Radio Star Country, one of Ireland’s longest-running pirates

Radio Star Country, one of Ireland's longest-running pirates
Radio Star Country sticker – note the Northern telephone number (courtesy of Ian Biggar).

Radio Star Country is one of the longest-running Irish pirates ever, operating more or less continuously since 1988 to the present day. After a successful 1989 when it pulled in plenty of income in local advertising revenue, Radio Star Country continued unimpeded into 1990. There is a dramatic account of the station in a book by Cathal ‘Ray’ McSherry, A Different Wavelength: The Pirate Radio Days from 2004: ‘My first visit to Radio Star headquarters was unforgettable. After leaving the main road and travelling for twenty minutes, I arrived at an old ramshackle single storey dwelling at the side of a narrow boreen. Cement or breeze blocks filled out the windows. Inside was a bare earthen floor which was more likely to the found the days of the Famine. There was a fireplace minus a grate and in all honesty the whole thing looked so absurd and surreal. It was a spectacle I’ll never forget but this was our “studio”. From here we would defy the powers that be and from here we would broadcast our shows, send out our music and entertainment and silently wonder, or think to ourselves often as not, if we weren’t completely coco-pops. Within this hampered house was a mixing desk, microphones, turntables, and all the paraphernalia of radio pirating. A mast was located two miles away to receive the FM signal’.

Radio Star Country seems to have been largely left alone by the authorities for most of its existence apart from a few attempts to close it down in the early years after the introduction of licensed radio. Its premises in the Bragan Mountains north of Monaghan Town was raided by gardaí and Department of Communications officials on 29th August 1990 and transmission equipment seized but the station was back on air within 48 hours. There is also a report of the station’s FM transmitter being removed by the Department in spring 1991. Sean Brady, who spent four years with Radio Star from January 1992 to March 1996 tells us that there were no raids or visits from the authorities during that period, when the station broadcast from a caravan near Smithboro and then a location close to Monaghan Town. On 17th March 1994, a new FM transmitter on 103 FM was switched on and aimed at Fermanagh and Armagh. On 27th January 2006, the Irish Independent reported that two farmers on the Monaghan/Tyrone border were fined for allowing a pirate station to broadcast from their land. Although the station was unnamed, we presume this refers to Radio Star Country also. Other than these isolated examples, we have no other records of raids on the station.

Radio Star Country, one of Ireland's longest-running pirates
Banner image from Radio Star Country’s website.

This recording was made from 891 kHz from 0917-1002 on 23rd January 1989, just a few weeks after the new broadcasting law came into effect. On air is Isobel Byrne (RIP), the late wife of the former station owner Gerry Byrne. Reception is fair, reflecting the fact that the recording was made in Scotland. We thank Ian Biggar for the donation and for background information. Radio Star Country continues to broadcast on 981 kHz and on its website.

Radio Star Country continues broadcasting into 1989

Radio Star Country continues broadcasting into 1989
Radio Star Country sticker from late 1988/early 1989 (courtesy of Ian Biggar).

Radio Star Country is one of Ireland’s longest-running pirate stations ever, operating more or less continuously since 1988. It was launched in May that year on 927 kHz and 103.2 FM from the Swan Lake Hotel in Monaghan Town. Along with Radio Dublin, the station was alone in staying on air after the deadline for the pirates to close down on New Year’s Eve 1988. On 891 kHz at this time, it broadcast tapes on 1st January 1989 but soon resumed live programmes. The Anoraks UK Weekly Report of 7th January 1989 commented that ‘Star Country carried many adverts and it was as if news of the legislation had not yet reached that quarter!’

Similar to Radio Dublin, 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 it introduced a new sales number in Armagh where it was not illegal to take advertising. The station moved to 981 kHz on 3rd February 1989, which had been vacated by former Monaghan station Hometown Radio. Around the same time, it transferred its studios from Monaghan Town to the transmission site at Emyvale near the border.

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.

Radio Star Country continues broadcasting into 1989
Radio Star Country in the Swan Lake Hotel in 1988 (photo courtesy of DX Archive).

Department of Communication officials visited Radio Star Country that month and warned it to close down, which it did for a short time only to return a few days later. The final edition of Weekly Report in September 1989 reported hearing the station all the way from Larne to Malin Head with the signal even audible on a simple receiver in Dublin.

‘Long may they continue’ was Anoraks UK’s closing wish and indeed, Radio Star Country continues to broadcast country music and sponsored religious programmes to this day on 981 kHz and on its website. The AM signal can be heard clearly in north Leinster and across Northern Ireland but is swamped at night by an Algerian station. The first of our two recordings from 1989 was made from 0832-0917 on 23rd January from 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. Reception is fair as the recording was made in Scotland. We thank Ian Biggar for the donation.  

