independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Century Radio?

WHEN someone says to you that they have a business idea that is a licence to print money, my advice to you is to run. Because as sure as the woven hair on Terry Wogan's head, you can be guaranteed to lose a bundle. Thus it was with Ireland's first national commercial radio station - Century Radio.

Back in the good old days when we had a government you could rent for the day, many political hacks wondered why the enigmatic Ray Burke was moving from ministry to ministry but all the time keeping the Communications portfolio under his wing.

"Unfinished business," he informed us and he promptly decided that Ireland needed a new broadcasting act to clean up the mess of pirate radio.

Back in the Eighties, it was possible to set yourself up as a pirate radio station for relatively little. There was also no shortage of talent from which to pick your DJs, talent that was ignored by RTE who felt they already had their finger on the pulse with broadcasters - synonymous with youth for the previous thirty years or so.

After much pressure from RTE to get rid of the pirates, Burke announced there would be a new national licence up for grabs and a few regional ones as well. The new broadcasting act would make it an offence for advertisers to deal with the pirates. Oliver Barry, a music promoter, put together a consortium with Jim Stafford a Dublin businessman, which included big names such as Terry Wogan and Chris de Burgh, and won the National Licence in 1988.

RTE who had lobbied furiously to protect their own patch had hit back at the pirates with the introduction of 2FM, which at last started to give a younger audience what they wanted.

Century Radio came into being on September 4 1989 on the 100/102 FM wavelengths but experienced huge technical problems. Some say this wasn't helped by their hosts, RTE, who were obliged by law to facilitate them for a fee that was dramatically cut by Burke.

With an advertising campaign that cost ?500,000 back then and some very slick station ID jingles from our Terry, and even Kenny Everett recording a series for them, it wasn't that bad. Amid allegations of payments to Ray Burke, some of which were found to be justified by the Flood Tribunal, the Minister suggested that now that the pirates were gone, 2FM should get in to public service broadcasting and transmit French lessons in the evenings. He famously even put an advertising cap on RTE radio.

But it was too late. Century could not draw the listeners away in time and had lost an estimated ?10m in two years. The investors pulled the plug. The licence to print money had run out of paper.

Rory Egan rory@roryegan.com

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