, comments, photos, press cuttings, recordings or corrections please contact us at RadioNovaStory@Radiowaves.fm.

Thank you for all your comments and feedback.

Leeson Street Mainly

Part 3 Chapter 02: From 26,000 Miles in the Sky

Feeling the Energy

Appendix I