Tuesday, 17 March 2020

The Crazy World of 1930's Irish Radio

Radio Normandie's Headquarters near Felcamps France,

According to a January 1933 edition of the Irish Radio News magazine, a new entity The International Broadcasting Company was formed ‘to handle the advertisement side of the station’s activities’. The then Irish Minister for Posts and Telegraphs signed the contract with The IBC on August 23rd 1933.

The IBC was the brainchild of entrepreneur and British Conservative MP Leonard Plugge. He had identified a new radio market with programmes aimed at the British audiences from transmitters located outside that jurisdiction. His first venture was Radio Normandie which was initially a small low powered private radio station located in the North of France. Under his direction, a high powered transmitter was installed and broadcasts were aimed at London and the South of England. Lord Reith who ran BBC Radio at that time, believed that Sunday broadcasts from the Corporation should be of a sedate, religious nature and this opened up an opportunity for Plugge to launch a commercial alternative broadcasting the most popular music of the day and selling advertising. He even created and sold a face cream for women to prove the worth of radio advertising to prospective clients. 

Normandie was extremely popular with both listeners and advertisers. The station proved to be a major challenge for the BBC and it was only the intervention of the Second World War that curbed the private broadcasting boom. A second station opened to broadcast into London and that was Radio Luxembourg located in the Grand Duchy which would continue on its famous 208 frequency into the 1980s.

Plugge increased the availability of his sponsored programmes into the western half of Britain especially to cities like Manchester and Liverpool by utilising the new powerful Athlone transmitter. He rented airtime in the evenings from 9 – 11pm and to sweeten the pot for the capitalistic Plugge, Radio Eireann extended the available hours from November 1933 to include 1-4pm on Sunday afternoons. There were however many complaints within Ireland about the programming especially both the music being played and the products being advertised and as the contract expired on May 22nd 1934 it was not renewed by the Government. The sponsored programmes ceased except for one who did a direct deal with the Irish Government it being the infamous Irish Hospital’s sweepstakes. They knew from their research that the broadcasts were working in the UK as sales of their tickets continued to soar and so continued to sponsor a half hour show each night from ten o’clock. 

Generating finance was at the heart of these broadcasts into Britain as both Plugge and his IBC were selling advertising and Radio Eireann was making money from selling the airtime. The cost for Plugge’s sponsorship was listed as £120 per hour, £70 for a half hour, £55 for 20mins or £45 for 15minutes. The Irish Government’s decision to sell airtime meant that from earning £220 in advertising revenue in 1932, a year later the station had earned £22,000, a lifeline for the cash strapped station. Unfortunately for the station itself this new found wealth came at a price as the Government reduced the percentage of the licence fee paid to the station to finance its operations. 

In July 1938, Robert Silvey who had been hired by the BBC to analyse listener research, secretly reported to his bosses at Portland Place, BBC Headquarters that Radio Athlone’s largest proportion of listeners was not in Ireland but in the North West of England in Liverpool and Manchester this was attributed to the sponsored programmes and the ex-pat community in those areas. As a result of these findings and to compete with the success of Radio Athlone, the BBC’s Northern Regional transmitter network and finances were significantly expanded.

But at times Plugge liked to poke a stick at the authorities on both sides of the Irish Sea who ran radio at the time. In a BBC documentary on Plugge broadcast in August 2014, which included interviews with his the son, the documentary alluded to the fact that even in naming his company as 'The International Broadcasting Company' (later also known as The Industrial Broadcasting Company) the initials for the station I.B.C. when said quickly sounded like B.B.C.. He even based his company's London headquarters on Portland Place just yards from BBC Broadcasting House. 

And in using Radio Eireann's Athlone transmitter and frequency to beam his programmes into the West coast of Britain, he cheekily used the 'Come Back To Erin' song as his signature theme tune. The song had already been attributed to the first incarnation of Radio Eireann when it was launched in 1926 as 2RN (To Erin).

The Radio Pictorial January 1935
Radio Pictorial September 1938

Plugge also purchased airtime from other European stations to broadcast popular Irish music and to sell advertising allowing even Irish listeners to find an alternative on the dial for traditional Irish music and more current Irish music than was being played by Radio Eireann. Even Radio Luxembourg, then broadcasting on their pre-war frequency of 230m were broadcasting programmes specifically aimed at the 'Irish Free State' and selling advertising to the companies and products that while being sold in Ireland were denied airtime by the authoritarian management at Radio Eireann. 

