The history of Irish radio

Irish Radio, MediaHQ.com, Radio, RTÉ, RTÉ Radio 1
April 18, 2019
by Fionn Warren

In honour of World Amateur Radio Day, here at MediaHQ we’ve taken a look back through the history of Irish radio. Below we’ve put together a brief overview of broadcasting in the Republic of Ireland, beginning with its rebel origins and ending with the shape the medium is in today. We’ve also included some links to RTÉ and IFI archival material so you can check out for yourself some of the key moments in the history of Irish radio.

The story of Irish radio begins with a seminal moment in Irish history itself. The very first Irish broadcast, and one of the first in the world, was a morse code message written by James Connolly. The broadcast took place around 200 metres from the rebel-occupied GPO at what was then The Wireless School of Telegraphy on Sackville Street. The message read: “Irish Republic declared in Dublin today. Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession. Enemy cannot move in city. The whole country rising.”

The establishment of a national broadcaster

The connections between the Irish independence movement and Irish radio continued on into the early stages of the medium’s history. Regular radio broadcasting began with the first test transmissions from 2RN in 1925. 2RN was the first radio broadcasting station in the Irish Free State and had its name derived from ‘To Éireann,’ said to be inspired by the last three syllables of the song, “Come Back to Erin”. In 1926, the station was launched by future president, Dr Douglas Hyde. While the studio was at first located on Little Denmark Street, in 1928 it moved into its new headquarters in the General Post Office. The GPO had been reconstructed after shelling by British forces during the 1916 Rising and so Irish radio found itself back in the place it had all began.

What happens next in the history of Irish radio can be broadly characterised by the growth and improvement of national broadcasting services in Ireland. The year after 2RN’s launch, Station 6CK (mostly relaying 2RN’s transmissions) was launched in Cork and formed part of the national radio of the Irish Free State. Together the two stations became known as Radio Athlone and could be heard throughout most of the country. In 1932, a high power station (60kw) was established in Athlone and six years later this became Radio Éireann.

Radio Éireann continued to spread throughout the country and  beyond. In November 1947, the first recordings were made by the Radio Éireann Mobile Recording Unit (MRU). The unit was able to tour throughout Ireland and also to Gaelic-speaking locations in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall and so outside broadcasting now became a reality. Twenty years later, in 1966, Radio Éireann was renamed Raidió Teilifís Éireann. Radio na Gaeltachta was then launched in 1972, followed seven years later with the launching of RTÉ Radio 2 (later 2FM). In 1981, RTÉ began their first experiment in community radio by providing locals in Mayo with mobile studios and the technical and production expertise to run their own station. However, it was not only RTÉ that was now setting up new stations, others too had begun to broadcast on Irish airwaves.

Popular pirate radio

As commercial radio was outlawed and only legalised in 1989, Irish radio in the 80s was characterised by pirate stations. Pirate radio stations were unlicensed, illegal and very popular. In the 1980s, pirate radio was at the height of its popularity with ‘Super Pirate’ stations like Radio Nova and Sunshine Radio dominating the airwaves. To this day, Sunshine Radio still holds the highest ratings of any Dublin radio station.

The popularity of pirate radio can be seen to coincide with mounting frustrations with the national broadcaster. In 1983, Irish musicians took to the streets to protest at the insufficient airtime given to their music. Among the demonstrators were Ronnie Drew, Jim McCann and Adam Clayton who took part in demanding a 40% content ruling for Irish produced music on Irish radio. On the other hand, the pirate stations catered for a younger audience with 24-hour music and hourly news updates from around Dublin. When in 1983, Radio Nova was forced to close as part of a clampdown on pirates, the public reaction was telling. Public protest galvanised the country as marches took place and petitions were signed to rally against the closure of the pirate stations.

While talk of radio legislation and the admittance of new radio and television channels had been ongoing throughout the 1980s, it wasn’t until 1988 that this was done with the Radio and Television Act (1988). This Act allowed the first legal stations outside of the national broadcaster. From 1989, licenses were awarded on a franchise system and for the first time new legal stations, not owned by RTÉ, took to the air.

In the following years a multitude of different regional and national commercial radio stations came into existence. The playing field had opened up and radio ownership began to mushroom. However ever since the mid 2000s there has been an increasing consolidation of Ireland’s radio industry with three media companies owning the majority of Irish radio stations. Outside of RTÉ, Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, there are only a handful of independently owned radio stations. Not that this has dented the popularity of Irish radio. According to the most recent JNLR figures, more than 3.17 million listeners tune into radio every weekday, with 83% of all adults listening to a licensed service on any given day. After its significant beginnings, Irish radio remains a crucial and powerful means of communication.

Do you want to keep up to date with all the movements in Irish radio? Click here for more information on MediaHQ, or call Gaye on (01) 254 1845.