Donal Dineen: ‘DJing is storytelling with added button-pushing’
My youthful obsession with radio and music set me up for life, and, as I prepare for my final show on 2XM, the radio studio is still the most special place to be
Donal Dineen: ‘I got to live the dream, and now I just have to wake up and conjure another one’
My own big love affair with radio began before lengths lost their waves and bands became a bit too broad for their boots. Radios, remember them? Many of us can appreciate how central a machine it was, but there’s a new generation for whom it sticks out like a dinosaur with an aerial.
The venerable Ciarán Mac Mathúna and his show Mo Cheol Thú was our Sunday morning precursor to Mass. His was the first voice that stopped me in my tracks. Even now, hearing tunes I first heard on that programme strikes a chord. I can see the sunlight, smell the polish and taste the porridge. I began to wonder why we were going to Mass at all when there was a man on that machine with a way with words more mellifluous than God’s own, and a choice of music you could call heavenly.
The only trouble with the radio set was that it picked up the neighbour’s electric fence in cattle-corralling season, thereby adding a touch of proto Berlin techno to proceedings.
Graduating to having my own radio felt like a giant leap for mankind. It had a single red light, which I was immensely proud of. In 1970s Kerry, illumination of any kind was a beacon. It lit up my room on those magical night-time voyages of discovery, with the likes of BP Fallon at the controls and the giant Kerry skies as my screensaver. Music took me places. Always upwards. Away from the farm. Away from my troubles. Away alone, lost in music.
Responsible for its own demise
It’s a different story now. Radio is partly responsible for its own demise by playlisting itself to within an inch of its life, but other forces have played a part. Technological innovation is designed to divide and conquer and has done a good job of pushing radio down the pecking order. My friend’s four-year-old recently inquired if their retro radio set was for listening to the war on. She’s right in a way. It’s a battlefield scattered with this week’s dispatch from Simon Cowell’s arsenal of toxic waste.
Let’s go back to March 1997, a very modern month for the time. Radio Ireland (now Today FM) was launching on two broken wings, pieces of string, protruding wires, prayers and a torrent of panic. Nothing went viral. Lots went wrong. I survived because there were bigger fish to toss from the pan and into the fire. I stayed as far back as I could. That’s me in the corner.
It was a rough start-up as these things usually are but it was by no means all bad. Magic was in the airwaves for one thing. I was embarrassing myself weekly on TV with No Disco when the aroma of radio’s limitless possibilities wafted towards me though a crack in the door. I was a devotee of Gilles Peterson’s show at the time, and a crack at that was what I craved.
I couldn’t believe my luck when a few fortuitous sparks were flying from Radio Ireland HQ and blew my way. It was chaotic and exhilarating, a ring of fire.
Many got burned but others thrived in the heat. It was a steep learning curve, and John Kelly was my main instructor. He had a way with words and a surfer’s command of the high rolling waves. I had a nightly routine of recreating Hong Kong-like cities with shaky CD skyscrapers and stacks of records, whereas John would work wonders with the merest set of tools. I’d be on the floor mopping up the splintered remains of fallen plastic towers (they inevitably shook and toppled nightly), while he would glide past with a pencil, a sheet of notepaper and a handful of CDs before barely pausing for breath and launching into yarns as if he had the Smithsonian Library at his fingertips, Alan Lomax in one ear and Patrick Kavanagh in the other. Like he always said when the bulletin dropped out: “No news is good news.”