Border blasters: Interview with Don Allen of Radio Star Country

Video recorded by Miles Johnston and donated by Rodney Neill.

The legendary pirate DJ Don Allen (RIP) joined Radio Star Country in March 1989. Canadian by birth, Don cut his teeth with the offshore pirates such as Radio Caroline and Radio Northsea International in the 1960s and 1970s, where he became renowned for his country and western jamboree shows. He came to Ireland in the early 1980s and prior to the closedowns of 1988 worked with pirates such as ERI (Cork), Royal County Radio (Meath), Radio West (Westmeath) and Erneside Radio (Cavan). Don’s last station was the licensed Midlands Radio 103 (now Midlands 103) where he hosted a popular country show until his sudden death in May 1995.

This video from 17th May 1989 contains shots of Radio Star Country’s transmission equipment and includes part of an interview with Don Allen, who says he remains a pirate to the core and has no interest in working for licensed radio. Don reports that the Irish and American country format is proving very popular with listeners and advertisers and indeed, around this time Radio Star Country was announcing itself as the only all-country music station in Ireland. By mid-June 1989, Radio Star Country was noted with an excellent signal on 981 kHz, along with many adverts. The final edition of Anoraks UK’s Weekly Report, published in September 1989, stated that Radio Star Country could be heard over a wide area from Larne in Co. Antrim to Malin Head in Co. Donegal, with the signal also audible on a simple receiver in Dublin and over a large area of north Leinster.

We thank Rodney Neill for his donation of the video, which was made originally by Miles Johnston. Thanks also to Sean Brady for assistance with the text.

Border blasters: ‘305, keeping the country music alive’

Border blasters: '305, keeping the country music alive'
Radio Star Country sticker (courtesy Ian Biggar).

Radio Star Country has always been a champion of country music and during the heady days of early 1989, it used the tagline ‘305, keeping the country music alive’, a reference to its wavelength in metres, roughly equivalent to 981 kHz. On 3rd March 1989, veteran country music artist Vernon Oxford, who hails from Arkansas, was featured in an edition of ‘Arena’ on BBC2, in which he travelled around Northern Ireland. Vernon Oxford also visited Radio Star Country in the Swan Lake Hotel in Monaghan, where station owner Gerry Byrne interviewed him and offered Vernon the opportunity to sing live on-air. It was at this time, in March 1989, that it was noted that Radio Star Country was enjoying a successful period, with an excellent (daytime) signal on 981 kHz, plenty of advertisements and strongly featured station promos. Around this time also, ex-Kiss FM (Monaghan) DJ John Friday (also known as Lawrence John) was heard voicing adverts on Radio Star Country.

Border blasters: '305, keeping the country music alive'
Radio Star studio including Vernon Oxford poster (Anoraks Ireland Collection).

On the morning of Friday 17th March 1989, Radio Star Country was noted off-air, apparently as a result of a visit from officials from the Department of Communications. The station was warned that it would be raided and closed down if it did not cease transmissions. Radio Star Country did switch off its transmitter for a time, but returned later.

Ian Biggar, who donated many recordings for this series, shares his memories of Radio Star Country:

In late July 1988, myself and Ken Baird were on a flying visit to Monaghan Town but of course made time to visit the radio stations operating at that time. Radio Star Country was one of the four and was located in the Swan Lake Hotel. It was very much typical of the mid-range stations of the time with domestic equipment in the studio, but generally was a nice little set up.

To be honest, after that visit I probably didn’t listen to the station again as country music wasn’t really my thing and tended to tune to such stations just to check they were there. Radio Star Country had a decent signal at home in southwest Scotland initially on 927 kHz, then 891 and finally on 981 kHz where it remains to this day.

That all changed on January 1st 1989 when the new broadcasting law was introduced in Ireland. I can clearly remember that Sunday morning and tuning across the now deserted medium wave. On 1188 kHz there was just a mess with a distorted relay of World Music Radio. Surprisingly, 846 kHz was silent as it was rumoured that of all the stations, Radio North from Carndonagh was most likely to defy the legislation. However, tuning to 891 kHz I was surprised and pleased to hear that Radio Star Country was on the air. I don’t think I had heard any rumblings about Star remaining on air, but there it was. It was around 10am and a taped programme was running and I can clearly remember one of the commercials wishing the station all the best for its continuation on air. From then on, I probably listened to the station most days whilst driving to work. I would tune between Star, Radio Dublin and Radio North which had returned to the air.

There were times when Radio Star Country was off air and I would always monitor the channel until they returned, which it always did! I remember one occasion in particular after a break that Gerry Byrne announced the station was now broadcasting from County Tyrone. This was for the benefit of the authorities and the station remained located in north Monaghan. I had now developed an affinity for the station. Yes, the music wasn’t to my taste, but the sheer determination to survive appealed to me.

