WITH their cultivated mid-Atlantic accents and often British sounding pseudonyms, the DJs that broadcast on pirate radio in this country were not quite swashbuckling romantic figures. But they were minor heroes in that they played pop and rock music in an Ireland whose airwaves, dominated by RTÉ, were starved of contemporary music until the state broadcaster launched RTÉ Radio 2 in 1979, partly in response to the popularity of the pirates.
The Cork leg of the Irish Pirate Radio Exhibition, curated by broadcast historian, Eddie Bohan, opens at Cork’s Central Library on November 16 until December 11. The Cork exhibition will have a local flavour with exhibits featuring archives from popular local pirate stations including Capital Radio Cork, ABC, Radio Juliet, ERI, South Coast, Leeside and many more.
It will also zone in on the pirate radio past of some of Cork’s broadcasting stars including John Creedon, Neil Prendeville, Mark Cagney and Trevor Welsh.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the closedown of pirate radio in advance of the opening of licensed regional radio stations. The featured material in the Irish Pirate Radio Exhibition will have a permanent home in the newly opened Irish Pirate Radio Archive at DCU (Dublin City University).
With the success of North Sea pirates such as Radio Caroline, pirate stations began to come on air here from the 1960s. The first Cork pirate radio station was Radio Juliet, run by school boys whose average age was 16. They started broadcasting in 1964, using character names from Shakespeare on air. The station, which wrapped up fairly quickly as it became “too hot to handle,” was dubbed the ‘Six-shilling Station’ as the teenage lads made a six shilling investment in a transmitter. The Irish language featured in broadcasts. The station was operated by Michael Healy (an enterprising cousin of this journalist).
Bohan says that from the late 1970s, Cork often had a choice of six or seven pirate stations. In the 1980s, ERI, South Coast and WBEN were regarded as the ‘super pirates,’ the Cork versions of Nova and Sunshine in Dublin.
“In the 1970s, there were a number of raids and convictions, but with loopholes discovered in the antiquated 1926 Wireless Telegraphy Act, the raids stopped unless the authorities deemed that the stations’ transmitters were interfering with the emergency services’ frequencies.”
Bohan adds that in the early days, operating a pirate radio station “was a hobby, but as the raids eased and stations became professional with state-of-the-art transmitters and studios, and DJs becoming household names, a lot of the stations began to make money.
“In Dublin, Radio Nova owner Chris Carey claimed that his pirate station was so successful that he was paying DJs more than the BBC were paying Radio 1 DJs in the UK.”
Pirate radio began to make major inroads into RTÉ’s youth audience despite the fact that they opened RTÉ Radio 2 in 1979.
“But as government inertia failed to close the pirate radio stations opening across Ireland, pirate operators were emboldened and took both listeners and advertisers from RTÉ. Many major ad agencies dealt with the pirates on a regular basis.”
The Irish Pirate Radio Exhibition contains memorabilia from the pirate era including advertising rate cards, car stickers, photographs, mugs, pens and business cards. Also on display is an actual FM pirate radio transmitter built in a biscuit tin and used by the writer, Pat McCabe to operate his pirate radio station, Radio Butty. “It will appeal to anyone who has a nostalgia for what was known as the golden era of Irish pirate radio.”
Bohan says there are currently a number of pirates in Cork, broadcasting dance music which neither RTÉ nor the legal independent stations play on air. Next year, Bohan’s book, A Century of Irish Radio: 1900-2000, will be published. It will document the world’s first pirate radio station operated by the rebels during the 1916 Easter Rising.
- The Irish Pirate Radio Exhibition opens at Cork’s Central Library on November 16 at 3.30pm