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Still gaga for radio

As Belfast prepares to host a major conference on its future direction, local personalities tell us how the wireless has had a very significant influence on their lives and careers

Video really never did kill the radio star! Some of the biggest names in the radio broadcasting industry will jet into Belfast in their hundreds at the end of this month to attend the fourth annual European Broadcasting Union Digital Radio Conference.

Their job will be to set the agenda for the future of radio across the continent.

In celebration — BBC Northern Ireland and RTE will also co-host a unique event, Making Connections — A Festival of Radio which will link audiences at home and around the world in the context of radio’s fast-arriving digital future.

The festival centres on an Exhibition of Radio which takes place in the BBC’s Blackstaff Studio and is free and open to the public who will get an up-close and personal look at how it all works.

Two specially constructed radio studios will feature live broadcasts from some of BBC Radio Ulster’s top broadcasters including Stephen Nolan, Hugo Duncan, Alan Simpson, and Wendy Austin as well as RTE’s Myles Dungan sitting in on the Pat Kenny Show and Cormac Battle in the RTE 2FM hot seat. Mark Lawson will be hosting BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and Greg James will bring the BBC Radio One afternoon show to Belfast. News bulletins for BBC Radio Ulster and Radio 1 will also be broadcast from the exhibition. Throughout the three days from Thursday, October 28 to Saturday, October 30, listeners will also get the chance to meet and chat with some of their favourite radio stars.

The festival exhibition will also feature the latest gadgets, technology and studios — where listeners can try news-reading, radio drama and jingle making.

BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 4, BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Radio Foyle, RTÉ Radio 1, RTÉ 2fm, RTÉ 2XM, RTÉ lyric fm and RTÉ Pulse will all be bringing programmes to Belfast as part of the Making Connections Event. And the BBC World Service will broadcast World Have Your Say live from Stormont on Thursday, October 28th at 6pm and will record The Forum in the same venue the following morning.

From today BBC Radio Ulster, as a prelude to the festival, will broadcast the Living Air; a series of daily ‘radio essays’. Here some of the contributors tell us why they love radio.

Paul Muldoon

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet was born in Co Armagh, but has lived in the US since 1987. He says:

The radio was in a cupboard to the right of the mantlepiece, just where the salt box might have hung in the mud wall cottage my mother had been brought up in. And it was with something of the same ceremony that the door of the cupboard was opened and the radio turned on. My mother was a school teacher and used the radio in the classroom, so it was quite natural for her to season the meat and potatoes of our everyday existence with schools’ and children’s programmes from the BBC.

In the classroom, I vividly remember Sean O’Boyle explaining the phenomenon of “potatoes and point”, whereby a poor peasant would point his or her meagre spud at a herring or a bit of bacon hanging up to the right of the fire, not too far from the salt box probably, and and imagine the taste.

It’s an image that often came back to me when, 10 years later, I went to work for BBC Northern Ireland and had barely been issued with my stopwatch when I fell in happily with the great mantra on the difference between radio and television — on radio the pictures are better.

The power of the imagination to summon the smell of the sea, the sound of a thousand horsemen coming over a hill, the taste of a herring from a few evocative words was what I would base the next 13 years of my life on. Not only as a radio producer, but as a poet. And I’ve come to realise, I suppose only with hindsight, that what is required in the radio broadcast — the immediacy — is something that more and more found it’s way into the poems that I was writing.

George Hamilton

Born in Belfast he is a sports commentator for RTE and presenter on Lyric FM. He says:

Isn’t it funny that you can stick on a CD and hear exactly what you want? You can even set your player to shuffle and, hey presto, you’ve got your own radio station. Except it’s not the same. Radio’s still there because I think people like the company, like to make friends with the voices, or turn them off if they get on your wick. There’s always something, something to discover, a new song, a new tune, a new fact, a different opinion, a laugh. Just about everything you’d get from a really good mate.

Nuala McKeever

A Belfast comedienne, actress and columnist for the Belfast Telegraph. She says:

At the age of 13, my friend Anne came to stay with her granny up our way. She had a big radio that she tucked into the crook of her left arm as I linked her right arm. All that summer, we made up dance moves to Brotherhood of Man, and flirted with passing soldiers on foot patrol, sitting up on gate post pillars to knock their berets off, as Candy Statton sang Young Hearts Run Free.

It seemed like there was a whole other grown-up world on the other side of that radio.

Gene Fitzpatrick

The Banbridge-born comedian is a long-time performer in the province. He says:

Sport played a big, big part in our family. My brother Seamus, God be good to him, he died a year or so ago, and he was the All-Ireland junior high jump champion, so sport played a big part.