Friday, 24 January 2020

The Economics of Pirate Radio


Illegal unlicensed pirate radio has been part of the airwaves from the first days of regulation. ‘Radio pirates’ initially were those who refused or failed to pay for a license to listen to radio while in later years it has referred to those who have broadcast without a licence. Pirate radio especially in the western world has been a commercial success and has created a radio industry once the preserve of state monopolies. In 2010, the British regulator OFCOM[1] claimed that some UK land based pirate radio stations were making £5,000 per week from advertising. In 1965 and 1966 before the Marine Offences Act was passed by the British parliament in 1967, Radio Caroline broadcasting from International waters off the East coast of
Britain was generating £800,000 to £900,000 per year translating into today’s terms as £14 - £15 million pounds per annum in revenue streams. The cash for Caroline was garnered from spot advertising at £160 per spot[2] having begun in 1964 charging £90 per 30 second spot, pay to play deals with record companies known as ‘Payola’ a
practice banned in many territories including the United States where one DJ, Phil Lind claimed at a Congressional hearing that he had been paid $22,000 to play one record and from US based evangelical preachers who purchased late night airtime at £150 per show transmitted. According to author Mike Barron Radio Caroline was an instant success,
‘One of London’s biggest advertising agencies was said to be planning to advertise with the pirate ships through its Dutch and French companies. On the advertising front it was Caroline which hit the jackpot. On May 11th 1964
£30,000 worth of advertising poured in.’
The pirates claimed according to Horace Robertson[3] that by broadcasting records from little known artists or recording companies they played a substantial part in breaking the record monopoly in Great Britain where in the early 1960s ninety eight percent of all records sold bore the label of only four manufacturers. According to one claim with the help of the pirates small record companies were able to get twenty present of the market in three years.
In Ireland pirate radio especially throughout the 1980s created a fledgling radio industry that thrives today as the independent commercial radio sector. The so called super pirates of the 80s including Sunshine Radio, Radio Nova, WLS and ERI earned millions of Euro in revenue through advertising but were heavily criticised as many ignored the need to pay taxes or royalties. With Government inaction the pirate stations began to expand their boundaries broadcasting for longer, with better equipment and most importantly eating into advertising revenue. Initially this was not a major problem for the State broadcaster as the adverts aired were for the local butcher or corner shop who would never be able to afford or consider on RTE radio but with the arrival of high powered professional stations with massive ratings, corporate advertisers seeking for value for money began to drift away from RTE and create large profits for many of the pirate radio stations who despite the illegal status paid their taxes.
Illegal broadcasting has many monikers and therefore many versions of financial structures. Some titles attached to this broadcasting include pirate radio, free radio, clandestine radio and bootleg radio they are however all illegal and their operators subject to the rigours of laws that differ in severity and enforcement in various jurisdictions. At a radio conference in Luxembourg in 2018[4], Jose Perez who had been involved in illegal broadcasting in Madrid felt that ‘pirate radio’ referred to commercial illegal broadcasting, ‘free radio’ was exactly that, commercial free and the station subsidised by a co-operative with DJ’s paying subscriptions to get on air while ‘clandestine radio’ is primarily seen as politically motivated.    
Illegal radio differs across the globe often dependent on the attitudes of the authorities towards the piracy of frequencies. In the United States, pirate stations are often described as amateurish, fun and quirky as the FCC pursues the broadcasters in a cat and mouse game. Stations move frequency and location regularly in an attempt to stay ahead of raids. Some stations have become part of a sub culture including Orphan Radio in Seattle. Orphan was launched by musicians Sage Redman and Joe Gillick with its first broadcast in June 2017 as a promotion tool for Orphan Records that the couple had began in 2015 but struggled to get airplay on local radio.5  

