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Behind the scenes at the country's festive HQ: Christmas FM

The charity radio station will be providing the soundtrack to thousands of drinks parties and present-wrapping sessions this December. But what’s it like to work there? TheJournal.ie goes behind the muzak…

THERE’S TRADITION IN the Alpine regions of a sort-of ‘anti-Santa’ figure; the mythical ‘Krampus‘ is the yang to the original Saint Nick’s yin.  A nightmarish figure with cloven hooves, a goat-like visage — and equipped with a sack to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transportation to Hell; his story has been used down through the centuries as a way of convincing the the young of Bavaria, Austria and elsewhere to eat their greens, bring the damn goatherd down from the upper pasture and complete whatever other sundry chores might be expected of them.

Now — granted, all of that has very little to do with a radio station that plays round-the-clock festive hits; it’s just that, as I pull up a little after 9am on a Thursday morning in early December to spend some time in the company of the people behind the unceasingly jolly service, I’m feeling a little more Krampus-ey than Chistmassy.

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So this is Krampus… [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Even if you haven’t heard the name before, chances are you’ll have caught Christmas FM‘s output at some stage over the last few weeks. Based on an American format, the station pumps out a  never-ending playlist of Wham, Bing, Cliff, Shakey, Bublé and (of course) Fairytale of New York, and broadcasts from the last week in November right through to St Stephen’s Day. Now in its sixth year of operation — its on-air staff give their time for free, and help raise impressive amounts of money for a chosen charity each Christmas. The station has grown since 2008, and like the famous department store chain is now ‘almost nationwide’ with FM frequencies in all the main population areas, in addition to a web streaming service.

I’ve arranged to drop-by for an hour or so to find out a little bit more about how the station works. It’s a peculiar beast: run under a temporary licence from the BAI (the kind also given out regularly to school and college radio stations), it’s on air for just a few weeks of the year, yet has become hugely popular with the radio-listening public. Household name guests drop by regularly to share their Christmas memories and help-out with the charity drive. Singer Mary Byrne is in studio holding-forth about her festive plans as I arrive, Anne Doyle is expected in in the coming days, and the station was launched this year by Brian Kennedy.

Never one to skimp on the research, by the time I walk through the doors at the station’s base in Dublin 4′s Ballsbridge Hotel, I’ve already listened to several hours’ worth of Christmas FM — admittedly, broken up between different days as there’s generally only so many songs featuring sleigh-bells and ethereal choirs I can tolerate in quick succession. However, the appeal to listeners (especially those with young children) is obvious — if you’re spending the afternoon, say, wrapping presents or decorating the tree, it’s the perfect soundtrack; turn the dial to the right bandwith, and you’ve instant seasonal atmosphere.

But how do the people who have to oversee this tinsel-fest manage to keep their sanity amid the relentless onslaught of ‘Walking on the Air’ and ‘Feliz Navidad’? Surely, after the first five to ten listens, even the airing of a relatively decent and well-loved festive track — ‘Last Christmas’ for instance — must turn into an experience akin to a sort of aural ‘Chinese water torture’?

Perhaps, with a little ‘Columbo‘ style questioning this morning I’ll manage to pursuade the powers-that-be at Christmas FM to admit they’re occasionally irked by Bing Crosby. Even if just to satisfy my own inner-Krampus.

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[ColumboGifs via Tumblr]

My mission seems doomed to failure as soon as I arrive in the studio — set-up in a suite on the hotel’s ground level. I’m greeted by founder Garvan Rigby and station manager Dan McDermott in a small office and production area attached to a surprisingly spacious and sophisticated-looking broadcast studio. Both are eager to spread the word about Christmas FM to the few people who still haven’t heard of it, and to highlight the charity angle, which is a major aspect of each year’s broadcast. While not quite reaching Buddy the Elf levels of enthusiasm, both have a pretty authentic-seeming earnest cheeriness about them.

Rigby is one of the directors of the station, and oversees its affairs on a year-round basis, alongside his day-job as programme director of Spirit FM. He gives me a potted history of the service as he shows me around, explaining how the format has changed in the years since it first took to the air in November 2008.

“The first year, we addressed the charity aspect with quite a serious tone, but since then realised that people were more interested in the fun aspect of what we’re doing — although we do have regular reminders of the charity factor, and where listeners’ donations are going.”

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Christmas FM director Garvan Rigby, singer Mary Byrne and breakfast presenter Keith Shanley [Image: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie]

Barnardos, Focus Ireland and the Simon Community have all benefited from involvement with Christmas FM over its years in operation, while in 2012 over €100,000 was raised for the ISPCC and Childline. The team are hoping to raise a similar amount for this year’s charity, Aware, over the next few weeks, and bring the running total for the entire six years to around €600,000.

Given the recent headlines surrounding charities in Ireland, Rigby is eager to point out that there’s a specific ‘Chinese Wall‘ between the money that comes from the station’s sponsors, and the cash that comes in from donations.

“Every cent that people pledge, every two euro that comes in from the text line — that goes straight to Aware.”

