The magic of radio
John Fleming reports on a day spent tuning into Cork's radio stations...
is alive and well
and living in Cork
Cork's unlicensed radio scene is still strong, and - as befits the 'Rebel County' - very defiant. This is despite recent nationwide campaigns in which ComReg officials have done their best to stifle, and in the case of Dublin, possibly kill the pirate radio scene. With a wealth of commercial and community stations on air in the capital, with more to come, it is perhaps understandable that there is a focus on clearing Dublin's airwaves of pirates - although it is also usually the area where there is a greater volume of unlicensed activity than elsewhere anyway. Dublin's pirate stations still exist, mainly vampire-like hobbyist pirates who only come on to the airwaves when darkness descends. Some commercial stations claim that even the full-time daytime pirates were vampire-like, sucking on their listening figures and, by doing so, adversely affecting their business.
Cork, a city that its citizen's refer to as the true capital, has also been the scene of government-financed raids in the past. Most recently Kiss FM were forced off air when ComReg came a-knocking on their door. ComReg left with the station's 300w transmitter, but Kiss FM were back on air within weeks.
OFF & ON
Pre-1988 Cork had a vibrant radio scene. Superpirates of the calibre of ERI and South Coast Radio are still remembered with great fondness. The scene settled down in the years following the legislative shake-up and it was only the appearance of Radio Friendly in 1996 that ushered in a new unlicensed era. To that point all that ever appeared were sporadic, hobbyist stations. Many stations have come and gone since Friendly opened up new doors, and there have also been head-scratching periods of inactivity. The year 2004 is not one of those periods...
Kiss FM is undoubtedly the big boy amongst a wealth of smaller unlicensed players. Although it hasn't been around long (only on air since February this year) it is an old hand compared to its dance contemporaries. The output is commercial dance and its signal covers much of the county. The other stations are usually confined to the city's borders. Travelling around the country, fiddling with your radio knobs as you go (stop the sniggering at the back - you know exactly what that means), the listener is always instantly aware when the scan stops on a pirate station - and the world is a better place for it. As you travel from county to county, the very similar, slick, commercialised presentation of the country's main licensed outfits (great though it is) makes you yearn for something different, something to make you sit up and take notice. Cork has that to offer in abundance.
On one day of monitoring Cork's FM waveband*, the following unlicensed stations could all be heard: Radio Caroline Cork on 98.3MHz; Heat FM on 100.7MHz; Buzz FM on 101.5MHz; Cityview Radio on 103.0MHz; X-FM on 104.0MHz; Freak FM on 105.2MHz; a UCB relay on 106.9MHz; and Galaxy FM on 107.4MHz. These are in addition to the monster of a signal on 106.5MHz from Kiss FM - who call themselves Cork's Number 1. In the pirate world it appears that they are.
WE HAVE A HOBBYIST AND AN ALTERNATIVE - WITH A FREAK (FM) THROWN IN
Apart from Kiss FM, the other stations can be described as hobbyist, alternative, with a Freak (FM) thrown in, and - in the case of the wonderful Cityview Radio - strange and very, very unique. Cityview has been around for years. It is operated by one man who is a radio enthusiast. He quite patently enjoys himself on air, playing music from the assorted Ryan Tubridy CD releases - or exactly as you'd imagine them if they were released. His mother bought him a transmitter when, after visiting some of the city's stations, his love for the radio scene grew uninhibited. His unique style evokes memories of a character called Terence, the Corkonian who was a regular on Gerry Ryan's 2FM morning show many years ago. (There's a shiny new anorak at reception for anyone who can name the person who played Terence!). Cityview Radio appears on weeknights and weekends only, usually for a few hours at a time. It is reassuring to note that when you receive a signal, the station is live, which cannot be said of many others.
TURNING ON THE HEAT
Heat FM, which appeared on 100.7MHz FM just after 7.15pm on the day in question, took half an hour to identify themselves with a voiced ident. With just non-stop dance music, there were no presenters on air in the hour that it was monitored, and there was no RDS display to inform listeners what station they'd tuned to. The station has been off air for a while, only recently making a return.