In 2018 the FCC carried out four raids across the United States with levied fines totalling $161,844. From 1998 until 2017 the FCC[5] made 2,187 visits and 148 raids on pirate stations across the country. There were Notices of Apparent Liability fines and illegal broadcasting fines totalling $ 4,701,558 (an average $425). Many of these fines remained uncollected despite the authorities in attempt to collect and court challenges. One of the largest fines levied was against a pirate television station that totalled $144,344. As of the summer of 2018, the US congress is debating a new law the ‘Preventing Illegal Radio Abuse Through Enforcement Act or the Pirate Act which would fine the pirate operator $100,000 per day broadcasting illegally and up to $2 million for each incident of conviction of pirate broadcasting.
In the UK the first wave of pirate radio in the 1960s was primarily based off shore with stations like Radio Caroline and the very financially successful Radio London broadcasting from ships in the North Sea with other stations based on World War Two defensive towers in the Thames Estuary. Many of today’s pirate stations especially in major cities like London and Birmingham are known as ‘tower pirate radio’ as operators base themselves on the roofs of many of the tower blocks. These pirate broadcasters air music by artistes that could not and often would not get airplay on mainstream stations whether they are BBC or ILR. OFCOM claimed not only that some of these stations were making £5,000 per week but that they were being used by criminal gangs to distribute drugs through coded message given out on air. Conservative politician James Brokenshire claimed in a House of Commons[6] debate that these so called ‘tower stations’ displayed ‘a wanton disregard for the health and safety of others’. This was based on stories that some of these stations were siphoning off electrical supplies from electric door locks and elevator power units.
Kiss FM was launched in London in October 1985 broadcasting on 94FM. Those behind the station were Gordon ‘Mac’ McNamee, Tosca, Pyers Easton and George Power. After just three days on air the station was raided by the DTI but came back on air a couple of days later. Another more aggressive raid on December 11th with McNamee claiming that the raid ‘had caused significant financial problems’. D.J.s who made a name for themselves and went onto successful careers in national radio included Tim Westwood and Trevor Nelson. Kiss claimed at one time that they had half a million listeners and in 1987 even though a pirate station they came second in an Evening Standard newspaper poll as most popular station in London second to the legitimate Capital FM. McNamee knew the power of the revenue that Kiss was creating and he set up a front company for Kiss business dealings and created another revenue stream by starting hugely popular club nights which were heavily publicised on the station capitalising on its growing listenership base.[7]
In 1988 Kiss FM the pirate closed and applied for one of the new licences in London which they won at the second attempt with the now legal Kiss launching on September 1st 1990. By 2010 Kiss was reporting £9.7m in turnover translating to a £3m profit.[8]
In 1983, Skyline Radio in South London was raided twice within 48 hours. The first raid netted the authorities £7,500 in pirate equipment and the second raid a further £13,000 was taken. The DTI complained that while fines were being issued by the courts, the fines were not been paid and the cost of collection made it financially difficult.
In October 1984 Horizon Radio broadcasting from Bellenden Road, Peckham London was raided by the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) enforcement officers and £20,000 worth of pirate equipment was confiscated. The station owner Chris Stewart was found guilty and fined £1,000 but because the transmitter went ‘missing’ between the studio and the DTI van the prosecution were unable to prove illegal broadcasting.
OFCOM identified two strands of revenue advertising dance and rave events and DJs paying 20 per hour to be on air to get exposure.
In 2014[9] Haringey Council in London reported that there 19 pirate radio stations broadcasting in the borough. A new policy was implemented that year with proactive patrolling of tower blocks to prevent pirate stations locating both their transmitters and antenna on the high towers. Within a year the Council reported that almost all pirate radio broadcasting has ceased saving the Council £90,000 in enforcement and loss of fines. They believed that should there methods be employed across the city of London where nearly 150 pirates operated that the city could save £1 million per year.
London pirate radio has been a breathing ground for award winning music artistes like Ms Dynamite, Dizzy Rascal and Normal Jay. Ms Dynamite acknowledged her success being grounded in pirate radio as a seventeen year old. She warned in her Brit Award acceptance speech that the music industry could not rely on TV talent shows to produces stars and that a purge of pirate radio would threaten music genre such as rap, garage and house music. Jazzie B a former pirate radio broadcaster and a member of the music collective Soul II Soul said that the pirate stations (especially in London) were ‘the windows for home grown talent’[10]. There was a growing music industry around artists who only received airplay from pirate radio station.
In September 1978[11], the Irish Independent published an article under the headline
‘£1m Pirate Radio Threat to RTE Advertising’ in which RTE Assistant Controller of Radio Programming Kieran Sheedy claimed that the new wave of pirate radio stations across the country including Big D, ARD and Independent Radio Galway were a major threat to the finances of the state broadcaster. Three years later it was being reported that the figure estimated to be lost to the state broadcasters had more than doubled as the more professional super pirates took to the airwaves. On October 28, 1980 Aer Lingus a leading semi-state company, Aer Lingus, said that a statement concerning its association with a Sunshine Radio promotion that "The tie-in with Radio Sunshine involved no cash transaction." However, after Sunshine boss Robbie Robinson said he had photocopies of the Aer Lingus cheque, "which I am going to frame”, an Aer Lingus spokesman said that contrary to what had been stated previously the airline had in fact paid some money to the illegal station.
In June 1981, Taoiseach Charles Haughey called a general election. In the run up to the election political parties and independent candidates used the pirate stations like ARD and Big D to get their message across especially to the young voters who they knew listened in large numbers to these stations. The main reason for use of the pirates was that R.T.E. were unable to carry actual advertising apart from party political broadcasts which were strictly monitored and time restricted. The pirates, with no such restrictions added heavily to their bank balances for the airtime given to the political parties. The parties that on one hand promised to close the illegal operators were on the other embracing their medium to get their message across to the ever growing numbers of listeners. The leaders realised even if they did not want to admit it that the majority of the youth of the nation were now listening to the pirates all over the country. Some of the politicians who appeared on the airwaves included Mary Harney (then a Fianna Fail candidate), Michael Woods, the Minister for Health and Social Welfare and Richard Burke of Fine Gael who was interviewed on Big D. Mary Harney, who became the Tánaiste in the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats Coalition Government, went further than radio and appeared on the pirate television channel, Channel D who following their interview with Ms. Harney asked viewers to vote for Ms. Harney because of her support for independent television.
In 1982 a report pointed to the major pirate radio stations charging advertisers’ ir£20 – 25 per thirty second spot, RTE Radio 2 was charging ir£ 72 for the same slot and the main national station RTE Radio 1 charging 250.00 for the same advert.
As pirate radio proliferated across Ireland, the stations rarely registered themselves to pay tax, to pay wages within a statutory framework, to pay royalties but occasionally
State bodies intervened. In 1980 the Limerick based station Big L run by Mike Richardson and Hayman Harris found itself on the receiving end of a tax bill of ir£17,000. The state tax collection agency said that
‘They maybe illegal but they are a business and so they must pay tax. The amount is an estimated assessment in the absence of tax returns.’

