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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Flying the Radio Roger
by Paul Moore
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For many in Ireland their first taste of wireless telegraphy came in August 1923 when Marconi broadcast during Horse Show Week over a radius of six miles between the Royal Marine Hotel and the Royal Dublin Society's showgrounds, Ballsbridge. This small station broadcast twice a day for short periods and delivered news supplied by the Evening Mail. Unfortunately for Marconi he was soon to become a victim of the Postmaster General and on the 17th August the Evening Mail reported that 'the temporary station at the Royal Marine Hotel, which aroused such interest and admiration has now been dismantled and the instruments taken out of the country at the request of the Postmaster General'.
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This moment is often seen as the birth of pirate radio in Ireland (and perhaps even world wide). However, there was an earlier moment that would be relived across three generations of the same family. At 5.30 on Easter Tuesday, for one day only, the leaders of the 1916 rising informed anyone willing to listen in Morse code that an Irish Republic had been declared in Dublin. One of those in the building was the Great O'Rahilly who, according to the historian FSL Lyons, led 'a forlorn charge' against a military cordon in Moore Street and was 'shot down and killed'.
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Forty-eight years later, almost to the day, on the 29th March 1964 Radio Caroline started broadcasting, a station that at the height of its success would have an audience of seven million people. The man who set it up was described as idealistic but rebellious. His name was Ronan O'Rahilly and he was the grandson of the Great O'Rahilly who had died in Moore Street.
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If one wished to be romantic, one might say that somehow, the sonic gene had been passed on. And this is the problem with pirate radio. It encourages us to be romantic, to see pirate radio as some kind of struggle against authority, a movement for freedom and choice, a small, but lethal blow against commercialism and state monopoly. As the broadcast writer, and historian of pirate radio in Britain, Paul Harris says 'there is something irresistibly romantic about a ship wallowing lazily in a light swell and a small team of technicians and disc jockeys defying state monopolies to take programmes into the homes of millions'.
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That Ireland, north and south, should have a strong tradition of pirate radio, is not surprising. Orality is a key factor in Irish daily life. It may be a cliché that we like to voice our opinions but that does not make it any less true; and if those opinions can be expressed to many using the airwaves so much the better. But it would be wrong to argue that all pirate radio in Ireland belonged to a tradition of rebellion. Much of it was based around hopes of commercial gain or attempts to develop atavistic community values. Nevertheless, by its very nature pirate radio is subversive.
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Unfortunately it is this very subversiveness and ephemerality that makes pirate radio almost impossible to research or write about. At the very moment of broadcast it vanishes, becoming either a memory for a listener or a nostalgic story for a broadcaster. Given the nature of illegal broadcasting any attempt to archive material was low on the list of station priorities and since most broadcast from a domestic front room or a dingy office the resources for archiving were limited. But it is this dearth of hard evidence that makes pirate radio intriguing. In a contemporary environment where the urge to archive seems pervasive, pirate radio represents the ultimate expression of 'unstable' media.
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Attempts to control pirate radio in Ireland were complicated because two legislative bodies were involved and because the border provides the ideal environment for pirate broadcasting, an area where the so-called no-man's land can become everyman's land. Interestingly the legislation that was passed to control illegal radio stations was remarkably ineffectual. The 1926 Wireless and Telegraphy Act in Ireland and the 1967 Marine offences Act in the UK both made pirate stations illegal, but they were clumsily enforced and, in the case of Ireland, were riddled with loopholes, such as the fact that the authorities had to prove the equipment involved could not be used for any purpose other than broadcasting. In the UK the act was so poorly enforced that the BBC felt it had to hit back at the pirates through programming and this strategy led to the establishment of the ubiquitous Radio 1 in 1967.
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So what is it that defines a pirate radio station? The most obvious factor is the use of unauthorised airwaves. This raises the question as to who should, or can, claim ownership of airwaves in a given area. Governments have traditionally seen it as their right to claim ownership of the airwaves within a country's boundaries, but the development of digital and satellite broadcasting has complicated this argument. In a country like Ireland where the boundaries themselves are a matter of dispute then the battle for the airwaves takes on a more prominent role.
