Brief fame in Wicklow – a surprise break on pirate radio

I loved AM radio during the pirate era and still listen to it today despite the growing challenges as stations pull the plug and electrical interference increases. In a pre-internet era, I always liked how AM created a better sense of geography than FM, bringing far-flung sounds and voices into my bedroom across the radio dial. AM still creates a better impression of distance literally because the further away the transmitter, the weaker the signal, a sense that that is lost with internet radio where the audio from every station is equally clear. Quite apart from the large number of foreign stations audible in Ireland at night in the 1980s, the MW band was buzzing with local and not-so-local broadcasters during the day also and I listened quite a bit to stations such as Boyneside Radio from Drogheda, Radio West from Mullingar and Bray Local Broadcasting from north Wicklow.

Another favourite was WLCB (Wicklow Local Community Broadcasting, formerly Wicklow Community Radio) which boomed into Sutton from Wicklow Town across Dublin Bay on 1602 kHz AM, probably helped by the fact that its mast was located on Wicklow Head. Little did I think that I would ever present on WLCB but that happened, by coincidence rather than design, on a cold and grey winter’s afternoon in January 1987. I had arranged, by letter, to visit the station and in order to spare me the long and draughty train journey, my father offered to drive me there. Before I knew it, the entire family had piled into our small car and we were heading south to Wicklow. My sister came with me into the relatively luxurious studios at 1, Wentworth Place and newsreader Belinda Tighe took us under her wing. Martin O’Neill (aka Niall Martin, subsequently of RTÉ) was on air playing easy listening music at the time and another newsreader Eileen Whelan (who would also graduate to RTÉ) had just left after her shift. I told Belinda excitedly about the Big Beat Radio adventure the previous summer and before I knew it, I was sitting in the news studio clutching a type-written script about to present the next bulletin. It all lasted for about two minutes and then I read the weather for Wicklow and signed off with ‘this has been John for WLCB’ before the ‘Countywide – in stereo’ jingle was played.

And there ended my involvement in Wicklow broadcasting until I became involved in the licensed station Horizon Radio in 1989. I remember my father’s amazement when we returned to the car outside afterwards. As my young brothers fought in the back of the car, he had been trying to relax with the help of Martin O’Neill’s easy listening afternoon mix. Then I popped up, without warning, on the news. WLCB did a good job as a respectable middle-of-the-road station, not dissimilar to local radio today. That they had no qualms about letting an unknown but enthusiastic teenager on air was a sign of the informality of some of the pirates, but I probably wasn’t that much younger than many of the youthful staff anyway. There’s no audio of my brief fame across Wicklow on that cold winter’s day, but an excellent page of pictures and recordings of WLCB can be found here. By another twist of fate, I ended up working as a journalist with both Niall Martin and Eileen Whelan in the RTÉ newsroom in the 1990s.