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Pirate radio maverick Robbie Robinson changed the country’s tune

Broadcaster, who has died aged 81, knew his listeners wanted music rather than dry, dusty fare


Robbie Robinson launched Sunshine from a hotel bedroom

Robbie Robinson launched Sunshine from a hotel bedroom

Robbie Robinson launched Sunshine from a hotel bedroom

When radio maverick Robbie Robinson appeared before the Independent Radio and Television Commission (IRTC) seeking one of the first commercial radio licences in Ireland, he seemed assured of success. His ‘super-pirate’ Radio Sunshine, run out of portable buildings at the back of a seaside hotel, was probably the most successful illegal station in the country.

But at the presentation in the National Concert Hall, Robinson said his listeners did not want politics, the Irish language or what he called “verbal clutter”. They wanted music, and that was what he intended to give them.

He was right. But it was not what Official Ireland and the IRTC wanted to hear. Sunshine, which had closed at midnight on the December 31, 1988 to the strains of Bridge over Troubled Water in the expectation of going legal, stayed closed.

When the commercial licence hearings were held in Dublin in early 1989, a Who’s Who of Ireland’s entertainment and business elite were in the hunt for what was seen as a pot of gold. Denis O’Brien, Chris de Burgh, Terry Wogan, Des and Ulick McEvaddy, Garech Browne, Brian Davy, Ann Smurfit, Arthur Ryan and Alma Carroll, Maurice Cassidy and Mike Hogan were just some of the high-profile personalities pitching for licences through various consortia.

With 85 applications for only 24 licences, many were disappointed. Robinson took a judicial review of the IRTC decision and later claimed he was blackballed in Ireland as a result of the accusations of cronyism he made at the time.

The company behind the licence application folded and Robinson eventually ended up in Lanzarote, where he ran an apartment block with his wife, Stella. He came back to Ireland intermittently for Sunshine Radio reunions to relive what he said was “the most wonderful time of my life”.

“There was great excitement. He was hoping to be made legal. Ultimately, he felt cheated,” said Paul Allen, who was DJ Paul King at the station.

In the early days, the mainstays of Sunshine were Steve Gordon, Tony Allan, Tony Hardy, Adrian Horseman, Declan Meehan, Mary Doyle and Sheila O’Donnell.

Robinson, whose DJ name was Robbie Dale or The Admiral, learned his trade under brash Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly, who invented pirate radio. Robinson worked on Radio Caroline, broadcasting to 23 million listeners in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere from a ship in the North Sea.

When the British authorities closed it down in 1967, Robinson worked in contract cleaning and later a radio station in Belfast. He credited a former Radio Caroline DJ, Brian McKenzie, who was running a radio repair and distribution depot at the back of Clerys department store, for bringing him to Dublin. With funding from Phil and Mervyn Solomon, Belfast-born music promoters associated with Van Morrison and the Dubliners, Robinson invited another pirate radio DJ, Chris Cary, to join him in a new illegal Irish radio venture.

In 1980, Radio Éireann was continuing to studiously ignore the youthful thirst for pop music and culture. Robinson knew there was a huge audience out there — all he had to do was tap into it. While looking for premises, he met John Ryan, who owned the Sands Hotel in Portmarnock on the north Dublin coast and offered him a site at the back of his nightclub, Tamango.

Sunshine Radio 101 on the FM wavelength was launched from bedroom 110 of the hotel, but it was a close-run thing — the huge transmission mast behind the hotel came crashing down before the launch.

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“At about 4am, we were woken by John Ryan shouting, ‘There’s been an ‘explosion’,” Robinson told Radio Today years later. The mast had fallen across electricity cables and on to a half-filled tank of diesel. Ryan, “a cool dude”, told him not to worry — the hotel had overcome bigger crises.

Robinson recalled: “Chris was shaking with anger as I told him what had happened. ‘I’m out of here’, he said, adding, ‘These f***ers are crazy’.” He believed the stays holding the mast had been cut by pirate radio rivals.

Robinson bought Cary’s 45pc of the venture for €7,000 and the two friends later became rivals when Cary established Radio Nova, Sunshine’s main opposition, based in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains.

Pirate radio was a precarious existence, with the station regularly raided and equipment seized. Journalist Patsy McGarry recalled that when Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves was played, it was a warning that gardaí and Posts & Telegraphs inspectors were on their way with sledge hammers. Staff had been trained to “clear out as much broadcasting equipment as possible” before they smashed down the doors.

After one such raid in 1983, Sunshine went off the air and aggrieved listeners staged a protest march through Dublin to Dáil Éireann. Asked what attracted him to pirate radio, Robinson answered: “The spirit of the broadcasters, the excitement of the chase, plus the music of that period.”

Robbie Robinson, who was born in Littleborough, near Manchester, and had British and Irish nationality, died in Lanzarote last Tuesday after suffering from dementia.

He is survived by his wife, Stella, a former sales director of Sunshine, and their children, Elliot and Manon.

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