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Phantom FM 1996 – 2014: A brief history, by its staff — past, way past and pirate

The ‘Phantom’ name will soon disappear from the airwaves. It’s been a long, strange, journey from that first suburban shed studio to the heart of the Communicorp empire…

Updated at 8.50pm

RAY MCGOWAN (RAY Doyle by birth, occasionally ‘Rockin’ Ray McGowan to his friends and colleagues) packed up his case of CDs for a final time as a Phantom presenter last Monday night — signing off his weekly two-hour metal show with a heartfelt tribute to his listeners before hitting ‘play’ on Metallica power ballad Fade to Black.

It had been just over 17 years since he’d spun his first disc with the station. That was in a decidedly more low-tech studio environment – a wooden shed in Sandyford that served as the first pirate-era location of ‘Phantom Towers’.

As he walked back to his car from Marconi House – home to the Newstalk and Today FM studios as well as Phantom’s current, commercial incarnation – the occasion got to him a little.

“I was very upset,” he says.

But… Not upset in a sad way — it was the end of a huge period of my life. I always knew this day was going to come.

I went out on a high though — said goodbye to the listeners. The feedback was overwhelmingly lovely — people who told me they were 10 when they started listening, but were 22 or 23 now — who had bought certain albums or gone to certain gigs because of me.

When you receive all these messages you feel pretty great by the end of it.

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McGowan prepares for his final broadcast [Metal Notes/Facebook]

McGowan is one of a number of familiar Phantom voices who’ve been quietly, professionally, finishing up their last shows with the station over the last six days.

Some time in the next few weeks — quite possibly as soon as this very weekend — the ‘Phantom’ name will disappear from car radio displays all over the city. The station’s website and social media sites will rebrand… and business will carry on.

Communicorp — which manages Phantom and has owned a one-third share since late 2010 — has chosen ‘TXFM’ as the new brand. The Denis O’Brien-founded media group says it’s certain there’s “still a real opportunity to deliver a sustainable indie music service for Dublin that will have a broader appeal”.

Of course, similar business decisions are made every day in companies large and small all over Ireland. For a great many people, the fact that that one of the country’s 25-odd local broadcasters is having a change of direction will be of no concern whatsoever. And for those in the radio industry, Communicorp’s decision to cut a raft of full- and part-time staff members, slim down the schedule and effectively relaunch the operation will have come as no major surprise.

However, for thousands of Dubliners of a certain age (admittedly many of whom are now edging beyond the station’s 15-34 target demographic) Phantom – at one stage – meant a great deal.

Looking back

The story of the ‘pirate that went legit’ made for some compelling newspaper headlines when, after a long legal battle, the original team behind the station won a 10-year commercial licence – eventually taking to the air after a two-year legal battle in 2006.

And while some listeners and former staff contend that Phantom had already experienced its heyday by the time the corks were popped and the faders went up in state-of-the-art new studios in Dublin’s docklands — others maintain that, to a greater or lesser degree, it continued to fulfil the needs of a particular niche of listeners who had long been under-served by the competition.

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Shed days… McGowan again, with pirate-era presenters Alan Thornberry and Vic Keane [Metal Notes]

The pre-history of…

Founded in the aforementioned Sandyford shed in 1996, and initially trading under the name ‘Spectrum’, the original station — in spite of a lack of any real resources, save the dedication of its presenters and the ability to beam a surprisingly clear (but entirely illegal) radio signal into bedrooms all over the city — soon built up a dedicated following.

Simon Maher and Gerard Roe were the initial brains behind the nascent operation. Much later — along with other former shed occupants like John Caddell and Peter Vamos — they would go on to secure the support of deep-pocketed backers, battle the likes of Bob Geldof and Hot Press in the Supreme Court and eventually take charge of a fully taxed and insured, BAI-licensed broadcasting operation. With hot running water and everything.

Back in those days however, they made do with what they could.

“It wasn’t even our shed you know,” Maher says. “We rented it for a flat fee. But it had everything we needed at the start.”

“The initial group all came from a background of radio, music and music promotion,” according to Maher — who was working as an audio technician in Ballyfermot college at the time.

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Simon Maher [Phantom 105.2/Facebook]

There was no way to tell quite how well the new venture was doing in those very early days (this was pre-social media, before the widespread use of text messages — and the internet still looked like this). However, that soon changed.

