Below is an extract of part of a chapter of my next book “Outside In – Everything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up”
This chapter relates to 2001/2002, when I did the breakfast show on the original, pirate-era, Phantom FM.
I’m posting it today because I happen to be playing the band in question, this morning, as part of episode 290 of An A-Z of Great Tracks on 8radio.com
This particular track, and this particular chapter, sum up so much of what I feel about music and radio, I just wanted to take the opportunity to share this chapter when the track came up in the A-Z.
24 – If A Band Falls In A Forest, Are They Worth It?
Flashback to 2001.
It is just after sunset on a weekday evening sometime in late summer. I am in the front room of a suburban house somewhere just off the Rock Road in Dublin, within a stones throw of the sea. I can’t remember exactly where, now, but I do remember the excitement of all involved, especially myself.
I was in a house I’d never been to before, facing four lads I didn’t know, who were about to give me a wonderful gift – their dreams, inspiration and perspiration, all wrapped up in that little package of hope that is called a demo CD. They gave it to me, freshly burned and unlabelled, and I was out the door promising them that yes, I would listen to it, and yes, I would give it a spin on the breakfast show on Phantom .
Phantom’s music controllers, John Caddell (International) and Paul Clarke (Irish) were always on the lookout for good new material, and Paul hosted a Wednesday night show devoted entirely to new Irish music, and was legendary on the scene for the unstinting support he gave to new bands.
Once I had settled into the breakfast show, I started to develop something of a reputation myself, not on the scale of Paul in terms of his quantity and quality, but as a breakfast DJ with willingness to put new material straight on the air, without letting my own opinions moderate, and without any vetting process other than making sure that the contents were not obscene. I really believed in what Phantom was doing, and was always willing to give a new band a play, and indeed later developed a feature or “hook” on my show whereby I would ask people to send me in their demos, and I would open the package, and put it straight on, live on air, giving a running commentary of what it looked like and anything else in the envelope. The music wasn’t always outstanding, but it sometimes showed promise, and best of all it made for wonderful live radio.
There were unintended comic interludes too, like the time that a then unknown band called Ham Sandwich left me a CD, and to pique my interest, they included a real ham sandwich in the package. Sadly I was away for a few days when it arrived, so when I did open the package on air, it was to a quite noxious smell . . .
Better still was my dumbfounded silence and quick switch to music one morning when the package I opened during a live link, expecting a musical treat, turned out not to be, as I had expected, a demo from some new band, but some photos and a rather explicit mail from Karen (see previous chapter).
But to go back to the lads in the house somewhere off the Rock Road, I did indeed play their music, and liked it so much that I still have the CD nearly twenty years later. There were two epic long tracks and one very passable 4 minute single-candidate on their demo, with a depth of lyrics that matched the passion I had seen on their faces during our brief encounter.
Nothing ever came of this band, indeed I never heard of them again, and as far as I can make out, they must have split up and gone their different ways many years ago without even the faintest glimmer of the success that I felt they deserved. I can find no trace of them now, and an internet search only reveals a new, and seemingly unrelated Dublin poprock band who have taken the same name – “Milk“.
Now, by any definition of those involved in mainstream radio, my demo tracks from the original 2001-era Milk band are unknown, unplayable, in effect worthless. But I ask myself – why?
Does it matter that these people had no rise to fame, no chart success, no record deal? If I like what I hear when I play the CD, does it matter that no one knows them? If a piece of music deserves to be heard for the passion put into it, why should it be discounted just because it is unknown?
For me, music, once committed from the soul of its creator to the medium of storage, is a valid choice forever, even if it is the tree falling in the forest that nobody is there to hear.
So many trees fall in the vast forest that is the music industry, and so few people are willing to venture far enough in from the edge of the forest to hear them . .
The term “media bubble” has gained much currency over the last 12 months, and can describe either the set of supporting opinions and narratives you can wrap yourself in, particularly on social media, to blind you to the prevalence of other opinions, or sometimes the bubble that much of the media themselves live in, cushioned by a reinforcing set of beliefs by similar Islington/Guardian/BBC/Salford/NYT or whatever circles. It is particularly easy to sucked in to these bubbles of unreality if you choose to stay on the main roads digitally, and never explore off the beaten path in search of interesting views and conflicting opinions.
I like to think of myself as intelligent and grounded enough to see through and step beyond the bubbles (though that might be part of my own particular delusion).
But I cannot deny that I am living inside a media bubble of a different, more tangible kind, one enforced by geophysical realities.
This is the view from the top of the hill above my house, looking towards another hill, close by. I live down in the narrow valley hidden between these two hills, and there is a further hill out of sight to the left.
