Pirate sounds

On a Sunday afternoon during the early 1990s rave heyday, a DJ was driving out to play a set for a well-known Dublin pirate radio station. He tuned in on the way, and was surprised to hear a CD being played on a loop. This was unusual, as the chap before him always turned up. Arriving at the suburban house of the station owner – the studio was located in a rickety shed at the back of the house – he couldn't get an answer at the door. Eventually, it opened. The station owner stood there, his face as pale as a bucket of milk.

"He was fucked on something – I don't know what. But he was out of it. He didn't seem to recognise me," says the DJ. Inside was carnage, where a two-day party had been raging. As they walked out the back of the house, the station owner staggered, fell down a flight of stairs and knocked himself out.

"I didn't know what to do," says the DJ, "so I just dragged him up back into the house, did the show and got the fuck out of there. We met a while later in a nightclub, and I brought it up. He says to me, 'Jaysus, so that's where all those bruises came from.' He couldn't remember a thing."

Eventually – and maybe unsurprisingly – that station closed down, but the anorakishly independent music policy it and other pirate radio stations espoused lives on in the off-peak schedules of today's national radio stations. Donal Dineen (The Small Hours, Today FM, Tuesday – Friday, 12-2am) has been one of the most dedicated explorers of modern popular music for many years. He plays sparse, ponderous electronica, leftfield rock, old skool hip hop, soul and indie – in other words, music that a station executive would consider suicidal for primetime broadcasting.

It's clear that Dineen chooses his music free from the pressures of management or record companies, but at this stage (he's been doing the show since Radio Ireland launched in March 1997) it sounds as though he's lost interest somewhat. This, if true, is understandable. Dineen was originally given a three-hour slot starting at 10pm, but as Radio Ireland turned into Today FM and became increasingly commercial, Dineen's contribution became less valued and he ended up with the graveyard shift. With less listeners and less enthusiasm, The Small Hours doesn't quite have the sense of communion with a dedicated audience it used to have. Dineen's fussy and verbose presenting style doesn't help a show that has lost some of its edge.

Lack of cutting edge is not something that is a problem over on An Taobh Tuathaill (Radio Na Gaeltachta, Monday – Sunday, 11pm-1am), and the presenters of that show, Cian Ó Cíobháin and Cathal Ó Cuaig, now have the lead over Donal Dineen, and deserve a wider audience. Ó Cíobháin and Ó Cuaig's music has a similar eclecticism but has more vitality, depth and is more up-to-the-minute, partly due to the clubby background of both men. Their chat is minimal (and it's all in Irish, so just as well) – perfect for a late night music show.

The king of between-track banter is John Kelly, and he presents probably the best all-round music show on national radio (The Mystery Train, RTÉ Radio 1, Monday – Thursday, 8.30-10pm). The master of the obscure joke, he spars with his audience, uses themes to pick music ("every one of the next three tracks will feature the word 'chicken' in it") and maintains a unique rapport with the listener that few presenters of any genre can match. And then there is the music. For a 40 year old with a law degree, he's remarkably switched on to modern electronica and dance music, and mixes it with an expert's knowledge of reggae, blues, gospel, folk and rock. Don't waste your time on Tom Dunne's predictable, mainstream rock show broadcast at the same time (Pet Sounds, Today FM, 7-10pm) – The Mystery Train is the one you want.

It's unlikely that they'll meet their bosses holding an all-weekend drug party in the station HQ, but by the exploring the music that they love, regardless of its commercial cachet, Dineen, Ó Cíobháin, Ó Cuaig and Kelly are keeping the musical spirit of the pirates alive.