BUZZING WITH YOU
Buzz FM on 101.5MHz FM have a similar problem. The station was automated for most of the day, just playing long dance tracks with very irregular idents and no RDS display. They went off the air for quite a period before returning. It was only when they introduced live programming in the evening time could you be sure of what station you were tuned to, and even then subtitles would have been welcome because the resident dj mumbled through his links, or maybe it was just difficulty understanding the thick Cork accent?!
Buzz FM have been around for as long as Kiss FM, but have spent most of that time not broadcasting.
OUT OF THIS GALAXY
When tuned to 107.4FM, and again to a station who were broadcasting without RDS, there was gratitude that they managed to broadcast live for the day. Although the signal was overmodulating, Galaxy FM is great fun to listen to. There's little doubt that the presenters are obviously doing it for the love of the medium and the music they play (dance seeing that you asked - are you surprised?!). Galaxy FM is a splinter station from Buzz FM.
THANK HEAVENS FOR RDS
Other stations are instantly identifiable thanks to RDS: when you tune to 98.3FM you know you've reached 'CAROLINE'. Likewise on 104.0FM there's ' X--FM '; 'FREAK FM' is on 105.2FM; & 'KISS FM ' is on 106.5FM.
When you fancy a change from dance music, there's always old perennial Freak FM, who were pumping out their usual alternative rock music mix. This station has been around for years, and it shows.
Another station that has been around for years is Radio Caroline Cork. This station is very rarely live, usually relying on tapes and relays. On this particular day, it just offered a relay of Radio Voyager from the WorldSpace Satellite Radio Network before going off air altogether.
X SPOTS THE MARK
X-FM is another dance station, but with a difference. It was off the air for a long period, but on either side of the 'break' it had a laidback style which separates it from the other dance stations on the air in Cork. It is, of course, possible that it was the presenter himself who was unique rather than the station, but it made a refreshing change.
OFF & ON
Another station - Tech FM
- have been off air for a few weeks but are planning to return and, as in most other cities, the almost reassuring UCB relay is also present in Cork on 106.9MHz. The religious relay sourced from Sky Digital has just returned to air on drastically-reduced power. It went off at the time of the ComReg visit, as did a Cross Rhythms relay. The latter was on 87.7MHz and has not yet returned.
Strangely lacking is a Country music station. Even Dublin has had country music pirates, and supposedly (some might say) a licensed version too.
SELLING? APPARENTLY NOT
Most interesting of all to note was the amazing lack of commercial breaks. Kiss FM, being commercially-motivated, normally has plenty of advertisement breaks, although they are usually for events associated with the station rather than paid-for advertising. But most of the others appeared to exist simply to play music, although Galaxy's presenters had a 'thing' for a certain cab firm, which received a lot of mentions!
All over Cork city there are billboard advertisements for a station called 'Radio Roy'. If you'd never listened to Today FM, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was another pirate who'd made it huge. To outsiders, the familiar style featuring blue typeface on a yellow background lets you know that it is Today FM (who also broadcast on 100-102 in Cork!) doing the advertising, even though the legend 'Radio Roy' sits proudly in the place that you'd expect to find Today FM's name. The Radio Roy reference alludes to the sketch-based 'pirate' station which is run by 'Roy Keane' and is the comic invention of Mario Rosenstock, who has the nation guffawing every morning with his inciteful and witty inserts lampooning Ireland's great, good, and not-so-good on Ian Dempsey's Breakfast Show. It is interesting to note that there has been a 'Radio Roy' sketch aired on Today FM which appeared to offer support to a beleaguered pirate scene at the time of a particularly major ComReg backlash in May of 2003. What is it about Cork that not just allows, but appears to positively encourage, the alternative and anarchic to blend in seamlessly with the mundane and normal?
Unfortunately though, after a magical day spent listening to the radio, reality managed to raise its particularly ugly head owing to the witnessing of a fatal motorcyle accident on the banks of the River Lee. The radio may elevate Cork to a different plane when compared to most other cities, and the pirates may live on and refuse to die, but all it takes is just one sobering moment to remind you that - even in Cork - humans are mere mortals.