The exact location is unimportant (I value my privacy) but for our purposes you need to know that this is in the Midlands of the Republic of Ireland, just about within commuting distance to Dublin (if you are prepared to accept a two hour commute) and not beside either the east coast, or the border with Northern Ireland.
Thanks to the local geography, I effectively have tens of thousands of tons of solid rock and earth on three sides of me, and a clear path leading North West. This has the effect of blocking every Dublin based FM transmitter, and most from other areas, and clearing the band to give a free run for everything from Northern Ireland. As I drive around this big hill on the first 5 or 6km of my morning commute, I can choose from BBC Radios 1, 2 and 4, BBC Ulster, and Downtown Radio (Belfast) all crystal clear on FM. Of the Dublin stations there is nothing for the first few km, until they eventually come back in again, in some cases on top of the NI transmitters. (We can however receive RTE Radio 1, and Newstalk, which are national, and have transmitters elsewhere than in Dublin)
The same geography enforces internet isolation. There is no wired broadband in this valley, nor ever any prospect of such. The mobile signals are too weak – nothing from 3, and just a -120db signal from Vodafone on 3G only (not 4G) . You can use a Vodafone broadband device, but the speed is less than a tenth of a meg.
So we have satellite broadband from Europasat, which works exceptionally well, and gives us speeds of around 26Mb. (That’s nothing special for you city dwellers but a huge step up from 0.1 Mb I can tell you!) One of the delightful things about this is how it seems to confuse some of the geo-sensors on the web – if not logged in to YouTube, the adverts will always be in Italian for example (another bubble).
I leave home early in the mornings – 0520 four days a week – and my routine in the car now involves a 10 minute circumnavigation of the UK via the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4.
If the signal lasts long enough, I’ll catch the 0530 news briefing too, then it is over to podcasts.
The fifth day a week, usually Mondays, I’m off to work even earlier (see above!) and then it is a toss up between the World Service on FM, or BBC Radio 1, where this morning Jordan North was playing some fine tunes (standing in for Adele). After all my years spent living in the UK, and now 17 years back here in Ireland, it is strange to have this juxtaposition of the two as I have my choice of British stations on FM as I wind my way along very rural Irish back roads in the early dawn.
There is, of course, one other issue brought up by my situation.
Go look again at the photo from the top of the hill, and the landscape around.
I have said I live in the Midlands of Ireland, which I do, Everyone knows the midlands are flat, and I live in a county which is known to be flat, fertile farmland, with few distinguishing features.
Known, that is, to everyone who only ever passes through on the motorway and main roads, and who never take a turn off to explore the side roads, and see what different views they might encounter. It’s like a physical version of the internet :-).
These days I use Facebook far, far less often than I used to.
This is due to the actions, in aggregate, of the majority of other parties on there, whose policies concerning Facebook use and abuse I disagree with, and believe to be counter of the broad public interest.
It’s time to take a personal stand, and launch my own manifesto.
If elected to be your “friend” on Facebook, I promise that a Steve Conway government will adhere to the following:
ONE: I will never enroll you in groups without having sought your explicit permission beforehand. This applies to all catorories of groups – including the below, listed along with the frequency with which they are usually encountered:
- annoying groups, (10%)
- offensive / racist / hate groups (5%)
- Groups just set up to self-promote (12%)
- Groups Which Have No Relevence Whatsoever to the Unwilling Enrolee (72%)
- Groups you actually might be interested in (1%)
TWO: I will not send you Calendar invitations to “events” unless they are actual physical events to which you as a physical human being are invited. I will also not send calendar invites for events which are on the other side of the world, and which you have no realistic prospect of attending, unless you are my sister/cousin/best friend and I am willing to coordinate the event with your travel plans.
THREE: I will never tag you in posts which do not actually directly involve you, and even for those my use of tagging will be moderate.
FOUR I will never, under any circumstances, try to guilt-trip you into sharing/re-posting anything I post by implying that 93% of people won’t repost the content, but that genuine people who care about abused kittens / tragic world events / purple toasters will.
FIVE: Under most circumstances, and unless directly attributed, my thoughts will be my own.
SIX: I will not hijack your popular post to add comments promoting my own commercial interests. (Such as, for example, join in a “Happy Birthday xxx thread to plonk an advert for diet pills into the comments).
SEVEN: I will not tell you that Facebook is about to start charging subscription from next Tuesday, that Buddy Holly has just died, or that next month is the only one in 888 years to have five Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, firstly because I fact check against reputable news organisations anything dramatically newsworthy, but mainly because I am not an idiot.
EIGHT: Notwithstanding all of the above, I do acknowledge that I will probably make an idiot of myself at some point, but I will try very hard not to make an idiot of you, or a nuisance of myself.