In Ireland within two years of Radio Nova beginning broadcasting illegally in 1981[12], the station has a 40% listenership rating as compared to the legal state broadcasters pop music station RTE Radio 2 having only a 20% rating. Nova was opened by Chris Cary, a former DJ on Radio Caroline in the North Sea and he used a myriad of companies to run the station and to maximise profits. The station was so successful in its five years on air that advertising agencies and corporate Ireland were heavily using the station. The stations across Ireland, some more professionally ran than other all had high quality rate cards being produced. The station was described by David
McKenna in the Sunday Tribune newspaper as
‘a soundscape designed to produce advertising revenue. Its main aim is to make sure that listeners don’t change wavelength. Such changes would affect the figures on which Nova’s advertising rates are based. As far as possible the listener must forget that he or she is involved in a conscious activity.’
Nova’s transmitters were located in a portacabin on the grounds of the Green Acres Country Club whose owner Eugene Brady bought 26% of Radio Nova. Chris Cary estimated that the initial investment in the station was £150,000 of which he produced the other 76% with Eugene Brady. When Radio Nova was launched, Cary tried for five months to incorporate his company. The Register at the Companies Office refused to agree until November 1981 when Nova was registered under the Companies Act 1963. The company formed to oversee the running of Radio Nova was titled 'Nova Media Services Limited' and the memorandum and articles of association were drawn up by the solicitor firm of Cawley, Sheerin and Wynne.
Cary used his profits from his computer business Compshop to launch Nova while Brady in return for his 26% gave Nova the site for the transmitters and was provided free advertising for his club on Radio Nova. The property company for The Compshop was Uniminster Limited who leased 19 Herbert Street originally to the Compshop and then sub leased it to Radio Nova. With the space leased, the equipment for the station was leased from a company called Stratford Leasing. This company located in England was also owned by Chris Cary. When Radio Nova finally closed its doors in March 1986, Nova Media Services Limited's total assets was reported as a couple of chairs and eighty thousand car stickers.
In a Sunday Independent obituary piece of Chris Cary by Liam Collins in 2008, he noted that Cary claimed that his Radio Nova in its five years on air had generated €20 million in advertising revenue. At a press conference to launch the Irish Pirate Radio Archive former Nova DJ Declan Meehan said the Cary once claimed he was paying his DJ’s more than the then biggest star on BBC Radio 1, Steve Wright who presented the popular afternoon show on the British station. He also revealed that at one point a large travel agency was sponsoring a holiday giveaway on his Breakfast show when he was approached by a rival travel agency who wanted to wrestle the promotion away from their competitor and offered a larger prize plus the bonus of a free holiday for the presenter and a friend[13].
In order to boost their listening figures and therefore their advertising revenue, Nova and her sister station Kiss FM which had been set up to cope with the massive influx of advertisers, started a number of cash giveaways, for format of which were copied by various other stations over the years. In March 1983, Kiss FM announced that they would play three records in a pre-arranged order and that the fifteenth caller to the station to say 'You Did It' would win £5000.00. The winner on that occasion was Jane Biddulph from Churchtown. In September 1983, Radio Nova carried out a similar promotion, this time giving away £6,000. The records chosen in order were (i) Wanna Be Starting Something' by Micheal Jackson, (ii) 'Baby Jane' by Rod Stewart and (iii) 'Lets Dance' by David Bowie. Again the fifteenth caller when the records were played won the money but it was not always smooth sailing for Nova's promotions. Another promotion on Radio Nova ran into trouble when the phone lines jammed when the three records were played but when repair crews arrived at Stocking Lane to repair the problem they refused to pass the N.U.J. pickets. The next promotion that they ran was a written competition when they placed a cartoon in a number of daily newspapers and requested listeners to write in the funniest caption but the promotion did not have the same appeal or drama of the phone in competition.
On the charity front in 1982, 1983 and 1984, Radio Nova carried out projects called
'Operation Novacare' which in 1983 raised £14,000 for the National Rehabilitation Institute. Other revenue streams included The Nova Roadshow, a travelling disco, was based mainly at Nova Park but in the early days of the station it was based in Maxim's Nightclub on Claire Street. On a number of occasions the Nova Roadshow went to the Isle of Man where the station had a sizeable listenership. The Nova Boutique was launched from the ground floor of 144 Leeson Street. The shop sold Nova T-Shirts, pens, car stickers etc. and they also had a five pound membership club which entitled you to a sticker, a membership card and reductions to entry at Nova Park.
In 1988 just before the introduction of the new Wireless Telegraphy Act, the Law
Society in a hard hitting editorial in their magazine The Gazette criticised the Revenue Commissioners for allowing businesses to claim business expenses in their annual tax returns for advertising with illegal pirate radio stations.
There are many costs attached to operating a pirate radio (or indeed television) station.
In its final year on the air Robbie Robsinson successfully ran a number of listener competitions giving away prizes worth €20,000 in one while €50,000 was handed out in another. Like so many Irish pirate radio stations across Ireland, Sunshine closed at the end of December in accordance with the new legislation but it also unsuccessfully applied for one of the new Dublin independent commercial licences. While Robinson expended considerable finances with a High Court challenge to the awarding of the licence he did make one final profit from his pirate radio station[14] when the station’s transmitters and aerial were sold to the company that won the national radio franchise licence, Century Radio.
The activities of political pirate radio stations can also have economic repercussions. Government oppositions have often resorted to using pirate radio stations to spread their propaganda leading to national financial instability and using the illegal airwaves to encourage civil disobedience. In Northern Ireland in the late sixties and early seventies as the so called sectarian troubles intensified across Northern Ireland both side Protestant/Loyalist and Catholic/Nationalists were using pirate radio stations in their enclaves and ‘no go’ areas to encourage their listeners to stifle the economies of their opponents by issuing calls onto the streets to man barricades, to boycott shops and businesses and the generally upset daily life such as hijacking and setting fire to buses to a steep financial loss for companies across Northern Ireland.
In the era of commercial pirate radio in Northern Ireland Kiss FM opened March 13th
1985 with the station opening covered by Ulster Television. Originally broadcasting on 96.5mhz, Kiss moved to 103mhz FM announcing 102.7 and using jingles from the Chris Cary station of the same name in Dublin. The station announced that it had taken an investment of £6,000 to launch the station as a seven day a week operation but this was offset with the £4,000 in advertising revenue that the station had taken for its first week of transmissions. This boost did not sit well with the British Department of Trade and Industry and at 1.50p.m. March 21st 1985 the station was raided and closed. Pirate radio was big commercial business.