Radio North defies new broadcasting laws

Radio North defies new broadcasting laws
Radio North car sticker (courtesy of DX Archive).

Radio North from Co. Donegal is one of Ireland’ longest-running pirate stations, operating under various guises more or less continuously from 1986 to the current day. It began broadcasting from Carndonagh on 18th November 1986 on 1386 kHz, later moving to 1404. Logs from mid-1987 show that it had 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 stations on 31st December 1988 but its frequencies were not silent for long.

The station returned on tape on 5th January 1989 and resumed live programmes the following day on 97.9 FM and 846 AM putting out its usually good signal into Britain, according to the Anoraks UK Weekly Report. Promos were aired for raising funds for the station’s court case against the 1988 legislation with £30,000 was 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 avoid the provisions of the new laws banning advertising on pirate radio. 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.

Radio North defies new broadcasting laws
Radio North’s caravan in Muff, Co. Donegal in 1991 (photo courtesy of DX Archive).

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 1989, 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. 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. A rival station, North Atlantic Radio, began broadcasting around the end of 1989 and eventually took over the Radio North name and frequency.  

Incredibly, Radio North continues to broadcast today, 35 years later, on 846 kHz from Redcastle, Co. Donegal and online via its website. The MWLIST reports that it has a power output of 3 kW and the station can indeed be heard well across the North of Ireland and into Britain. 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 blaster’ 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.

This recording was made from 1025-1100 on Sunday 8th January 1989, just a few days after Radio North returned to the airwaves. The music is a mixture of pop and country and DJ James is standing in for Jake. An appeal can be heard for funding for the High Court case along with adverts for businesses as far away as Co. Antrim. This recording was made in Scotland and quality is fair with electrical interference at times. We thank Ian Biggar for this donation and for assistance with research.

Northeast series: Rainbow Radio (1987-1988)

Northeast series: Rainbow Radio (1987-1988)
Advert for Rainbow Radio from August 1987, reproduced from the Sunday World by Anoraks UK Weekly Report.

Rainbow Radio was one of several Co. Louth stations which placed transmitters beside the border in order to beam their signals into the North. It was set up by former Boyneside Radio North staff ‘Big O’, aka Oliver McMahon and the late Eugene Markey, onetime Chairman of Newry Council. Rainbow began broadcasting on 2nd of August 1987 from a disused pigsty beside a furniture warehouse in Carrickcarnon right on the border. The musical style was country and Irish as was common on many rural pirate stations at the time. Rainbow’s AM frequency was 1152 kHz with about 500 watts of power, using a rig built by Eddie Caffrey of Boyneside Radio. For approximately a year, 96.1 FM was also used.

An advert for Rainbow in the Sunday World Northern Ireland edition in August 1987 (see above) used the slogan ‘the station of the stars’ and listed presenters Big O, Eugene Markey, Tommy Ballance, Leon and Danny Doran and Jeff T. Telephone numbers for Warrenpoint and Newry were given, reflecting the fact that Rainbow was aiming at the south Armagh and south Down market.   

Editions of the Anoraks UK Weekly Report from the time mention confusion between Rainbow Radio and another Louth station, Radio Rainbow International, a hobby shortwave operation set up by Eddie Caffrey near Drogheda. Attempts were made to get the new Rainbow to change its name but this was said to be impossible as they had already printed promotional material.

Due to the proximity of the transmitter sites of Radio Carousel, Boyneside North and Rainbow in Carrickcarnon, there were frequent reports of mixing of signals. In December 1987, Weekly Report reported fierce competition between the three stations when new FM transmitters were installed. In July 1988, Rainbow Radio was reported as being audible in Belfast on 96.1 FM, but the station was forced to move frequencies in November when BBC Radio 1 installed a new FM transmitter for Belfast on 96.0. Rainbow moved to 98.5, blocking out the signal of easy listening station CLASS which could be heard from Dublin.

In its final months of existence, Rainbow ran regular outside broadcasts on Saturday and Sunday evenings which were said by Anoraks UK to be very popular. They closed shortly after 3pm on the 31st of December 1988 with the presenters signing Auld Lang Syne.

The recording above is the of the launch of Rainbow Radio on 2nd August 1987 and features Big O and Eugene Markey on air. It was made in Portadown about 45 km from Carrickcarnon and the signal is fairly weak with variable audio levels. The second recording below is of Big O near the end of Rainbow’s existence on 29th December 1988 from 0918-1000. It was recorded from 98.5 FM. Many thanks to Rodney Neil and Ian Biggar for these recordings.  

That concludes our series on the pirates of the northeast in the decade up to the end of 1988. Thanks to everyone who contributed, especially Ian Biggar, Eddie Caffrey, John Gartlan, Kieran Murray, Michael Gerrard and Rodney Neil. Click on the tabs ‘Louth’ or ‘Meath’ if you want to hear all the recordings.

