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The 1988 closedown: How a legal loophole led to an explosion in Irish pirate radio

“You had grown up guys, some crying”: Remembering the night the pirates called it a day.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

THE NEWSPAPER HEADLINES blared the news: ‘Over and Out’, ‘The Last Waltz’, ‘Pirates Finally Sink’.  

After years of threats and crack-downs, it was the end of an era for Irish broadcasting.  

Across the country, stations that had exploited a loophole in the law to build a thriving and lucrative radio industry unplugged the microphones for a final time at the end of December 1988.

The pirate closedown was front-page news. Public wakes were held as DJs signed off for the last time. In towns and cities around the country, listeners dropped off cakes, gifts and heartfelt fan letters. 

Some presenters – the star names – were confident they would go on to forge new careers in the world of legal, licensed broadcasting.

Others faced uncertainty and unemployment: the hundreds of unlicensed stations that had flourished in a legal grey area would eventually be replaced with just a few dozen independent commercial broadcasters backed by deep-pocketed investors. 

Exploiting a loophole

At one time, it seemed almost every parish in the country had its own pirate outfit. Broadcast historian Eddie Bohan reckons that between the major players and the smaller, hobby operations there were about 200 stations at the height of the pirate boom. 

There had been pirate broadcasters in Ireland going back decades – but on a more limited scale. A court ruling in the late 1970s significantly cut the risk of operating, leading to the subsequent explosion in competition in the sector. 

Everything changed after a judge agreed with a station owner’s contention that if a piece of equipment – a transmitter, a mixing desk – could be proven to have an alternative use, then it couldn’t be considered to be illegal broadcasting equipment. 

“The loophole meant that if they weren’t able to seize what were known as the crystals in the transmitter they couldn’t prove you were actually broadcasting – so the equipment could be used for anything – for training DJs – anything other than broadcasting,” Bohan explained. 

It meant that if you weren’t convicted the equipment that was seized by the P&T [the Department of Posts and Telegraphs] had to be given back to you in pristine condition – so stations started to get this carte blanche.

Robbie Robinson and Chris Carey, two veterans of the famous ship-based UK pirate Radio Caroline, were alerted to this regulatory Wild West situation in Ireland. 

Initially, they headed to Waterford to set up another ship-based station – but as the pirate scene continued to thrive in the absence of raids, the pair figured dry land was probably a more sensible bet. 

CHRIS CAREY Radio Nova owner Chris Carey with DJ Sybil Fennell at the station's Dublin HQ in May 1983. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Sunshine Radio was set up first – broadcasting from next to the Sands Hotel in the north Dublin suburb of Portmarnock. From day one, it marked itself apart from the competition thanks to its slick, professional sound.

Not everyone was enthralled with the arrival of this upstart new operator. The nascent station’s mast was destroyed in a suspected sabotage attack, prompting Carey to pull out and sell his share of the company to Robinson. 

But as Sunshine’s popularity grew, Carey decided to get back in the game. Before long Radio Nova went on the air from Herbert Street in south Dublin with an even slicker, ‘clutter free’ format. 

According to Bohan: ”It just blew everybody, including RTÉ, out of the water. The first six months were clutter free, ad free. It built up a reputation, and then they were climbing over themselves to advertise with the station. He had so much advertising he had to set up a second station to keep the advertisers happy.”

Presenter Declan Meehan, who jumped ship from Sunshine to become one of the star presenters at Nova in the early 80s, tells a story about Carey that underscores just how lucrative the radio business became for the ‘super pirate’ operators. 

I said: ‘When am I starting’? Carey said: ‘Oh, in about two weeks’ time’. ‘Why?’ ‘Well you’ve got to get the Nova way. And the way to get it is you go to Los Angeles… I’ve got a condominium there and there’s a great radio station, Kiss FM. There’s the keys to the car, the keys to the condo – here’s your airline tickets. Bring your girlfriend and listen for two weeks to the station, to Kiss FM. That’s your job, you’re actually working for me, and come back as if you’re working on that radio station – absorb the philosophy of it. 

Carey, Meehan explained, struck on a killer formula: songs played in rows of twos and threes and a US-leaning musical output featuring radio-friendly bands like Steely Dan, the Steve Miller Band and Fleetwood Mac alongside current hits from the likes of Rick Springfield and Chris Rea. 

Instead of slavishly following the British chart they would only play a sprinkling from it – it was mostly US tracks, combined with that philosophy of presentation.

From the DJs to the newsreaders, Carey wanted everyone on the station to be articulate and to sound as good as possible. On top of that, the IDs and jingles sounded great – and there was a pristine signal.

FB_IMG_1453153096400 The Radio Nova mast. Source: Courtesy Declan Meehan

At one stage Nova had around 40% listenership in Dublin and Sunshine had 20%. Radio 2, RTÉ’s ‘youth’ station which had been set up in part to take on the challenge of the pirates, languished at a mere 11%. 

There were big stations in Cork, Limerick and Galway too. Up along the border, another handful of stations relied on powerful transmitters to send their signal into the North. 

The big players hoovered up the agency ads as firms block booked packages with the likes of Sunshine and Nova. Smaller time operators that sprang up around the country in attics and garden sheds were able to keep the lights on by selling ads to local supermarkets and butchers.

As Bohan explained:

Some of the bigger stations were so successful they had to stay almost on the right side of the law. They became kind-of quasi-legal – where they were paying PAYE, they were paying PRSI, they were paying Imro, they were paying PPI, they were paying their staff – not everybody but the bigger stations were.

3455 Source: Courtesy Eddie Bohan

‘He would have been fried’

As dole queues lengthened in the 1980s, politicians were reluctant to add to the spiralling unemployment numbers by putting the pirates out of business.

