It started with an article that sparked a conversation.
Last summer, Sean Finnan’s District magazine piece, “Off Air: Whatever Happened to Alternative Radio?”, became a talking point between Finnan and his housemate Brian McNamara.
In his article, Finnan had argued that with the demise of pirate radio a decade ago after the introduction of stringent broadcasting laws, alternative Irish radio had been all but shoved off the airwaves.
His housemate McNamara agreed. For the pair, the larger, commercial stations were, and still are, far removed from their own musical tastes.
And so last October they launched their own station: Dublin Digital Radio.
A Loaded Schedule
In a building on Belvedere Court off Gardiner Street on Sunday morning, Finnan, McNamara, and regular DJ and sound engineer Leon Henry, are sat on their sofa in the cluttered, carpeted room that they share with the newspaper Rabble.
Finnan and Henry have just come off air having wrapped up their hour-long segment – a playlist of tunes they curate for what they say is a growing online listenership.
In its fourteenth week, the station now airs 24 hours a day with more than 50 slots across the month. “We’re getting a good community around us,” says Finnan. “Loads of people have volunteered, which is great, and it feels like you’re putting people in touch with each other.”
Music plays in a small anteroom to the right of the sofa. It’s here that, on any given day, one or more DJs put their tracks out.
McNamara says those involved in the station haven’t put too much effort into spreading the word about what they’re doing. They’re depending on word of mouth.
“We’ve never put money into advertising,” McNamara says, and then pauses. “We’ve never done anything really.”
Programmes include Little Gem’s Independent Hour, a slot showcasing independent Irish releases; The Creative Review, an arts programme; Union Square, dedicated to the history of record labels and genres; The Adult Store, a slot for young producers; and The Pirate Show with Dave Lordan and Karl Parkinson.
At the start, the Dublin Digital Radio founders didn’t expect to have such a large number of shows.
“All of a sudden we had weekends full of shows and we were like, ‘Oh, shit’,” says McNamara. “I think we thought it would be a much smaller thing, like we’d just have a few shows at the weekend.”
The station has given sound engineer and regular DJ Henry a new perspective on his own musical tastes.
“It’s definitely given me a lot of encouragement to actually put together some music that I had no confidence in whatsoever,” he says. “I thought some of it might be a bit weird and not fairly popular.”
What’s the Alternative?
With the closure of TXFM last October, alternative Irish radio on mainstream airwaves took a hefty blow.
Dublin Digital Radio’s mission is twofold: offer an alternative, and create a community of listeners while challenging the status quo of Irish broadcasting.
McNamara says the new station’s challenge is to represent not only what’s happening in the Irish music scene but what’s being listened to. “I keep hearing this argument, ‘There’s no new music coming out,’” he says. “It is, but it’s just not being given the platform.”
Finnan agrees. “There’s so many good records coming out of Dublin at the minute, but there’s not as many clubs for people to go to,” he says. “You have to find alternative outlets and there are so many people involved in DDR making really good albums.”
DDR’s output is, of course, more their own speed, but with a diverse schedule it seems to avoid what DJ Donal Dineen once described as one of modern radio’s greatest pitfalls: “playlisting itself to within an inch of its life”.
Musically, any given DJ has free rein once vetted by the station’s founders. On any given day, the whispers of Nick Drake could be followed by Afrobeat, jazz, house, techno or disco.
Jill Woodnut hosts a show called Staxx Lyrical, which is dedicated to old-school, independent and underground hip-hop. It airs every second Saturday.
She interviews homegrown hip-hop acts like This Side Up and 5th Element, and plays artists like Black Moon, Heather B, and Grand Puba. “We try and shine a light on artists that wouldn’t otherwise get exposure, particularly in the underground scene,” she says.
No one, says Woodnut, seems intent on controlling what’s aired online, which benefits both the DJs and the listeners.”No one’s controlling anything,” she says. “I mean I remember asking Brian once if it was okay to do this or that. He was like ‘Yeah, do what you want.’”
Three months in, the co-founders are pleased with the attention the online-only station is getting.
“I looked at the analytics for the first time last week and was shocked,” says McNamara. “We were being played in different countries around the world: Ireland, the UK, Canada and America and Germany and the Netherlands.”
“And the Brazilians really like us,” laughs Finnan.