Radio North returns to the air in 1989

Radio North returns to the air in 1989

Radio North from Co. Donegal is one of Ireland’s longest-running pirate stations, operating under various guises more or less continuously from 1986 to the current day. It began broadcasting from Carndonagh on the Inishowen peninsula on 18th November 1986 on 1386 kHz, later moving to 1404. Logs from mid-1987 show that it moved to the clearer channel of 846 kHz, which gave it better coverage over a wider area.

Radio North closed down along with the vast majority of the other pirate stations on 31st December 1988 but its frequencies did not remain silent for long. The station was among a handful of pirates to defy the new broadcasting laws and continue broadcasting in 1989. Radio North returned on tape on 5th January 1989 and resumed live programmes on 6th January on 97.9 FM and 846 kHz AM, putting out its usually good signal into Britain, according to the Anoraks UK Weekly Report. Promos were aired to raise funds for the station’s court case against the 1988 legislation with £30,000 required, £10,000 of which would be provided by Radio North. Adverts from both sides of the border were plentiful but an address in Ballymoney in Co. Antrim was used for advertising in order to circumvent the new provisions banning advertising on pirate radio in the Republic.

Around 21st January 1989, the station was relaunched as Northside Radio complete with new jingles, promos and studios and a move to Redcastle on the banks of Lough Foyle. The Donegal Democrat reported that a split in the Radio North camp led to the new name, with the original owner Paddy Simpson deciding to apply for the north Donegal licence. Anoraks UK reported that listenership was obviously strong, due to a large number of requests and regular promos for public appearances of DJs on both sides of the border. In March there were rumours that the station was raided and the FM transmitter confiscated but these were not confirmed. On September 4th 1989, the name reverted to Radio North again when the original owner took back control, according to Anoraks UK.

Radio North returns to the air in 1989
Francis Callaghan at Radio North in Muff, Co. Donegal in 1991 (photo courtesy of DX Archive).

Around the end of 1989, a rival station, North Atlantic Radio was established in Carndonagh using some Radio North DJs. Both stations coexisted for a while but by 1992, North Atlantic was the only station still on air and had taken over Radio North’s frequency of 846 kHz. In January 1994, North Atlantic adopted the name Radio North again. Another variation of the name, Radio North 2000, was logged in 1998. DX Archive visited Radio North in May 1991, which was at that time operating from a caravan in the village of Muff right on the border with Co. Derry. In 2001, the station was taken over by Paul Bentley (RIP), founder and operator of successful Donegal pirate WABC, which broadcast intermittently between 1987 and 2001.

The authorities attempted to silence Radio North and its offshoots in the early 1990s but it seems to have been largely left alone since then. The November 1990 edition of Free Radio News from Ireland reported that all Donegal pirates were warned to cease broadcasting by a visiting party from the Irish Department of Communications and the British Department of Trade and Industry. According to local newspapers, the Donegal pirates were raided on 12th June 1991 but soon returned to the air, leading to a warning letter to advertisers from the Independent Radio and Television Commission, the licensing authority in the Republic. On 5th August 1993, the Donegal Democrat reported that Radio North had been prosecuted three times and was no longer broadcasting, but that North Atlantic Radio was still on air. The persistence of so many pirates in Donegal was a cause of some annoyance to the newly-licensed local station, Highland Radio.

Following a further change in ownership, Radio North has defied all the odds and continues to broadcast today from Redcastle in Co. Donegal on 846 kHz AM and online, making it one of Ireland’s longest-running pirate stations. Its signal is heard far and wide across Northern Ireland and beyond. MWLIST reports that Radio North has a power output of 3 kW and the station can indeed be heard well across Northern Ireland and into Britain, helped by the clear channel. It broadcasts a mixture of live and recorded music programmes along with American evangelist recordings, presumably to generate income. Radio North is one of two Irish border pirates that continue to defy the laws and the odds, the other being Radio Star Country in Co. Monaghan, which began broadcasting in 1988. Both are on AM only, which may explain why they have been left alone by the authorities, but even a cursory listen to either reveals that they still have advertisers and listeners.

Radio North returns to the air in 1989
Radio North’s caravan in Muff, Co. Donegal in 1991 (photo courtesy of DX Archive).

This recording was made from 1005-1155 on Sunday 8th January 1989, just three days after Radio North returned to the air having closed down on New Year’s Eve. DJ James plays a mixture of country, oldies and pop and there are requests and adverts from both sides of the border along with an appeal for donations to help the station fight the new broadcasting legislation in the High Court. The recording was made in Scotland and reception is fair with some electrical interference as would be expected given the distance from the broadcast site. We thank Ian Biggar for the donation and for help with research.

Border series: Radio Star Country breakfast show heard in Norway

Border series: Radio Star Country breakfast show heard in Norway
Solsvik in western Norway – listening post was located in white house in centre (courtesy Svenn Martinsen).

This recording of Radio Star Country from western Norway was made almost a year after the Monaghan station defied the new broadcasting laws and stayed on air, one of a handful of Irish pirates to do so. Isobel Byrne (RIP), the wife of station founder and owner Gerry Byrne presents the breakfast programme. There are very long commercial breaks, featuring mostly Northern businesses and releases and concerts by country music stars. The voice of former offshore pirate legend Don Allen (RIP) is heard on adverts and promos remind listeners that Radio Star Country is Ireland’s only country music station.

Border series: Radio Star Country breakfast show heard in Norway
A 1988 photo of Gerry and Isobel Byrne at the Swan Lake Hotel studio (courtesy Andy Carter).

Audio quality ranges from poor to dire with deep fading and is for serious DXers. There is also wobble on the tape in places due to the passage of time. The recording was made from 981 kHz from 0833-0915 on 5th November 1989 in Solsvik in western Norway, using a Drake SPR-4 receiver with a 200-metre Beverage antenna aimed towards the southwest. It is kindly donated by Svenn Martinsen.

Border series: non-stop Radio Star Country as heard in Norway

Border series: non-stop Radio Star Country as heard in Norway
Interview with Svenn Martinsen from Vestnytt, 1996 (photo by Marit Hommedal).

This recording of Radio Star Country was made in Solsvik in western Norway, northwest of Bergen and facing the North Sea. It features non-stop music in early 1989, not long after all the Irish pirates were suposed to leave the airwaves in the new era of licensed radio. The automated programme includes a promo voiced by the late Don Allen announcing the frequency of 981 kHz or 305 metres, to which Radio Star Country had moved a few weeks previously. The Swan Lake Hotel in Monaghan Town is referenced as the station’s address and a number in Armagh is given for advertising. After 25 minutes the tape changes to another recording featuring a male DJ and adverts for businesses north and south of the border. It is not clear if this was recorded on the same day or on another occasion.

The press photo is from the newspaper Vestnytt on September 4th 1996 and shows the donor of this recording, Svenn Martinsen with his receivers ESKA RX33 DX, Drake SPR-4, Hammarlund SP600 JX21 and Autophon E627. The headline translates as ‘Radioactive priest’, reflecting Svenn’s profession. He recalls: ‘I mostly used the Drake SPR-4 for listening to Radio Star Country 981, Radio North 846, North Atlantic 846, 954 and 1116 and other Irish stations’.

Due to the distance between the transmitter and receiver, there is deep fading at various points in the tape, with the Algerian station on the same frequency coming through underneath. The recording was made on 16th February 1989 from 0745-0813 on a Drake SPR-4 receiver with a 200-metre Beverage antenna aimed towards the southwest from the western Norwegian coast. Many thanks to Svenn for the donation.

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

Border series: '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 series: '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.