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Dublin: 16 °C Wednesday 27 August, 2014

Column: Going to see with the pirates… memories of an early Phantom FM

“My heart nearly flung itself up through my gob and into the fireplace”… One of the ‘Two Richies’ recalls that fateful call-up from the mysterious ‘Phantom Towers’.

Richie McCormack

WE (MYSELF AND Richie Ryan) played the track below on our final edition of ‘Richie & Richie’ this past Thursday on Phantom 105.2. It seemed somewhat appropriate to bring things full-circle on what, for me, was my last show on Phantom.

“Feeding Frenzy” by National Prayer Breakfast is one of those tunes that is synonymous with the pirate edition of Phantom. A tune that brings torrents of memories back. Whether they be of happening across this ‘weird, indie’ station on a scan of the dial, presenting from a shed or a secret city centre location, or screeching its refrain in Whelan’s of a Thursday night fadó fadó. It’s not the only tune to hold such a distinction. The likes of The Frames, Pixies, Elliott Smith perhaps come to mind too.



(Youtube: Rob Kent)

I first came across Phantom 91.6 at the age of about 16. In the summer of 1998, while most normal teenagers were engaged in this hip, new-fangled thing called ‘socialising’, I’d be up til the wee smalls listening to the radio on my sister’s discarded Sony Walkman. I’d listen to late night bits of 2FM, or BBC Radio 1 which was relayed via Freedom 92FM in Dublin. And I guess it was while the manual dial drifted between the two that I came across Phantom. There was a lot of “hey, I like this song”, “What’s this? This is class!” and I stuck with them.

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Last broadcast… Richie (right) alongside Richie Ryan on Phantom 105.2

Over the next couple of years I became a fan of the radio station. And not only because of the songs they played. DJs with names like Micko (‘In The Doghouse’), Pete Reed, Sinister Pete, Paul Field, Jenny, Jack Hyland, Alison, GRAHAMO (if you remember him, you know all-caps was required) Dan D, Rob Taylor, Ger Roe and Pearl became really familiar, friendly (even Grahamo’s) and trustworthy voices – playing tunes at any hour of the day that your regular common-or-garden stations tucked away in the evenings or worse.

There was a thrill to listening to a pirate station like it. Some of the most exciting times were when it was forced off air. You’d occasionally scan past the frequency to hear if “On My Radio” or similarly cryptic tune was greeting you, like the returned gaze of a lass or laddy you hoped to notice you. Then, as if by some James Dean-esque act of rebellion, the Two Petes would be back on a Sunday night with their ropey 70s cop show themes and tales of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls. Ger Roe’s Sunday ‘Anorak Hour’ filled in a lot of blanks of my radio education.

I loved Phantom. I preached their gospel. When denied a licence by the BCI in 2000 for what is now Sunshine 106.8, I wrote a strongly-worded letter (oh yes) to Hot Press (oh yes) and had that mother printed (oh, yes). It was basically a moan about how struggling artists had been ignored for the promotion of the likes of Shania Twain and Lonestar. I always somewhere, kinda-sorta, in the back of my mind hoped I’d get a chance to join Phantom.

And then… I did.

Well, I got a chance at a chance.

Called up

In the spring of 2002, they began running ads looking for new talent. They were voiced by Sinister Pete (Vamos) and asked applicants to send in a demo tape to them. What I know now is that your average radio demo is about  three minutes in length (max) and is purely voice only. Then, however, I thought it was the done thing to basically record a show onto tape. So, downstairs in my folks’ dining room, I pressed play and record on their tape deck and attempted my best ‘radio voice’ into the wee microphone hole. These links were in between tracks I deemed ‘cool enough’ that I recorded from CD to the same tape in real time upstairs in my bedroom. One side of a C90 tape was filled. That was me being clever.

The tape and grovelling letter were sent off, and a few months later (by which time I’d given up hope) my Motorola Startac rang its ring and the familiar Canadian tones of Sinister Pete greeted me at the other end. My heart nearly flung itself up through my gob and into the fireplace. He told me he liked the sound of my voice and asked if I’d be available for a chat. I, in a slightly more pubescent voice this time, said “yes, of course”. We were to meet “outside Whelan’s” that Saturday.

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[Image: Carolyn Goulden]

Before then, there was much speculation as to where these mythical Phantom Towers resided. A few on-air clues led us to believe it was on Wexford St somewhere, but my (interested) friends and I were never able to ascertain just where.

That Saturday, I reached town in a flap. I was convinced I’d be found out as some manner of interloping charlatan. As a Johnny-come-lately, fly-by-night. I very nearly turned on my heels and got the next 39 home. I remember texting my friend Mark my worries at the time and he immediately rang me. The crux of the conversation was more-or-less, “cop yourself on, you’re well able for this”. So, I straightened my lanky frame and headed up the well-trodden path toward Whelan’s.

