What is the real legacy of pirate radio in Ireland? The 30th anniversary of the introduction of a new Wireless Telegraphy Act and the closedown of many of Ireland’s most iconic and successful pirate radio stations has been broadcast but was there more to that period other than the rosy tinted nostalgia for a pre-social media, fake news and Brexit time?
Pirate radio has a long tradition in Ireland dating back to the 1916 Rising when a rebel radio apparatus made Ireland the first nation in the world to be declared by radio. In Britain, the pirate radio that created the need for a pop music channel was located on the high seas with the likes of Radio Caroline but in Ireland the radio buccaneers remained on dry land. The plethora of pirate radio stations in Ireland exposed the listening public to the possibility of an alternative to RTE Radio. It created an awareness of the power of radio and it also demonstrated to financial giants that radio in Ireland could generate huge turnovers.
Pirate radio across Ireland in cities, towns and villages gave a voice to communities and allowed local businesses to advertise local people. The golden era of pirate radio for the decade 1978 to 1988 was the birth of a fledgling radio industry that today directly employs hundreds of people and indirectly thousands in ancillary service such as transmission provision, PR companies and advertising agencies. In the late seventies the hobby, bedroom room, homemade transmitter pirate station was making way for more grounded yet still illegal stations with imported purposely built transmitters, studios and offices located in Georgian buildings and formats that were attracting listeners and advertisers.
It created a host of media personalities many of them still on radio and television today. Household names trained and mentored on pirate radio. Pirate radio was a beacon of light in times of local crises. RTE is a national state broadcaster trying to cater to everyone’s needs and tastes while BLB was Bray Local Broadcasting in every sense of its title. When Hurricane Charlie struck the seaside town in 1986, BLB was the glue that held a community together. It informed, it comforted and it made a difference. In Clonmel on CBC Radio during a severe snow storm, the station's phone was the link that help to summon the assistance of the Aer Corps helicopters for stranded pregnant weapon and farmers in desperate need to get fodder to their animals. It was to the pirate stations that Schools got in touch with to tell pupils and staff that their school was either closed or in the aftermath re-opening.
Pirate radio transmitters were often homemade but they offered choice. The airwaves were filled with pop music, country music, rock, dance and easy listening even the Catholic church had their own pirate transmitters to bring their services to their communities.
Without pirate radio some of Ireland’s most famous musicians would not have had a platform for success. Would U2 have become the global force they have become if in the 1970s and '80s they were solely reliant on RTE Radio 2 for exposure? Their first airplay was a demo tape on Big D Radio. Would Daniel O’Donnell have become the massive star he is without the airplay from TTTR, Radio Star Country or Mid West Radio? Musically Ireland would have been unable to punch above its weight as a small island on the global music scene without the influence of the pirate radio stations.
Pirate radio shone a light on dull, dark Ireland and for that as a nation we should be thankful and praise the contribution of all those pirate broadcasters across Ireland we have made a difference.