Dublin’s Digital Radio Revolution Has Arrived
By Danny Wilson
On the long drive back from from Sherkin Island, Brian McNamara and Sean Finnan finally said enough is enough.
Following a bank holiday weekend spent at Open Ear – an experimental music festival that takes on the wild Atlantic outpost of Sherkin Island – the boys wrestled with the the car radio dial in a futile search for something, anything, that they could bear to have soundtrack the extended slog back to the Pale. As one might expect, they had no such luck. Having spent three days surrounded by young Irish people enjoying challenging, outré music, the fact that these tastes were wholly unrepresented on the airwaves was drawn into sharp focus. The lads decided to do something about it themselves, and lo, Dublin Digital Radio was born. In the wake of a hugely successful launch party in multi-disciplinary space Jigsaw – also home to Rabble Magazine and Dublin Digital Radio’s studio – we wanted to get the lowdown on their inspirations and plans for the future for Dublin’s first truly alternative and modern broadcasting vehicle.
So, of you got your first exposure to the medium in student radio, right?
Brian: Yeah, years ago I did a show on DCU FM, with my friend Seamus and then with my friend Boob. We interviewed DJs – people like Annie Mac and Juan Atkins – before their gigs. Lots of DCU FM people ended up working in radio, actually. Even if they did a degree in science or whatever and only did the radio as a hobby, loads ended up moving into radio things for work.When I left college I didn’t do much radio until I moved to Berlin and got involved with Berlin Community Radio. I did 7 months as a studio assistant there which was really cool. I guess we kind of model ourselves close enough to what they do there.
Sean: I did some Belfield FM stuff but they never really play it on the campus. That was the first and only time that I’d been involved in radio before this.
It’s cool that you guys have kind of come from student radio because it’s something that probably isn’t really given its due over here; compared to the way you hear Americans talk about the significance of ‘college radio’…
B: Yeah, I guess Flirt in Galway gets big enough listenership because they are on the airwaves. So lots of people in Galway listen to Flirt.
S: When you’re on the airwaves you’re compelled to put in a bit more effort. There is a real responsibility there. Somebody is paying for a license, y’know?
B: DCU used to win the Student Media Award for best station every year so they’d get funding and I guess that’s why they stayed good year on year.
This all would have been before a lot of the big digital stations were even around, right? NTS or Berlin Community Radio or anything like that…
B: Yeah, I think Berlin community Radio is only 3 or 4 years old. So all of that was happening around the same time. I think once I worked in Berlin Community Radio I realised this was all so easy to do.
Well, not easy, there’s obviously a lot of work that goes into it but there’s no reason the model couldn’t work in Dublin. With DDR we’re using similar programs to the stuff I would have learned to use when I was in Berlin. Seeing how low costs were, that made me realise we could maybe do this ourselves.
‘Seeing how low costs were, that made me realise we could maybe do this ourselves.’
How long was the gap between then and getting things going?
B: Well, we’d been chatting about the idea for a long time. One of the things that really got us going was actually an article Sean was writing for District.
S: Yeah, the article was kind of a kick in the bollocks. It was a history of pirate and independent radio in Ireland. I was talking about how exactly radio got to the point where everything is playlisted. Good DJs are getting kicked off the airwaves…
B: This would have been around the time Donal Dineen went off air too…
S: Yeah, exactly. So, we were looking at what happened when the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland got started. Before they arrived there was no private interest in radio, it was all state radio, y’know? Around then you had loads of underground pirate radio because it wasn’t so strictly regulated since there was no commercial pressure. Once it got regulated they got a lot stricter about needing a license to broadcast. That, of course, made it much more difficult for small pirate stations to exist while being in the remit of legality. They could still get by until early 2000 when Radio Ireland, which is now Today FM, came into being. When Radio Ireland came in they put pressure on the Broadcasting Authority to enforce the regulations on the pirate stations since they were taking away from Radio Ireland’s listeners. When they were taking away listeners they were obviously also taking away from the advertisers. What needed to happen was for them to clear out the pirate radio stations so they could more readily funnel everybody into the three or four main stations to make it viable for them to exist.
‘they became subject to the whims of big labels coming and saying ‘here’s our records for the week, play them because we’re giving you a fuck load of cash.’
When Radio Ireland started you had people on it like Donal Dineen or John Kelly or others who were actually playing pretty good stuff. But, as the influence of pirate radio dwindled, the stations themselves didn’t feel as much responsibility to play alternative music as they did before. From there the playlisting got much worse, because there were so few stations here they became subject to the whims of big labels coming and saying ‘here’s our records for the week, play them because we’re giving you a fuck load of cash.’
B: When Sean was researching all that it showed us the buzz that used to be around it.
S: Yeah, and the way it was such a do it yourself community, it was all on the ground. They did it out of flats on Meath street or Thomas Street or whatever.
So, around the time you were researching all this is when you realised how achievable the whole DDR endeavour actually was?
S: Yeah, the whole idea was kind of going around for a while. Brian was doing a bit with the now defunct Radiomade and we learned from them what you could do in Dublin with a bit of organisation and discipline. If you have your structure in place it can kind of sustain itself without relying on a couple of people to be there all the time. We’re lucky to have the venue close by like that. We can create community and designate nights like the launch and showcase ourselves.
