Community On Air: Donal Dineen On The DJ As Curator Of Community

I love this article published in the Irish Times last year and written by Donal Dineen on his love affair with radio. So evocatively written and so telling as to why the man was such a brilliant voice on the radio, humbled by the seminal position he was in to have potential access to every person’s in the country’s airs and realising the duty to create a camaraderie between them ears and others.

‘DJ is storytelling with added button pressing’.

My own big love affair with radio began before lengths lost their waves and bands became a bit too broad for their boots. Radios, remember them? Many of us can appreciate how central a machine it was, but there’s a new generation for whom it sticks out like a dinosaur with an aerial.

The venerable Ciarán Mac Mathúna and his show Mo Cheol Thú was our Sunday morning precursor to Mass. His was the first voice that stopped me in my tracks. Even now, hearing tunes I first heard on that programme strikes a chord. I can see the sunlight, smell the polish and taste the porridge. I began to wonder why we were going to Mass at all when there was a man on that machine with a way with words more mellifluous than God’s own, and a choice of music you could call heavenly.

The only trouble with the radio set was that it picked up the neighbour’s electric fence in cattle-corralling season, thereby adding a touch of proto Berlin techno to proceedings.

Graduating to having my own radio felt like a giant leap for mankind. It had a single red light, which I was immensely proud of. In 1970s Kerry, illumination of any kind was a beacon. It lit up my room on those magical night-time voyages of discovery, with the likes of BP Fallon at the controls and the giant Kerry skies as my screensaver. Music took me places. Always upwards. Away from the farm. Away from my troubles. Away alone, lost in music.

Responsible for its own demise
It’s a different story now. Radio is partly responsible for its own demise by playlisting itself to within an inch of its life, but other forces have played a part. Technological innovation is designed to divide and conquer and has done a good job of pushing radio down the pecking order. My friend’s four-year-old recently inquired if their retro radio set was for listening to the war on. She’s right in a way. It’s a battlefield scattered with this week’s dispatch from Simon Cowell’s arsenal of toxic waste.

Let’s go back to March 1997, a very modern month for the time. Radio Ireland (now Today FM) was launching on two broken wings, pieces of string, protruding wires, prayers and a torrent of panic. Nothing went viral. Lots went wrong. I survived because there were bigger fish to toss from the pan and into the fire. I stayed as far back as I could. That’s me in the corner.

It was a rough start-up as these things usually are but it was by no means all bad. Magic was in the airwaves for one thing. I was embarrassing myself weekly on TV with No Disco when the aroma of radio’s limitless possibilities wafted towards me though a crack in the door. I was a devotee of Gilles Peterson’s show at the time, and a crack at that was what I craved.

I couldn’t believe my luck when a few fortuitous sparks were flying from Radio Ireland HQ and blew my way. It was chaotic and exhilarating, a ring of fire.

Many got burned but others thrived in the heat. It was a steep learning curve, and John Kelly was my main instructor. He had a way with words and a surfer’s command of the high rolling waves. I had a nightly routine of recreating Hong Kong-like cities with shaky CD skyscrapers and stacks of records, whereas John would work wonders with the merest set of tools. I’d be on the floor mopping up the splintered remains of fallen plastic towers (they inevitably shook and toppled nightly), while he would glide past with a pencil, a sheet of notepaper and a handful of CDs before barely pausing for breath and launching into yarns as if he had the Smithsonian Library at his fingertips, Alan Lomax in one ear and Patrick Kavanagh in the other. Like he always said when the bulletin dropped out: “No news is good news.”

Stuff like that. He was quick. He told great stories. And that’s the skill right there. DJing is storytelling with added button-pushing. I was petrified. I spoke with many voices all at once. I didn’t know who I was and was averse to pretending to be somebody, so I tried the everybody option. You do eventually find your voice, but I had red “On Air” light speech paralysis for ages. It wasn’t me that was mumbling, just a tongue-tied brain-frozen version of me. It takes a long time to learn how to talk to someone who isn’t in the room, whom you’ve never met and possibly never will – and yet it’s so personal.

Things got better after I received a beautifully written letter from Mountjoy. He eloquently put into context the need for company when you’re really alone and the role I played in providing that for him and a few of his inmates. From them on I spoke directly to him. I hope he’s free as a bird now.

But still the red light never failed to bring on the fear. I struggled on, always trying to tune in to John for clues to cure the sweaty-palms syndrome. There’s no better place to hide than behind walls of music. All that and I’m a mumbler, too. I never knew that until strangers stopped me on the street to let me know. I kept the words to a minimum as a compromise. Inadvertently that became my modus operandi .

Still, my belief in the bits in-between was absolute, so I tried to string that together and stay as far back as I could without disappearing altogether. The music I couldn’t say enough about, but I said less than I was often thinking. Listeners had their own minds to make up, and had opinions equally as valuable as mine. I was just the gatekeeper, which is a glorious thing and then some.

Ultimately, I just love sound. All aspects of it. We’re lucky to live in an age of sound. We dance in halls to music our parents would regard as the signal for Armageddon with added sirens. Then we wake the next day and find something even deeper and fresher and fall head over heels all over again. Music doesn’t fear the future: they travel together, bosom buddies. It’s we humans who struggle against it. And there’s only ever going to be one winner on that front.

We understand so much about sound and it touches us so deeply and innately that we can’t help ourselves being swept up by its glorious mysteries, depending on the mood and the melody.

Big leaps in 17 years
In my 17-year lifetime on air I’ve heard the overall sound take giant leaps forward. Listening to the most modern records, produced and mastered to perfection on a great sound system, is an experience I’m so happy to be able to enjoy. The radio studio was the ultimate space to drink it all in. My nightly visits there were devotional episodes, in the same way the faithful go to church brimful of belief or the thirsty pay daily visits to the well. Apart from children and nature in springtime, it’s the only thing that gets better every day.

The latest advances in production can transform the subtler and softer sounds into something weightier and more powerful. The overall shape has fewer edges, no matter how hard it punches. There’s warmth and texture where once there was none. It’s almost complete, yet it will never stop. Everything in its right place.

The music itself is everything and says everything, making it some tool to tell a story with. I always had to pinch myself that I was the one in charge once I got to the studio. To say it was the realisation of a boyhood dream to be on the radio would be to underestimate the power of dreams themselves. TV was kind of insidious, I felt, but radio was somehow pure.

There were wavelengths and aerials, transmitters and receivers, but not a cloud in the sky, and wireless was still a thing with knobs – buttons below a dial of backlit city names. Wavelengths, aerials, transmitters, receivers: lovely words those. Worth repeating. And heroically functional, too.

The radio waves crashed on the shoreline as music. It was endless, oceans of joy, connection, company, information and all manner of things you could fill a kitchen with, take for a spin in the car, bring under a blanket or pack with a picnic. I didn’t just love radio; I loved radios. They put all other machines and matter in the shade. Ours stood proudly next to the kettle, pregnant with consequence even while silent.

So I got to live the dream, and now I just have to wake up and conjure another one. There’s no way of summing it up; I couldn’t possibly do it justice. All I know is it meant the world to me and the fact that I was part of other people’s worlds meant twice as much again.

I meet people who tell me they drove to beaches, forests and empty mountain tops to listen to the show with their friends. That is its own reward. I was there, man.

Excuse me while I walk On Air one more time.

First Published in The Irish Times 24/04/2014


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