After about six months we got a phone — and the phone was hopping.

For those trawling the radio dial for anything vaguely alternative — outside of Dave Fanning’s night-time 2fm slot, “you had very little choice” Maher explains.

“In Dublin it was just 98 and 104 at the time — or dial-up. In terms of fulfilling a need, we fulfilled a need in much the same way as the dance pirates that had operated in the early-90s.”


Blotooth — One of the bands championed by Phantom in its pre-legal incarnation [Trevor Seery]

Over the following years — as the pirate broadcaster outgrew its suburban back-garden origins, moved into the first of its city centre studios and became more professional in its outlook — the dedication to Irish music in particular captured the imagination of young listeners. And certain future presenters.

“It’s the station that I listened to for alternative music,” DJ Sinéad Ní Mhorda recalls.

It championed local, homegrown talent and introduced acts from overseas that you’d normally not hear in the daytime.

Orla Ormond, who joined Phantom’s commercial incarnation in 2006, was inspired to pursue a career in radio as a result of those pre-legal broadcasts:

I first found the station in 2001 — as a bored teenager, flicking through the dial trying to find something that wasn’t deemed crap by me and my burgeoning rock and roll musical tastes.

It was exactly what I was looking for — knowledgeable presenters with a passion for great music. I spent years as a dedicated listener, hearing bands and artists for the first time that I probably would never have heard otherwise, and sharing them with my friends. Naturally, I went on to study radio production in college.

Programme Director Vamos — the enigmatically named ‘Sinister Pete’ on air — was charged with hiring new talent, and managed a remarkably successful strike rate as the operation continued its expansion. Fellow Canadians Jenny Huston and Alison Curtis (both of whom would eventually be destined for national radio) joined in the late 90s. Dan Hegarty, now long-serving presenter of ‘The Alternative’ on late-night 2FM, also signed up in 1999.

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Huston & Curtis in the early 2000s

Tara Gleeson — better known to hangover-nursing Sunday morning listeners as ‘Pearl’ — still remembers that flicker of panic upon realising she’d be required to fill a two hour hour show every weekend.

I’d loved pirate radio ever since I was about 10 and started getting interested in music… I used to search the dial endlessly looking for decent tunes because I’d no money to buy records.

Gleeson first heard of ‘Spectrum’ — as it was still called — in 1997 as she was taking her first steps into radio with ‘Radio Caroline’, a smaller pirate operation based in Sutton.

Spectrum became Phantom and advertised for new presenters. I recorded one of my shows, sent it off, got a call from Sinister Pete and found myself in a garden shed in Sandyford on a Sunday morning.

I wish I could remember what I played on that first show — but I owned so few CDs at the time, I’m sure I used the studio library a lot, and of course borrowed music from friends. There was definitely Teenage Fanclub, I know. I’ve played them since the very beginning.

I can’t even remember how ‘Sunday Morning, Coming Down’ evolved. It definitely wasn’t a plan, it just happened over the months and years.

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Tara Gleeson (aka. ‘Pearl’) at work in Phantom’s studio above Whelan’s of Wexford Street

Huston — who, along with Hegarty, would make the leap to 2fm within just a few years of first taking to the air on Phantom — tells a similar story…

“I heard about Phantom while working as a voice-over agent,” Huston says.

My friend Brian — who knew that I had been in college radio in Canada and had been a fill-in presenter at Radio Kilkenny — was great friends with [regular presenter] Jack Hyland and suggested I send in a demo.

Months later, while working for a film production company, I got up the nerve and recorded a demo — the first song was Deus – Hotel Lounge, if memory serves me correctly. I got a call from Sinister Pete and he offered me the Friday 7-9pm slot. I was delighted!

Phantom were above an internet café on Grafton Street at the time. It was a really exciting thing to be apart of — everyone loved music.

Huston and Curtis helped expand Phantom’s singularly left-field playlist, introducing many Irish listeners to bands like Sleater Kinney, L7 and Babes in Toyland through their weekly ‘Grrrly Hour’ show [yes, Grrrly, not Girly --- this was the late-90s and feminist punk movement 'Riot Grrrl' was still very much a thing].


dEUS – Hotellounge (dEUSbe)

As Phantom moved from Grafton Street to its third HQ above Whelan’s of Wexford Street, Hegarty recalls how the station was, slowly but surely, becoming an integral part of the city’s — and by extension the country’s — burgeoning indie scene.

