The pirates rule the airways, but for how long?

We examine the history of pirate radio in Dublin and RTE's response to their challenge.


THE GOVERNMENT WILL NOT licennse RTE to provide a local radio station for the Dublin region. Instead it will set up machinery for the evaluation of applications for commercial licences from outside bodies and sometime in the next two years one such body will begin legal broadcasting in the capital city.

Already there are numerous claims in for a commercial licence, including long standing ones from Independent Newspapers and Eamonn Andrews Studios. It is believed that Gerry McGuinness of 'The Sunday World is also interested as is Terry Wogan, The Irish Press group and The Cork Examiner for the Cork area. Others hovering in the wings innclude Gay Byrne, who would not "go it alone" but would join with a commmercial combine in application for a licence.

However meritorious the claims of any of these organisations or individuals may be for a commercial radio licence, their claims have been pre-empted to a certain extent by the three "pirate" stations that have been operating in Dublin these past few months.

There is considerable evidence that overwhelmingly young working class Dublin has switched over from RTE to the "pirates", and however critical one might be of these stations' content, this is clearly what a sizeable proportion of the Dublin population want.

The best known of the "pirates" is Radio Dublin, run by the "Godfather" of pirate radio in Dublin, Eamonn Cooke, an innocuous, quietly spoken IRA man. He operates Radio Dublin from his "two up, two down" terraced house at Sarsfield Tee., Inchicore.

He had been a radio and TV repairs man and he started transmitting over 11 years ago, largely as a hobby. He built his own transmitters from spare parts, learning the technicalities as he went along. Initially, he broadcast for a few hours on Sunday afternoons and his DJ at the time was a local butcher. Because of harassment even at that time, from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, they transmitted from several different locations - Ballyfermot, Clontarf, Cabra and finally from his own home at Inchicore.

Gradually the broadcast hours were extended, first to Wednesday nights, then to Saturday afternoons and then to entire holiday week-ends. There was no advertising of course and they sought reequests to be phoned to the nearest phone box. These poured in incessantly, finally convincing Cooke that there was a popular demand for non-stop musiccreq uest radio.

The technological development was also gradual. Up to the middle of last year his radio covered the Dublin city and most of the suburbs, but there was some distortion on reception. Gradually he increased the power of the transmisssions - from 100 watts to 400 watts - to a stage where reception is virtually unninterrupted throughout the greater Dublin area and extending even as far as Naas.

Towards' the beginning of this year they started broadcasting 7 days a week, they acquired "offices" (another tiny front room) a few doors down from Cooke's home, they appointed an adverrtising sales staff of two and nine full time DJs. A further 12 part-time DJs were appointed for week-end work and during week-ends non-stop broadcasting took place from Saturday morning to Monday night.

The best known of the DJs were Sylvia McClelland, Gerry Campbell, James Dillon and Denis Murray. Cooke himself did the 1.30 p.m. news.

Anyone living in the Dublin area durring the last four months could hardly have been unaware of the presence of Radio Dublin. They did their own surrvey of listenership in February and found that virtually everybody had heard of the station and about 30% lisstened to it regularly. Of those who did listen regularly, 80% were in the 16 to 30 age group and these were interested solely in music and requests. They were not interested in discussions, news or current affairs.

The main listenership was in facctories, shops and taxis. Nearly every factory with female workers in Dublin piped in Radio Dublin on a daily basis. These include Belinda Fashions in Ballyfermot, Monique Fashions in Pimblico, Glen Abbey iri Tallaght, Blackrock and Francis St., Gateaux in Finglas, Janelle Wear in Finglas, Capital Tea in Francis St., Fleetwood in Inchicore and counttless others.

By any. standards the station was a huge success in working class Dublin the people, especially the young people, were getting what they wanted instead of the endless discussions on issues seemingly far removed from their daily lives and the pursuit of "national objecctives" with which they were in little sympathy.

But perhaps the clearest manifestaation of the radio's popular appeal came in mid-February after the Department of Posts and Telegraphs raided the station and confiscated the main transsmitter. The raid got considerable publiicity, especially as Cooke managed to get the station back on air, albeit on lesser power, before that midnight.

The DJs appealed to supporters of the station to rally in O'Connell St. the following. Saturday in support of a licence for the station and from their appeals alone an estimated 10,000 people turned up. On only about three occasions in the last five years has a crowd of that size turned out for anyything in such numbers.

There then erupted the row which has done much to discredit "pirate" radio in Dublin. Cooke took off for a Spanish holiday with his partner Sylvia McClelland and her husband to return to find that his entire staff had defected to another, newly established, "pirate" radio station and also to find his transsmitting equipment seriously out of order.

The allegations and counter allegaations that have flowed since that deveelopment at the beginning of last month have been impossible to unravel, but a number of key questions arise about the conduct of those who left which so far have not been satisfactorily answered.

They allege that the reason for their going was the discovery that Mr. Cooke had been molesting children at his home in Sarsfield Tc. They freely acknowwledge that their sole source for this allegation is a 10 year old girl, whom they are reluctant to identify, even on a confidential basis, to the press.

In the first place they fail to explain how Mr. Cooke or anyone else could have enjoyed the privacy in his tiny home, thronged with Radio Dublin emmployees and fans throughout the day and most of the night, to engage in such activities.

Secondly they remain amazingly coy on the happy co-incidence of their dissillusionment with Mr. Cooke with the sudden availability of a high powered transmitter, the availability of highly suitable premises and the availability of finance. All these factors suddenly coinciding within a matter of two or three days and these days occurring while Mr. Cooke was away on holidays.