B: The space made a big difference in relation to actually getting it going…
How did securing Jigsaw come about?
S: I feel we were locked one night talking to the lads at Rabble, maybe it was at Out To Lunch?
B: Something like that! But yeah, the Rabble guys said they had a backroom attached to their office that was full of shit, but if we wanted to clear it out we could use it. They probably just said it on a whim but we went and cleared it out one day and we were like ‘Jesus, this is perfect.’
S: When we were cleaning it out we were finding horses heads, dolls, the weirdest accumulation of stuff…
‘When we were cleaning it out we were finding horses heads, dolls, the weirdest accumulation of stuff…’
B: Zines about comics from the 1970s. The space really kicked us into gear though, this whole thing all happened about two months ago.
It’s funny you say that Open Ear was a big turning point and you secured the location at Out To Lunch. It’s like the whole endeavour kind of sprung from the sorts of events you’re looking to promote in a really organic way.
B: Yeah, just being surrounded by all our mates doing exciting stuff.
S: The ploy at the start was just to talk to as many people as possible and kind of get the word out there…
B: Just to see if there was a real interest…
S: We got the desktop computer and our original mixer donated just by talking shite to somebody and lots of people saying ‘yeah, yeah I have this, I have that.’ Really organically a whole community just kind of mucked in to help it go somewhere.
B: There are almost fifty people involved now, between shows and helping out. Of all the people we approached to do shows only one said no.
‘Of all the people we approached to do shows only one said no.’
Were you surprised at the level of immediate interest you got?
B: Yeah, big time! Though I do think the level of interest is to do with the amount of people we have involved early on and their wide reach. We were thinking we might get the odd 100 likes or something when we put up the Facebook page. Nothing like this. Even doing pieces like this, we didn’t expect that at all. We started it for the laugh and it’s great because the level of interest pushed us into taking it more seriously.
S: It’s weird, now we feel like we have responsibilities. When you tune into the website and there’s nothing playing…that’s contemplation hour…(laughs)
B: The speed it went from being an idea to having fifty people involved was really scary because we were like ‘shit, we’ve arranged this full program, this is a station now that needs to be run well!’
‘shit, we’ve arranged this full program, this is a station now that needs to be run well!’
S: Even just seeing the response at the launch party. So many people came we had to close the doors at half eight. People have been so good and generous, all the love came back. We were definitely feeling the responsibility at first, but when you have that coming back to you and everyone loving it, that makes you feel like it’ll actually work.
B: I got the feeling that this idea was in loads of different people’s heads for a long time and we just happened to be the people that did it. Everyone we’ve spoken to have been like ‘yes, finally!’ There was already interest there and we didn’t have to shove it down people’s throats or anything.
Who would you say you were most surprised to get on board? Have many people got involved that you’d have been fans of first and foremost?
B: Yeah, definitely. Well sure Donal Dineen came down to our launch! He was down from when we opened and came up to me and said he thinks it’s great what we’re doing and offered to help with anything we need.
That really couldn’t be more fitting, getting his blessing like that.
B: My Mam was so impressed! She came down as well and couldn’t believe he was there (laughs).
‘My Mam was so impressed! She came down as well and couldn’t believe he was there.’
It seems Dineen going off air kind of kickstarted Sean’s research, which in turn got you guys motivated to do it yourselves and now it’s come full circle.
S: Definitely! Even looking back at an article Donal wrote for the Irish Times in 2014 talking about his life in radio. Reading that article in 2014 is what made me want to write my piece. It really made you think ‘how did it come to this? That somebody with such an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, a love for sharing it and an avid fan base had to get off the air, what are the forces at work in broadcasting?’ The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland are meant to provide diversity when it comes to music broadcasting and they are just totally failing. If a DJ isn’t playing whatever Universal or Sony have given them to play that week then they’re pushed out.
That problem even extends to balance in Irish media in that there is this obligation not to be associated with either sides of an argument. It’s really problematic when you consider that it’s a service that our taxes pay for.
S: Yeah, it’s not just music. It happens in social or political discourse as well. It’s this narrow tunnel and anything within that tunnel you can talk about, even though everything else in the world is happening outside. Hopefully the talk shows we have will be talking about shit as it is, rather than feeling under pressure to say it in a certain way or respond to a certain agenda.
B: Yeah, we’ve got a show with Oireachtas Retort. His Twitter is class and he writes really well researched and written articles as well. He did a really good one the day of the marriage referendum about the history of Ireland’s relationship to abortion going back 40 years.
S: We’re just trying to create a platform for people whose views and tastes we think are worth sharing.
‘We’re just trying to create a platform for people whose views and tastes we think are worth sharing.’
It’s given them a space and, we hope, access to an audience that might not be familiar with them or might not have been exposed to some of these ideas before.
It’s good that there is such a focus on diversity. You didn’t just go for the ‘here’s twelve hours of house and techno’ approach.
B: Well that’s just not needed. There are so many places you can go in Dublin for that already. The whole purpose of our station was to represent people that haven’t necessarily had a voice in certain types of media or even in the club scene. There’s still loads more work to be done other than just our little radio station, but hopefully this inspires other people to go on to do something else.