Some younger readers won’t know what a cassette/tape is, many won’t be able to believe there was a time before the internet (which only came to Ireland with the first connection in TCD less than 6 years before I started in Freedom and was still VERY much in its infancy here). Not to be melodramatic, but what I found in that shed changed my life and started me down a road I could never have imagined.
I was 16 years of age, had longish hair, spots, poor fashion sense (still have). I was a nerd (still am), not particularly popular outside my core group of friends, not very confident, afraid of public speaking and generally not very cool (still am not).
I was the last person anyone would expect to be a pirate radio DJ. Also, I didn’t really know what pirate radio was, and that’s why I didn’t realise Freedom FM was a pirate radio station when I applied for work experience there in transition year in school. They had an address in knocklyon that they used for their Thursday night talk show. Could that have been called youthline or something like that?? Someone correct me. Listeners could send letters to that address (which I think was the presenter of the talk show’s address) with their problems and woes, and then they would be dealt with by the presenter on Thursday. Yes, that’s how late night talk shows used to work in Dublin. Not knowing this, I wrote and asked for work experience. They having never received a request for work experience (for obvious reasons) thankfully said yes anyway.
How I got interested in radio to start with I’m not 100% sure. There was a time (believe it or not) when 2FM was the only radio station that anybody listened to. I remember listening to Aonghus McAnally at nighttime in bed with I was about 8 or 9, and lived in Galway. Then of course there was Tony Fenton on the Hotline (and later Dusty Rhodes) and I used to love Aidan Leonard with the Cruise to Snooze at night. Electric Eddie at the Beat on the Street, what a time to be alive.
Then in 1992-1994 Long Wave Radio Atlantic 252 was about all the anybody listened to. In 1994, Kiss 103.2 was THE biggest station in Dublin (as far as I was concerned, at least) and I used to sit there with my tape recorder recording songs off the radio and often just recording a whole tape full to listen back to on my walkman. I still have the tapes in a box. My dad LOVED the radio, he still does. In our house, there was a radio in every single room, toilets/bathrooms included. Dad listened to the radio more or less from the minute he got up to the minute he went to bed, it was always on in the background. Actually at the time I started in Freedom, I had decided I was going to be a proper DJ and bought myself some KAM decks and a gemini 626 mixer and was going to be the next big club DJ. In fact, I only ever bought about 20 records. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was too shy/nervous to go into the record shops like Abbey Discs, where everybody seemed very ‘different’ to me.
My work experience started at 4pm. Unusual of itself, but most days Freedom only started at 4pm, when people were finished school….if only because most the presenters were still in school or college. Before that it used to carry a cablelink relay of BBC Radio 1 in the UK (I wasn’t unusual to both get complaints from Dublin people when we switched the relay and went live (they wanted to keep listening to BBC Radio 1) nor for BBC Radio 1 to complain about it, nor for Chris Moyles (whose cousin worked on Freedom) to give occasional shoutouts to people listening in Ireland through the Freedom relay. I think that the first day I literally only stayed for 2 hours for Aidan’s show, then went.
When I got home, I was buzzing.
I went back the next day at the appointed hour (also 4pm). This time, I was met by a big bear of a man, Mark Mayo. This it turned out, was not his real name. His real name was Keith Cunningham. KC to many, formerly of FM104, Red FM, Today FM, Red FM again and now on gardening leave before starting on Cork’s 96fm. Even then, in a shed in Templeogue with 2 CD Players, this guy was slick. I remember before he started he ran into the dining room of the house and loaded a tape into the tape deck to record his show telling me ‘you never know what’s going to happen or when a bit of magic will come’. Sound advice then as now. My whole work experience I did nothing but take requests and watch in awe. Taking requests was a slightly different process than it is now. Now mobile phones meant no text messages. No Internet meant no anything else. If you wanted a song on the radio, you had to make a phone call, land line to land line, your house to theirs. Literally, as it turned out.
