Advertisement
Shutterstock/zblaster
VOICES

Opinion The rise of Atlantic 252 caused no little upset to the UK radio bigwigs in the 1990s

RTÉ is to cease broadcasting on long wave tomorrow. Writer and broadcaster Steve Conway looks back on the history of the 252 bandwidth and its various incarnations.

WHEN RTÉ’S LONG Wave 252 transmitter shuts down tomorrow, it brings to an end a lengthy history of our national broadcaster using powerful radio signals to reach the Irish diaspora in Britain.

But that’s not the only story that 252 was involved in, as it also spent more than a decade as a highly successful “border blaster” pop station and caused no little upset to commercial radio bigwigs in the UK.

As someone who spent a couple of decades living in London, I can attest to listening to both of the very different services.

The argument for retention of the longwave signal has centred on its availability to Irish emigrants living in the UK, and while it’s harder to justify in the digital era, go back a few decades and it’s easy to see just what a vital service RTÉ provided.

When I moved to London in 1984, I was immediately cut off from family and friends in Dublin. Flights were expensive (three weeks wages for a one way flight to Dublin), phone-calls intermittent, and taking the train and ferry home was an expedition. There was no internet, no Facebook or other apps for staying in touch, and no Irish news sources other than print.

I didn’t live in one of the Irish areas of London, so it was a couple of years before I even came across a shop which sold newspapers from home – and those would always be yesterday’s papers.

But if you tuned down to the low end of the band on Medium Wave (the extreme left of the dial) you would find RTÉ on 567Khz. Not really clear enough to hear well during the day, but it came in better at night, especially in winter. Those north or west of London would hear RTÉ more clearly.

Now, I was engrossed in my new life, and I made new friends, so it’s not like I was listening often, but the point is it was there when I wanted it. Catching a news bulletin from home was always interesting in the turbulent 80s, as domestic Irish affairs received little coverage in UK media.

A lifeline 

For those Irish who were of a previous generation, RTÉ was even more of a lifeline, and especially for those who wanted to follow GAA or other sports. Medium Wave broadcasts can carry a lot further than FM if enough power is used, but long wave goes further still, so it’s odd that RTÉ didn’t use longwave in those days, despite Ireland having a frequency allocated by international authorities.

It was only when pirate Chris Cary made some test transmissions on long wave in the mid-80s that RTÉ sat up and took notice.

Cary had been running high power on his Radio Nova medium wave transmitter from Dublin, and many listeners in the Northwest of England were tuning in and there was some interest from advertisers too.

Indeed, UK radio stations were really feeling the heat from Irish-associated interlopers in the mid 1980s, because as well as Radio Nova coming in strongly from across the Irish sea, two powerful medium wave pirates were beaming in from the North Sea and scooping up listeners in the heavily populated London & South East region.

Radio Caroline, founded and still operated at the time by the great Irish eccentric Ronan O’Rahilly offered a mellow mix of rock, pop and album tracks and was moderately successful.

But the higher powered Laser 558, with an all-American crew targeted young audiences with a very focused “hot hits” format, was estimated to have acquired up to 9 million listeners within a few months of launching. And although the voices on air were American, the station was bankrolled by well-known Dublin businessman Philip Smyth.

Here in Ireland, we may have been big viewers of British television, but the British sure did like listening to Irish radio – whether they knew it or not.

Atlantic 252

Chris Cary wanted to expand Radio Nova’s reach into the UK still further, and figured that the longwave could help him, but although tests were made, it never launched full time.

After Cary’s tests RTÉ decided to use the frequency themselves but rather than rebroadcasting their own output, they announced they would team up with European media group RTL (the operators of Radio Luxembourg amongst many other projects) and beam a pop music service into the UK on high power, collecting as many listeners and advertisers as they could.

The project was originally christened Radio Tara but by the time of launch had been renamed Atlantic 252 (although it actually broadcast on 254khz for the first year, it always identified as 252).

Construction of the 800 foot mast at Clarkestown near Summerhill in Meath was controversial and went ahead in the face of complaints and protests by locals, but it was complete by 1989, and the station duly launched in September.

Initially it only operated from 7am to 7pm, but soon enough extended to night time hours. Locals near the transmitter mast complained of interference to phonelines and other devices at first.

Like the successful offshore pirate Laser 558 (from whom it had nabbed a couple of staff), Atlantic had a very tightly formatted hit music playlist, and it quickly picked up a large audience.

Even though the majority of UK commercial stations were on FM, with better audio quality, Atlantic 252 proved that if your product was good, you would attract listeners no matter what the medium.

NoTara Locals near the transmitter mast complained of interference to phonelines. Steve Conway Steve Conway

When the UK launched its RAJAR radio listening figures in late 1992, news outlets reported with surprise that the most listened to commercial radio station in the UK was  a longwave pop service originating from Ireland.

It was recorded as having more than 5 million weekly listeners, almost a million ahead of its nearest rival Classic FM.

Amazingly, given the image of longwave as an outdated technology, more than 900,000 of these listeners were in the “under 15” category.

There had been a lot of scepticism of the Irish-based station amongst the media elite in London, and in January 1993, even while reporting the winning listener figures, the (UK) Independent snippily commented that this was a radio station “broadcast from a field 20 miles from Dublin”.

This comment does rather seem to misunderstand how radio stations work – programmes originate from studios, and are sent to transmitters which, requiring large masts, are usually located in fields or on mountaintops.

Using the same logic, you could say that BBC Radio 4 broadcasts from a field – but I’m sure The Independent would never have suggested that.

The same article said that the station could “barely be heard” in the South East of the UK, but I have many memories of driving around Kent and indeed South London with Atlantic 252 blasting out on the car radio.

End of a century 

Atlantic lasted through the 90s and into the early 2000s before audiences finally declined and the station closed, as by then there were hundreds of new music stations on FM and the MP3 player was rising in popularity.

There was a brief attempt to run a sports talk station on 252, but that didn’t last long. In 2004, RTÉ finally decided to use the longwave service to rebroadcast Radio 1, closing down the medium wave outlets a few years later.

The service in recent years seems to have been running on lower power than in the Atlantic 252 days, and the rise of multiple digital services has meant that it is no longer the lifeline for Irish in the UK that it once was.

Combined with the fact that radios with longwave are now very rare in new cars, and the explosion of electronic devices in our homes which generate low level interference on AM frequencies, the utility of 252 compared to its large power consumption is finally at an end.

I’ll miss it though – there was something about driving along back roads in Kent, as far away from Ireland as you can get, and being able to listen on the car radio to something from home that was quite magic, in an analog way – even if it did just come from a field 20 miles from Dublin.

Steve Conway is a writer and broadcaster, formerly with Radio Caroline and Phantom 105.2, and these days heard on 8Radio.com

Your Voice
Readers Comments
19
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel