Pirate radio took us to the magic of popular music during the 1960s.
Pirate radio in Ireland has had a long history, with hundreds of radio stations having operated from within the country. Due to past lax enforcement of the rules, the lack of commercial radio until 1989, and the small physical size of the country, pirate radio has proliferated up to recent years. They were tolerated to a point by the government which only occasionally raided them in an effort to show compliance with Irish law, although the national broadcaster, RTÉ, took a harsher approach, including radio jamming. Mayo man Jack Sean McNeela in 1940 died on Hunger strike in Arbour Hill Military Detention Barracks after 55 days protesting his arrest for operating a pro IRA pirate radio station.
Whilst the number of recorded pirate radio stations was in the hundreds, only a few have been notable enough to be remembered. This is because at different stages, pirate stations were the mainstay of radio listenership, particularly in Dublin.
Unlike other countries, Irish pirate stations were almost always on land, with publicly available phone numbers and addresses, advertising and known presenters. A recent government crackdown now means Ireland has one of the most hardline anti-pirate policies in Europe, and few major stations survive.
Stations nowadays are usually FM-based. In the 1980s however, most major stations broadcast on both MW and FM. There have also been several shortwave pirate stations in Ireland, but pirate shortwave broadcasting has declined greatly, as with SW broadcasting in general. The early pioneering pirates were usually MW only. One of the first stations was Radio Milinda which broadcast on 300 metres MW. It was the very first radio station to be raided and prosecuted. It was raided on the 17/12/1972 and the subsequent court case took place on the 08/02/1973. They were fined £2 each and all the equipment was confiscated.
In 2002 a new radio regulation body, the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg), was founded by the Irish government to replace the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation (ODTR). Part of the reason for the change was pressure from the licensed radio community, which felt that pirate operators were taking their listeners, and that a level playing field needed to be restored.
ComReg had much more funding, staff and resources than its predecessor – and these were put to use in May 2003, when a major crackdown on Dublin pirates saw virtually every station wiped off the band. This series of raids, which was conducted over two days and involved Garda Síochána officers and ESB staff, was referred to as “Black Tuesday” by the free radio community.
Follow-up action in the years to come meant that any station that ventured on air usually didn’t last that long – with the officials often tracking down and closing operators sometimes within five working days. The hardline stance has also been extended to other pirate heartlands such as Cork, Limerick and the border counties. For the first time, ComReg began to carry out raids at night and weekends – removing the only remaining “safe” time to broadcast without a licence.
Today Ireland has few pirate stations. In Dublin a couple venture on air mainly at the weekends, using low power. Outside Dublin there are a few larger, full-time operators left, but they generally don’t tend to last long. Stations which operate intermittently, or regularly change name and/or location tend to survive longer (many have never been raided) although obviously have more difficulty building up a substantial listenership and hence are perceived as being less of a threat to the licensed stations.
ComReg’s policy has come under criticism from many in the radio industry, who believe that the organisation should focus its resources on stations which cause interference, rather than simply carrying out blanket raids on all stations. These critics point out that while a mechanism has been put in place to remove pirates within a week, little has been done to free up the procedures for starting a licensed radio station. They call for a more tolerant attitude towards benevolent pirates, until a framework is introduced to allow niche stations to be set up and run at low cost with less strict regulation.
Many of the remaining stations are so-called “Border Blasters”, which operate from just inside the Republic of Ireland, in counties Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan and broadcasting with directional antennas into Northern Ireland. These stations had been generally more tolerated by Comreg/ODTR/DOC due to the broadcasts being aimed across the border, and not taking advertising or listenership to a significant degree from stations licensed by the BCI. However, in recent years the main border pirates have been the target of repeated raids, with the largest stations forced off-air. A significant increase in the number of legal FM radio stations in Northern Ireland and increased cross-border co-operation between COMREG and the UK’s OFCOM has led to this increased action towards the ‘Border Blasters’
In some cases, the issuing of licences to new stations to broadcast in a genre traditionally served by pirate radio has led to local pirates closing down as their listeners, staff and advertisers move to the licensed station. In Dublin, SPIN 1038 took much of the youth-oriented audience and Dublin’s Country Mix 106.8took from country music pirates.
An addition to pirate radio, particularly in the late 1990s has been a number of Catholic churches, particularly in rural areas, who broadcast their services at the high frequency end of the FM band, or on frequencies around 27 MHz (an arrangement not permitted by legal 27 MHz CB) for parishioners who cannot attend personally. The high end of the FM band was favoured by church broadcasters using the domestic FM band, as this was mostly unused for legal stations outside Dublin and Cork. The church broadcasters were largely ignored until 2006 when Comreg contacted a number of churches warning them to stop the transmissions, and claimed the broadcasts were suspected of interfering with airband frequencies. (A few months after this move the high end of the FM band became populated by transmitters for the almost national roll-out of Newstalk radio, which previously broadcast to Dublin only). The 2006 controversy made international news, after the issue was aired on RTÉ’s Liveline radio show. Shortly afterwards the authorities introduced a new licence scheme (similar to one in the UK) that would allow a frequency band just above the legal 27 MHz CB band to be used for this purpose. Listeners would have to purchase scanners or other special receivers capable of receiving 27.5–28 MHz. Another form of religious broadcast to appear in Ireland in the 1990s was the many FM and AM relays of the UK-based UCB (United Christian Broadcasters) and to a lesser extent the related CrossRhythms station from satellite. However these re-broadcasts have now mostly ceased.