Pirate Radio Cost Analysis


1.               There are initial costs involved in setting up a pirate radio station. The transmitter is one of the main ingredients and the cost can vary from station to station depending on the operators plan for their station. Some stations in the 70s and 80s built homemade transmitters but even these
required the purchase of parts. Some transmitters were purchased on the black market from legal operators while other was purchased at considerable expense such as the super pirates in Ireland spending as much as € 10,000 on a good quality FM Stereo transmitter. Studio equipment is needed and while most operators purchased their own equipment others stole them from other pirate operators. An aerial is also required with proper earthing. Some stations need a location therefore studio and transmitter sites need to be rented. Other stations are located in an operator’s bedroom, the transmitter is homemade and the aerial is strung between trees and expenditure is limited but could make as much as a super pirate in advertising revenue.
2.               A transmitter and the studio needs power and while some pirates hijack some one else’s supply many have electricity bills to be paid. Some stations purchased and ran external generators to keep their pirate on the air.
3.               Some of the bigger stations paid staff and even Payroll taxes for their staff. Radio Nova in Dublin even recognised unions like the NUJ within their station even though Nova’s troubles with the unions helped to lead eventually to its demise in 1986.
4.               As with any business generating cash, the business whether covered by a registered company or not is required to pay taxes. The bigger stations often set up limited companies to limited loses or to launder cash. The setting up of a company in itself cost money. Legal radio stations are required to pay performing rights such as IMRO and PPI. In the UK stations avoided this requirement by playing artistes who had not been signed by a major label.
5.               Another cost that stations often to factor in is the cost of a raid for their illegal activities. There is a fine, court costs and the cost of replacing confiscated equipment.
6.               Publicity for the station cost money whether it was invested in stickers, mugs or pens. Stations today use social media to promote their station on twitter or instagram. In the 1940’s one Irish station promoted itself by having supporters cross the city using chalk to write the station information on the pavement, which worked well until either the police
with a bucket of water or a heavy shower washed away their promotion. 

And while there are costs involved in opening and running a pirate there are many rewards for shrew operators.


1.     Advertising is key and the more powerful the stations signal and quality of that signal will lead to a wider audience. There have been many instances reported when Sales executives for the stations have disappeared with advertising revenue or stolen advertisers when a rival operation goes on air. While many mainstream stations use advertising agencies to source advertisers, pirate radio stations go into the local community and seek advertising from neighbourhood businesses, the local butcher, pub or taxi company. The authorities in many countries including Ireland and Britain have made it offence to advertise on pirate radio stations but very few have been prosecuted for doing so.
2.     At some stations DJ’s paid in contributions to get on the air. This practice was known as ‘pay to play’.
3.     While completely illegal the system of ‘payola’ is popular with pirate radio stations, this is where a record company pay a popular station or DJ to heavily promote and rotate a record.
4.     Many of the UK and Irish pirate radio stations of the 21st century play dance, rave and garage music not played by mainstream stations and operators use their stations to promote raves and dance nights at nightclubs generating another revenue stream.
5.     In the United States evangelical preachers pay radio stations to pay their shows. Similar revenue generation was carried out by pirate stations Radio Caroline and Radio Dublin.
6.     Some pirate stations have eventually earned legal status (Mid West Radio, Ireland, Radio Caroline, UK, leading to even greater profits from advertising revenues. 
7.     For many DJ’s pirate radio has been a cheap effective way of both learning the art of radio and gaining experience leading them into full time media careers across both radio and television. This pirate radio training has also benefitted legal stations as their new staff have already a good grasp of their profession. In Ireland in the 1980s when legal radio replaced the pirates, many shows were presenter driven and when the pirate DJs moved onto the legal airwaves they brought a ready made audience with them.  

[1] ‘Illegal Broadcasting – www.ofcom.org.uk
[2] ‘How a Radio Ship and 7 Men Shook Up Britain in 1964 (2014)
[3] The Suppression of Pirate Radio (1982) by Horace Robertson
[4] University of Luxemburg Summer School on Transnational Radio 5 www.seattlemet.com
[5] United States Federal Communications Commission Report
[6] Hansard – British Parliament Papers
[7] Interview with Gordon McNamee with www.smarta.com
[8] ‘Kiss FM From Radical Radio to Big Business’ by Grant Goddard
[9] YouTube
[10] Independent Newspaper UK February 22nd 2003
[11] Irish Newspaper Archives, the Irish Independent September 4th 1978
[12] The Irish Broadcasting Hall of Fame Blog
[13] Wireless on Flirt FM
[14] Radio Today interview with ‘Radio Maverick Robbie Robinson

The Archaeology of Irish Radio (Part One)

Across Europe and further afield the arrival of radio created a new sense of national identity and nations displayed their national pride by building ornate architecturally stunning broadcasting houses but not in Ireland. At a Transnational Radio Seminar in Luxembourg in 2018 organised by Andreas Fickers and Richard Legay, one of the speakers at the event was Maryam El Moumni of the Brandeburg University of Technology spoke of the Archaeology of Radio and I pondered what the Irish experience of this was. 

Radio arrived in Ireland north of the border in Northern Ireland with the opening of 2BE in Belfast. The station which first went on air on October 24th 1924 was originally located in a converted warehouse in cramped rooms. Following a decade of violent turmoil, a new Irish Free State turned its attention to broadcasting. Two years after the Belfast launch, a new Dublin station 2RN went on air. The studios were located in a terrace of houses on Little Denmark Street in the heart of the city centre with the studios linked to the makeshift transmitter site at the nearby McKee Army barracks. The Dublin station was followed by 6CK in Cork City.

The success of radio stations across Europe was continuing upwards and nations felt a sense of pride in beaming their transmissions not just to a national audience but transnationally across borders. It was often a sense of national pride which after the postage stamp demonstrated to the world that a nation was truly independent. Elaborate, ornate and architecturally wonderful buildings were being created across Europe from England to Germany. 
       Nauen Germany 1920                                        BBC HQ
                 Radio Normandie in France in the 1930s

When the decision was taken that a Irish Free State radio station would be state controlled rather than a commercial entity, a location was needed for the studios and transmitter. The overriding issue for the fledgling state broadcaster was the lack of finance and this would dictate what could be afforded for the launch. There would be no spectacular ‘broadcasting house’ built instead when the station was launched on January 1st 1926 the stations studios were located in the inner city of Dublin on a narrow market street on Little Denmark Street. Number 36 was a four storey over basement building constructed of concrete and steel with a red brick finish and slated roof[1]. There was single studio and one actor who appeared in numerous early radio plays Harry Brogan remembered that they used their coats hanging on the studio windows to keep the noise of shouts from the street traders out. 

