Thursday 21 February 2019

The pirates who waived the rules

As the movie 'The Boat That Rocked' opens this week, Siobhán Cronin remembers her youthful love affair with our underground radio in the '80s

On the deck(s): Bill Nighy and chums shake a leg in The Boat That Rocked
On the deck(s): Bill Nighy and chums shake a leg in The Boat That Rocked

When Richard Curtis's latest comedy/drama The Boat That Rocked hits the big screen here on Friday, it will bring a big smile to the faces of us sentimental 'anoraks'.

But some may question his setting of the film in the '60s. Although the film is loosely based on the Radio Caroline pirate station set up by Irishman Ronan O'Rahilly in the North Sea in 1964, Irish radio enthusiasts generally believe the real heydey of pirate radio was in Ireland in the '80s.

No doubt the offshore pirates of the '60s were the first to rock the boat, legally speaking. Their location meant that for years they were outside the grasp of UK broadcasting laws.

And Caroline even gave us the term 'anorak' -- a more acceptable version of a rather rude phrase used to describe the fanatics who arrived out regularly on sightseeing boats.

But no-one could have predicted the huge support which the Irish land-based pirates generated when our government tried to silence them.

There's no doubt that pirate radio led me to my own career in journalism. In my early teens I would sit up at night tuning into various stations, in a happy distraction from my studies.

I quickly became hooked on the stylish American-sounding stations of Cork in the mid-'80s, like WBEN, ERI and South Coast Radio. My first long-term boyfriend was Brian Gunn, a DJ I met when I cycled into South Coast Radio after climbing out my window one night, because I liked the sound of his voice.

I started writing regular reports on our local stations for a popular newsletter called Anoraks UK, produced by the colourful Barrie and Ruth Johnson -- known for their commitment to pirate radio.

I helped 'produce' Brian's show, by sitting adoringly beside him, writing scripts for competitions and arguing over music. We talked for hours about the bizarre characters -- usually the stations' bosses -- who were attracted to pirate life, more eccentric and controversial than any character Johnny Depp might conjure up.

I virtually stalked the likes of South Coast's John Kenny, now a familiar voice to listeners of RTE Radio Sport, for snippets of weekly gossip.

John, who first spent time in Radio City Dublin, Sunshine and Big D, moved to Cork in 1981, but he says that while he enjoyed those days, he is also happy to have left them behind.

"I still meet some of the guys I worked with then and we joke about certain bosses, saying 'yeah, he didn't pay us', but of course, we were doing it just for the love of it then."

In Radio City Dublin his salary was 20pc of the advertising revenue, so during an election year, they were in the money. "I remember Sinn Fein coming in and putting a load of coins on the table, but Fianna Fail's cheques came via a big advertising agency!"

While the stations were illegal, many governments turned a blind eye to their activities, once they didn't interfere with any emergency signals.

But the strength of the public's response to the raid on Nova in May 1983 shocked everyone. "I was there that day," says Colm Hayes of 2FM. "I remember coming into work and finding the gardai and officials from the Department there. They were obviously very embarrassed about it. One of the cops said to me 'don't mention my name to anyone, my kids will kill me over this'. Another cop gave me a request to play for his wife, cos he said he knew we would be back on the air again!"

Colm spent three summers in the US, starting when he was 21, bank-rolled by controversial Nova boss, the late Chris Cary. "I was given an apartment and a car, and just told to listen to American radio and come back with ideas," he recalls.

Colm admits that a lot of the excitement went when the stations were licensed. "Oh yes, anything illegal is on the edge -- you knew you could be closed down at any time so you spent your wages in the pub on Friday. Sometimes you even slept in the station."

That excitement was palpable. In 1987, I abandoned my summer job in the Cork Examiner (as it was called then) as a trainee journalist to travel with Brian to a Radio Caroline convention in London.

I was privileged to land the Examiner job, but meeting my radio heroes and mixing with other 'anoraks' in London easily won the battle for my heart.

When I was accepted to the Rathmines Journalism course a year earlier, I was devastated to learn there was no radio module. It was eventually included after Conor Mark Kavanagh, now in RTE, joined me in my campaign to have it added.

When, almost a decade later, Mike Hogan appointed me editor of his In Dublin magazine, I quizzed him at every opportunity about his own pirate radio days, begging him to tell me more tales from the heady days of Radio Dublin, Sunshine Radio and the king of them all -- Radio Nova. My biggest thrill was not editing a national magazine in my mid-20s, but working for a former pirate.

It was during this time that I met Simon Maher, now in the unique position of running a former pirate which has since been legalised -- Phantom FM.

Simon started Phantom in 1998, but is one of the stereotypical 'boys in the shed' radio pirates. Having worked for Radio Dublin, he set up his own station, Coast FM, broadcasting from his parent's garden in Ballybrack.

"I was never raided," admits Simon, but with Phantom he played as close to the rulebook as possible -- twice closing down to apply for a licence and, after winning it, keeping silent as he battled in the High Court for almost two years.

Was it all worth it? "Oh yes. Of course, there is a lot more pressure now. I have a large group of people here, all with mortgages, and we have to turn over about €1.5m a year to pay the bills. But there is also a lot of security with it, because it's a 10-year franchise."

In the pirate days, you could "never plan anything" with your life, he says, and no bank manager would look twice at you. "I am happy things got sorted out in the end, but I still thoroughly enjoyed those days."

The Boat That Rocked opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday

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