Friday, 14 September 2018

Transnational Radio History from Ireland

This is the lecture I delivered to the Summer School on Transnational Radio History delivered at the University of Luxembourg in June 2018.

Ireland’s Export Radio
Eddie Bohan

Ireland’s location as an island on the western edge of Europe has offered our small nation a unique place in broadcasting history. While much of recognised transnational broadcasting has its origins in political, propagandist or subversive causes, Ireland’s contribution has in the main been purely a commercial exercise. Ireland has operated at times as an offshore studio for various operators, broadcasting to audiences outside its jurisdiction which has been both illegal and state sponsored.

Ireland has not exported ideas, political views or even national pride, nothing guaranteed Irish but Ireland simply exported commercial radio, broadcasting a diet of popular music, garnering more listeners, ratings and therefore advertisers. Not every station was a commercial success but some of the big ones, the so called super pirates were.

In 1916 during the iconic and momentous events of the Easter Rising, Ireland became the first nation in the world to be declared by radio and since that historic moment Irish broadcasting history has been chequered to say the least. Ireland’s first venture into broadcasting was not aimed at a domestic audience but an audience outside the jurisdiction. [1]

Following the arrival of a state broadcaster in the guise of 2RN in 1926, the Irish state added a powerful 10KW transmitter located in Athlone which opened for the 1932 Catholic Church’s Eucharistic Congress.This powerful transmitter’s coverage allowed all of Ireland to listen to 2RN later to be renamed Radio Eireann but it also provided an opportunity for the Government to generate much needed finances for cash starved State broadcaster.

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. Normandie was extremely popular with 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. [2]

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 [3]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.

Transnational broadcasting is often closely associated with Radio Luxembourg and the pirate radio ship Radio Caroline broadcasting from international waters into Britain. Caroline has a deeply Irish connection as its founder Ronan O’Rahilly is Irish born and a grandson of the 1916 Easter Rising leader Michael O’Rahilly. The original Caroline ship was fitted out as a radio station at Greenore Port in Co. Louth near Dundalk owned by Ronan’s family. In fact two ships were fitted out in the port at the same time Radio Caroline and Radio Atlantis.

In 1968 Ireland signed up to the European agreement for the prevention of broadcasting transmitted from stations outside national territories. This Act was designed to scupper any plans to launch a pirate radio ship off the coast of Ireland broadcasting into the west coast of Britain. Broadcasting it was feared would quickly become chaotic in the absence of orderly allocation and use of the wavelengths available. The misappropriation of frequencies by pirate stations would not be tolerated. Frequencies and stations would then be subject to Government control and if any of them caused serious interference to services in another country, the matter could then be raised through official channels at the EBU and ITU. According to the Irish Government at the time the Act was required to honour our obligations under the Council of Europe Agreement, to safeguard the effectiveness of our emergency services and communications, to protect the rights of artists, performers, et cetera, and the financial survival of our broadcasting service. It is aimed, not at “pop” or any other kind of programmes, but simply at unregulated broadcasting by people responsible to nobody but themselves.[4]

Despite the fears that pirate radio ships raised for the Irish Government an inertia crept in and a 1926 Act became unfit for purpose which allowed pirate radio stations to proliferate and thrive across Ireland. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was not just a contentious border (and still is) between two nations but also a border between two different broadcasting regimes. In the six counties the listener’s choice in the 1980’s was BBC Radio Northern Ireland and the commercial Downtown Radio. The border counties of Louth, Cavan Monaghan and Donegal became the new Mi Amigo’s of broadcasting as entrepreneurs began to set up pirate radio stations with studios and transmitters located just south of the border beaming their transmissions into Northern Ireland tapping into a lucrative advertising market monopolised by Downtown Radio.

In the 1980’s the Irish Government began receiving high level complaints from the British authorities and those in Belfast regarding this new threat referred to as ‘border blasters’. These illegal stations also attracted the wrath of the authorities at the European Broadcasting Union who complained that the Irish Government at the time were doing nothing to close these stations and demanded that they take immediate steps to prevent these stations aiming their illegal signals across a border into another nation in a clandestine attempt to garner advertising revenue to the detriment of in situ stations. This perhaps seemed slightly ironic as the same EBU turned a blind eye to the likes of the U.S. who funded Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe who beamed their propaganda signals into Russia from Europe. [5]

The Government assured their European counterparts that legislation was being prepared but internal and unstable politics at the time would put of legislation replacing the outdated 1926 Acts until 1988 when a new Wireless Telegraphy Act. Some of the stations that were deemed border blasters included Borderside Radio broadcasting from Castleblaney County Monaghan, Breffni Radio in Cavan and Radio Carousel in Dundalk all broadcasting into Northern Ireland.

