Phantom 105.2: the pirate that went straight
Before it existed, the alternative music station Phantom had an audience. “Before it existed,” is how Keith Walsh, the station’s current programme director, briefly and jokingly refers to its unofficial prelaunch incarnation as a pirate radio station. Phantom has been operating, depending on who you ask, since 1996 or 1997 – first from a shed in Sandyford, then above an internet cafe on Grafton Street, and later from an unused apartment next door to music venue Whelan’s.
Phantom was, “before it existed”, a much-loved part of Dublin’s rock infrastructure. Unlike many of the other pirate radio operators in Dublin, it was relatively professionally run, kept pretty consistent schedules and never hid its aspirations to be a legitimate licensed station. It ran nightclubs (Phantasm), played niche indie-rock music when such music was hard to find, and provided local bands with much-needed airplay (I was in one of those bands; they always gave us tea and biscuits).
When Phantom finally became a legal station in 2006 as Phantom 105.2, many of its listeners, DJs, and certainly its founders (a bunch of music and radio fans) thought the struggle was over. But in many ways, Phantom won the war and lost the peace.
Six years later most of those founders are gone (some voluntarily, others not), the station is now 33 per cent owned by Communicorp, 33 per cent by Gaiety Investments and 33 per cent by Principle Management, and is run from Marconi House alongside other Communicorp stations. The founders’ company, Wireless Media, sold what remained of its stake in 2012. The staff has been cut back. Shows by presenters including Alison Curtis have been cancelled, and other presenters, such as Jim Carroll and Michelle Doherty, have moved on of their own accord.
The current programme director acknowledges there is a perception, perhaps not entirely fair, that Phantom can never compete with its glory days as a pirate.
“Some people actually say: ‘It was better when it was in the shed’,” says Keith Walsh wearily. “Nostalgia’s a terrible thing.”
Even the departed founders don’t think it was actually better in the shed. “I have a recording of Glen Hansard out there doing an acoustic version of Revelate,” chuckles Simon Maher, until 2011 the station’s deputy programme director and afternoon DJ.
“And next door there was this dog that used to bark like a bastard and midway through Glen takes a little break and you can just hear the dog, ‘Arf! Arf! Arf!’”
There was, says Maher, no great plan at the outset. “Seven or eight of us were all involved in various things – radio or playing bands, DJing in clubs,” he says. “There wasn’t a real organised thing, we just ended up together. I used to have a radio station in the back garden of my house in Ballybrack. It was called Coast FM and it ran from 1992 to 1996. It was really 1997 to 1998 when a group of us got together to do a rock-station thing. We’d rent the shed, which would include the studio and the transmitter and all that stuff.”
The 1990s were still heady days for pirate radio. Transmitters would be housed up on Three Rock Mountain, and were sporadically raided by the police and occasionally stolen. “Ours was stolen twice,” says Maher. “In one case we got it back because the guy started broadcasting with it and we could trace where it was.”
Conditions were rough and ready, but bands needed an outlet and radio audiences were desperate for something different. “There was literally nothing like it at the time,” says James Byrne, host of the cancelled late-night show Nightlink, who still fills in at the station.
“When you came across it, it was like meeting some cool new friend who’s got an awesome record collection and who’s willing to talk to you about music all the time. That generation of people who were in their teens in the mid to late 1990s – they’re the people who really care. I remember ringing in and texting in and that’s how I got involved – by pestering them.”