Leaning outside the main entrance was a tall, dark (almost swarthy-looking) fella. I knew this was not Sinister Pete. “How?” I hear you ask. Well, while idling at home one afternoon watching kids TV I’d long outgrown, the voice of RTE science show presenter Digby Chix began to sound eerily familiar. So, it being a Wednesday, I texted Pete Reed to ask him was it the Sinister fella. When he replied on air, “in answer to your question – Richie from Clonsilla – yes, it is. We have some Jaewan on the way for you too”. I felt like I’d cracked an ancient code. So, no, swarthy man was not our contact.

Across the road I spotted Anne Louise Foley, someone who had worked with my friend Barry in UCI in Blanch. I knew she was sound and ‘knew her tunes’, so hopped across to ask her if she was here for the Phantom thing. She said she was, and I began to relax as I knew I’d kinda know somebody in there when the grilling started.

While chatting to swarthy man (his name turned out to be Daragh Brophy), the shutter next to Whelan’s rattled, and out popped the vaguely familiar figure of Sinister Pete. This was it! He greeted us, and asked us to join him in the Whelan’s bar. We were joined by a cool journalist type by the name of Edel Coffey and a tall lad called James Byrne. I genuinely remember very little of that chat. It took place in the last table before the double door into the main venue, and I sat facing towards the front door.

There was no grilling. Just, I guess, Pete trying to suss out how keen we were to get involved/how ready we were to grass-up the whole operation to Comreg. Daragh, Anne Louise and James all took their leave after a while, while Edel and I stayed behind for a pint and a bit of a chat with Pete. I left for home that afternoon feeling like the Pope of Chilitown, knowing that I would be “trained in”, and possibly on air on my favourite station.

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[Image: Carolyn Goulden]

The training came during an All Request Sunday, which Pete was hosting. I again waited by Whelan’s, texted the studio to say I was outside, and out Pete popped, shiftily looking either side of the doorway to see if anyone was watching before asking me to follow him. Under the shutter I ducked, and down it came once more with a clatter, before Pete led me up some rickety wooden stairs that led in a semi-spiral to the inner sanctum of Phantom. As we reached the first floor, to the left was the small production studio. Straight ahead lay the kitchen (with a washing machine) that had zero functionality. That, in turn, led to the plain household wooden door that was the entrance to the studio.

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Phantom’s Wexford St studio [Image: Steve Conway]

Brophy was already in the studio, being shown how to work the desk by Pete. We were told which fader did what, what machine played what format and the general juggling that went along with pre-digital radio. When he figured we’d be OK to be left unattended in the studio and that firing the next song would be no bother to me, Pete decided to take a trip to nearby Burger Max to pick up his dinner. Pavement’s “Carrot Rope” was playing as he left, and I was told to pick the next request to be aired. Someone had asked for The Frames’ “Pavement Tune”, so I went with that.

As my finger hovered towards the play button, I recall never being as shaky. I WAS GOING TO PLAY A SONG ON PHANTOM!! The song fired, with no gap between its predecessor and all was OK. I didn’t break it. Even better, Pete commended my piece of ‘pavement’ continuity. I might be alright at this, I thought.

A further training show led me to meet Pete Reed [aka. station-founder Simon Maher] for the first time. When I introduced myself he asked if I was “Richie from Clonsilla”, and with equal parts pride and mortification, I confirmed it was I. My first show would be in September of ’02, covering for the absent Tara between 9 and 11pm. I spent the week planning the songs I’d play, deciding to open with REM’s “The One I Love” in soppy, quiet dedication to my then girlfriend, followed by The Walls “To The Bright and Shining Sun”.

The list

Each song we played was to be documented on a blank playlist that had a black mark every five lines. For every five songs was to contain one of the pre-determined A-list songs, and one Irish one. If we played an A-list song by an Irish artist, then that was two birds killed with one stone and more elbow room in terms of free choices. At the time, I would have been fond of their A-list picks anyway, so there was no feeling of conceding ground to someone else’s taste. My cover slot passed off without incident. So little incident, that the first two songs are all I can recall.

Within a couple of weeks, Pete called again to say there was a slot available for me on Monday nights between 9 and 11pm. I would go on after Jenny Huston. An intimidating prospect for a long-term Phantom fan. Jenny had her own show, and also presented the Grrrly Hour with the equally cool, and equally Canadian, Alison Curtis. That I was given a graveyard slot, at a time when Jenny had usually begun locking up mattered not a jot to me. I was to have my own show on Phantom. To 20-year old me, this was my moon landing. My Cup Final winning goal. My Top of the Pops appearance.

Long wait

The days between shows would be spent formulating playlists, concocting the perfect segue from one track to another, and using my staff discount in HMV to a reckless degree to ensure I was able to play the best stuff. I’d get the 39 in every Monday night, with a bag full of CDs, and the Nitelink home after the show.

On Monday nights, the Nitelink only ran at 12.30 and 2am, so this meant I’d have a hefty wait on Westmoreland St for the 2am bus. On one occasion, this led to me sitting, huddled away from the biting wind in the doorway beside Abrakebabra. There, I had a homeless gentleman ask me in the spirit of kinship if I was OK.

