I know the riversides around Morrison’s Island, The South Terrace and George’s Quay very well and, over the years, burned many an idle hour on them. My father spent his entire adult life working from The City Hall, I started primary school in The Model on Anglesea Street and spent years in and out of the Cork School of Music. But just as importantly, I routinely ran the wickets between the The Lobby, The Phoenix and Mojos, three of Cork’s most vibrant live music venues during the 1980s and 1990s.
Cork Local Radio was an RTÉ opt-out service for the city and it’s out-lying areas that ran for the guts of twenty-five years from it’s base on Union Quay, in the heart of that same part of the city. In keeping with many of the public buildings constructed in Ireland during the 1930s, it looked and felt like a dental hospital, with it’s brown wooden panels, curved stairs and pea-green ceramics. Which was apt: much of it’s output was best listened to while under local anaesthetic.
Although RTÉ, as 2RN, had radio facilities in Cork since the late 1920s, Cork Local Radio – later re-branded as RTÉ 89FM and RTÉ Radio Cork – was launched during the mid 1970s, broadcasting for a couple of hours every day, initially during lunchtime and, subsequently, in the afternoons and early evenings. Pre-dating the arrival of the commercial radio stations into the Irish market, and rivalling Radio South for a couple of years after it surprisingly snagged the first local independent licence for the area in 1989, it added an unapologetic, partisan tinge to lifestyle, politics, music, sport and news. Cork Local Radio was exactly that: it was radio that told the people of Cork precisely what they wanted to hear, reminding them, on a regular basis, just how wonderful they were. You’d hear anything and anyone on Cork Local Radio but, for many of those who slogged on it’s schedules, it was a gateway to a bigger and more magical place: Donnybrook. Or, as you’d often hear it referred to around the shop, ‘national’.
During my days in secondary school and even for a while during the years I spent in college, I’d pass many of my lunchtimes at home – often just myself and my mother – where the radio dial never moved. ‘Corkabout’ was, for years, the heart of the local schedule, an hour-long opt-out from the regular RTÉ Radio One slate presented, mostly, by Alf McCarthy and Donna O’Sullivan, with an unashamed Cork bent. It was like a radio version of The People’s Republic Of Cork website or a special, commemorative edition of a regional newspaper and, when it was good, it was excellent. Tim Horgan, with whom I later taught up in Farranferris, presented a terrific history slot called ‘Leeside Lore’, in which he delved into the local archives and unearthed what were often magical yarns and voices from the vault: the shared theme here was the sheer majesty of Cork and all of those who lived in her.
Theo Dorgan was, for years, the station’s excellent film critic, bringing the movie world alive with wonderful scripts and insights where every single word and opinion was dipped in gold. Theatre, animal welfare, [un]employment news, jazz notes, sport, local rows from the council chambers … these were the staples on which ‘Corkabout’ was founded. On top of which was layered a thick spread of actual news, presented and parsed by the exotically-handled Caimin Jones and Barraí Mescall and the less exotically-handled Pat Butler. The on-air crew played like the loosest, most freeform and eccentric jazz band ever, a disparate set of unique players bound by thread, never entirely sure where the riffs might take them and often playing in multiple time signatures.
And from that band you’d hear some of the most scarcely believable stuff. I remember one political panel discussion during the mid 1980s during which, when asked what he thought of a crucial contraceptive bill that was then before the Oireachtas, the high-profile local councillor, Bernie Murphy, replied: ‘I think it should be paid’. Those who manned the desks in Union Quay will remember the occasion when Barraí Mescall asked earnestly if, indeed, ‘The Cork Harbour Commissioners had simply missed the boat on this issue’. And I was around the building myself, acting the goat, on the day that Barraí referred on air to the then German chancellor as Herr Kohl Helmut. Those were just some of of the exotic sounds that frequently popped the air there. A full, more exhaustive anthology was compiled by the station’s technicians and sound recordists over the years.
Buried deep within all of this was, for a couple of years, a weekly music insert presented by Tony O’Donoghue, now RTÉ’s football correspondent and a man who, over the years, has done the state no little service in some of the country’s most distinctive live music venues. Prominent among them, The Hi-Land in Newmarket, up in North Cork, known to many of us who fetched up there regularly as ‘Amityville’. Tony’s eight minute slot was an extended gig guide, basically, around which he scattered snippets of forthcoming releases, demo tapes and, on occasion, the odd plaintive essay on the vagaries of the music industry, filling handy time on a running order and also ticking at least one box on a public service check-list. But it would be wrong to dismiss that material as token: Cork Local Radio, and especially Aidan Stanley, one of it’s in-house producers, always had a real commitment to emerging music and, over the years, never shied away from it. The station hosted many excellent live performances and sessions from a litany of visiting acts and, in keeping with it’s focus, play-listed anything that had a remotely Cork twang. Over the years I brought the likes of In Motion, Sack, The Divine Comedy, Into Paradise, A House and Brian into the studios at Union Quay, all of whom were given five-star treatment and a pretty ace live sound while they performed, usually during the lunchtime or drivetime schedules.
Cork Local Radio was also, by extension, a prominent local partner on some of the big live events run around the city by 2FM and RTÉ Television and certainly did it’s bit to keep Cork safe for rock and roll. Local would always feature on the undercard whenever ‘national’ breezed into town to do a Lark By The Lee, Telethon or a Cork Rocks and, while Barry Lang and Electric Eddie took care of the heavy business and introduced Aslan or Cactus World News to the sun-soaked crowds in the Lee Fields or the rain-sodden throngs on The Coal Quay, you’d also have Stevie Bolger, Alf himself or, God forbid, Terence The Hairdresser, minding the also-rans. The line between ‘national’ and ‘local’ was indeed a thin one but you’d be routinely reminded of it in all manner of ways.