Galway’s first pirate radio station was Saor Raidió Connemara (Free Radio Connemara) which first came on the air during Oireachtas na Gaeilge 1968 as a direct response to the Irish government’s inaction over Irish language broadcasting. The station used a medium wave transmitter surreptitiously imported from the Netherlands. The Irish government responded by proposing a national Irish-language radio station RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta which came on the air on Easter Sunday 1972. Its headquarters are now in Casla, Co. Galway.
In the summer of 1978, a pop-format pirate radio station, IRG Independent Radio Galway, staffed mostly by local university students, began broadcasting from a studio off Shop Street, Galway City. IRG remained intermittently on the air, despite half-hearted raids by Gardaí, until the early 1980s.
In 1981, WCCR (West Coast Community Radio) began broadcasting headed by Gerry Delaney as station manager. Kevin and Mike Mulkerrins were new voices on the air along with Bob Houston, Keith Finnegan and Shane Martin. The location for WCCR was about four miles outside Galway City in a frozen chicken warehouse.
In 1983, Radio Renmore took to the airwaves founded by Gary Hardiman, Brendan Mee, Tom Breen which took on DJ’s like Brian Walsh and Mark Kavanagh. Radio Renmore was the only radio station in Galway that got advertising from both local business in Renmore and Galway city. Snowflake Radio followed the Christmas of that year, and in the summer of 1984 Renmore Local Radio (RLR) was born, fronted by Gary Hardiman and presenters Brendan Mee and Brian Walsh. With its Galway-accented jingles advertising the station’s presence on 199 metres MW, the station was a great local success.
The station was nevertheless supplanted in 1984, by the professionally backed Atlantic Sound broadcasting from Forster Street under the care of Alan Russell, with talent like Don Stevens, Keith York, Brian Walsh, Richie O’Shea & Steve Marshall. A difference of opinion between station owner and on-air DJs led to the departure of nearly all staff, who then set up WLS Music Radio (which stood for ‘West Local Station’) across the street in 1985.
Shane Martin (from the now defunct WCCR), was brought in by station manager Mick Naughton to revive Atlantic Sound and change its radio format to suit the Galway audience. Shane called in favours from local bands and DJs and entertainment friends to assist with the new makeover. Thus began a great rivalry between Atlantic Sound and WLS. It was a healthy rivalry that lasted over a year, until one Sunday morning a truck appeared outside the Atlantic Sound studios and all the gear was being loaded into it. This happened so fast, the morning DJ had no idea that he was broadcasting to nobody, The transmitter was already in the truck. Atlantic Sound was no more and WLS was the only station left to cater to the Galway audience.
In 1986 Twiggs FM came onto the airwaves. The brainchild of Shane Martin and owners of Twiggs nightclub where he worked as a nightclub DJ in Salthill, Galway. Twiggs was the first radio station to broadcast “Live” bands on-air in Galway City. Shane Martin eventually left Twiggs FM and the nightclub because the original focus had changed, and with Barry Williams set up KFM about 8 miles outside Galway City.
Coast 103 became the most successful Pirate Radio station on the Irish west coast ever, reaching all the way to Limerick and beyond. Advertisers flocked to the unique sound the station delivered and audience numbers grew by the thousands. Coast 103 was the Radio Nova of the West Coast. The on-air personnel were Keith York (also Chief Engineer), Barry Williams, Shane Martin, Steve Marshall (also Programme Director), Richie O’Shea, Tony Allan, Stuart Clark, Dave Shearer and Niall Stewart,
County Sound Radio began broadcasting from Tuam in North Galway on March 17, 1987 under the guidance of Benen Tierney, Pat Gleeson and John Loftus. County Sound brought a different sound to the local radio scene. It appealed to a mixed adult audience and featured the Alfasound jinglepack of County Sound Radio in Surrey UK. County Sound Radio moved to Galway City early in 1988 and broadcast live 24 hours per day until December 31, 1988 when the then Minister for Communications Ray Burke introduced new legislation aimed at suppressing pirate stations.
These CHR/AC stations, mostly headed and staffed by professional broadcasters with experience in Israel, United States, Ireland and Britain, brought the concept of community-based pirate radio in Galway to an end (with the exception of NUIG College Campus Radio, FlirtFM), but heralded the new and legal local radio format which survives in the legally broadcasting Galway Bay FM, which came on the air in 1989 (Broadcast as “Radio West” 1989–93).
Other stations in Galway during the 1980s included Emerald Radio fronted by Donal Mahon, Candy FM in Ballinasloe and GDR in Loughrea.
After the official Irish Government closedown of all Pirate Radio stations on Dec 31, 1988, there was very little pirate activity in the city with the exception of Quincentennial Radio, Run by Steve Marshall and Tony Allan when the voice of Shane Martin was heard once again at 6:07 pm, nine days into the new legislation with the assistance of Tony Allan voiced liners in reference to “Galway DJ’s prefer not to be unemployed”. Radio Friendly was also heard (both short lived) and the more enduring (but intermittent) Radio Pirate Woman. In late 2007 a new licensed radio station began broadcasting in Galway. I- Radio (I 102–104) has been hugely successful with young listeners.