Pirate radio closedown 30 years ago ended buccaneering chapter

On New Year’s Eve, 1988, an estimated 70 illegal radio stations closed down in Ireland

October 2nd, 2018: The Irish Pirate Radio Archive has been donated to Dublin City University. The collection of documents, publications and paraphernalia celebrates the golden years of pirate radio in Ireland between 1978 and 1988. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

On this day 30 years ago, Ireland’s pirate radio stations bestowed an abrupt if reluctant silence on a grieving listenership nationwide.

It was either that or surrender all hope of getting a broadcasting licence from the then newly established Independent Radio and Television Commission in 1989.

And, as hope was the currency in which all the pirates had dealt throughout the grim 1980s, hope dictated they should shut down by midnight on December 31st, 1988, or thumb a nose at the promised land.

It has been estimated that as many as 70 pirate stations all over Ireland went off air voluntarily that New Year’s Eve, marking an end to one of the more fascinating and turbulent periods in Irish broadcasting history.

Paul Claffey of Midwest Radio remembers the night – or “wake” – well.

Broadcasting from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, the station “had built up a strong sense of local identity” through its music and chat with listeners in Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon and Galway. It was also the first to broadcast death notices, that essential in rural Ireland.

“The big fear at the time was that this was it. We might not get a licence. There was this huge sense of loss. It was like a wake, a bereavement.”

That final broadcast on New Year’s Eve was from the Midas club in Ballyhaunis “with Declan Nerney and his band”. “And at 12 midnight it was dead air,” he recalled. Silence in the west.

By July 24th, 1989, Midwest was back on air, one of the first new independent radio stations in Ireland. It has remained among the most successful since, with Claffey as managing director and main presenter.

Sunshine Radio

The story was different at Dublin’s Sunshine Radio. It had been on air since 1980 when it was set up by Robbie Robinson and the late Chris Carey. Both had worked on Radio Caroline, the pirate station which in the 1960s broke the monopoly in British broadcasting.

Following a dispute, Carey went on to set up the hugely successful Radio Nova in Dublin which closed in 1986, following a lengthy dispute with the National Union of Journalists.

Shelagh O’Donnell was office manager at Sunshine’s studios in Portmarnock and recalls “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” at the closedown in 1988. “It was a terribly sad time.”

For many of them, it was similar to being part of a pop group. It felt 'glamorous and idealistic'

At Sunshine, there was great confidence the station would get a licence. “I was sure we were getting it,” O’Donnell recalls. It didn’t happen.

Public Relations executive Paul Allen had been a presenter at Sunshine. He remembers the magazine campaign “Don’t Take Our Sunshine Away” and how the closedown was such a significant event in everyone’s life there. “Robbie gave his state-of-the-nation address [on air]. We were so confident he would get a licence but, sadly, it was not to be.”

Irish acts that receive the most plays include Walking on Cars, Hozier, Picture This, Gavin James, Kodaline and Brian Deady. Photograph: Getty
“The great thing about the pirates was the creativity. If you had an idea you’d go into a studio and produce it.” File photograph: Getty

In his final words to listeners, Robinson described his eight years at Sunshine – “the most successful popular radio station in Dublin’s colourful radio history” – as the “most wonderful time of my life” before the station faded into silence to the sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

One of the more experienced people where Irish radio in all its guises over recent decades – pirate, independent, State-run – is concerned is Declan Meehan.

Presenter of the morning show at East Coast FM, he recalls the enthusiasm of young people – “mostly male” – working in the pirate days of the 1970s/1980s in Dublin. For many of them, it was similar to being part of a pop group. It felt “glamorous and idealistic”, he says.

He believes that in those early days, the pirates were a response to the closure of Radio Caroline but then fragmented into stations favouring new music and chat/pop before Sunshine and Nova came along.

The influence of women [in independent broadcasting] since 1988 has been a revolution. Which is a good thing

All “created expectations on the part of listeners” he said, but after the closedown of the pirates, things changed when the newly-licensed stations came up against the serious business world.

Employing broadcasting models from abroad, stations homogenised, he says. They “lost the Irish personality, which was possibly necessary, financially.”

The biggest change in the past 30 years has been, Meehan says, “the concentration of ownership by corporations with local Irish management”.

That and women. “The influence of women [in independent broadcasting] since 1988 has been a revolution. Which is a good thing,” he says.

Chris Barry, now retired from broadcasting, worked at many of the Dublin pirates, ending up with Nova. After it closed in 1986, he worked with a station in Monaco but returned to Dublin for the great closedown of December 31st, 1988.

Despite sadness at the pirates’ end there was also optimism, he recalls.

“The great thing about the pirates was the creativity. If you had an idea you’d go into a studio and produce it,” he says. “It wouldn’t happen now. Formats have been the kiss of death.”