Graveyard shift Dineen should rise again

 

Broadcaster Donal Dineen gained a cult following at Today FM, and the axing of his show reminds us of his impact on Irish radio

IN THE months after Radio Ireland was launched in 1997, a framed group portrait of the new station’s presenters hung in the studio lobby. Clustered in the centre of the picture were the big names of Radio Ireland, like Eamon Dunphy and Ann Marie Hourihane. At the edge of the photograph, adopting a pose of quiet self-possession, stood Donal Dineen. From the beginning of the station, even before it was renamed Today FM, Dineen was on its margins.

Wednesday’s announcement that Today FM is to drop Dineen after nearly 15 years of service came as a blow to fans of his music show, Small Hours. But the real surprise is that the Kerry-born DJ – who always traded in the innovative, the unknown and the downright obtuse – lasted so long on a commercial station given to periodic culls.

Never one for the mainstream, Dineen had been pushed to the periphery of Today FM in recent years, his taste for the experimental growing as his show was moved into its current midnight slot.

With the final edition due to air on December 1st, it is worth recalling the impact Dineen made, particularly in his early years.

When he started his first show, Here Comes The Night, there was nothing else like it on Irish radio. Pop and classic hits dominated the air waves, both on local stations and 2FM, the nation’s supposed music channel.

Dave Fanning was the nearest thing to an alternative, but he ploughed a conservative guitar-based furrow. Dineen, by contrast, had established himself as a champion of left-field music while hosting No Discoon Network 2.

On radio Dineen, rather than Fanning, was “Ireland’s John Peel”, playing the kind of music his 2FM rival disdained, such as hip hop, house, techno and electronica, alongside new underground sounds and vintage obscurities.

At a time when internet downloading was in its infancy, he was a rare source of exciting new sounds.

He was not wilfully obscure: the programme title derived from a song performed by his hero, Van Morrison.

Coming after John Kelly’s offbeat Eclectic Ballroom, Dineen’s soundtrack made for a heady listening experience. Even as Radio Ireland faltered, his show was one of the few bright spots, attracting critical praise.

His cult status meant that he survived the purges that followed the populist rebranding of Today FM in 1998. Even when he was later relegated to a graveyard shift, he reacted with chutzpah, his renamed Small Hoursshow airing an atmospheric mix, from German micro-house and electronica to contemporary classical composers.

But his audience got smaller. It was not just that his soundtrack had grown more rarified. Dineen’s presenting style, always reverent, seemed more earnest in the later slot.

Work and family commitments meant his original fans could not tune in so late. Younger listeners were now getting their new music from the internet, as well as from the raft of indie DJs (and even stations) who subsequently emerged, though none had Dineen’s sense of adventure.

Since news of the axing broke, some peers have reacted with indignation. Cian Ó Cíobháin, whose Raidió na Gaeltachta show owes much to Dineen’s trailblazing efforts, said on Facebook that it felt “like a death in the family”, which is overstating the case, to put it mildly.

Dineen had a good run at Today FM: there is no similarly long-serving innovator on RTÉ, the public service broadcaster.

If Lyric FM is serious about its musical remit, it should take note of Dineen’s availability.

Dineen sounded sanguine on Wednesday night’s show, reassuring his listeners that he would not fade away: “This particular conversation will continue.”

He may not be in the shadows for too long.