Northeast series: Zee 103 (1986-1988)

Northeast series: Zee 103 (1986-1988)
Ardaghy House in Omeath where Zee 103 was based (photo courtesy of Paul Graham).

Zee 103 was a high-powered FM ‘border blaster’ aiming its signal from Co. Louth into Northern Ireland. This station history has been written by Ian Biggar.

Kiss FM was set up to show that there was a need for local radio in the Craigavon area of Co. Armagh. It commenced daily transmissions on 102.7 MHz from a unit on an industrial estate in Lurgan on 13th March 1985. The station proved popular with listeners, but not with the authorities. After only a couple of weeks the British Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) raided the station and effectively put it off the air.

Following the DTI raid, the team decided the only way to continue was by setting up across the border and aim the signal northwards. According to Anoraks UK, KISS FM was heard testing from Omeath on 103.5 MHz during November 1985, but then seemed to disappear. Meanwhile, a site was found near Omeath and work was carried out to renovate Ardaghy House, an old schoolhouse located just 3km from the border and some 600 feet above sea level. The location provided stunning views of Carlingford Lough and was of course an excellent site for radio transmission. Two studios were built and a mast erected at the side of the building with eight six-element yagis mounted to boost the signal. A 2.5 KW Italian transmitter was installed. You can hear a test transmission of KISS FM from Omeath here.

KISS FM test transmission on 23rd November 1985 (courtesy of Ian Biggar).
Northeast series: Zee 103 (1986-1988)
The Zee 103 studio (photo courtesy of Paul Graham).

The station was then hit by what seemed to be a combination of political manoeuvrings and a burglary on site with the loss of much equipment. The internal politics caused some of the team to move on and begin planning an even bigger ‘border blaster’, namely 103.7 KISS FM in Monaghan town. All this caused delays in getting the Louth station on air. The late Frank McCarthy eventually succeeded in preparing the new station to go on air, with major financial backing from a Lurgan-based drinks company.

It was early October 1986 when Anoraks UK reported a big signal on 103.3 MHz with non-stop music tests. Output power was estimated in the region of 150 KW and indeed signals were being reported in Blackpool and Ayrshire in Scotland. At one point the frequency was adjusted to 103.25 MHz. Around 15th October the station began to identify itself, not as KISS FM, but Zee 103.3. A number of long breaks were noted during the tests, believed to be caused by power cuts in the area. Reception reports were requested, firstly to a PO box number in Portadown and then to the station address in Omeath. Testing continued, with Anoraks UK noting that the audio sounded distorted at times.

Northeast series: Zee 103 (1986-1988)
Zee 103’s CTE transmitter (photo courtesy of Paul Graham).

The station commenced regular programming on 11th November 1986 at 0700 with Donagh McKeown hosting the opening programme. A 24-hour schedule commenced from day one with a full team of presenters including Owen Barry (Larkin), Kenny Tosh and Andrew Gold. Later an hourly news bulletin was introduced during the daytime. The station provided a good stereo signal into mid-Ulster, easily covering Newry, Portadown, Lurgan, Armagh and the surrounding area. Unlike other border stations, Zee 103 programmed mainly contemporary hits, although there were specialist weekend programmes featuring oldies and a reggae programme hosted by Terri Hooley from Good Vibrations records in Belfast.

In the early days the power seemed to vary considerably and the station still suffered from over-modulation at times. However technical issues were soon resolved and the signal became consistent. During January 1987 the station adjusted its name slightly to Zee 103 and began using jingles produced by Henry Owens. In February a promotions team was on the streets of towns in the coverage area, giving away £5 notes to anyone who said they listened to Zee 103, ‘the sound of tomorrow today’. The station also had a £1,000 cash giveaway during the summer of 1987.

Northeast series: Zee 103 (1986-1988)
The cover of a station advertising brochure (courtesy of Ian Biggar).

The recording above is of a test tranmission for Zee 103 on 4th November 1986 from 103.25 FM. It was made by Ian Biggar in Scotland. The recording below was made by Rodney Neil in Portadown and is of the station’s official launch on 11th November 1986. It runs from 0730-0900 and features the first breakfast show with Donagh McKeown.

Zee 103 built up a good, solid listening audience, mainly covering the younger demographic who were less likely to want country music as prominently heard on most stations in the area. It continued to broadcast 24 hours a day until finally closing at 2359 on December 31st 1988, following the introduction of the Wireless Telegraphy Act. However, on seeing that the likes of Radio Star Country continued despite the new law, Zee 103 ventured back on air on 19th January 1989 and started broadcasting around the clock once again. However following the first raid on Radio Dublin and the uncertainty it brought, station management decided to close and so Zee 103 left the air at 1200 on Tuesday 7th February.