Should, by any remote chance, this list strike a chord, it will doubtless be re-posted by lots of people all claiming to have written it for themselves. As Fleetwood Mac put it so eloquently in the 1960s: “Oh Well”.
The current (2017) UK General Election campaign is very much of it’s time – Brexit, Corbin, May, but is also reminiscent in some ways of one 30 years ago, which I always consider as *MY* election, given that I covered it hour by hour in my role as Head of News on Radio Caroline, then broadcasting to an audience of around 3.5 million people from a long established anchorage in International Waters, just outside the 12 mile territorial limit off the Essex coast.
Like this years election, it was called early by a female Tory Prime Minister seeking a third term for the Conservatives and banking on doing well against a Labour leader strong on conviction, popular with the grass roots but possibly less so with the voters.
As with this years election, parliament was dissolved in May for an election date in early June (June 8th this time round, June 11th in 1987). As is normal in such circumstances, a number of susbstantial and some minor pieces of legislation were rushed through parliament on both occasions, to allow them to come into law before the election, as otherwise they would have to start from scratch again following the election. This “wash-up” is done with agreement between government and opposition, and means that fairly complex pieces of legislation can come into effect with far less debate and scrutiny than usual.
As I was listening to the final pre-election “Today in Parliament” podcast from the BBC the other night, and hearing the reading of royal assent for a whole batch of bills – Digital Ecomomy Bill, Bus Services Bill, Higher Education bill etc – it reminded me on a piece of legislation which slipped through almost unnoticed in the 1987 washup, greatly expanding the size of the United Kingdom and profoundly impacting one small group of people – the little community of broadcasters on board the Radio Caroline ship.
The Territorial Sea Act of 1987 changed the way that the “12 Mile Limit” was calculated, taking any sandbank or rock within the limit and uncovered at low tide as dry land, and thus the base for a further 12 miles extension. So a sandbank 11 miles from the coast uncovered at Spring Tide could have the effect of converting the 12 miles limit into 23 miles, and if within that extended limit there was another sandbank . . further still. The way that the coast was calculated on bays and large estuaries was also simplified with similar effect.
The end result was a land-grab ~(or “sea-grab) bringing thousands of square miles of formerly international waters under British jurisdiction – including the patch of sea where Radio Caroline was located, the “Knock Deep” also known as “Pirate Alley” as protected from the worst seas by nearby sandbanks it had been a favoured location for pirate ships over the years, with at least three (Mi Amigo, Ross Revenge and Communicator) having used it at different times.
The new act extended the limit to cover this area, and due to the sandbanks occasionally surfacing at the lowest of tides, for a further 12 miles beyond it. Radio Caroline would have to move to more open waters, further out to sea, and with less shelter.
After much discussion, a new anchorage was eventually decided on, this time off the Kent coast, and approx 18 miles from the nearest point of land (North Foreland), and a mile and a half from the new territorial limit at this point of the coastline.
But 1987 was very unlike 2017 in terms of technology and information flow. There was no internet, no ability to search Hansard (the record of UK parliament) and as the bill was not particularly newsworthy in more general terms, no reporting of when its provisions might come into law. As parliament dissolved with the Territorial Sea Act now passed into law, we had no idea when it would be enacted, and had to arrange for a tug from The Netherlands to come as soon as possible to assist us in raising anchor and moving to our new location (Caroline’s 1000 foot extra strong anchor chain being too heavy for the ship to lift under its own power).
Not knowing the enactment date, and whether we might already be within the UK jurisdiction, we had a nail-biting wait as day after day passed with no word from land as to when we would be moved. We figured we would be safe until after the Election Day in any case, and were mightily relieved when the tug showed up on June 10th, one day before.
The Territorial Sea Bill, passed in a hurry before the 1987 election pushed Caroline out into deeper, rougher waters, and ultimately a date with the Goodwin Sands some years later. This was surely a beneficial byproduct of the legislation, if not one of the prime drivers of it.
It’s remarkable though, that a bill so greatly extending the physical size of the United Kingdom could pass so unremarked by media in the run up to a General Election.
It makes you wonder what slipped through this time round doesn’t it?
The new (2014) edition of Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline was launched in Dublin last night, with former Caroline and RTE 2FM broadcaster, and current-day drive time 4FM presenter Gareth O’Callaghan doing the honours.
The book is already in stock at most large retailers in Ireland, and will be on sale in the UK shortly.
Below are some pictures from the launch event, in which selected extracts from the text were presented alongside archive TV news footage and of-air audio to give a flavour of 1980s Caroline for the 100 strong crowd who turned out at The Odessa Club for the occasion.
Big thanks to Johnny Bambury for this excellent series of shots.
