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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 21 March, 2019
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The day a radio contest literally melted-down Dublin's phone network

Yes. LITERALLY.

RADIO COMPETITIONS ARE old-hat these days.

Every commercial station in the country regularly runs big-cash or holiday giveaways.

They come in a variety of formats — but the tried and trusted method employed by broadcasters for years was the ‘caller number’ contest…

You know the drill — you have to be caller number ten, 95, 98, 104 (or whatever) to win that pair of flights to New York, those tickets to Bryan Adams, or that voucher for the Dundrum Town Centre.

Not exactly a concept that sets the pulse racing, is it?

For those who’ve grown up in a multi-channel, digital world, it may be difficult to believe that something as trifling as a ‘five grand phone in’ could cause a city’s telephone network to give up the ghost.

But that’s exactly what happened, one day, many years ago, at Radio Nova.

The 30-year-anniversary of the freak event just passed us by last month — so we thought we’d take a quick look-back at how the scenario played out, in September 1984.

Radio Nova — not to be confused with the present-day radio station with a similar name — was, as some commentators have pointed out, part of an ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’.

‘Superpirates’

Unlicensed, pirate radio stations flourished in Ireland in the early 1980s — providing younger listeners a vibrant alternative to the state broadcaster.

Amongst them, were the Dublin ‘super pirates’ of Sunshine Radio and Nova — which employed a full roster of presenters.

The likes of Bryan Dobson and Ken Hammond got their starts in the Nova newsroom.

On the music side, DJs like Chris Barry, ex-2fm boss John Clarke, Gareth O’Callagan and plenty of others took their first steps in the business, spinning discs from the station’s city HQ.

Source: Henry O'Donovan/YouTube

The phone-in

The station’s FM sound and format was “unlike anything heard before” by Irish radio listeners, one former staff-member recalls.

Enterprising Englishman Chris Carey, who had broadcast aboard the floating Radio Caroline under the name ‘Spangles Muldoon’ before a stint at Radio Luxembourg, started the venture at a house on Herbert Street in 1981.

Employing many of the tropes of US hit radio, it became hugely popular.

Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland ... The late Bob Gallico at Radio Nova's studios in 1983.

 

Soon, Carey and his colleagues hit on the idea of staging ‘big cash giveaway’ as a way of generating publicity, and attracting yet more listeners.

The competitions — which had long lead-in times — were designed to have maximum impact, with teaser ads promising the station guaranteed to play a certain three songs in a row by a certain date. And that when they did, a huge amount of cash would be won.

“This was built up for months in advance,” recalls presenter Scott Williams (who now helms the breakfast show on Dublin’s Q102).

The deal was we play three songs, and we give away five grand.

Says Denis Murray*, another ex-DJ: “The idea was to create as much hysteria as possible.

There’d been nothing like it ever before… The whole concept that you could make a simple phonecall, time it right, and walk away with five grand in cash…

There was a huge buy-in from the public, Murray recalls…

Presenters would play just one song of the set to keep people on the edge. Other times, they’d be inundated with calls after playing the final song only — the now-long-forgotten ‘Sunshine Reggae’.

Source: bellot59000/YouTube

The meltdown

On the night of in question, says Murray, John Clarke was the man in the hotseat. All three songs were played out, and the phone-calls began to flood in…

It was mad. People were getting out of cars and running to phone boxes to get through. Whatever they could do.

As a result, the city’s fragile phone system simply collapsed under the demand — creating yet more hysteria, along with acres of newspaper coverage.

“The thing was, Nova’s reach was so large at the time,” Williams recalls.

It covered half of Leinster on medium wave… If you turned on the radio in the Isle of man, Nova would come through as clear as your local radio station.

The network breakdown lasted “just a few hours” as engineers worked frantically to restore normal service.

And the broadcaster came in for some negative attention as a result.

Williams, again:

There was a lot of criticism afterwards … but in my view that was just people using it for propaganda purposes.

Nova continued to flourish, along with the likes of Sunshine and dozens of smaller operations around the country. The era of the pirates came to an end in December 1988, as stations were forced off air to comply with new broadcasting laws.

*Murray now teaches media production and management at Ballyfermot College of Further Education.

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

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