Tuesday 10 December 2019

2FM radio station - Still comin'atcha after 35 years

It celebrates its birthday today in the throes of an identity crisis, but in 1979 2fm was at the heart of a revolution, says John Meagher

2fm DJs DJs, including Larry Gogan, Marty Whelan (centre)
and Gerry Ryan (overcoat) pose with cars, in a shot taken for the RTE Guide in 1982
2fm DJs DJs, including Larry Gogan, Marty Whelan (centre) and Gerry Ryan (overcoat) pose with cars, in a shot taken for the RTE Guide in 1982
Super-cool Pat Kenny (centre), Dave Fanning (elevated left), Flo McSwiney (second left) and Maxi (right) in the Montrose grounds June 1985. Photo: RTE
John Meagher

John Meagher

Declan Meehan was excited when he got a job on RTE's new youth oriented station in 1979, but his enthusiasm was nothing compared to that of his parents. "They were delighted: they saw RTE as the be all and end all."

The Dubliner was still in his early 20s then, but was already something of a pirate radio veteran.

"The station was founded with the aim of killing off the pirates," he says, "and while it failed to do that, it fulfilled a need for young people's radio with really good music and an edgier feel than RTE's existing station."

Launched with the still memorable tagline of "Comin'atcha!", RTE Radio 2 – which would be rebranded 2FM in 1988 – went live this day 35 years ago and helped usher in a golden age of Irish broadcasters: Dave Fanning, Gerry Ryan, Pat Kenny and Mark Cagney were just some of the future household names that were on the very first schedule.

"The one thing I didn't like was that tagline and marketing campaign," says Pat Kenny, who moved to the new station after working for a few years as a continuity announcer on Radio 1. "We thought it was pretty naff, although today, in an era of 'The X Factor' and suchlike it would probably work quite well.

"People were crying out for a station like it at the time. You had Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline and then the Dublin pirate radio stations, but there was no official Irish music station that was widely available, and there was a huge appetite for it.

"I look back on those days with great fondness and made some excellent friends there. Radio 2, or 2FM as it would become, had a really good run of it before local radio came on stream and when it came to a certain type of radio, it could feel like the only show in town."

Former Irish Independent reporter and music critic Tony O'Brien says the arrival of Radio 2 was part of a perfect storm of events in Irish youth culture at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s.

"I joined the Indo in 1978 when I was 26 and there was definitely a feeling that things were different," he adds. "You had bands like the Boomtown Rats doing very well in Britain as well as the rise of U2. Hot Press magazine had just started and punk had become a significant thing in Ireland.

"You also had big open-air concerts such as Bob Marley at Dalymount and The Police at Leixlip Castle [both in the summer of 1980] as well as much-talked of events like the anti-Nuclear Carnsore Point gigs in Wexford, which were organised by Christy Moore.

"It was also a time when the Dandelion Market [where the St Stephen's Green shopping centre is now] was an important part of youth culture. If you were Dublin-based, Pat Egan's Sound Cellar was the place where you could get those hard-to-find LPs as well as concert tickets.

"Radio 2 became pretty big quickly and people like Fanning had huge influence. In an era before the internet and podcasting, such shows were a big deal. It had the market to itself for a long time and some of what it did felt innovative simply because there was so little competition. That would all change when the market was deregulated."

The success of the so-called "super-pirates"– Radio Nova and Sunshine Radio – proved that Radio 2 did not have a stranglehold on Ireland's youth audience, but such late 1980s and early 1990s initiatives as Beat on the Street and Eye in the Sky [traffic information conveyed via DJ Electric Eddie in a helicopter] would prove to be enormously popular.

Declan Meehan, who worked at the station for 18 months, says Radio 2 experienced considerable teething problems in the early stages. "You had the younger crowd who had come from the pirates and much older RTE staffers who were parachuted into the station and they didn't exactly see eye to eye," he adds.

"I had come from these cool stations where you played the music you liked and now, as presenter of the breakfast programme, I was having to play the likes of Brendan Shine's 'Do You Want Your Oul Lobby Washed Down?' and Denis Allen's 'Limerick You're A Lady'. As someone from the pirates, you'd get accused of being a sell-out when you played that sort of stuff."

Meehan was much happier when he was moved to a night slot directly before Dave Fanning's show, which was already becoming something of a cult attraction. But at the end of 1980 when the contracts were up for renewal, he would not be kept on.

"The controller, Billy Wall, asked me if I wanted to know why I wasn't being kept on," he tells me.

"He said I was a limited broadcaster who had no future in radio. I'm glad to say he was wrong." Meehan presents shows on both Today FM and East Coast Radio today.

Others, like the late Gerry Ryan, found themselves in favour with Wall although in his memoir, Would the Real Gerry Ryan Please Stand Up?, which was published shortly before his death, he wrote that he was "pissed off" that the slots he was offered were not high-profile enough.

He changed his tune when he learnt that RTE were offering him £78 per week – a very significant sum in late 1970s Ireland.

Meanwhile, Pat Kenny believes the "esoteric" nature of the station in its early years helped several of today's household names find their voices that would stand them in good stead for their entire careers.

"It had an identity that was quite unique in the Ireland of the time," he says. "It tapped into a younger, more optimistic country, and could show that radio could be both engaging and great fun. They were good times."

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