The next Monday, in an effort to keep myself off the streets, I decided as I was the last person on, I could pretty much decide when the show ended. So I went on until 1.30am. The response, as I remember it, was always pretty sound. People texted, people emailed, they inhabited the long-lost Phantom chatroom.

Going underground

Pretty soon into my run, I was invited to attend my first Phantom staff meeting. This took place in the basement of Toner’s of Baggot St and felt clandestine in every sense. This would be my first introduction to everyone else and boy was I intimidated. To me, the likes of Alison, Ray McGowan, Tom E Brown (Neill Austin), Ger Roe (who I discovered was the capo di tutti capi) and others were ‘famous’. Just how famous in the case of one staff member, I would soon find out. One unnamed presenter told Alison they enjoyed her show “in the office”, that afternoon. While introducing myself to them, I asked where they worked. I was not ready for the reply, “you know Podge & Rodge? I’m one of them”.

The thing was though, every last person I met was sound, and really welcoming. Quite a revelation that a bunch of unpaid, passionate broadcasters and music lovers didn’t have a shred of ego among them. Just how passionate was evidenced by Steve Conway, who occasionally slept in the studio before presenting his much-loved breakfast show.

I learned so much from everyone in there. Everyone was different, had their own stories, their own ways of doing things. But I soaked as many of them up as possible. Jenny was the only one who got proper thanks in the form of me bringing in sweets every Monday.

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On air, in the legal days [Image: Richie McCormack]

Not that long into my Phantom stint, I went to Whelan’s on a Thursday night for a drink with my girlfriend. Just in the front bar, no real ‘going out’ about it, just a quiet one. I’d forgotten that Phantasm – Phantom’s weekly club – had gotten underway in the main venue. I became aware when Pete slipped through the double doors into the bar. He spotted me there, had a wee chat, complimented Pamela’s “Hungarian-looking” top and asked if I wanted a go on the decks inside as it was quiet. After much humming and hawing, I said “yeah, go on”. The floor was sparsely-populated, which was rare for a Thursday there. So, in my youthful exuberance I threw on “Ride” by The Vines (capturing that zeitgeist, kids) and folk began to stir. Pete questioned whether it was “too big” a tune too early, but I persevered and some folk began dancing. I left him to it.

A few weeks later, I was asked if I wanted to do every third (then every second) Thursday night in Whelan’s. I’d leave work in HMV just after 9, and head up to the Phantom studio to fill a suitcase with the CDs I might need for the night. The likes of Veruca Salt, the Flaming Lips and dEUS would all be slotted in, before heading downstairs. I’d give moustachioed Tommy – the head doorman – an over-enthusiastic nod, and then chat away to Sarah or Moss who were working the door. I constantly felt like I was going to be found out in there, and nearly jumped for joy when Michael at the bar handed me a first free pint during my set. I didn’t though, there was no room for 6’5″ me.

Two instances stick out among my nights there. The first was when a string quartet had been booked as the main act that night. Tables were positioned on the venue floor, as it was deemed a more civilised affair, and some of their audience were somewhat older than the usual Whelan’s set. Once the gig was over, and the regular crowd shuffled in, it was the staff’s obligation to begin clearing away the tables and chairs. Not a major issue, as the vast majority were gone. But there were one or two hanging on, determined to finish their night, even as “Only Shallow” blared out of the speakers. At the third time of asking, one of gents near the front took umbrage with Mick’s requests for him to move into the main bar, stood up and began threateningly waving his walking stick at Michael. I near pissed myself.

The second instance is still my proudest professional moment. This night was jammed. To such a degree it appeared from my vantage point as if there was no free space on the floor at all. The crowd were a bit mad too, with the odd stage invasion and crowd surfer. It got to such a point that Tommy came up to me to ask if I could “calm it down for the next few numbers”. I nodded, said “of course, no bother”, and dug out “Sabotage”. It was like doing a canonball into a swimming pool. I could see the crowd lift off the floor. A nerdy, childish thing, but screw it.

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[Image: Planetgigguide.com]

My first stint as a broadcaster on Phantom, would be echoed in my last. It was too short. Comreg decided to finally shut down the pirates in the first half of 2003. This forced Phantom to continue in an online capacity only. I took up the reigns on Heavy Traffic on a Tuesday afternoon after Edel Coffey (sanely) decided that broadcasting to a few people (mostly in the US, oddly) on the website and in the chatroom perhaps wasn’t worth the effort.

The first temporary licence runs would come about later that year, and I was to be paired with my first radio life partner, Daragh Brophy, on a new music show called The Producers. But, perhaps that’s another story for another day.

I guess, at a time when there’s plenty of articles and posts about Phantom’s demise, I thought I’d at least share one experience of a beginning. And with it, thank all of those who decided to take a punt on me back in 2002.

Reposted with permission from the author’s blog. Richie McCormack was one of several full-time staff members who finished up on the commercial incarnation of Phantom this week, ahead of its rebrand to ‘TXFM’. He was regular presenter of the Phantom 105.2 breakfast show, latterly moving to the weekday evening ‘Richie & Richie’.

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

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