The locating of the transmitter in a wooden hut in the grounds of McKee Barracks was for two reasons expediency and security. McKee Barracks named after Richard McKee who was a key IRA operative for Michael Collins during the War of Independence with Britain. He had been captured in November 1920 and after being tortured he was supposedly shot dead as he tried to escape from his captives in Dublin Castle, the then British Government in Ireland headquarters. Originally called Marlborough Barracks it was built by the British Army in 1888. When Ireland became the Irish Free State in 1922, the British gave the barracks to the Irish forces and named after McKee 2] .

The McKee Barracks Hut (c) British Pathe News

By 1928 the small and cramped Dublin studios had become unfit for purpose and the station and its personnel were moved to the first floor of the iconic GPO (General Post Office opened in 1818) on O’Connell Street with one former presenter describing the corridors décor as reminding him of a public house gentleman’s urinal.
JJ Walsh the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs announced in the Dail,
‘The station is in the McKee Barracks, and the broadcasting headquarters, or studio, as it is usually termed, is in Great Denmark Street. The items set out here include furniture and equipment for both places. Under the heading relating to miscellaneous expenses, which amount to £850, we have such items as postage, stationery, and copyright royalties. Copyright royalties in broadcasting are not only difficult of arrangement, but are also expensive. We have also under this particular heading provision for weather reports and news services, and also such items as we may from time to time be called upon to provide in the way of extra musical equipment, gramophone records, and matters of that kind.’

Now, it is intended that this sum of £14,385 shall cover the period up to the end of the financial year. Thereafter the broadcasting estimates will take their place in the annual estimates and be discussed as separate items. It is not intended that these estimates should be included within the sphere of the Post Office proper.’[3]

Following the destruction of the GPO during the 1916 Easter Rising, it’s rebuilding was not completed until 1928 and when it was reopened the fourth floor was taken over by 2RN, later to be renamed as Radio Eireann, who now had three studios instead of the one at Little Denmark Street. In the 1950’s two more studios were built and in 1956 six more studios including a continuity suite were added on the third floor. But the GPO was never designed as a broadcast centre and the station suffered from the lack of sound proofing.[4]

When it came to put a second station on the air, Ireland’s second city Cork was to the location for 6CK. Once again the station was to be located in a second hand building, the former Women’s Gaol in the city. Today the Irish Radio Museum is located in the building where 6CK was broadcast from. Work on the Goal commenced in 1816 and the building of the prison proper started in 1818, The building having been designed by William Robertson. It opened to prisoners on 1824 and became a women’s only prison in 1878. The Goal closed as a prison in 1923 after the events of both the War of Independence and the Civil War. In 1927, the upper floors of the Governors House became the home of 6CK.

(c) Radiomuseum.org

The major expansion for Radio Eireann was the installation of a new high powered transmitter in the midlands near Athlone. The decision was taken at Cabinet level in November 1931 to build a high-powered transmitter in Athlone. Since the inception 2RN wanted to be heard nationwide and the Government desired that Irish broadcasts and programmes should be heard further afield, to be on at least a par with some of the European stations that were now quite popular in Ireland. They wanted to counteract the broadcasts of 2BE and the BBC networks although the BBC had been quite helpful directly to the staff and management of 2RN. This included the relaying of certain broadcasts including St. Patrick’s Day broadcasts and sporting events including the motor racing from the Phoenix Park. A large powerful transmitter would be geographically located in the centre of Ireland. Engineers identified both Athlone, County Westmeath and Birr County Offaly as possible locations. In 1931 a site was purchased at Moydrum Castle on the outskirts of Athlone for the transmitter. The Department of Finance set aside resources for the building of the infrastructure and the purchase of a 100 kilowatt transmitter from the Marconi Company in England. A four hundred and twenty-five aerial was erected and when DeValera came to power in February 1932 a new impetus was injected to have the station operational in time for the Eucharistic Congress being held in June 1932.

The first Eucharistic Congress was held in 1881 under Pope Leo XIII. The congresses were organised by a Papal Committee for Eucharistic Congresses to increase devotion to the Eucharist as a part of the practice of faith, and as a public witness of faith to Catholic population at large. The 31st International Eucharistic Congress was held in Dublin, 21-26 June 1932. It was the premier international Catholic event. The 1932 Congress provided the platform for the Irish Free State Government of DeValera to assert their position as a leading Catholic nation. It would be the largest public gathering in twentieth-century Ireland until the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II. There was even an act passed by the Government specifically for the event titled the Eucharistic Congress (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1932.

Congresses were often linked with anniversaries or other events special to Christians and in particular to Catholics of the country in which they took place. The 30th Congress which took place in Carthage, Tunis, commemorated the death of St. Augustine. The Dublin congress commemorated the death of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint.

The new Irish State mobilized its meager resources in order to meet the challenge posed by this show case event. The arrival of the special Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri at Dún Laoghaire Harbour at the beginning of Congress Week was greeted by thousands along the harbour piers and the Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park six days later was attended by over 1,000,000 of the faithful. The event was considered to be an outstanding success. The Irish State had successfully entertained literally thousands of churchmen and laity who came to Dublin from every corner of the globe to pray.