But it was clear that the bigger, unlicensed stations now posed an existential threat to RTÉ. In May 1983, the mounting pressure on the Fine Gael-Labour government resulted in a series of raids. 

Meehan, who helmed the breakfast show at Nova, recalls being on the air when there was a knock on the door of their studio. A “very nice and polite” delegation of Department officials and gardaí raided the station, demanding the transmitter be turned off. 

The station cooperated and brought the unexpected visitors out to the transmitter site several miles away in Rathfarnham where one official, in an act of either astounding naivety or foolhardy zealousness, produced a set of shears in an attempt to cut the cable.

Nova’s sales manager advised a safer course of action, said Meehan.

He would have been fried.

Sunshine was raided the next day too – prompting the super pirates to form an alliance in opposition to the raids. Thousands of young people took to the streets demanding the stations be allowed back on air. 

Soon they were both back in business – but the following year RTÉ took matters into its own hands by putting out jamming signals to stop pirate stations from using prohibited frequencies. 

The radio dial was becoming clogged up as small, amateur operations and the larger pirates jostled for space. 

Emergency services complained that signals were causing problems locally. A letter from Dublin City Council to the government, released to the national archives in 2014, gives an indication of the sort of problems being experienced. 

The Council, it said, “deplores the situation which occurred last Friday as a result of the Radio Nova programme which resulted in all telephone services to doctors, hospitals, ambulances, fire brigade and other services breaking down and calls on the Government to ensure that this type of breakdown does not recur”.

RTÉ Chairman Fred O’Donovan, in a letter to Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, wrote that the situation had become “extremely serious” and urged that legislation to bring an end to the pirates’ reign be moved up the timetable.

Unlicensed broadcasting, he argued, wasn’t just a harmless activity but had become seriously disruptive “and its continued presence is steadily bringing the concept of the rule of law into greater and greater disrepute”. 

The pirate stations kept up their lobbying campaign. Sunshine even took the step of publishing a colour monthly newsletter featuring endorsements from musicians and high-profile UK radio stars.

People wrote letters to the Taoiseach’s office. One irate eight-year-old girl told Fitzgerald RTÉ were being “very mean” to block Sunshine, while the Fine Gael Taoiseach explained in response that the “legislation setting up the [new broadcasting authority] is very complicated”.  

End game 

A lack of a clear plan on how to replace the pirates contributed to the political inertia. Debate raged over whether RTÉ should take over some frequencies or whether the independent sector should be allowed step in. 

Eventually, an independent broadcasting landscape similar to the one we’re familiar with today was decided upon: there would be one national commercial station, while local commercial licences would be on offer for cities and counties. 

A deadline of New Year’s Eve 1988 was set for the stations to take themselves off air. 

Fines were increased from a token £50 to £20,000, and owners were told that anyone still broadcasting in January would automatically disqualify themselves from being granted a licence by the Independent Radio and Television Commission.

The pirates’ days were numbered. Most stations complied with the directive in the hope of being granted official status in the near future.

Those that stayed on air simply had their power and their phone lines cut – making it impossible to keep up a continuous service of any real scale. 

Presenter Keith Shanley was on air at Klas FM, an easy listening station operating from Dublin’s Harcourt Street, on the day most stations chose to cease broadcasting, 30 December.

His show ended in the afternoon, and he remembers a procession of well-wishers showing up that evening as he stayed on for the final few hours of the station’s existence. 

“To the best of my knowledge we were one of the last ones because what I remember was a huge gathering of people out in the street,” Shanley recalled. 

“You had a lot of people from other stations dropping in to say their goodbyes while we were on air. 

It was emotional because you felt that your radio career of ten odd years was finished because the stations were closing and that was it.

The station went off air at about 9pm, Shanley said. 

“You had grown up guys, some crying – some with tears in their eyes and, you know, it was emotional.”

There were so many well-wishers visiting that a decision was eventually made to limit the numbers allowed in. 

I don’t think anyone had realised how big it was. The whole road was completely blocked with people.

Nova had gone out of business in 1986 after a dispute with the NUJ, but Sunshine had stayed on air up to the deadline. Neither station won a licence under the new regime.

00114163_114163 Bob Gallico, the Radio Nova newsreader, was instantly recognisable thanks to his deep, booming American voice. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Looking back

From the tiny attic and back shed operations to the Dublin super pirates, it’s a fair guess to assume that thousands of people were involved in the unofficial radio business in Ireland across the late 70s and 1980s. 

Many young enthusiasts had envisaged a broadcasting world free from the influence of government, where stations would be locally owned and presenters could play what they liked to whoever chose to listen. 

Said Declan Meehan: “We thought it would be great, that you’d have people like Ronan O’Rahilly who founded Radio Caroline and that various people like that would have stations and the whole thing would be wonderful, you know, we’d have jobs.” 

It was perhaps a naive view, Meehan reckons. In 2018, independent commercial radio is still going strong – but the biggest stations are all owned by moguls like Denis O’Brien and Rupert Murdoch. 

“So we have the international conglomerates, and the BAI, the broadcasting authority -  you have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get your licence, which then has lots of regulatory controls as regards 20% news and current affairs, how many ads you can play and, depending on what your licence is, what you can play in terms of various eras of music and various genres of music and you have to adhere to it all. 

So in the wake of the the fight for free radio we’ve ended up with big corporations and micro-management from the broadcasting authority … so what was it all for except for more stations on the band?

Check out the Dublin’s Pirate Days Facebook page for more from Eddie Bohan. Keith Shanley presents Twilight Time on Midlands103 and can be heard each December on Christmas FM. Declan Meehan presents The Morning Show on East Coast FM. You’ll find more archive audio and interviews on the Pirate.ie website

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