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 . .
Steam-punk style radio ships, terrible choices, but above all: dead air.
I often tell people that many of the ideas for my stories and posts come to me in the small hours of the morning, but this one is very literally so – I’m writing this fresh out of bed, having just woken from one of those dreams . . you know, the ones radio presenters seem to have.
This one was a modern variation on the age-old basic theme, so before I recount my latest fevered imaginings, let’s have a look at the theme.
We all have a vast array of dreams, from the wild and wonderful to the mundane, and of those we can remember amongst the many unique and sometimes inexplicable ones there are also those that come from time to time that fit into certain basic themes that many people share: dreams of childhood, encounters with partners long estranged and parents and other relatives who have passed away. There are the erotic or romantic dreams, repetitive and unfinished dreams, and of course the classic dreams of anxiety.
Many people seem to dream of finding themselves naked in strange places, but I don’t seem to suffer from those.
For me it is usually a different terror – I find myself back on the day of my first Leaving Cert exam, conscious that the results will affect my life and job prospects, but somehow aware at the same time that it has been 30 years since my last class, I’ve forgotten almost everything of the course, and the exam is about to start NOW. (there is also another one I have occasionally, where I have to choose between going back out to sea with Caroline and losing my home and financial stability, or going on shore and being stable, but missing out on wonderful times)
These are all dreams or types of dreams that most, if not all people share
But there is another dream, which comes maybe once or twice a year, which I call the DJs dream.
The details vary slightly from time to time, but the basic formula is always the same (hey, that sounds like a description of commercial radio formats!)
I’m in a radio studio, on air. It’s a really important show. This is make or break for me. I’ve (unaccountably) been asked to fill in for someone on a huge station, BBC Radio 1 or RTE 2FM or some such. It’s a one-off, but if I perform well I will be invited back.
The track is coming to an end and I can’t find my next one. (In years gone by the dream would having me desperately trying to cue a vinyl record but unable to find the right groove on the album for the track, these days it is more often flicking through a set of CDs or playout system and unable to find anything that will play). or perhaps, as the song run out, and the dreaded silence starts, I really want to press play on the next track, but my arms just won’t move . .
Minute follows minute of agonising dead air, and I desperately struggle to hit something that will put audio back onto the airwaves again. I know everyone is listening, judging. My opportunity is slipping away and I am helpless . . .
I thought that was my dream alone, but over the years I’ve heard it back from many other people in the industry, all of whom, like myself, are (or seem to be) normal, well-adjusted presenters, with no particular anxieties, content with their careers etc. I guess it comes from the horror of dead air that fills the radio presenter, and fact that we are so keyed up during our shows to be ready to put something – anything – on that will fill the gap left by a misfiring computer or a suddenly defunct CD.
Speaking of misfiring computers, I had a dream around 8 months ago that I was totally alone on a radio ship miles out at sea (I think it was Radio Seagull) and about to go live on air. I had my laptop with playout system and tens of thousands of tracks with me, and an outstanding playlist prepared. The studio was ready to go, except that no where on board could I find a cable to connect the laptop to the mixing desk, and there was no one else on board to help me, and no other music, only what was on my laptop . .
As I’ve been a newsreader as well as a presenter, I sometimes have a different style of the dream. This comes about once a year also, and in it I am back out at sea with Radio Caroline, which is for some reason broadcasting again on high power AM, and expecting at any moment to see a government tug coming over the horizon to take us away. We’ll only be here for a few days before the powers that be silence us, so it’s really important for us to make those few days count. And day after day after day in this dream I wake up at around 9am to find that I have overslept and missed my morning news shift. That’s bad, but at least I have an evening show. But I fall asleep again and miss that too. Today, and tomorrow, and the day after . . .
The Radio Caroline of my dreams (I’m talking actual dreams here rather than aspirations) is a very strange place.
The ship. seeming perfectly normal above the waterline is yet enormously bigger underneath, with vast Lord-Of-The-Rings style underworld caverns full of clanking machinery, unguarded pits, and hissing steam pipes.
Hissing steam pipes? Yes, for in these dreams the radio ship is steam powered, and down in the very darkest depths our engineer can be found stoking an enormous furnace . .
Above the waterline it is different too, with extra corridors of lavishly furnished cabins, which we discover during the dream, and wonder how we could have been unaware of them all the years that we were previously out at sea.
The dream I’ve just woken from this morning though, was biased in the other direction – modern, clean, but equally frustrating.
Along with Simon Maher, Richie McCormack and other former Phantom 105.2 heads, I am in a makeshift radio studio in London. We’ve decided to bring the goodness of old-style pirate Phantom to London, and are launching a temporary licenced station to bring Irish indie and unsigned music to the UK, convinced that we will take the market by storm.
Richie is presenting the breakfast show, and I’m the news guy.
It’s just touching 8am, and time for the first news bulletin. I have, for some reason, typed it into my iPhone, and will be reading it from that.
As the news jingle tails away I have lost my place on the phone, and am swiping through the various home screens desperately trying to find the notepad app. The dead air is beginning, and Richie starts ad-libbing to fill it, looking at me anxiously. I find the app, but am then confronted with a seemingly endless set of pages of other text i have to swipe aside to get to the news bulletin I have prepared.
This is so unfair – I’ve slaved over this bulletin, I’ve bought stories from AP and reuters, I’ve chased down stories myself, this was going to be the perfect, pithy yet punchy two minutes of news, But i can’t find it and I’m swiping and swiping and swiping . . . time stretches on, it’s five past 8, then ten past, and poor Richie is still ad-libbing, while managing to stay remarkably patient. He should be killing me by now.
I have an idea. We’re an Irish rooted station. Why don’t I go to the RTE news site and give our public some Irish news? I quickly find RTE news on the phone, prepared at this point just to read out their stories verbatim, but all that comes up is a series of ads for an Irish Garden Festival due to be held in five years time . .
As with all these dreams, there is never any resolution, and poor Richie is probably waiting still. It does dawn on me that that it might come as a surprise to the poor guy to find himself starring in my nightmare, but hey, my subconscious was obviously going to go with the top-flight A-list presenters for this important venture, so who else could I possibly have chosen? The guy was a legend on breakfast.
Well, from vinyl to CDs to playout systems to apps, my dreams of radio are adapting to modern technology, but the underlying theme is staying the same.
Well, at least that’s it done for the moment. There won’t be another radio-based nightmare for six to nine months or so, and goodness knows what technology I’ll be using in that one . .