The Congress was a logistical nightmare for the under resourced radio station. The station carried out a number of major outside broadcasts from across Dublin for the event. These programmes were relayed by landline to Athlone whose transmitter was operating at sixty kilowatts allowing coverage over much of Europe and more importantly the powerful transmitter allowed for coverage across Ireland. For those with radio sets it was a massive improvement in quality but the broadcasts were relayed on receivers in churches and halls across the country allowing everyone access for the first time to listen to 2RN. The Congress marked the first time that the overwhelmingly Catholic population heard the voice of the Pope relayed over the Athlone transmitter on the final day of the Congress. Reaction to the broadcasts in the print media was positive and commended the station on their achievements.

The Athlone transmitter was officially opened by Eamon DeValera on February 6th 1933 but some complaints remained that the station was too Dublin orientated as the studios and all of the programmes produced came from the GPO Studios in the capital. In January 1937 the Athlone transmitter power was increased to the full 100 kilowatts. Radio Athlone began life on 413m but the Lucerne Conference altered that to 513m medium wave. With the opening of Athlone, the Dublin transmitter was closed down and the station became known as Radio Athlone rather than 2RN. 

The Athlone transmitter building (c) Joe Guilfoyle
Although no longer in use, the building houses the oldest working 1930's Marconi transmitter

On December 31st 1961 a new television channel began and Radio Eireann became Radio Telifis Eireann. The television studios were located at Montrose in Donnybrook. The site at Montrose was originally bought by University College Dublin in June 1949 as a University Campus but in a swap UCD moved across the road to Belfield and the State took over the Montrose site. On the land was a house once lived in by Guglielmo Marconi, the father of radio whose mother Annie Jameson owned Montrose House. Jameson was related to the famous distilling family before she married Marconi’s father. 
In June 1960 Michael Scott of Scott, Tallon and Walker architects was appointed architect to design the new RTE television centre at Montrose. Scott had won acclaim as the architect of the Dublin central bus station Busaras. The contract to built the television studios was signed on October 3rd 1960 with the Government, RTE and Michael Scott with the builders E Stone of Thorncastle Street. The company had previously built the new stand at Lansdowne Road. The studios were the first building in Ireland to use pre-cast concrete and flat slab structure.[5]

A 380 ft a self supporting lattice steel tower in the grounds connected with transmitter site at Kippure in the Dublin Mountains. Following a tender process the contract to build the tower was awarded to Anderson & Martin Capital Equipment in association with Huso Verft and Mek of Tronsberg Norway with an estimated cost of £20,000. Working on behalf of Radio Eireann was Chief Engineer J. J. O’Keefe, A. G. Tobin head of transmitters which were built by Pye Limited.

By the end of the decade the GPO was now unfit for purpose as a broadcasting centre and a new purposely built radio centre was to be built at Montrose after almost a half century of radio broadcasting radio in Ireland was to get its first dedicated radio studios.
 RTE on top, Illinois Institute of Technology on the bottom, 
it's hard to tell the difference

Ronnie Tallon (1927 – 2014) of Scott, Tallon and Walker was appointed to design the RTE Radio Building.[6] Tallon was an admirer of Mies Van Der Rohe (b.1886 Germany d. 1969 US Citizen) who designed unornamented steel and lass skyscrapers.[7] The architects had previously worked on the building of the Illinois Institute of Technology and there is no escaping the similarity.

Work on the Radio centre commenced June 9th 1969 on 8 acres formerly used as the sports ground of nearby St. Andrews College. The original budget was £650,000 but eventually cost was over one million pounds. The final broadcast came from Henry Street on November 8th 1976.

When new legislation in 1988 created an independent commercial radio sector for the first time a national licence was granted to Century Radio but like the early days of Radio Eireann, they were located on the floor of an office block across the street from the iconic and historic Christ Church Cathedral. Located at One Christchurch Square, High Street, the station went on air on September 4th 1989 but due to financial troubles was gone within two years. To get on air the station’s owners had purchased the pirate radio transmitters and site of Sunshine Radio on the Northside of the city.

       Mornington House, Trim County Meath where the studios 
and offices of 252 were located.
The Transmitter building at Clarketown, Co Meath

When the joint venture of RTL (Radio Luxembourg) and RTE on longwave 252m, Atlantic 252 was launched and located in County Meath. The stations studios were located in a three-storey period building known as Mornington House on Summerhill Road in the town of Trim. According to the auctioneers[8] the building consisted of
Accommodation: ground floor, entrance hall with ornate stairs to first floor, production room (sub divided into smaller offices), boardroom, kitchen with filled floor and wall presses. ladies & gents toilets. First floor, four offices, reception, three studios. Second floor, two offices, landing office, library and links room.

This was not a purposely built radio station but an adapted studio facility. The stations powerful transmitter and aerial system at nearby Clarkestown were the subject of a number of High Court appeals by local residents and an active campaign to prevent its installation and operation. After the demise of Atlantic 252 Mornington House was bought by Meath County Council for their own uses in 2002 for € 750,000

Pirate radio had a long and colourful past and some locations for the stations have included Georgian Houses in the Dublin City Centre, garden sheds, attics and caravans. While no pirate radio station built a purpose built studio and broadcasting facility some stations purchased portacabins to broadcast from as they were easy to locate and to soundproof. Perhaps the largest and most successful pirate radio station was Radio Nova (1980 – 1986) who were initially located in a Georgian building on Herbert Street on the south side of Dublin city near the Grand Canal. 

There transmitter site was located at a nightclub complex in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains near Rathfarnham known as Green Acres. Following a number of raids on the station and the jamming of their microwave link from Herbert Street to their main transmitter, the station moved to Rathfarnham where the nightclub was renamed Nova Park. Q 102 also broadcast from the basement of a Georgian House on Upper Mount Street until the closure of the majority of pirate radio stations in December 1988 when new tougher legislation was enacted and a new Independent sector was created. Other stations because of their illegal nature found themselves located in Caravans, farm sheds and garages. 

