Airchecks: Northern Radio

Airchecks: Northern Radio
A Northern Radio letterhead (courtesy of Ian Biggar/DX Archive).

Northern Radio broadcast from 1980 to 1982 from Omeath, just a few kilometres south of the border. We bring you a synopsis of the station’s history written by Ian Biggar.

Northern Radio was set up to serve listeners in the northeast border counties and attract advertisers from those areas. Most of the advertising seemed to come from Newry and Rostrevor. The man behind the station was Marty Donnan, who later went on to work for Downtown Radio and BBC Radio Ulster. Disc jockeys included Andrew Gold and Davy Hamill, both of whom subsequently worked for other stations around this part of the border.

The first note we have of the station is from January 1980 when it was announced as operating on 1278 kHz or 230 metres. However, any logs I have seen of the station have given the actual frequency as 1296 or 1298 kHz. The transmitter was built by Bill Ebrill from Dublin and would give around 300 watts output. The station was located in what was described as a ‘ramshackle caravan’ beside the Park Hotel in Omeath, a location that according to some was not the best for getting a signal out.

Airchecks: Northern Radio
A distant shot of the Park Hotel on a wet day, from the main road (photo by John Walsh).

In the early days Northern Radio seemed to have quite a full schedule, including a country and western programme. The schedule became more erratic with the passage of time, if and when someone turned up to do a programme. Anoraks Ireland visited the station in February 1982, only to find it deserted with a pre-recorded tape running. Northern Radio may have been off the air for a period as in the July 1982 edition of Short Wave News, Paul Davidson notes the station on 1314 kHz and asks: ‘is it back on air?’

On a further visit in August 1982, Paul Davidson was told that programmes were live whenever transport was laid on for the DJs to come from Rostrevor, otherwise it was tapes from 0800-1800. This August visit was probably towards the end of the station’s life because in the October edition of Short Wave News, Paul Davidson reported that Northern Radio had closed. Marty Donnan and other staff joined Boyneside Radio’s new border station which started broadcasting on 1233 kHz in early autumn 1982.

Airchecks: Northern Radio
A sign indicating renovations to the Park Hotel in 2020 (photo by John Walsh).

The recording above is an aircheck of Andrew Gold’s show on 30th January 1980 from 1410-1615. It features ads from Newry and Warrenpoint and Andrew with plenty of chatter, birthday requests, horoscopes and even references to dogs and cattle in and around the studio. As darkness falls, co-channel interference from an overseas station is heard. The shorter recording below is an aircheck from 2nd February 1980 and features Hugh Farrell with news, Des Carson’s country music show and Andrew Gold with music and sports results.

Various presenters on Northern Radio, 2nd February 1980.

Full recording: Radio Carousel (Dundalk)

Full recording: Radio Carousel (Dundalk)
Radio Carousel sticker courtesy of Ian Biggar.

In early 1978 and following a split from the backers who were to form Radio Dundalk, a newspaper report appeared stating that a ‘Borderside Radio’ would start transmissions to the Dundalk area. This was apparently the working title for the new radio station that would be fronted by Hugh Hardy. Hugh made a fact-finding trip to Big D Radio in Dublin and ‘poached’ some of their DJs, namely Kieran Murray, Eric Vaughan and John Paul. An initial rudimentary studio was constructed on the top floor of the Dundalk Shopping Centre and an aerial mast built on the roof. All was ready to go, except the station didn’t have a name. Kieran Murray spotted a K-Tel album called ‘Carousel’, containing the song ‘Don’t stop the carousel’ by Roy Taylor and the Nevada. Radio Carousel was born with a ready-made station theme!

The station transmitter was built by Bill Ebrill and installed behind the studio. Power output was given as 350 watts and initial frequency was 1134 kHz, announced as 265 metres. The station remained around this spot throughout its life, although a change was made to 1125 kHz. The station officially signed on air on Saturday May 20th 1978 and immediately established itself with the listening public. Daily broadcasts were initially from 0800-2200 and the station positioned itself as having ‘something for everybody’, from pop to country, golden oldies to new releases, Irish dance music to Tamla Motown and from the big band sounds of Glen Miller to the modern sounds of Horslips and Rory Gallagher. Full national and local news bulletins were broadcast daily at 1.15 and 6.15.

Full recording: Radio Carousel (Dundalk)
Press advertisement for Radio Carousel, undated (Alan MacSimoin collection).