And I remember listening to boxer Spider Kelly fighting Ray Famisham.

I remember I went to St Colman’s college in Newry all those years ago and we smuggled in a radio to try and listen to the fight between Cassius Marcellus Clay and the great.

Sonny Liston.

Francis Keenan, who was a great boxing man, stayed up all night saying prayers and saying Rosaries, so that he would stay awake for the big fight.

He woke everyone in the dorm up, but by the time the bell went, Keenan was lying sleeping in the bed. We listened to the fight for all of about 90 seconds. Cassius Clay’s right hand destroyed a good night’s sleep. Those were brilliant days.

Dan Gordon

The Belfast-born actor is in huge demand for stage, radio and television slots. He says:

I got to do hundreds of interviews to publicise the shows I was in, so I got to see what went on behind the scenes on the radio. I loved the way they did what they did, how they made it sound seamless, and yet I could see how hard it was to be good. And the radio plays rolled in.

One week I was WB Yeats, another I was an on-the-run gunman, I was the ghost of a north Antrim fisherman and a revivalist preacher from Belfast who had spent 10 years in America’s bible belt. It was fantastic.

I could be as tall or as short as I wanted, as handsome or as ugly, as quirky and as suave. It was on the radio, all you had to do was act it.

Tommy Sands

A member of the Co Down family of singers who has won global acclaim. He says:

My father was, by no stretch of the imagination a violent man so it was a big surprise to us all when, with one rare lapse in the broad daylight in the year of 1960, he managed to cut off all communications between our small farmhouse in Co Down and the rest of the whole civilised world.

It was all because of the wireless. Now it all happened very, very quickly in the last dying moments of the Gaelic football match between Down and Offaly.

He grabbed the biggest bread knife in the house and stabbed our old wet battery wireless in the speaker. He followed this up by throwing a cup of tea with milk and two sugars, soaking it in its face, soaking such far-flung stations as Stockholm, Frankfurt, Oslo and London, with hot, wet tea leaves.

His general target on the occasion was Athlone, the headquarters of Ireland’s national radio station and Michael O’Hehir, the commentator, particularly. “Take that, you carn ye,” he roared. “What in the name of God are you at Mick?” said my mother, who was only half-listening to the match and half-doing the Irish Weekly crossword.

“And that too, you daub faced nur,” he shouted, delivering a bare-knuckle blow to its hitherto smiling dial.

“Now you might never know who won the match,” said my mother, looking at the hot tears of silent tea running down the wireless face, “and it’ll serve you right too. Now what’s going to become of The McCooeys?’

Olivia Nash

An actress who has trod the boards here for 40 years and was awarded an MBE in 2006. She says:

My first memories of radio is Children’s Hour. Aunty Cecily and all that.

I really believed she was my aunty and I belonged to the club and had membership badges and it was like a secret society, but all the children in Northern Ireland were involved.

It was wonderful and then, of course, came The McCooeys. Little did I think that one day I would have the privilege of working with Derek the window cleaner, James Young. I had a long and happy association with Jimmy.

I was never terribly involved in sport as anyone who knows me would recognise and realise, but as a child I used to listen to Wimbledon, all those wonderful, wonderful tennis stars.

I felt again, this thing of intimacy of radio, that I knew them. I used to sit and listen to the pit pat, pit pat of the ball.

Bernard McLaverty

A Belfast-born author best known for |novels Cal, Grace Notes and Lamb. |He says:

My father listened to Palm Court, music which verged on the classical. My mother would say, “who’s that singing? Kathleen Ferrier, I’d know her voice anywhere”.

But some programmes weren’t background, they were to be sat down and listened to by all the family, like boxing matches when Rinty Monaghan was fighting, singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling after he won.

Like The McCooeys, everybody laughing at the goings-on of James Young as Derek the window cleaner, and JG Devlin as granda McCooey, and Bella arriving from the country with her wee fist full of parsley.

And there were frighteners. Journey into Space. Dick Barton Special Agent had a scream that ended the programme that had you white knuckled until the next episode.

One time there was one of our neighbours, a woman from two doors away who was an English teacher, and she was actually in the play on the wireless.

We all gathered round and listened. A woman spoke, is that her? No, maybe she’s acting, she doesn’t sound like herself.

Everybody was anxious for her to do well, but she was fine and we all laughed when we recognised her voice.

Making Connections: a Festival of Radio will be held at BBC’s Blackstaff Studios, Belfast on October 28, 29 and 30. For free tickets visit bbc.co.uk/northernireland or tel: 0370 9011227

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