It’s not just a retrospective thing, but it was a special time for music, and in particular for Irish music. You could call it one of the golden ages of Irish music, and Phantom played a significant part in that.

It sounds like a cliché, but it was really about the music… It was great to be involved in something with a load of other people that were as obsessed with music as much as I was. In retrospect, it was also probably comforting to see that I wasn’t the only music geek spending all their money going to gigs.

My first few shows on Phantom were late night ones, after Ray McGowan’s metal show. After that, it was off to Saturday afternoons, which was great because you’d have all sorts of bands that would drop by — Pugwash, Grant Lee Buffalo, Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Television, The Walls… loads of others that I can’t remember.

Prior to its successful bid, the original group behind Phantom staged two earlier campaigns for a Dublin broadcast licence — going off air for lengthy periods during the selection process each time as precautionary measure.

The team twice made the decision to come back as a pirate. Maher contends management’s policy of “always behaving professionally” meant that — for the most part — they were largely left alone by the authorities.

Still — just to be on the safe side, presenters rarely used their full names on air. Huston and Curtis were known just as ‘Jenny’ and ‘Alison’, while Hegarty went under ‘Dan D’.

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Alison Curtis

Hegarty (who, at 6′ 5” or so, still rarely manages to merely blend into a crowd) remembers how the not-quite-legal nature of the operation brought “all sorts of difficulties”…

None more so than trying be inconspicuous getting in the ‘secret’ front door of the station with a large bag of CDs. I never managed to quite master that.

In 2000 — with a growing roster of regular hosts, and a full evening and weekend schedule (a hit-laden hard drive took up the slack during daytime hours) a decision was made to launch a three-hour weekday breakfast show. Steve Conway — a veteran of actual, ship-based pirate broadcasting during the 1980s — was the man at the helm:

I really believed in what Phantom was doing, and was always willing to give a new band a play.

Conway recalls how he developed a feature on the show whereby he would ask up-and-coming bands to send in their demos tapes — he would open the package, and put it straight on air “giving a running commentary of what it looked like and anything else in the envelope”.

The music wasn’t always world-class, but it often showed promise, and best of all it made for wonderful live radio.

There were unintended comic interludes too, Conway says.

…like the time that a then-unknown band called Ham Sandwich left me a CD, and to pique my interest, included a real ham sandwich in the package. Sadly I was away for a week when the package arrived, so when I did open it on air, it was to a quite noxious smell.

Better still was my dumbfounded silence and quick switch to music one morning when the package I opened during a live link, expecting a musical treat, turned out not to be, as I had expected, a demo from some new band, but some photos and a rather explicit mail from an ex-girlfriend.

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Steve Conway

A regular Phantom-promoted club night gave presenters and station management a chance to interact directly with listeners, accept demo-tapes and ‘no favour expected, honestly’ pints of cider. However — the Wexford Street-era crew remember how a fundraising gig at the 600-capacity Temple Bar Music Centre (now The Button Factory) really brought home just how central Phantom had become to the alternative scene.

According to Huston:

Alison and I came up with Phundraiser – a night for Phantom.

We had a great bill of bands that offered to play for nothing: Bell X1, Turn, Mundy — with surprise guest Glen Hansard, Future Kings of Spain, La Rocca, Hopper and Louise Byrne.

The night sold out well in advance and we raised thousands for the station… It was proof again of the audience we had and the affection people had for the station.

It’s one of Maher’s fondest memories of Phantom — but he laughingly recalls, how, at the time, he felt “more terrified than anything else”.

Looking out at the crowd… We felt a duty to these people.

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A pre-Oscar Glen Hansard at a pre-legal era Phantom event, alongside presenter John Walshe

Going legit

It was a case of third-time lucky for the Phantom team when, with backing from the likes of Paul McGuinness’s Principle Management and Denis Desmond’s Gaeity Investments, they eventually landed that elusive licence in November 2004.

There was still one not-insignificant speed-bump to overcome, however. The consortium that had lost out in the final round of the selection — Zed FM — launched a legal bid to stop Maher and his team from relaunching as a legal entity.

The rival investment group — backed by Bob Geldof, Hot Press editor Niall Stokes and others —argued that the station had gained an unfair advantage by broadcasting illegally. The appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually rejected the appeal in spring of 2006 — clearing the way for Phantom to relaunch, some ten years after its humble suburban beginnings.