There then is the question of the dissrepair of the transmitter and other equipment when Mr. Cooke got back from his holidays. He says that there was considerable evidence of gross sabootage to the transmitter, the record and tape decks and even the electricity meter and the telphone cable. Naturally all such allegations and insinuations are rejected by those who walked out, but again there was a curious coincidence between their departure and the breakkdown of the transmitter, which they acknowledge took place.

Cooke displayed all his technical prowess that night on his return from his holidays by getting a stand by transsmitter working and re-commencing broadcasting before midnight. But he has been seriously affected by the walk out and there are serious doubts now that he can survive in the same league as the new "Big D" and the very much more polished ARD (Alternative Radio Dublin).

"Big D" is the station to which the entire former staff of Radio Dublin graavitated when they abandoned Eamonn Cooke. The exterior of their premises is unimposing to say the least, but beehind several steel doors, they have a very adequate suite of offices, studios and even sleeping accommodation.

The financier of "Big D" is one Noel Kirwin, owner of the Angel boutique, and former heavy advertiser of Radio Dublin. As with ARD there is a reluccstance to be specific about the amount of money involved, but certainly it must run to several thousands of pounds. They claim that the new station is being run as a co-operative, with six committee members including Noel Kirwin, DJs James Dillon and John Paul and advertising sales executive Kathryn 0 'Kelly.

Though in operation for only three weeks at the time of writing, the Station is broadcasting 24 hours a day and is attempting to broaden its content beyond the relentless diet of pop music offered by Radio Dublin.

The volume of their mail is impresssive and the slickness of their best disc jockies, Dillon and Paul, is surprising. While there is no way of knowing just yet how much of the Radio Dublin listenership they have taken with them, their claim to have taken up to 70% is not to be ridiculed.

The "Big D" people - all under 25 it would appear - do not hope for a license when and if Padraigh Faulkner gets around to issuing any. Their hope is primarily for a quick buck now togetther with the prospect of jobs in the new legal commercial station, when it comes.

In a very different league to these two is ARD, run from plush offices in Belvedere Place. The main financier here is Bernard Llewellyn, who already owns two electrical shops in Dublin and a warehouse in Glasnevin. He became innvolved only last January but the station has been operating since September of last year.

The other 50% owner of ARD is Don Moore, a well-known and very popular DJ under the label Dr. Don.

He has been part of the ham radio sub-culture for several years. He was innvolved in a short wave station, West Side Radio International, in the sixties - the only short wave Irish radio broadcasting to Europe.

Moore was actually involved off and on with Radio Dublin for some time. When the "pirates" started operation in Britain in the sixties, several small time "pirate" stations started in Ireland, a number of them calling themselves Radio Dublin. These operated, mainly from working class areas of the city and were moved around from area to area to avoid detection by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Other stations to the period were Melinda and Empathy.

Moore and Cooke operated together for a while on Radio Dublin, but Cooke went his own way and, as he had the greater technical expertise, he took the title with him. ARD was founded as a breakaway from Radio Dublin in Septtember 1977 and, as occurred in the more recent internal Radio Dublin dispute, several of the staff left to join the new station.

ARD is making a very deliberate attempt to prove its capacity to operrate a responsible, community conscious, yet highly popular radio station in an effort to prove its suitability as a proper recipient of a commercial license, when it comes to be handed out. And indeed there is ample evidence that it is achieeving just that. Along with the usual music request shows, the well prepared ARD schedule is dotted with current affairs, local issues, consumers and arts programmes. They have taken on an experienced broadcaster, Howard Kinlay, as Controller of Programmes, and have employed a number of journaalists to do news and current affairs programmes.

The ARD people are confident that they will so establish their competence, that the Minister will be forced to grant them a license when the time comes. Unlike the other two stations, that is the game ARD is playing - they aim to be around for a while.

Meanwhile in RTE ....

The well established structures in the station make it difficult for it to respond to virtually any challenge but they have had a number of successes in recent years, most notably the Gay Byrne Hour and more recently Mike Murphy's morning programme. However both are bedevilled by bureaucratic stuffiness and inflexibility.

The Gay Byrne Hour has been the biggest single development in RTE radio since they started to measure listener reaction. Almost over night listenership in the 10.00 a.m. to 11.00 a.m. slot doubled to 600,000 per day - exceeded only by the 1.30 news bulletin

Shortly after the Gay Byrne Hour was launched, the BBC put on a similar type programme with Jimmy Young. It too provided highly successful, though relatively not as much so as the GB Hour. However, unlike RTE, the BBC extended the programme to two and a half hours, assigned additional researchers and producers and commmitted more resources generally to the show.

However in RTE, despite pressure from Gay Byrne, they failed to commit any additional resources - the show is allotted just one producer, assisted by two secretaries who spend all their time sifting -through the enormous mail. Though the follow on programme, Here and Now, has consistently fared badly on listenership figures, there has been no question of extending the GB show to say 12.30 p.m.

Mike Murphy was slotted into the early morning hour and a half because R TE reckoned that a lot of Irish radio listeners had switched over to Terry Wogan on the BBC. Murphy is unnquestionably one of our most professsional broadcasters, but throughout his hour and a half there are interruptions

RTE built a new radio studio at the RDS grounds in anticipation of being given a license for Radio Dublin. This, according to cabinet sources, is not to be. But the advent of commercial radio could yet be the best spur to a stagnant and bureaucratised station.