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The headquarters of Together FM is a small windowless room in the Ballyfermot Civic Centre.
No bigger than the average bedroom, it holds the studio, production suite, office, three desks, five aged desktop computers, a laptop, notices for what’s next – and the instruction to keep quiet during recording.
On a June morning, Damien Clarke and Mary Clarke, along with two volunteers, are crammed into the room, working on the station’s programming.
It’s too small for an interview, so I follow the Clarkes out into the civic centre’s communal area, as two more volunteers bustle into the studio.
The Clarkes set up Together FM last year, and it’s pitched on its website as “The new voice of West Dublin”. A non-commercial local station, it broadcasts online twice a week.
Damien Clarke used to work for West Dublin Access Radio (WDAR), and his wife Mary was a volunteer there. (I was also a volunteer at the station for a short period in 2014.)
When the doors of WDAR closed for the final time not long before Christmas 2014, Damien and several other employees were left jobless, and as many as 40 volunteers were left with a sense of purposelessness.
And then there were the listeners: the radio station had broadcast to a swathe of West Dublin neighbourhoods, from Ballyfermot to Drimnagh, Palmerstown to Clondalkin.
With Together FM, the Clarkes hope to fill the void that WDAR left.
Even though the media landscape is shifting, there will always be a need for community radio stations, says Damien Clarke.
“There is a different audience,” he says. “People tune in to RTÉ or Newstalk for national coverage. Here we keep things local.”
Together FM listeners are locals, friends and family, and West Dubliners abroad who tune in to catch up with what’s going on back home, he says.
There are six other local and community stations broadcasting to Dublin, and they seem to remain popular. According to recent Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) figures, 57 percent of those surveyed said they chose to listen to local or regional radio stations.
It’s hard to know where very small stations figure in this. The JNLR reports on national radio listenership and most smaller stations can’t afford to take part in the survey.
However, they still have to apply to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) for licensing to prove they are a valuable asset and service to the community they broadcast in. This involves more than the quality of the programmes they produce.
“One of the vital elements underpinning a community station is the social-inclusion mandate, which basically means that nobody is ever refused access to the station,” said Adam Fulton, a former WDAR volunteer who has gone on to be a producer at Liffey Sound FM.
Fulton said he has seen people become much more confident through their involvement in community radio: like the girl who had been to speech therapy when she was younger, but soon mastered how to read the news and weather, and was great at interviewing people on location.
When Fulton got involved in FETAC training with WDAR, he found that many of those who did the course were naturals, he said. “Some of the peer discussions in class were mind-blowing and of a very high intellectual standard,” he said.
And those involved with WDAR were busy. Very busy. Fulton says he sent two bicycles to “bicycle heaven” while he was there.
He was always on them, “zipping around the estates at all hours of the day or night, generating new leads, following rolling news stories, finding the stories that are sometimes hidden away or only apparent when you read between the lines.”
The Clarkes had a few reasons for launching a new West Dublin station to replace WDAR.
“We were incredibly disappointed with how things ended,” said Damien. “We didn’t feel that people should lose out and thought it wasn’t fair that the area was missing out by not having a local station.”
The couple would often bump into a former volunteer at the civic centre, who would ask them to let him know when they were coming back, said Damien. That gave them another nudge.
Others also said they got a lot from working with WDAR. “Community radio brought some light back into my life,” said former volunteer Anne Buckley.
“It gave me a platform where I could confidently express myself and that confidence led me to studying journalism at third level and getting my work experience at RTÉ Primetime,” she said.
So, six months after WDAR closed, the Clarkes started to gather a team together. Money was a problem, of course, but they found a solution.
“We decided to set up a co-op system where we would all work together to fund the station,” said Damien. Members pay €20 a month or €5 a week, which is pooled together to cover bills and rent.
A number of local groups had weekly shows on WDAR, and now have found a home on Together FM: the St John of God Liffey Region — formerly known as the Menni Services Group, which supports adults and children with intellectual disabilities — ran a one-hour Friday show with WDAR volunteers.
“These members do not participate in society the way most people have the opportunity to,” said Richard Barrett, who is an instructor at St John of God Liffey Region.
“The radio station gives them a sense of purpose and worth and enjoyment. They really enjoy it and look forward to it every week,” he said. “For them this is a very important part of their life.”
The Widows Care Group do a monthly broadcast, which focuses on offering support and advice to those who are grieving. Local media students also find it a good place to start editing, presenting or reporting news.
Some of those who work on the station could never see themselves moving on to a national, or more mainstream channel.
“I want to stay at community level,” says volunteer Daryl Fitzsimons. “I enjoy hearing all of the different voices. I hope to have my own show soon, either a fact-based or gaming-related show to reflect my interests.”
Hopes for the Future
At the moment, Together FM broadcasts online on Fridays and Saturdays.
It’s not always easy in a small space — when someone is recording, the rest of the team either have to leave the room or keep quiet.
Money is scarce, which means equipment is too, says Damien.
The Ballyfermot Community Association lets them rent a room, and found them an antenna and some of the old equipment from the last station, which was great, he said.
But “most of the computers we use in the studio are not very reliable, they have a tendency to break down or have lives of their own”, he said.
“Until we can secure more funding we just make do. We have problems with trying to advertise even locally since we are not a commercial station. Nor would we want to be a commercial station. We want to remain an inclusion-based community service,” he said.
They’re trying to get a broadcasting licence from the BAI, but at the moment that’s beyond their means, he said. And they want to add a training element to the station — like WDAR had.
“We still consider ourselves as getting up and running so these are our hopes for the future,” Damien said.
New volunteers get some training, though, even now, says Mary.
“We teach everyone how to use the sound desk and all of the other equipment they need, give them the tools and skills necessary to produce a show,” she says.
The couple are very much a team.
Why do they keep doing this, even while they aren’t being paid?
“I love radio,” says Damien.
“I love Damien,” says Mary.