Most people who ever listened to Freedom, and certainly those who worked there, are unlikely to ever forget the phone number. What most people don’t realise (and please don’t ring it now to check), is that phone number was the home phone number, as well as that of the radio station. That meant that every time the phone rang in the studio, the phone rang in the house. Every. Single. Time. To put this in context, when you took requests in Freedom, you didn’t hang up the phone, you just put your finger on the receiver, and the phone would ring again. It was that popular. The phone rang constantly. CONSTANTLY. And when it did, you picked up, you talked to the person on the other end of the phone, you took their request down on a bit of paper, and you put the finger on the receiver for the phone to ring again. When you didn’t have an over-eager helper like myself to take your requests, you took them yourself. It was so exciting. I miss that about radio now. Sure the texts and whatsapp and twitter and facebook messages are great, and an easy way of generating content, but I’m not sure you can beat talking to listeners in the way we used to back in those days. When it was time to link (that’s what they call ‘talking’ in radio-land) you left the phone off the hook, or told the person on the phone to hang on for a minute, and you did your thing then came back to the phone.
I can’t remember too much more about my first week in Freedom to be honest. DJ Power was back on Wednesday from 4-6pm, Andy Walker did a few 6-8pm shows and Simon Davis did another. There was a girl who did 2-4pm on Wednesday afternoon with a soul show. I can’t remember her name (a recent google suggests Adeanna Jones) but I do remember fancying her.
On the Wednesday, I said my first ever words on radio when DJ Power let me do a few requests. This was outstanding. At the end of the week I was 100% sure this is what I wanted to do with my life. I had never experienced a buzz like it. As I was going along, I asked various presenters if I could come back the next week and help answer their phones. Everyone said yes, because everyone was dead sound, and so I started hanging around Freedom FM like a bad smell……which, given the hormones and my dislike of changing clothes that often at that time, is probably a pretty accurate description.
After just a few months, I got my big break. I was going to be let Spin (somewhat ironic) a show. That meant playing the music and the jingles/imaging, but not talking. I was nervous as f**k, and terrified I would press the wrong button or do the wrong thing. Our jingles were on tape and you had to get the tape close to the start of the bit you wanted to play, then take it out, wind the tape back a notch with your finger or pen and put it back in on pause. That was probably the most nerve wracking thing about the whole affair for me truth be told. I was a nervous kid, probably ill suited to such a public profession in many ways, but therein lies the beauty of radio, more on which anon.
Freedom 92FM always rewarded enthusiasm and genuine desire. While I suspect no presenter would admit at the time (and many still not today, i’d wager) you didn’t have to be very good to get a show on there. If you need any evidence of that, have a listen to this. Some of my early work from Freedom. Shocking stuff.
The thing about a lot of work (and not just radio) is that everybody is looking for people with experience, but if you can’t get experience somewhere you’re never going to have the experience that many people are looking for. Freedom filled that gap for me, and for an awful lot of people. We were young, passionate and enthusiastic, and they gave us the chance to go on air, learn, get better and start our careers. For reasons I’ll get into later, the loss of Freedom FM, and other stations like it, is a crying shame for the radio industry and left a big gaping hole in the talent pool for a long time.
Soon, I started having a regular slot on the station, every Wednesday from 2-4pm on my half day from school. I would finish school at 1pm, cycle up the road from Templeogue College in my uniform, have my lunch beside the super sayer gas fire (the shed could be BALTIC, you could often see your breath during links on a cold day before the heater fully fired up) and go on air for 2 hours. My name was Ryan Phillips. Where that name came from (and the fact it’s not my real name) has been a source of confusion for many down through the years. When I started on Freedom, EVERYBODY used a pseudonym because it was illegal, and it seemed pretty stupid to go on an illegal radio station and use your real name. The name Ryan Phillips was born of my Fake ID (illegal radio and a fake ID, maybe I was more of a badass than I give myself credit for), and it stuck ever since.
The next few years are a bit of a blur in terms of radio. I was still busy nerding away in school, but also doing my Wednesday afternoon show, and some weekend shows, and filling in here and there. I still wasn’t very good, and most people seemed to think I was a poor mans version of a poor mans version of a poor mans version of Rick O’Shea, who at that time was one of the hottest hot jocks going and was on FM104 from 7pm, then drivetime (if memory serves). I wanted to be Rick O’Shea. He had been on Atlantic 252. He was a jock’s jock, he seemed really cool and he was what I aimed towards. Not very well as it happens. Every time I would come home from my show my mum would give out to me about the voice I was putting on. It will seem strange listening back to the audio, but I really didn’t think I was putting on a voice, I was just being on the radio, and used to say it’s just like the way you speak differently when you’re making a speech (or doing a reading at mass, seriously). Of course, mum was right, as usual, and I sounded f**king awful.
