- 19 May 10
In 1990, Liam Mackey conducted an extensive interview for a cover story of Hot Press, which ran in two parts in successive issues of the magazine. Here is a short but illuminating exchange on the origins of modern Irish radio!
THE PIRATE DAYS
How did you actually get involved with pirate radio?
It was through Mark Storey that I got to know a number of people who were involved in pirate radio – fellows like Robbie Irwin who subsequently went on to be a programmer at Century, Declan Meehan who went on to become an RTÉ presenter and subsequently a Century presenter, Dave Kelly...all these names which by now have become almost legend in the radio business here. They were all involved in setting up splinter groups because the radio business in those days was, well, it was more political than South Africa (laughs). You had all these break-away groups – Radio Dublin gave rise to Alternative Radio Dublin and then came Big D and so on. As a result of that you had the whole Bonnie and Clyde/Laurel and Hardy scenarios of people stealing each others’ transmitters, of certain individuals offering you money to throw a bucket of water on your own transmitter, of having to steal equipment when you were leaving because you weren’t getting paid – all of that. Anyway I worked for ARD and Big D radio as a rock show disc jockey – it was back then that I met Dave Fanning.
As regards the politics of the pirate scene and the kind of warfare that ensued – did it get hairy?
Well, you were dealing with people who treated it primarily as a business. Now there were also a number of very dedicated, very serious broadcasters, guys who were brought up on the Radio Caroline tradition and they loved what they were doing, they’d do it for nothing and, God love them, a lot of them did and they were badly ripped-off and where are they today? But the purse-strings were being controlled by businessmen and some of these businessmen were not particularly savoury people. They had to come from backgrounds where they had to fight hard to make their mark and they were still doing it in the radio business. So it was ostensibly quite a glamorous job, but behind the scenes, it was not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination.
And did you feel the effects of the more sinister forces at work?
Well, of course, being a namby-pamby boy from Clontarf, the heavier side of it would have scared me a lot more!
You weren’t involved in any of the sabotage?
No, but I witnessed the sabotage, I witnessed the buckets of water being thrown over the transmitters, which, by the way is a very dangerous thing to do. I was there the night it happened at Big D. Somebody came in – actually he’s now quite a successful businesman –
And his name is?
And his name shall remain anonymous – in fact he’s a friend of mine (laughs). Anyway, he lashed a bucket of water over the transmitter and nearly blew himself to Kingdom Come in doing so. But it put Big D off the air. On another occasion I actually helped Mark Storey put the parts of an ARD’s transmitter into his attic to hide them from Bernard Llellwyn and Doctor Don, who Mark felt were taking the station away from him. In actual fact, Don and Bernard had bought into the station and Mark was just another innocent student like myself who didn’t have any legal claim on the station whatsoever but despite that fact, we took it upon ourselves to take the transmitter. So Bernard Llellwyn was left in a nightclub one evening launching his brand-new radio station and then they pulled the switch to put it on the air and there’s no transmitter. But Bernard was a forgiving sort of guy, thankfully (laughs), and allowed us to give him back the parts and we all went back to work together.
What about Eamon Cooke, the man who started it all with Radio Dublin?
I never had any dealings with him whatsoever. I interviewed him once here on The Gerry Ryan Show and that was the first time I ever met him.
Cooke, of course, was the first and last of the pirates. Do you think he should be left alone and allowed to broadcast now?
No, I don’t. I don’t think that the airwaves are anybody’s property. I believe that the airwaves must be controlled – and I don’t mean in a censorship way. But I believe there must be a degree of monitoring and it’s impossible to monitor unless you licence. And if you won’t submit to being licensed you ought to get into another business.
But why was it acceptable to you a few years ago and not acceptable now?
Because at that time, radio, as far as I was concerned was very staid. It did not cater for the needs, especially of young people. Of course I myself was younger then and I must admit if I proffered the argument I’ve just offered now to a twenty-year-old Gerry Ryan he’d have laughed at me. Because, as far as I was concerned then, it was all rock’n’roll and go for it and who needs a licence? You drove a car without a licence, what did you need one to run a radio station for? I’ll grant I’m a little older and more boringly wise now.
Were you ever raided by the Guards?
No, I was never involved in a raid in all the years. We lied frequently about raids actually – raids were a method of getting publicity. I mean, if the guards were genuinely to be credited with all the raids they were meant to have carried out, the Gestapo would pale into insignificance by comparison.
How did your entry into Radio 2 come about?
Morah, who was later to become my wife, and I were on our way to a party one night in Paddy O’Neill’s house – the guy who went on to set up community radio for RTE. And Mark Storey, who’d already gotten into RTÉ at the time having chucked the legal career completely, told me before I went out that evening, that they were doing auditions for this new pop station Radio 2, which was being set up by RTÉ in very, very indecent haste by Billy Wall on orders of the government to comat the pirates. And Mark said to me, “Listen, most of the people we’ve interviewed are bugger-all use, they’re rubbish. You definitely stand a chance. Come in!” So I came in and did a quick audition for Billy Wall. It was a 10-minute show you had to prepare, for which you were supposed to have a script. I didn’t have a script, I read the sleeve notes on the back of a Glen Campbell album, he was very impressed, and I got the gig. And suddenly I had these quasi-serious documentary-style programmes on Radio 2 at the weekend for which I was paid the princely sum of £90 before tax – and I thought I was a millionaire. I went out and bought a Fiat 127 for £700. This was the beginning of the big time!
But you were still working in the solicitor’s office at this point. Was dropping the legal career a momentous decision?
No, not at all, I just got bored with the law, I just got bored with the people – at least the one thing that the broadcasting community had to offer was interesting people to work with.
What was your first full-time gig with Radio 2?
The first regular Monday to Friday show was Rock Steady, which was a kind of frantic, manic, teenagers’ rock show – Barry Lang was also involved in that. Then I went back to being on the weekend and did a few more documentary-style shows, and after that worked for Radio One for a while on a current affairs programme. I then went on to the 10 to 12 slot at night time and that was the G. Ryan Show which also became known as Lights Out. And that, as I would say, was one of the happiest periods of my broadcasting career because there was very little work involved. You had Mark Cagney, myself and Dave and it was like being in Led Zeppelin, it was great: it was just music, music and touring the three shows ‘round the country. It was really the nearest I ever got to being in a band. And I really enjoyed it.