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The second criticism aimed at pirate radio stations is that they fail to pay copyright and hence have an adverse effect on the livelihoods of musicians and members of the Songwriters' Guild and Musicians' Union. As with the debate about internet downloading this argument is far from proven since many bands measure their potential by monitoring 'illegal' use of their material. In the case of pirate radio the non-payment of royalties means that an audience can be targeted more efficiently and the very people who might buy material get access to obscure sounds in a way that might not be possible on a national network such as RTE or the BBC.
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It is often argued that pirate radio has an adverse effect on professionalism and standards of broadcasting. Since, however, most of these 'standards' have been developed by state corporations with the intention of ensuring not only a broadcasting monopoly but the delivery of a public consensus on social and economic issues it could be argued that any attempt to undermine this 'professionalism' is in itself 'a good thing'. At the very least it can be argued that pirate radio should play a role in forcing traditional (conservative?) state broadcasters to rethink tired formats and address programming needs that can be dismissed as marginal or, in the case of Northern Ireland, peripheral.
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Commercial stations would claim that pirate radio has an impact on income through advertising. Since the purpose of commercial radio is to increase competition and offer public choice one would imagine this is not an argument governments would find desperately convincing. It is less than reassuring to discover, however, that bodies such as the now defunct Radio Authority consistently found in favour of commercial stations who only differed from pirate stations in that they had applied for, and received, a Radio Authority licence.
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The most pertinent criticism of pirate radio stations is, however, the most relevant to Northern Ireland. It is continually argued by those in government that since pirate radio stations are operating illegally, they are free to broadcast political propaganda. In a dysfunctional state where extreme political and paramilitary groups are vying for hearts and minds pirate radio can take on a profound significance.
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But if researching pirate radio in general is difficult, then tracing the operations of covert political/paramilitary groupings is almost impossible. By its very nature all that one is left with after a period of pirate political broadcasting is the odd advertising poster, an amateur recording of a random programme and the accounts of those who heard the station or took part in it.
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Having said that this form of pirate broadcasting is more interesting than that which simply played music in that it can express the immediate wishes and thoughts of a community about a particular event or set of circumstances. The operations of stations such as Radio Dublin or Alternative Radio Dublin (ARD) as documented by Peter Mulryan in his book 'Radio, Radio' (1988), illustrate the point that music radio piracy is about internal politics, about the disputes between stations and the personalities that ran them. Certainly it is also about opposition to state legislation but this opposition is not overtly political or subversive. On the few occasions when it became so, and listeners were asked to take to the streets and protest, these events became legendary for the lack of interest and commitment shown by the listening public.
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his is not the case for the pirate radio stations that represented various political groupings in the North. The most obvious example is Radio Free Derry which began broadcasting is 1969. For the nationalist population in Derry Radio Free Derry became the only source of information about what was actually happening in their area. Hence the Socialist Worker in an interview in August 1969 with Eamonn McCann and Ray Burnett 'on the barricades' could claim that 'Radio Free Derry is being run in Bogside (sic) by Derry Young Socialists, who are broadcasting news, comment and music'. In a wonderfully innocent aside the article also points out that the most popular record on Radio Free Derry at that time was the Rolling Stones 'Street Fighting Man'. Interestingly, conversations with a number of those involved with Radio Free Derry would suggest that in its earliest days the spirit of free love, as epitomized in the hippie movement was as much a part of the station as the political content. One commentator even went so far as to point out that the Free Derry Wall motif had as much to do with peace, love and San Francisco as it had with the injustices felt by the nationalist population of Derry. There are moments in Eamonn McCann's 'War in an Irish Town' when that sensibility appears to come through (as when he remembers playing an Incredible String Band track from the top of Rossville flats). After 1972 this ambivalence would disappear and any notion other than opposition to an oppressive state regime would be impossible. Nevertheless, Radio Free Derry is a historical testament to the dual role pirate radio played in those early days of trouble in Derry. It is a dual role many pirate stations aspired to; entertaining the people while spreading and underpinning subversion and opposition to state authority.