In this recording from March 1989, Gerry Byrne is on air and the ‘305’ tagline is heard. The voice of popular Canadian country DJ Don Allen (RIP), who joined around this time, features on some of the many adverts from both sides of the border. Audio quality is poor on some commercials, possibly due to a dirty cassette deck. There are also community notices, a promo for ‘All-American Country’ coming up at 3pm and information about transport to a country music concert in Dublin.

The recording was made from 981 kHz on 1st March 1989. Part 1 above runs from 1430-1517 and Part 2 below from 1518-1603.

The recording was made by Rodney Neill and is from the Anoraks Ireland Collection, donated to us by Paul Davidson. Thanks to Ian Biggar for the donation and to Sean Brady for assistance with the text.

Border blasters: Radio Star Country claims coverage of 15 counties

Border blasters: Radio Star Country claims coverage of 15 counties
Gerry Byrne and Isobel Byrne (RIP) in 1988 (courtesy Andy Carter).

On Monday 6th February 1989, Radio Star Country left the air on 981 kHz as a result of stormy weather and torrential rain causing the mast to fall down. The station returned to the air on the evening of Tuesday 7th February. On the morning of Wednesday 8th February, the station claimed that it was broadcasting from County Tyrone, although by the afternoon, the Swan Lake Hotel in Monaghan Town was mentioned. The reference to Tyrone was no doubt to give the impression that the station was not in breach of the Republic’s new broadcasting laws but Radio Star Country was never in fact located in the North. The previous week it had said that it was broadcasting from its AM transmitter site in Emyvale, Co. Monaghan, close to the border. It was also noted at this time that Radio Star Country’s signal on 981 kHz was reaching into the north-west of the UK much better than its previous efforts on 891 kHz.

This recording was made on 9th February 1989 from 981 kHz and features station founder Gerry Byrne with small ads, a birthday file and star signs. Plenty of adverts are aired for local businesses on both sides of the border, some of them voiced by Don Allen who is to present a show later. There are references to both the Swan Lake Hotel and Tyrone as the station’s locations. Another promo claims that Radio Star Country is broadcasting to 15 counties including all of Northern Ireland and a population of three million people.

We thank Sean Brady for his assistance with the text and Ian Biggar for the donation of the recording. Part 1 above runs from 0819 and Part 2 below from 0905.

Part 2 from 0905.

The tape was recorded in Scotland and features daytime groundwave reception with some electrical interference.

Border blasters: Radio Star Country thrives in 1989

Border blasters: Radio Star Country thrives in 1989
Isobel Byrne (RIP) in the Radio Star studios in 1988 (courtesy Andy Carter).

Having defied the new broadcasting laws that came into effect at the end of the 1988, Radio Star Country entered 1989 on a high. The Anoraks UK Weekly Report of 7th January commented that ‘Star Country carried many adverts and it was as if news of the legislation had not yet reached that quarter!’ On Friday 27th January, the station announced on-air that it was going to move AM frequency, from 891 kHz to 981 kHz. This latter frequency had been used by Hometown Radio in Castleblayney, County Monaghan until Saturday 31st December 1988. Radio Star Country moved frequency on Friday 3rd February 1989 at 3.37pm and station owner Gerry Byrne was heard on air.

Similar to Radio Dublin which also defied the new laws, Radio Star Country was issued with notices that its telephones and electricity supply would be cut off after 14 days. In possible anticipation of a raid, Anoraks UK reported on 21st January that the station had introduced a new sales number in Armagh where it was not illegal to take advertising.

Border blasters: Radio Star Country thrives in 1989
Isobel Byrne (RIP) in the Radio Star Country studio in 1988 (courtesy Andy Carter).

Despite the increased risks of pirate broadcasting, 1989 was a bumper year for Radio Star Country. In February, the veteran pirate DJ Don Allen (RIP) joined the station with his popular ‘Country and Western Jamboree’, taking over the breakfast slot. Station owner Gerry Byrne was heard at lunchtime and there were live shows all day with tapes overnight. Advertising revenue was strong and the verdict of Anoraks UK on 11th February was: ‘The station gets ten out of ten for its fighting spirit’. In March, Radio Star Country even advertised for additional sales staff, such was the demand from businesses wishing to buy time on the station.

This recording was made from 0832-1002 on 23rd January from the old frequency of 891 kHz. On air is Isobel Byrne (RIP), late wife of former station owner Gerry Byrne. There are long ad breaks featuring mostly Northern businesses but the Swan Lake Hotel has a spot also. Part 1 above runs from 0832 and Part 2 below from 0917.