When the independent franchises were awarded the national franchise was awarded to Century Radio, who located their headquarters in an office block in the shadows of Christchurch Cathedral on High Street. Their transmitter network was leased from RTE which two medium transmitters and their sites were bought from former pirate stations Sunshine Radio in Dublin and ERI in Cork. Century was a short lived station, closed to due crippling financial losses but the two successful Dublin candidates 98FM and Capital Radio were launched in 1989. Initially 98FM were located in Studios in a shopping centre on St. Stephen Green, while Capital Radio was located in the former Q 102 headquarters in a Georgian house on Upper Mount Street. 98FM would later move to a former granary silo building on the banks of the Grand Canal while FM 104 as Capital Radio was re-branded and moved to the upper floors of an office block in the docklands. The floors would be shared by FM 104 and a legal Q 102 who were both owned by the same parent company. In 2017[9] 98FM would move once again moving to its parent company’s new headquarters on Digges Lane, known as Marconi House.

Marconi House in the compact office block on Digges Lane
The only indication that the headquarters of FM 104 & Q 102 are located in the office block are name plates on the front entrance intermingled with other renters in the building.

The replacement for Century Radio was launched on March 17th 1997 as Radio Ireland from studios located in the centre of the city at 112 Upper Abbey Street. Radio Ireland was rebranded as the nightly successful Today FM and would be purchased by 98FM’s parent company Communicorp. Today FM moved to Marconi House in 2007 followed by fellow stations 98FM and Spin 1038. The quasi national news channel NewsTalk also moved into the building from its original location on the upper floors of an office block on Upper Mount Street. The building also housed the failed Phantom/TX FM before its closure.

In Cork when 96 FM (originally known as Radio South) were awarded the local franchise for the city in 1989, the station set themselves up in the former pirate radio station ERI’s location in White’s Cross. In 1991, a merger took place between 96FM and the Mallow-based County Sound 103FM and some years later, the station moved premises from the rural Whites Cross (the former Radio ERI studios) to a city centre location at Patrick's Place, in a building which was formerly the location of Christian Brothers College. The station named its new premises 'Broadcasting House', but this building name is rarely referred to on air, except by Emmett Kennedy in the evenings.

As a number of the local franchises became more established and their contracts renewed by the overseeing Broadcasting Authority of Ireland[10] they began to move from second-hand premises seen as unfit for purpose, to purposed built broadcasting centres. The stations making that move include Waterford Local Radio (WLR) who moved from a building on George’s Street facing onto the quays in the city to a building at Ardkeen. Work began on the €3 million 10,000 square feet project began in 2002 with the new studios the following year but the cost had spiralled to over five million[11]. The official opening was performed by the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD The station sold their former home in the city centre to property developers[12]. With WLR in the broadcast centre was the youth radio franchise for the South East, Beat 102-103. The station claimed that their new studios were the first purposely built radio studios since the development of Montrose for RTE Radio[13].

This was an exaggerated claim as LMFM serving the north east franchise area moved into their purposely built radio centre in 2001 with the official opening performed once again by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in January 2002. When the station opened first in 1989 it’s main studio was located in the Boyne Centre in Drogheda with a satellite studios located in the Navan shopping centre[14] and Williamsons Mall in Dundalk. For LMFM, with their success they could financially absorb a move from rental accommodation to a dedicated studio and office facility.

One of the most popular and successful regional stations was MidWest Radio based in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo. Led by Paul Claffey who had run the pirate version of the same station up to the new legislation in 1989, MidWest moved into new fit for purpose premises on Clare Street in the town in 2000, a decade after they had been awarded the licence on a ten year basis. The station when it was awarded the licence was located on nearby Abbey Street.

Highland Radio first broadcast in March 1990 with the franchise for the North West of Ireland. Despite a challenge to their license in 2014, Highland Radio has been located in the same premises in the Pinehill Industrial Park on the outskirts of Letterkenny. While the building was built as a storage area by the Boal family and never envisaged as a broadcast facility, the station has created a permanent location for the station in the building.

© Google Maps
© Radio Today

One of the few purposely built radio buildings in Ireland was that of Radio Na Gaeltachta in County Galway in 1972. When the Government gave the go ahead for the Irish language channel which would primarily serve the Gaeltacht areas, its headquarters would be situated in the main Gaeltacht area in County Galway. The architect firm of Nolan and Quinlan on Pembroke Street, Dublin were employed on the design and James Stewart Limited were awarded the contract for the build. The main single storey studio building consisting of three studios, two control rooms and sundry office space would be built at Derrynea in Connemara while a transmitter site five miles away was located at Bealadangan. The Government allocated a quarter of a million pounds for the building project and a further ninety thousand for transmitters. Satellite stations were to be built later in Kerry and Donegal.  

End of Part One

[1] James North Auctioneers description 1956
[2] Dublin City Corporation
[3] Dail/Oireachtas Historic Debates 1926
[4] The RTE Archive
[5] The Irish Times December 4th 2010
[6] archiseek.com
[7] Free Dictionary
[8] Sherry Fitzgerald Auctioneers in 1972
[9] Radio Today June 11th 2017
[10] Formerly known as The Independent Radio and Television Commission (IRTC) & The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI).
[11] Waterford News and Star April 9th 2004.
[12] The Irish Independent October 3rd 2002
[13] Waterford News and Star April 9th 2004.
[14] The Dundalk pirate radio station Radio Carousel also had a studio located in the Navan Shopping Centre