Community radio still creating waves 30 years on

Irish lives Near FM had great ambitions, says co-founder Jack Byrne

Irish livesNear FM had great ambitions, says co-founder Jack Byrne

North Dublin community radio station Near FM, which marks its 30th anniversary next week, had very humble beginnings. Its first studio was an empty car crate, wallpapered with egg boxes, located in a vacant school dormitory in Coolock.

From the outset, however, its ambitions were great: the creation of a “citizens’ radio”, no less, which would put media power in the hands of the people.

“I wasn’t reading Chomsky and Stuart Hall at that stage,” says Jack Byrne, who co-founded the station and remains one of the energies behind it. “I just had a sense we needed our own media.” A few years earlier, Byrne set up a food co-operative in the area but its development had been snuffed out by the multiples. This provided one of the triggers for Near FM, he says.

“The supermarkets ran full-page ads with cornflakes a halfpence cheaper than ours. So we were ‘out media-ed’ at that time. That’s when I realised people need a media arm to protect themselves.” Places like Coolock and Darndale only made the news “when there was a murder, a killing, or a joyriding crash,” he notes. “People had an idea they were living in a war zone but I knew there was a lot of unheralded community work going on.”

Band of followers

Byrne, who had previously been involved in setting up a credit union, a GAA club and a residents’ association, got the station on air with a small band of followers, including Irish language and ham radio enthusiasts. Initially branded Concord, and later North Dublin Community Radio, he says: “We had quotas of DJs with medallions and boxes of LPs but we were always encouraging people to come in with political groups.”

The station benefited from a swing in public mood towards independent radio but progress was halted in 1988 when the then government ordered all pirates to close. Community radio licences were promised but they never materialised.

Byrne believes it was a deliberate attempt to kill off the fledgling citizens’ radio movement. “Of course it was ideological,” he says, recalling that he once met taoiseach Charlie Haughey on the matter. “He said the country has gone mad with co-operatives.”

Near FM finally got its licence in 1995. Some momentum had been lost, and “we almost took a vow of poverty”, says Byrne. “Advertisers don’t want discussions on the likes of East Timor. They want wall-to-wall music.”

But it began to build a loyal listenership again, as well as developing training and innovation wings. It ran internet workshops in local parish halls and in 2003 became the first radio station in Ireland to podcast, according to the broadcaster’s coordinator Ciarán Murray.

Four years later, it helped to set up Dublin Community Television (DCTV). “Without having a huge institution behind you and without having to worry about money you could have a huge amount of innovative freedom,” says Murray.

‘Unfinished business’

Byrne, who worked as a salesman, is still helping to develop the station, along with dozens of other volunteers. He has also turned his hand to writing radio dramas.

What they’re now seeking is the “strategic rollout of community radio”, involving more cooperation between grassroots movements but also greater public ownership of content. “I think community groups still think of radio as a place to be interviewed,” says Byrne. “We need to move on to the stage when people own it and are free to tell their own stories unmediated. That is the unfinished business.”

A conference Social Justice Media – Examining the Evidence, Exploring the Possible is being hosted by Near FM to mark its 30th anniversary. Taking place next Saturday at Chanel Centre (Parnell's GAA), Coolock, it will be opened by Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte. More details: Nearfm.ie

Tune in Dublin community radio

March 19th, 1983Co-operative formed in north Dublin to broadcast a local radio station, initially called Concord, and later North Dublin Community Radio.

December 31st ,1988Government decrees that all pirate radio stations, including all community broadcasters, be closed down.

August 26th, 1995The station returns to the air as North East Access Radio (Near FM).

Late 1990sAt a time of widespread reports of "floods" of refugees coming to Ireland, Near FM hands over all programming to asylum seekers living in the area for two weeks.

TodayAided by more than 100 volunteer broadcasters, it has 24-hour radio output and helps run Dublin Community Television. It trains local people in media literacy, radio programming and information technology. It also has a full-time outreach worker aimed at strengthening communications skills in the community.

AlumniRTÉ's Sinead Crowley, Susan Jackson and Paul Maguire and Radio Nova DJ Fiona Scally

ListenersTNS/MRBI figures indicated about 6 per cent of catchment area, or 12,000 people, listened to Near 90.3 FM in a seven-day period. A Red C Survey in June 2012 found 67 per cent of people were aware of a community radio station in their area and 41 per cent had listened to a station.