It’s just one single sentence in Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline”
“I was 19 when I left Dublin, crossing the Irish Sea on the Liverpool ferry, like so many millions of emigrants before me”.
Just a single sentence in the precis of the events that propelled me to the right place, at the right time, to get sucked into one of the most wonderful life-changing adventures of my years to date.
But behind that one sentence is a life-changing moment of its own, of course.
As that leaving of the city of my birth took place 30 years ago tonight, maybe now is the time to remember . . .
I was 19 when I left Dublin, crossing the Irish Sea on the Liverpool ferry, like so many millions of emigrants before me.
Standing out on the deck of the B&I Line ferry Munster as we sailed from Dublin port on the night of Friday May 4th, 1984, I felt very alone, and already cut off from my former life, friends and family. This was despite the fact that my parents were actually on board the ship, having offered to drive me down to London where I would be staying with my aunt in Harrow until I could get on my feet and find a place of my own.
Although emigrating at a time when huge numbers of young people were leaving the country as part of the 80s recession, there seemed then to be nothing different or defining about those years – for as long as anyone could remember times had always been tough, and jobs always scarce. Getting on the boat to go to England was just something you did after leaving school.
In some ways I was one of the lucky ones, I had managed to eventually find work in a small computer company, but for almost slave wages, and with no prospect of advancement. I had pretty quickly come to the decision that I needed to cross the sea to England to find a better job with more opportunities, and had planned for this moment for ages, but theory and practice are two different things.
Over the past few weeks as I prepared to move, I had been too excited in planning my new future to think about what I was leaving behind, but now, standing outside on the back deck of the ferry as we prepared to leave the port, it suddenly hit me that my entire life up to this point was being jettisoned. All the friends I had made since leaving school, my colleagues at work and the customers I supported, some of whom I had become quite close to, the friends at various groups where I volunteered and spent my happy weekend hours. My new job would be exciting, and possibly form the foundations of a career, but there would be a huge hole in my life, a lot of friends and regular activities left behind.
But it would be the city itself that I missed the most.
From an early age I had been an explorer, and there was hardly a laneway or mountain road in Dublin and Wicklow that I had not explored on my bicycle in my teenage years, not a housing estate that I did not know.
I had roamed unchecked through long summer holidays, poring over maps and exploring every side turning or interesting looking road. Even the Dublin city bus timetable had been a thing of wonder to me, a treasure trove of names of unexplored places and strange footnotes, and I had explored the city by bus too, taking two months during the summer holidays of 78 and 79 during which I spent every day travelling end to end on as many bus routes as possible, becoming familiar with all the suburbs and the far flung estates, charting my progress in red marker on a one inch Ordinance Survey map, sometimes doing routes several times in order to experience the extended or diverted r outings in the footnotes.
Unremarkable and frequent routes to places such as Blanchardstown, Bohernabreena, Dalkey and Dollymount would be explored alongside the rare and infrequent workings to places such as Hollywood Cross, Burrow, Oldtown, Shop River and the piece de resistance: Newtownmountkennedy, which not only had the longest placename in the Dublin city timetable, but was only served once a week to boot.
It was dark as the ferry sailed at 1030pm, and many of the further flung parts of my empire could not be seen, though the Dublin mountains were visible as a dark brooding presence on the skyline, bereft of lights. But as we moved out of the port heading towards the bay, there was muchmore that could be seen. On our starboard side was the Great South Wall, where my father used to take us as children, terrifying us with the thought that he might accidentally drive the car off the unguarded side of the roadway into the sea. This was a fate which, he told us gravely, had befallen a schoolteacher by the name of Mr. Ring many years earlier, hence the fact that the area was known as “Ringsend”.
On the other side, the Bull Island and the Northern walkway stretched out into the sea, reached by the wooden bridge from Dollymount. Many a Saturday I had gone out along it as far as I could on my bike, enjoying the wind and the salt air on my face, staring out to sea and imagining all things that lay to the east.
Now I was on that sea, and heading east, and looking back at the walkway, and it’s giant Virgin Mary statue, and wondering when I would be there again.
The Clontarf road was very visible, streetlights spaced all along the seafront, and I could see a number 30 bus making progress out towards Dollymount, a little cluster of lights racing along the seafront, stopping from time to time and being overtaken by seemingly miniature cars. Gradually it fell behind us until the cars and buses could no longer be distinguished from the streetlights, then the great bulk of Howth Head swept past us on our port side, till it too fell behind, and the city was no more a single patch of brightly lit horizon than individual areas.
As the Ferry moved out into the bay, I stayed out on deck in the darkness, long after all the other passengers had returned to the warm and lighted interior.
My parents did not come looking for me, perhaps understanding my need to be alone as I watched the slow disappearance of everything that I was leaving behind.