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Downtown Radio still making waves as it marks 40th anniversary

Downtown Radio, the first all-local Northern Ireland station, which launched the careers of Eamonn Holmes, Pamela Ballantine and May McFettridge, marks its 40th anniversary today, but there will be sadness amid the celebrations, as former reporter there, Ivan Little reports.

A cloud of sadness will today hang over what should have been one of the happiest milestones in the history of Northern Ireland's oldest independent radio station.

For instead of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Downtown Radio (DTR) in Newtownards, staff and former employees will gather in Belfast for the funeral of one of the station's longest serving journalists, who died last week.

Colin Duncan had been with the Kiltonga-based radio station for 20 years, first as a reporter and then as an editor. "Everyone who worked with Colin is in mourning. He was a real character who was part of the fabric of the station," a friend said.

By a tragic coincidence, this week also marks the 11th anniversary of the death of another ex-Downtown veteran who was savagely attacked at a nightclub he was helping to run in Glengormley. Stephen Nelson, who was affectionately known as "Rastus", was beaten and kicked by a 10-man gang outside the Chimney Corner hotel where he had been in charge of entertainment.

The 55-year-old single man, who had been a senior producer at Downtown, lost his fight for life on March 18, 2005, six months after the brutal assault.

Mr Nelson's inquest heard that senior members of south Antrim UDA sanctioned the attack on him after he evicted a drug dealer from a disco.

Next month will also be the 16th anniversary of the death of one of Downtown's stellar broadcasters, Lynda Jayne Campbell.

The Coleraine-born presenter, who had been a continuity announcer on Ulster Television, joined Downtown in 1979. Her husband Trevor Campbell - better known as Big T - is still broadcasting on the radio station four decades after starting to work there and, indeed, he presents two shows, five days every week.

"I didn't know there was that much work still left in me," says Trevor, who is 69, "but I still get a buzz from playing records, though I wasn't sure 40 years ago if people would like what Downtown had to offer. People forget we were the first all-local radio station here because the BBC were just dipping in and out of local programming."

Another first-day broadcaster, Candy Devine - who has returned to live in her native Australia - has sent a special message via the Belfast Telegraph to mark the Downtown anniversary.

She recalls being a bundle of nerves on that first morning in 1976, adding: "At one stage, in a moment of panic, I opened the mic and shouted 'Help'."

Candy's honesty captured the hearts of fans but she quickly realised there were critics out there, too. "In the first week I got a letter from a man who told me I was not his darling - a reference to the term of endearment I always used.

"And another woman told me off for saying 'um' 57 times during an interview."

Candy's message to the radio station was: "Happy anniversary Downtown and thank you for 37 very happy years - I wouldn't have changed a thing."

She explains: "Downtown's first broadcast was on March 16, 1976, and by chance I was in Newtownards to cover the opening as a fledgling reporter for the Belfast Telegraph."

It was a day that turned out to be momentous in more ways than one, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson announcing his resignation a few hours after Downtown started broadcasting.

Thanks to their links with the Independent Radio Network across the water, Downtown was able to break the news an hour before the Beeb found out about the PM's dramatic departure.

Everything had started calmly enough as the first news bulletin was read by Michael Beattie, now a freelance film-maker, having worked with the BBC and UTV before branching out on his own.

I sat beside Michael in the tiny news booth as he delivered that first bulletin.

The first show was presented by John Paul Ballantine whose nickname was, and still is, Jippo and who was so nervous about his first appearance that he kept a bucket at his side - which didn't go unused.

Fourteen years after that, Downtown ground-breaker John Paul was back as head of music and promotions at its sister station, Cool FM, a name he used again as he set up a radio station in Benidorm, though he continued to live in Co Down with his second wife, BBC newsreader Tina Campbell.

His first wife, Pamela Ballantine, who is now a household name with UTV, also worked for Downtown and has happy memories of the place.

"I went there in 1979 to work as a secretary to the head of programmes, John Rosborough, and all the DJs," she says. "It was great fun and before long someone threw me in at the deep end to read the news when there was no-one else about."