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Given the power of radio to enter homes, and the inability of the security forces to actively police 'flashpoint' areas in Northern Ireland it is strange that paramilitary groups did not make more use of pirate radio. It has been suggested that the clandestine nature of these bodies made the idea of public broadcast unacceptable, but this can be countered by the argument that these types of struggle are as much about propaganda as they are about active service. Stephen Bernard in his book 'Studying Radio' makes a cursory reference to Loyalist paramilitaries using a pirate station called Radio Nick but there is no remaining record of this station broadcasting.
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Sinn Fein have always been well aware of the need to spread information/propaganda, and this was especially true during the period of the broadcasting ban 1988 to 1994. The Linen Hall library has material which again tantalisingly refers to the operations of a number of Sinn Fein sponsored stations. Those operating these stations must have faced an interesting dilemma as to whether to broadcast in Irish or in English. In 1985 R.F. 300 broadcast in Irish on St. Patrick's Day on medium wave and this was seen by the organisers, Conradh na Gaeilge as an attempt to redress the bias against Irish medium broadcasting in the conventional medium.
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Kool SF (106 FM and sometimes also spelt with a 'C') broadcast sporadically in English throughout the period of the broadcast ban and the advertising for this station again illustrates the contradictions inherent in pirate radio where the 'message' has to be delivered with due concern for entertaining the listener. This is shown by a poster for a Valentine's Day broadcast in 1993 when Cool SF offered listeners the chance to have a request played for 'loved ones' and it would only cost them fifty pence a request. As the archivist in the Linen Hall suggests there were times when Cool SF had much in common with their namesake and broadcasting model Cool FM.
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Even when the message was of greater significance the urge to entertain would still emerge. In 1993 Kool SF advertised its forthcoming programmes. Saturday 24th April was to be a day of 'uncensored news and views from West Belfast' while on Saturday May 1st the station was to 'Remember the Hunger Strike'. Urging its listeners to tune in the advertisement finishes with the reminder for listeners that to get a request played all they needed to do was write to the address given. One imagines the equipment was not housed at the same address.
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Kool SF would transmogrify into Triple FM telling people to 'turn it on, turn it up' in 1996 and with a greater degree of wit in 1998 declaring itself 'a station once again'. Triple FM, however, indicates the problem for pirate radio since it would appear that with the new attention to community development, and the belief that community commitment is one way to resolve political violence, the authorities have been anxious to turn pirate stations into community stations. These community radio outlets have developed across Ireland and Peter Mulryn in 'Radio, Radio' indicates the difficulties in identifying those which are legitimate and those that broadcast under the pirate banner, the suggestion being that even the authorities may not be quite sure. Unfortunately a community station is not a piratestation. Community stations want to develop the community within the limits of its accepted boundaries. Pirate stations may want to develop but they want to develop an alternative.
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So what is the future for pirate radio? There is an argument that given the advent of digital technologies and the access to internet downloading and internet broadcasting the days of the pirate station are numbered. What is the need for broadcast organisations if each individual can be her/his own pirate? However, the simple attachment of an iTrip to an Apple iPod can allow anyone to take over airwaves on a pre-set wavelength. The broadcast range may be small but that can be remedied at little or no expense. A simple search on the internet also indicates the large number of pirate stations broadcasting across Ireland. (See www,radiopirates.com) it may well be that the new technologies will allow those intent on broadcasting new and more effective ways to get their material out; ways that will be more difficult for the authorities to locate and that will allow broadcasts free from the unceasing interference and hiss that accompanied earlier pirate broadcasts. But then again, perhaps that was part of their romance.
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It is to be hoped that the pirate philosophy does linger and prosper since sound is one medium that is extremely difficult to regulate. It knows and acknowledges no borders and, as Murray Schafer points out, as individuals we have no ear lids. And romantic as it seems we can only hope that in radio land Ronan O'Rahilly, the founder of Radio Caroline was right when he said that, 'The Irish breed rebels where the English breed gentlemen. The English like to watch the action: the Irish provide it'.
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