Kiss FM began broadcasting in March 1985 to Craigavon in Northern Ireland and was the brainchild of Miles Johnson[6]. The station immediately came under pressure from the authorities in Northern Ireland and they decided to move their operation south of the border. Their transmitter was relocated to the Broughton Mountains in Co. Monaghan and studios in Monaghan Town. Their five kilowatt transmitter directed the station’s signal into Belfast. When the new stricter Wireless Telegraphy Act was introduced in late 1988 Kiss made their last broadcast at 6pm December 30th 1988. The final words were left with station manager and former Radio Caroline, Nova and Sunshine broadcaster Tom Hardy. As six o’clock approached he delivered a list of thanks to those involved and advertised who had assisted the stations. Hardy quoted lyrics from their final song by the Christians,
Before you point the finger
And hope the whole thing disappears
Remember empty words will fall
And fall upon the deafest ears

(As they saying goes ‘there was still money in them there hills’ advertising money and Kiss returned to the airwaves in January 1989 despite the new stricter legislation broadcasting once again into Northern Ireland from transmitters located in both Monaghan and Louth but following pressure from the Department of Communications the station closed voluntarily in May.)
Yet in January 1989 Kiss was on air again this time from within Northern Ireland but when the British DTI raided the stations transmitter site at Tamry Hill in County Down they moved their operation yet again back to the southern side of the border. In 2003 it ran foul of the law again and according to a Irish Independent newspaper report (August 16th 2005)
Robert Watters, Edentubber was accused of making his premises available and enabling/permitting his electricity to be used by the unlicensed broadcasters of Kiss FM and Wild FM. Niall McCaughey, an authorised officer with the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) told Justice Brennan that a defunct system previously used to broadcast Kiss FM was found to be interfering with landing procedures at Belfast City Airport.
Mr. McCaughey visited Edentubber on March 21st 2003 and monitored radio signals and discovered unlicensed broadcasts coming from a site on land that Watters was looking after for his cousin.
(However, on September 22nd 2004 the commission received a complaint from OFCOM in the UK stating that the airport in Belfast was receiving interference and that they traced the source to Edentubber.
Mr. McCaughey determined that the interference was coming from the property he visited previously and once again called to Edentubber. Two stations, Wild FM and Kiss FM had been broadcasting from the site but the latter was now no longer airing and it turned out that a faulty transmitter was causing the interference. Mr. McCaughey obtained a search warrant from Ardee District Court and entered the lands and switched off the transmitter. He was then able to confirm that the interference subsequently stopped.)

Another powerful station broadcasting from the Republic into Northern Ireland with its signal aimed at Belfast was KITS on FM & AM and was the brainchild of Frank McCarthy. Located again in County Monaghan the station name came from the fact that McCarthy built transmitters and had bits of ‘kit’ lying around the house. He managed to get a jingle package from a similar station in San Francisco and was air from 1987 until December 1988. McCarthy himself was accidentally killed while working on a transmitter in 1998. Some of the staff at the station included Gareth O’Connor who is now a TV news producer at TV3 and David Blevins who is the Northern Ireland correspondent for Sky News. Paul Buckle who worked at the station remembered that KITS ‘when it was good it was very very good, when it was bad it was bloody awful but still a fun station to listen to.’ [7]

Riverside 100.9mhzFM was operated by Frank McLaughlin located south of the border, but with the station's broadcasts were aimed at Derry stroke Londonderry. At one point the Irish Department of Communications backed up by member of the Gardai arrived to raid the station but the operators had been tipped off and fled across the border into Northern Ireland. Steve Marshall who worked for the station at that time recounted,
‘One day we received a visited from the Dublin based Department of Communications. The transmitter itself was located on a raft in a river, which straddled the border, although the studios were located within Derry City boundaries. The DOC and Gardai (the Irish Police force) turned up with their jeeps only to be told by me that they did not have any jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. We called the RUC, (The police from Northern Ireland) and the funniest sight was the man from the DOC trying to tell the RUC Sergeant where the Border was.’
 The station was eventually raided and closed in June 1991.

Energy 106 had their site located at Greagh in North County Monaghan known locally as Alien Mountain. Energy operated a 6kW transmitter. The station was closed in 2005 following a raid from Comreg[8] after pressure from the British authorities to tackle the issue.

