With daily listenership at 80 per cent among Irish adults, radio is still as significant as ever in Irish culture and media consumption. Despite this fact, the space for sounds that aren't exclusively of a commercial nature has shrunk in recent years. With a few exceptions, there is scant opportunity for musical surprises on air in Ireland.
Eschewing traditional FM/AM output, Dublin Digital Radio (DDR) started broadcasting online last October with an interest in catering to the more adventurous, curious listener. Taking its cue from community radio elsewhere, such as NTS in London, Berlin Community Radio, Red Light in Amsterdam and Subcity in Glasgow, the independent non-profit station runs through listen.dublindigitalradio.com/ and is volunteer-lead. Since its inception a year ago, the station has reached more than 5,000 listeners a month.
The station operates out of Jigsaw, near Mountjoy Square, Dublin, in a building that houses the offices of the Workers Solidarity Movement, alternative media platform Rabble, a music studio and an events space.
When I visit, a gang of volunteers are meeting to organise the running of the station. When they're not in the building they keep in touch on messaging app Slack. I meet with Brian McNamara (a student of Music and Media Technology in Trinity who DJs as Breen), Cathy Flynn (a recent radio undergrad working in designing videography), and Sean Finnan (a TEFL teacher who also works in a bar). While the station is broadcasting upstairs, Tai Chi takes place in their downstairs event space, which is also used for housing action-group meetings, refugee and migrant dinners, and weekly movie screenings for the homeless.
“It’s like a parish hall basically,” says Finnan of their base of operations.
“It’s more than the radio,” offers McNamara. “It has the same role as a record shop in a way, as a place for people to come and hang out and talk to each other. If we had to be in an industrial estate in Blanchardstown, it wouldn’t be the same energy.”
DDR is entirely funded by listeners and the occasional parties the station throws in their event space. A subscription on creator-supporting platform Patreon helps pay the station’s rent and equipment upkeep.
“There are a lot of people who want to listen to the radio in the daytime but there’s nothing interesting there,” McNamara says. “There’s a lot of stuff happening in Dublin and further afield that isn’t represented on the radio. We wanted DDR to be a space for those artists and labels who were just not part of the conversation.”
The station embraces its outsider status and takes a stand on social and political issues. DDR has run all-day events such as 24 Hours of Women’s Voices in support of Repeal, a Pride collaboration with This Greedy Pig and Smirnoff, along with live broadcasts from Sounds From A Safe Harbour and Record Store Day, which help boost awareness of its existence.
DDR's shows are varied, playlist-free and wide-ranging and most of its presenters are drawn from the Irish music and creative community. Presenters include Ellll, Gib Cassidy (Elastic Witch), The Thin Air, Joni, Neil O'Connor (Somadrone), Aisling O'Riordan (Quarter Block Party), DJ Lolz, Dwayne Woods, Cáit Fahey and Robbie Kitt.
You could hear ambient, synth-pop, house, hip-hop, leftfield electronica, indie, experimental, folk, jazz, everything in-between and beyond like Quiet Angry Women, a fortnightly show featuring “powerful tunes from powerful women”.
“A lot of shows on DDR are really far out,” says McNamara. “We have people playing field recordings and all sorts of stuff. The whole point of being here is that there are no rules. You can do whatever you want on-air.”
A lo-fi charm
Broadcasting on the internet 24/7 can be done cheaply and DDR's presenters are still finding their voice. Sometimes they don't speak clearly into the mic or aren't the smoothest operators (on a recent show the presenter was fumbling with a USB stick on-air trying to see what was on it to play), but there's an intimate, ramshackle charm to its shows, and the volunteers are the first to admit that the station is always striving to improve in quality, and presenters have gained in experience. McNamara points to Jill Woodnut, who presents the weekly hip-hop show Staxx Lyrical, as an example of progress.
"When she first started her show, you could barely hear her talking," McNamara says. "Now she's played Electric Picnic, Body&Soul, is doing regular gigs and is so confident now. She has all these Irish hip-hop artists in every week. She wouldn't have got the chance to do that anywhere else."
DDR’s lack of licensing means it is free to do what it likes likes when broadcasting and it doesn’t sound like the station will be seeking a temporary FM licence anytime soon.
“You’re going to be censored,” Flynn says. “We don’t have to play with this notion of balance in the media if we don’t have a licence. Maybe it would be a novelty for a while to get more listeners. If we got a BAI licence, we’d have to play by their rules and some of the rules are good – like encouraging broadcasts in Irish – but overall it’d change how we operate too much.”