Maher recalls an intensive six month scramble from the day the decision was handed down in April, as the team worked towards a Halloween launch date. The revamped venture would be a full-service radio operation, with in-house news and sport, outside broadcasts, car-stickers — and all the administration and headaches that went with it.

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Phantom’s home from 2006 — January 2011 [Steve Conway]

A mixture of familiar faces were hired, alongside new production staff — and a raft of the original ‘shed-era’ team quit their day jobs and moved their boxes of CDs into a purpose-built studio complex on North Wall Quay that had recently been vacated by Spin 103.8. (The building now lies in the shadow of Anglo’s long-abandoned, half-built HQ — but this was before the crash, remember. There was actual Champagne at the 31 October launch party, staff recall — not just Prosecco).

This was just a few months before Morgan Kelly’s dire, but ultimately accurate, predictions about the future of the Irish economy first hit the headlines. In retrospect, the eve of a domestic and international financial crisis probably wasn’t the most appropriate time to launch a large-scale business operation. For the first few years, however — things were still looking positive for Phantom 2.0.

Maher, who was now General Manager and presenter of the weekday magazine show ‘Phantom Daily’, recalls the “vindication” of being named music station of the year at the PPI awards the following autumn — while rank-and-file presenters relished the fact that they were now getting paid for what had long been a passion, and grasped the opportunity.

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Phantom presenters Charlotte Flood, Richie McCormack (in the green top) and Sinéad Ní Mhorda, pictured in 2008 [Image: Emily Quinn]

“It wasn’t just a job,” Sinéad Ní Mhorda recalls.

“It was a golden opportunity — to be engulfed in music, to source and discover and provide new music to listeners. To uncover new talent, introduce acts…”

In terms of musical output, the requirement to provide the BAI with audited data meant a much higher level of play-listing during peak hours compared to the station’s pirate incarnation — but once everyone stayed away from Captain Beefheart B-sides, presenter selections were still encouraged. Late night shows — like McGowan’s enduring Monday-night metal-fest — helped maintain music-scene credibility.

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PPI Award winners 2007. Including (back row): Louise Byrne (news), Fiona Scally (head of production), and presenters Richie McCormack, John Caddell and Jack Hyland. Middle row: Roisín O’Dea (producer) and CEO Gerard Roe (in the tux). Front row: Carolyn ‘Caz’ Goulden (production), Ní Mhorda, Maher, and presenters Derek Byrne and Neill Austin.

The crunch

The story of what happened in the following years has been well documented elsewhere in the press in the weeks since the latest staff redundancies and the scrapping of the ‘Phantom’ brand were announced. The effects of the financial crisis were felt by the station before it had a chance to break even — pay-cuts and other cost-reducing measures were brought in, and the play-list was streamlined in a bid to boost listenership.

“At board level, we were under massive pressure to turn things around,” Maher says.

Everybody took a pay cut, and we were under a huge amount of pressure to increase audience rapidly.

Amid the pressure to right the stalling ship, Maher admits management made a fatal mis-step: “In addition to messing with the business, we also messed with the product”.

“That, obviously, was a mistake… The playlist became more mainstream — smaller and tighter.”

Some of the playlist changes were eventually reversed, after the management team realised some their earlier decisions had been a little knee-jerk. “By late 2009, we had remedied many of the musical mistakes — but we still didn’t have the confidence to push it, even though we knew we should.”

The emergency measures failed to have the desired effect, however – and by mid-2009 “things got very, very hairy”.

“It became vitally important that we were able to secure income and investment necessary to survive — in order to pay wages.”

The investment plan was eventually presented to the board in May 2010 — proposing that the company be restructured to allow Communicorp in, and let other backers bow-out.

“At board level I had voted against Communicorp coming in,” Maher says — recalling how one of the outgoing investors scribbled the words ‘death warrant’ on a piece of note-paper as the move was put to a vote.

The deal was sealed, however — and as well as coming on board with investment, the massive media company also took executive control of Phantom. Further significant changes seemed inevitable

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The abandoned Anglo HQ, close to Phantom’s former studios on North Wall Quay [Shawn Pogatchnik/AP/Press Association Images]

Phantom once again upped sticks in early 2011 — but with the team in a much less buoyant mood than before. Staff members recall an oppressive air of uncertainty as the boxes were packed once again, and the station moved into the heart of Communicorp’s radio base in Marconi House.