Even with the new legislation in 1988 pirate stations continued to be launched to broadcast into Northern Ireland. Magic 105 began broadcasting on November 15th 1999 with its last broadcast on 11 May 2007 when the station's transmitter was seized by the Irish authorities from the Brougan Mountains, close to the original site used by many border blasters.

At time the state broadcaster put pressure on the Government to tackle pirate radio yet the national station became the criminal in the eyes of many in Europe. RTE had been granted the long wave frequency of 254khz by the European Broadcasting Union. In 1984, Chris Cary made an audacious attempt to use the frequency to set up a powerful station to broadcast into the British mainland. Cary, a former Radio Caroline DJ had set up the successful yet illegal Radio Nova in Dublin in 1981 quickly garnering a 40% share of the listening audience and with the lax and porous Irish laws Nova blossomed into the most successful and exciting radio station in Dublin.

Cary saw an opportunity for his Nova brand to access the UK market and opened advertising sales offices on Church Street, Liverpool with the station announcing that it was ‘broadcasting from Dublin’ instead of ‘broadcasting to Dublin’ but following raids on the station reverted to the ‘to Dublin’ slogan. Radio Nova was broadcasting British news weather and traffic reports. As one Irish commentator put it, ‘what would a guy in inner city Dublin want to know about the traffic jams in the West Midlands of England’.

Cary continued efforts to break into the lucrative British market with his longwave experiment Radio Exidy, its transmitter located at Clogherhead, County Louth carried out test transmissions but pressure from the Irish Government forced him to abandon the plans. In 1986 RTE announced it intended to use the frequency and in 1988 announced a partnership with Radio Luxembourg to launch Radio Tara Limited with RTE owning 20% of the company. The station would broadcast into Britain as Radio Luxembourg did, as in 1988 Britain had no national commercial radio stations (Classic FM first aired September 7th 1992). A thousand foot mast and powerful fifty kilowatt transmitter was installed at Clarkestown County Meath. Studios were built at Mornington House at the nearby village of Trim and cost almost six million pounds to put on the air. The station was not popular with the locals who protested and took unsuccessful High Court challenges to stop the station. But just after 8am on September 1st 1989 Gary King became the first voice heard on Atlantic 252 and Tears for Fear’s hit ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ the first song played. The station became an instant success with DJ’s like Charlie Wolf, Hollywood Haze and the Pizzaman. By 1995 and with Radio Luxembourg 208 now closed (1991) the station was announcing four million listeners and net profits of £2.5m but the arrival of national commercial stations in Britain especially on the better quality FM, the future of longwave was limited. In January 1989, sabotage was suspected at the transmitter site and a very strong local campaign against the sitting of the high powered transmitter and its possible health risks in Trim saw the station going to the Supreme Court but the campaign faltered

In 2000 Radio Luxembourg announced it was pulling out of the UK market and in October 2001 Atlantic 252 was sold to Teamtalk Radio for £2m with the station's last pop broadcast at 5p.m. on December 20th 2001. The last show on Atlantic was a Tribute show produced by Enda Caldwell and Eric Murphy celebrating the station's 12-year history of broadcasting and featuring classic airchecks of each year of Atlantic 252's history. The station then transitioned to automation, and continued broadcasting music without continuity, along with pre-booked commercials, until 12 midnight on 2 January 2002, when transmissions ceased.

One former presenter Robin Banks, more familiar today as the voice over for ‘Mythbusters’ said:
“I didn’t realise until years later that I was a part of a radio revolution that people still ask me about today. I’m so proud to have been involved with the real and original Atlantic 252. During my time there I can honestly say I worked with the best. It taught me a lot and I realised there was a lot more to this animal called radio than I thought.”


RTE currently operate the 252 frequency as a relay of the main Radio One channel aimed at the Irish Diaspora in the United Kingdom.

Further Reading

The Launch of Atlantic 252

The Closure of Atlantic 252 and a Special Tribute programme by Enda Cauldwell

Robert Silvey’s ‘Who’s Listening, The Story of Audience Research at the BBC’

Leonard Plugge’s influence in Irish Radio pre World War 2
Crossing the Ether: Public Service Radio and Commercial Competition in Britain with special reference to Pre-War Broadcasting by Professor Sean Street from Bournemouth University UK.

© Eddie Bohan 2018

[1] ‘Rebel Radio’ published 2016 by Kilmainham Tales Teo
[2] RTE Archives and Irish Radio News Review
[3] The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume II by Asa Briggs
[4] Historical Oireachtas Debates of the Irish Parliament ‘Dail Eireann’
[5] Irish Government State Papers
[7] The DX Archive
[8] The Irish Communications Regulator

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