Official state visits by ‘national’ weren’t just confined to big events but, to some in senior management, were usually regarded as such. The radio studios themselves were quite formidable and were well equipped to handle what was then the regular Radio One schedule. Union Quay would regularly host the heavy hitters – Pat Kenny was a frequent visitor to Cork, and still is – and Dave Fanning routinely did his 2FM Rock Show out of there. Indeed it was in Cork that he conducted one of his more memorable U2 shows when, on the eve of one of the group’s appearances in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1987, he interviewed some of their long-standing road-crew, many of whom were from Cork, Joe O’Herlihy, Sam O’Sullivan and Tom Mullally among them.
The relationship between every national broadcaster and it’s regional offices can often be a terse one and things were no different in Cork. Whether real or imagined, regional staff can often feel dislocated and removed from key decision making, set apart by geography, cut apart from the action, under-resourced and short-funded. This was an aspect of life in RTÉ Cork that we exploited during the early days of the ‘No Disco’ series to positive effect but which, ultimately, may not have really helped the programme at all.
But local had the knowledge too and, often, was an agile and nimble operator with it’s ears to the ground. ‘No Disco’ had just completed it’s first season when, on Friday afternoon, June 17th, 1994, I answered an internal call from the RTÉ Sport Department. Ireland were due to play Italy in their first World Cup game, in Giant’s Stadium in New York, the following day and the production team was looking for a favour. Joe Kinnear, the former Irish international defender and then manager of Wimbledon, had been added to the RTÉ football panel that summer and had told the producers that one of his charges, the one-time hod-carrier, Vinnie Jones, was bound for Cork, with a plane-load of his friends and family in tow, for his stag weekend.
I was asked if I could locate Jones and, if possible, bag a short interview with him that would play just before RTÉ’s coverage of the Italy game. At the time, the high-profile midfield player was attempting to declare for our national team and had made several very public efforts, over the course of the previous few years, to locate legal proof of his connection to the country. The story had some manner of currency and, so, off we went.
I’ve repeated the view over the years that Cork is ostensibly a village masquerading as a town and trading as a city and I saw this play out in practice while myself and Pat McAuliffe, who was then free-lancing as a sports reporter for RTÉ Cork, literally horsed from hotel to hotel and bar to bar as we searched for a party of international stags. In the days when mobile phones were still primal, unreliable and physically enormous, we eventually located Jones and his entourage in a hotel on Morrison’s Island, across the river, as it happens, from the RTÉ Radio Cork offices and around the corner from the television building on Father Mathew Street.
We recognised John Fashanu and Warren Barton first. It was a stunning Summer’s evening in Cork and, on the banks of the river Lee, forty or fifty geezers – and they were, very much, geezers – were already well into the swing of it. Every single one of them wore his shirt outside of his trousers and the air in the bar hung heavy with the waft of male grooming products as wads of sterling were lashed across the bar.
We introduced ourselves to Vinnie and explained what we were at and, after a painless negotiation with his agent, during which we outlined the scale of the proposed RTÉ coverage, arranged an interview for 9AM on the following morning, outside Cork City Hall. Despite a night on the lash around town, Vinnie fetched up on time and, even better again, arrived wearing a white replica Ireland away top. Pat went to work on him, conducted a lovely interview – during which Vinnie stumbled over the word ‘affidavit’ – and Joe McCarthy, the veteran cameraman who’d shot much of the first season of ‘No Disco’, captured it all on tape. We cut the piece later that afternoon in RTÉ Cork and it played just before the Ireland game, which attracted one of the biggest television audiences in the history of the state. In front of which, as these things go, we put a local journalist with a minimal national profile boasting a pretty savage, old school scoop.
I still think it was Tony O’Donoghue, though, who broke the ground for this sort of carry-on, for tampering with the pieces, pushing out the boat. Which wasn’t easy, given that RTÉ Cork was, for years, run by Máire Ní Murchú, an old-style marm in a bouffant Thatcher do, in whose style she too laid down the iron fist. She dispatched Tony home one afternoon and asked him to return only after he’d shaved. Meanwhile, down the corridors, the afternoon jock, Stevie Bolger, looking for all the world like Elton John did for most of the mid 1970s, was cranking up the dial and standing-by to drive Cork home. ‘This is Stevie Bee, by the banks of The Lee’ he’d roar, as he rode the faders and unleashed his jingles.
Tony was doing multi-platform content twenty years before Channel Four. Between his television work at Cork Multi-Channel and his numerous radio and print jobs, he gave real rope to any number of emerging bands who caught his imagination. And there’s still something mildly subversive about the way he sneaked the likes of ‘Snowball Down’ by A House or ‘The Bridge’ by Cactus World News or an unreleased Cypress, Mine ! track onto the lunchtime airwaves and into kitchens all over Cork. He has a lot to answer for.
The writing was on the wall for RTÉ Radio Cork once the local independents managed, eventually, to get their act together. The commercial stations took the same, shamelessly partisan editorial line but were also on air full-time, sounded way fresher and were far easier to brand and to sell. Audiences had simply drained away from Cork Local Radio over the years and, when the plug was eventually pulled in 2000, and when resources were re-directed into developing the output from the facility across the river on Father Mathew Street, it was a tender and inevitable mercy. I remember Alf McCarthy once saying that it didn’t auger well when the station knew it’s listeners by their first names. Although personally, I thought we’d crossed the Rubicon the day that Marty Morrissey suggested he pre-record the afternoon news bulletin so he could beat an early exit to a bigger engagement with ‘national’.