Still, I loved it. What I loved then never changed over the course of the last 20 years. I loved being on the radio. As the tech changed and things became more about ‘social media’ and ‘viral this’ and ‘viral that’ there was more and more things about “radio” that I disliked, but the one thing I always loved, and still do to this day is being on the radio. Loved it 20 years ago on Freedom, loved it 20 weeks ago on Christmas FM. That feeling of connection with people, a shared sense of ‘we’re in this together’ of ‘people like us’ that I was having a conversation with people, inviting them into my world, or me into theirs or some sort of shared understanding of things that were happening in the world. It’s quite hard to put your finger on it, but when it works there’s no better feeling in the world. I have often thought that the gap between radio presenting and observational comedy isn’t all that great, and perhaps that’s why some many comedians end up in radio.
As I said, what happened over the next few years is a bit of a blur. In my mind in Dublin at that time, there was two big pirate radio stations, Freedom and Pulse. There was others, for sure but those were the two main ones as far as I was concerned. The others were harder dance stations, generally, and I had no interest really in them, or many of the others except for listening to Rusty Nails (on whatever station was on 106.4 then, Kiss maybe?) on a Friday lunchtime with my earphones through my sleeve in biology class. Pulse was by far the most professional pirate station, and if your goal was to get into legal radio (which was the goal for more or less all of us then) you really needed to get onto Pulse. I didn’t. Boo erns.
Soon after I started working on-air, Freedom got a new mic processor, and they were having difficulty setting it up. Sean enlisted the help of another radio head tweak the settings, none other than Mark McCabe. You may have heard of him. Small song called Maniac 2000. At the time he was doing drivetime on Pulse, and was something of a hero of mine (it’s ok, I’ve told him before, usually drunk). In order to try and get the settings right, I had to link after every song while Mark and Sean listened, then came out to tweak some settings, then I would link again. To this day, it’s probably about as nervous as I’ve ever been doing a radio show.
I became obsessed by radio. The internet was still rubbish (28.8k dialup anybody) and internet streams were woeful, but I spent hours listening in to radio in the UK, seeing what they were doing. I started listening to a different regional station (like Radio Aire in leeds or whatever) each night to broaden my knowledge and try and learn from them. This was before serious networking really, so every station, even those in the same group had very little crossover in presenters, and there was lots and lots of people in the industry. Every so often an Irish presenter would get a gig or a break in the UK, and it was a big deal. Declan Pierce went to work in Juice in Liverpool. Darren Kelly (Darren Kelly) went to work somewhere (I can’t remember where) as well. It seemed like there was possibilities and options. Don’t forget in Dublin, in 1997 there was only 2fm, 98FM and FM104. None of the other stations existed and Today FM had just launched the month before I started in Freedom.
When I eventually took over running Communicorp’s digital station, one of the things that struck me was how many of the presenters didn’t really seem to listen to the radio. Or had very limited exposure to it. People who were really into it tended to listen to the podcasts of the Big Australian Shows only (sorry everyone, they aren’t THAT good) and nothing else. Many, hadn’t ever listened to a radio station outside Ireland, or in many cases Dublin. I’ll come back to this in a future post. Today, there’s a sense that some aspiring presenters want to be famaous, and being on the radio is a first step to achieving that. It’s a gateway into all the other things. It was never like that for me. I chanced my arm at TV a few times over the years, but that wasn’t in my mind at all when I started in radio, nor for probably 10 years after. Radio was all I really wanted to do. Anyway, as I said, that’s another day’s work
As luck would have it, law in college involved only 8 hours lectures a week, which left lots of room for radio. By this time, Pulse FM had closed down, but a new station Essential Galaxy FM (a merge of Essential Radio and Galaxy FM, if I’m not mistaken) was on air, which then rebranded to ESG FM, and later Energy 94FM. These stations were sort of the successor to Pulse, which had closed down to apply for the licence that Spin1038 eventually got. I had improved a good bit, and was looking to step things up, so somebody (I think Andrew Walsh) put my in touch with the station manager of Essential Galaxy, James Davids. I sent him in my demo, and I was on the move. That ended my time with Freedom 92Fm after 2 and a bit years. I would be back (most people were) from time to time, doing the chart show at the weekend in or around 2003 and some other bits and pieces between when Energy closed and Spin1038 started and after I was ‘fired’ from spin. To this day, some of my favourite times in front of (or behind, depending on where you’re standing) a microphone.
Now you can join me weekdays 8am to 10am for some great laughs and the best memories from the 90s and Noughties!