Pamela, who would also sometimes play records for Lynda Jayne after she nipped out from the studio to go to the loo, adds: "She would get chatting to people and I started filling in for her, impersonating her voice. I once kept up the pretence for half an hour - and no-one noticed."

Eventually, Pamela was recruited to present her own programmes, one of which featured hit songs from around the world and was called Pamasonic International.

Pamela stayed at Downtown for five years and treasures the memories. So much so that she and former colleagues still meet up for outings under the name of the DOGs, the Downtown Old Girls Society whose other members include Jeanie Johnston, now a press officer for a health trust; Kate Smith, who also went on to work for UTV, and four colleagues who now present programmes for the BBC: Wendy Austin, Maggie Taggart, Cherrie McIlwaine and Linda McAuley.

"We all came through the Downtown ranks and we are thinking about organising a reunion for all the former employees of the station," adds Pamela.

"And there is only one venue for it - the Strangford Arms Hotel in Newtownards. After all, we were its best customers."

The party planners will need a big room, even to accommodate the number of reporters alone who learnt their craft at Downtown down the years.

Two years after reporting on Downtown's first broadcast, I was working in the newsroom and other journalists who cut their broadcasting teeth in Newtownards included Gary Gillespie, the retired UTV presenter, and Michael MacMillan who worked for UTV, ITN and the BBC before setting up a multi-media company with bases here and in Britain.

The editor of the Irish News, Noel Doran, is another Downtown old boy, along with David Blevins of Sky.

BBC reporters Gary Duffy, Mark Simpson, Mervyn Jess and Julian O'Neill, Jamie Delargy of UTV and the deputy leader of the SDLP, Fearghal McKinney, also started their broadcasting careers in Downtown.

One of the most famous broadcasters ever to read the news on Downtown was never credited with his appearance.

Belfast-born Peter Dickson, who is the booming voice of the X-Factor, once visited Kiltonga to see a friend and, even though he was working for BBC Northern Ireland at the time, he surreptitiously read a Downtown bulletin. And again no-one noticed.

Eamonn Holmes presented a number of shows and gave comedian May McFettridge her/his break on Downtown.

Another partnership which lasted even longer was the one between Ivan Martin and Richard Young who presented a hugely popular morning show, First Edition, for over 20 years.

Some said it was a match made in heaven. Ivan said it was a fluke, adding: "We'd never met but we made each other laugh and the listeners seemed to like the show, too."

The handovers between Ivan and Richard and Lynda Jayne became legendary but they also earned the presenters a warning.

"The banter went on a little bit too long one morning and the bosses timed it at nine minutes and 30 seconds."

Downtown's dominance in local radio has been challenged in more recent times with the mushrooming of independent stations like U105, Citybeat, now part of the Q Radio network, and, latterly, by Belfast 89FM which was set up by John Rosborough and features one of his old Downtown boys, Hendi.

But Downtown, which is now part of the European Bauer media empire, was upbeat yesterday about its share of the market.

Regional managing director Mark Mahaffy says: "The Downtown Radio Network now delivers over 272,000 weekly listeners and we were blown away by the response to the recent launch of our new sister station, Downtown Country, which swiftly became Northern Ireland's fastest growing radio station."

The newsroom operation in Downtown has been severely curtailed down the years, though.

But journalists who worked at Downtown are routinely asked about their best and worst moments.

I experienced my most dreadful moment on my first night in charge of the newsroom when a phone call alerted us to a bomb at La Mon House Hotel, where it transpired that 12 people had been killed and dozens more injured.

There were lighter moments, thankfully. Like the day I asked a reporter to follow-up a newspaper report about a call from the Peace People on the Pope and Queen to meet in Belfast in a symbolic show of unity at the height of the Troubles.

I urged the reporter to ring Buckingham Palace and the Vatican press offices for the 'no comment' responses which I knew were sure to come.

But she didn't take a no comment for an answer from Rome. And I heard the immortal words coming from her mouth: "Would it to be possible to speak to the Holy Father himself?"

Surprise, surprise, it was not.

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