It didn’t take long before the Department turned their attention to Radio Carousel and the station was raided on June 1st, although the transmitter was not located. A further raid on July 7th resulted in the transmitter being taken but Carousel was quickly back on air with a standby rig. The initial listener response to the station was very encouraging. In fact, a petition to legalise Carousel was organised by two local women in Dundalk and gained 23,000 signatures in a very short space of time. The station coverage was not limited to Dundalk and its surrounds, but Radio Carousel had a healthy listenership in Newry, Armagh and other Northern towns. This was obvious from the number of commercials aired from the area. Radio Carousel went from strength to strength in Dundalk, adding an FM outlet on 98.4 MHz in late 1979.

Hugh Hardy always had his eye on expansion and building a network, so Radio Carousel established an outlet in Drogheda. A studio and transmitter were installed in the Boyne Valley Hotel just outside the town and came on air on Sunday February 8th 1980. The station relayed the output from Dundalk, apart from 1100-1200 and 1500-1700 daily when local programmes were broadcast. The station used 1386 kHz and had good coverage of the town and surrounds. However, Carousel did not really establish itself in Drogheda and with competition from Boyneside Radio, it was difficult to get a foothold. The frequency was changed to 1413 kHz around September 1981, just prior to Radio Carousel using 1386 kHz in Navan.

The local programmes from Drogheda became irregular and the main output was simply the relay from Dundalk. Another attempt at local output was made in Spring 1982, but again it was short-lived. Transmissions continued until the latter part of 1982 when the transmitter was switched off. Radio Carousel continued from Dundalk throughout the 1980s on AM and FM with a varying degree of success due to competition from stations like Telstar Radio, as well as Hugh focusing on other ventures.

To the surprise of many, Radio Carousel in the Dundalk Shopping Centre closed in mysterious circumstances. There had been rumours for some time that the station was up for sale, but Hugh Hardy gave the details on the Radio West Anorak Show on 25th January 1987. He explained that Department of Communications officials had visited on the afternoon of Thursday 22nd and ordered the station to cease broadcasting following complaints of interference to mobiles of a licensed operator. The officials would not leave until Hugh gave a commitment to close, which he agreed to do by 2pm on the next day. So after almost 9 years on air, Radio Carousel ceased broadcasting from the Dundalk Shopping Centre at 1pm on Friday January 23rd 1987.

Full recording: Radio Carousel (Dundalk)
A QSL letter from Kieran Murray to Ian Biggar in 1978.

At this point Radio Carousel Navan continued as normal, as well as the Northern Ireland service on 1260 kHz. This was the former Drogheda transmitter which had been installed just inside Co. Louth on the border with Jonesborough, Co. Armagh about a year or so earlier. A studio was installed in the Carrickdale Hotel where live programmes were broadcast by the likes of local personality ‘Big O’ (Oliver McMahon).

By the middle of February, non-stop music was being broadcast on 1125 kHz and it was believed that this could be the return of Radio Carousel from Dundalk, and indeed it was! The transmitter and studios had been installed at the former Radio Dundalk location, the Fairways Hotel on the Dublin Road. Regular transmissions restarted around Monday 1st March 1987. Initially the station relayed the same output as that on 1260 kHz, including Hugh Hardy with ‘Country Call’. Hugh’s intention was to broadcast ‘Country Call’ from the Fairways through the link on 87.6 MHz which would then be relayed on 1260 kHz and 100.67 MHz. While programmes were not being broadcast from Dundalk, the programmes from Carrickcarnon would be re-broadcast. By very early 1988 transmissions from both Dundalk and Carrickcarnon had become erratic and at one point both 1125 kHz and 1260 kHz were relaying Radio Carousel Navan or simply a blank carrier.  The AUK Weekly Report of 10th April 1988 reported that both transmitters had disappeared and that seemed to be the end of Carousel operations in Co. Louth.

The recording above is of Eric Vaughan on Radio Carousel from 1415-1455 on 18th December 1978. Audio quality is fair at best because the recording was made in Blackpool without an external aerial. It includes the song ‘Disco Duck’ by Rick Dees who would go on to become a famous DJ on American radio and of course on Radio Nova in Dublin. The voice of Hugh Hardy can be heard on adverts. We thank Ian Biggar for compiling this entry and Gary Hogg for the recording.