More cost-cutting measures were soon announced — including a switch from in-house news to the Newstalk-based centralised network system. By February, Maher had been dismissed. Gerard Roe — CEO since the founding of the station five years previously — also resigned, and a number of other positions were made redundant.

In the ensuing years, it’s been a case of “the beatings will continue until morale improves” for those still working at the station. Playlists were chopped back even further to try and appeal to the widest possible base of listeners, and all pre-1990 songs were banned from the daytime output. Another raft of staff cuts were announced in August of 2012, as the weekend schedule was overhauled once again.

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[Screengrab]

It wasn’t all cutbacks however: a number of forward-looking programming moves were also introduced, including the introduction of former Spin team ‘Joe & Keith’ as the new breakfast duo, and the announcement of a return to Phantom’s roots with the entirely unplaylisted ‘Richie and Richie‘ show on weekday evenings.

However, radio stations live and die by the JNLR figures, and a glance at the relevant stats for 2013 shows the station’s average daytime listenership was only around 15,000 — a decrease of around 14,000 from 2009.

In a last-ditch bid to gain the required level of audience share, the new grand plan to align the rechristened Phantom more closely with Today FM was announced last month. The new ‘TXFM’, according to a statement from Communicorp will “retain its own targets, budgets and market ambitions” — however, the tie-in with the national station is being attempted with the aim of “capitalising on its commercial strength and presence in the Irish radio market”.

“The focus of the new station will continue to be alternative and indie (rock) music,” the press release continues [parentheses theirs].

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The soon-to-be-overhauled Phantom 105.2 website [Screengrab]

According to the long-serving McGowan, there was ‘shock’ when the latest round of job losses were announced four weeks ago (eight full-time positions are being cut, with on-air, production, marketing and sales staff all affected, alongside part-time staff).

Having survived so many changes over the last few years, McGowan says he “knew, at some level, this day would come”, but that the timing of the news took him by surprise.

The feeling was that after all the changes, the station would be given a chance to make it to the ten years.

Back to basics…

Maher, meanwhile, alongside his day job as a media tutor in Ballyfermot, is now once again heading up a radio venture. Based just around the corner from Phantom’s post-millennial home above Whelan’s, the internet-based 8Radio.com aims to “provide an avenue for disenfranchised radio listeners to find their way back to Irish radio”.

“For a good year after Phantom I had to sit down and work out if I wanted to do radio again,” Maher says.

For the moment, however, he’s reluctant to attempt another leap into terrestrial territory.

Just now, it would be insane.

I think there’s space for it — but I think that for anything that launches from now on, the business model will have to match the business.

You can’t just throw money at something and expect it to work.

Looking back at the media landscape around the time Phantom was awarded its licence, Maher says it wasn’t too difficult a task to raise the sort of “mad money” needed to secure success in the bidding process.

The team’s initial bid, in the late 90s, had pitched an annual turnover of around a quarter of a million — going up to €750,00 at the second attempt in 2001. But by 2004, Maher contends the BAI needed to see a figure of well over a million in order for the bid to be taken seriously.

“Mad money for a station of its size,” Maher says.

“It was radio ‘Top Trumps’ — if we had gone in at €750,000 there was no way we would have got the licence.”

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Back to basics… 8Radio.com [Simon Maher]

Signing-off…

Both unpaid and paid, pirate and… well, non-pirate — dozens, perhaps hundreds, of presenters and other staff members have passed through Phantom’s many doors over the past 18 years or so.

For the majority contacted by TheJournal.ie for the purposes of this piece — it was the small moments that defined what the station meant to them, to their colleagues, and to a certain section of the city’s population.

A sample quote, by way of sign-off:

It was that letter or email from a listener… a great session from a band in studio… little things that happened in shows. It’s hard to define.


(Youtube: MegaHermansen)

Full disclosure: The author of this article, Daragh Brophy, worked at Phantom as a weekend presenter between 2002 and 2010. That’s him looking slightly worse-for-wear at the back of the PPI photo.

First posted at 7.45am. Updated with extra photos at 8.50pm.

Read: Behind the scenes at the country’s festive HQ: Christmas FM

Related: Former 2fm boss quits live on air, delivers withering parting shot to new regime

Read: Today FM’s Nathan Murphy joins Off The Ball team

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