Though the on-air staff give their time for free, a professional-standard radio station still costs money to run.  The funds for everything from studio equipment and transmission facilities to photocopying and teabags are provided by the three main sponsors: Centra, Vodafone and the Irish Daily Mail.

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[Buddy The Elf via Tumblr]

I’ve picked a busy time to drop by. As we’re chatting, breakfast presenter (and commercial radio veteran) Keith Shanley wraps up his Mary Byrne interview, and signs off from his weekday breakfast slot, trading places behind the microphone with another experienced presenter, former Today FM DJ Enda Caldwell.

“If you think this is busy you should try being here on the 19th,” Rigby says, as he hands around a tin of Roses and offers cups of tea.

The 19th of December (next Thursday) has been marked off as this year’s ‘donation day’ — when the station and its presenters will go all-out, staging a 24-hour telethon for charity.

“It’s madness. Listeners really get on board, and we have people dropping by the studio all the time.

“We’re playing counties off against each other, different cities — groups try and outdo each other to see how much they can donate, and we have a running tally as the day goes on. We have companies involved too, and people run events in their workplaces — that’s when you tend to see the larger corporate amounts donated too.”

The process of deciding which charity to partner with happens between March and May of each year, Rigby explains.

“Yeah, it’s really a year-round operation. We’re still sorting stuff out from the previous Christmas come January and February. Then we’ll start thinking about the following year.”

A number of charities make submissions to the station every year, and the successful organisation is decided upon by Christmas FM’s directors, based on a number of factors.

“Size comes into it — it has to be a national charity, there’s no point in partnering with a charity that only works in Dublin or only works in Cork, because the rest of the country won’t know what we’re talking about. But the whole issue of mental health and mental well-being has been very much in the news and at the focus of people’s minds this year, so Aware also felt like a very appropriate organisation to be involved with.”

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Singer Brian Kennedy with presenter Enda Caldwell [Image: Christmas FM]

We’re almost coming to the end of my hour or so at the station. On air, Caldwell is attempting festive greetings in French, German and Irish, after yet another airing of ‘Feliz Navidad’ before rattling through a list of children’s names and dedications, and linking into what sounds like a Rat Pack version of ‘Jingle Bells’.

I’d almost forgotten about my ulterior motive. Paxman-like, I begin hitting the Christmas FM crew with the hardball questions: ‘The songs, the sleigh-bells, the incessant cheeriness — doesn’t it ever begin to drive you slightly crazy?’

“No, we love Christmas music,” Rigby and station manager McDermott answer, almost in unison.

“We never get sick of them — because there’s so many we play every year, it’s a very wide playlist,” Rigby adds. “We may hold back on some of the more novelty ones, like the one by Frank Kelly, maybe some of the Cliff Richard ones too until the last few weeks, but no, we generally like everything.”

I sense a weakness: “So, would you go as far as to say you hate Cliff Richard?”

“No, not at all, it’s just he has so many songs, we hold back on some of them till closer to the day”.

I sense Rigby’s had to deal with intensive questioning on this subject before. It’s probably the first thing people ask him in pubs when they find out what he does. Having no desire to insult my hosts (who are, after all, overseeing a massive charity fundraising initiative) I finish my tea, hand back the tin of Roses and say my goodbyes.

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Roses…On offer all month long at Chrismas FM [Twitter/@DairyMilk]

McDermott is heading out to buy some milk as I depart (tea seems very important to these people) and walks me to the door of the hotel. On the way, we chat about his role, overseeing the day-to-day of the station’s output.

It’s his first year in the position, so, sensing that I may be in the presence of someone slightly less practised at being asked tough questions about Shakin’ Stevens, I decide to try my luck once again at persuading McDermott to admit that sometimes, just every now and again, he might, say, turn down the speakers in the office so he can get some work done.

“No, really,” comes the response to my renewed questioning. “I don’t get sick of it. There’s so many great Christmas songs. Wham, Greg Lake, you know — ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’? I honestly think I could listen to that song all day.”

He pauses as we’re about to part ways. “Actually, you know that Darkness song — Don’t Let the Bells End? Well, I’m not too fond of that.”

Perhaps this is the chink in the armour I’ve been looking for? “Right, so that’s one Christmas song that you’d be willing to go as far as to say you hate?

There’s a brief look of panic, then a knowing grin. “No. Nope, it wouldn’t be up there with the best of what we play… but I still like it a lot.”

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The Darkness [Screengrab via Youtube]

Well, perhaps I am being overly Grinch-like…

The dial on the car radio is still turned to Christmas FM as I leave Dublin 4 and head into the office. I catch the last half of ‘Band Aid’ (the proper, original version), and then the opening stains of Fairytale of New York fill the car as I pull up into traffic along the Grand Canal. It’s the first time I’ve heard what’s effectively the country’s festive anthem this year. As the familiar tragic tale plays out, I have to admit that — yes, my thoughts do begin to turn to Christmases gone by, and the one to come.

Then this comes on, and I almost crash the car…

Read: It’s December 1st babe… and for radio listeners, there’s no escaping the ‘Fairytale’

Read: Haven’t caught the Christmas spirit yet? Watch these 9 clips

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