Part 2 from 0917.

Reception is fair as the recording was made in Scotland. We thank Ian Biggar for the donation and Seán Brady for assistance with the text.

Border blasters: Radio Star Country continues into 1989

Border blasters: Radio Star Country continues into 1989
Radio Star Country sticker from 1988 (courtesy Ian Biggar).

Welcome to our special series on Monaghan station Radio Star Country, one of the longest-running Irish pirates ever. The country music station has been on the air more or less continuously since 1988 to the present day. It broadcast initially on 927 kHz, then 891 kHz, and finally (and today) 981 kHz. This first post concentrates on the period from the launch of the station until the end of 1988 when the vast majority of pirates closed down. 

Radio Star Country’s first test transmission took place on Wednesday 11th May 1988 at 1.30pm on 927 kHz AM (324 metres medium wave) and 103.2 MHz FM (locally), and consisted of continuous country music. The station was broadcasting from the Swan Lake Hotel in Monaghan Town, and announced a telephone number of (047) 81179. The man behind this new venture was Gerry Byrne, who had also worked on Telstar Community Radio (Dundalk), Big M Community Radio (Castleblayney) and Northern Star (Monaghan).

In early June 1988, Radio Star Country moved their FM frequency slightly to 103.3 MHz and also added 96.3 MHz. A number of local advertisements were noted, including one for the Swan Lake Hotel. News was noted on the hour, along with a new telephone number of (047) 82394 for requests. In late July 1988, the County Monaghan area suffered severe weather conditions. Radio Star Country suffered some damage, although its transmissions on 927 kHz continued and the signal increased in strength. It was strong during daylight hours, and at night when BRT Radio in Belgium vacated the channel. In early October 1988, Radio Star Country changed AM frequency from 927 kHz to 891 kHz and, as a result, found itself nestled between BBC Radio Wales on 882 kHz and BBC Radio 2 on 909 kHz.  However, the signal on 891 kHz was vastly improved.

Radio Star Country founder Gerry Byrne shares his memories of the first year of the station and into decision to continue into 1989:

I had in my head the name Radio Star for a radio station long before Radio Star was actually launched. Previously I had worked on Radio Carousel, Telstar and the small Skyline Radio and then fortunately or otherwise on Big M in Castleblayney. I always threw myself 120 percent into anything I did back then and I did the same in Big M, none of which was appreciated. I met my first wife Isobel there and we got married but the station owner Frank Morgan changed my time on air so myself and Isobel left. We then went to Northern Star to join other guys who had split away from Big M: Gerry Callen, Martin Maguire, and an English DJ Ian Acres. We started selling advertising, Isobel especially, but we didn’t get the money we were owed and we knew there was no point in continuing there.

We started with just recorded tapes playing over and on 20th May 1988, Radio Star began broadcasting live from the office of a furniture factory and we moved into the Swan Lake Hotel in Monaghan Town. The name was then changed to Radio Star Country to underline the country slant to the station. The early days were very tough and at one point I became ill as a result of the pressure. We were plodding along and both very worked hard and reached the end of the year. We had Tony Hughes, a well-known singer and musician and a stepson of mine Michael Hopkins using the surname Byrne. It was a tumultuous time generally because as you know the new broadcasting law came in but we decided to stay on air when the rest went off air except for Eamonn Cooke in Radio Dublin. We hadn’t anything to lose and the rest should have done the same instead of stupidly thinking they would get a licence. After staying on air, we gathered a huge audience and hence a huge amount of advertising. Other station presenters included Don Allen (RIP), Ray (Cathal) McSherry (RIP), Pio McCann (RIP), Doreen Mullen (RIP), Sean Brady and Tony West (Burke), who had been with us from before 1989.

Our first recordings are of Radio Star just after the deadline of New Year’s Eve 1988, when the station defied the new legislation and carried on regardless. The recording above was made from 891 kHz and features Gerry Byrne on 1st January 1989 from 1413-1505. It’s very much business as usual with little fuss about the historical nature of the broadcast. The second tape below is from 1025-1228 on 2nd January and consists of pre-recorded music. One track calls for Radio Star to be kept on air, in keeping with other country music songs supporting the pirates in 1988 and 1989.

Recording from 2nd January 1989.

Both recordings were made in Scotland and suffer from co-channel interference and fading due to the time of year and distance from the transmitter. Our thanks to Ken Baird for the audio, to Sean Brady for the text and to Ian Biggar for his assistance with the series. Radio Star Country continues to broadcast to this day on 981 kHz AM and online.