Valentine’s Day 2014 shattered the hearts of alternative radio lovers nationwide as their favourite station was effectively declared dead.
Eight years after receiving its broadcasting license, Phantom FM is leaving its corner on Friday as one of Dublin’s few alternative music stations. By leaving the same void it was borne out of, the question remains: is there a place for niche radio?
The station was the anti-Spin, the anti-Adrian Kennedy. For anyone who was sick of listening to Pitbull declare his love of female anatomy, they could turn the dial to 105.2 and hear anything from a 1986 Nick Cave B-side, Swedish synthpop, or the latest single from ‘AM’.
However, its popular status as an indie station was a far cry from its humble beginning as a pirate station called ‘Spectrum’, operating out of a shed in Sandyford and later, a room above Whelan’s pub in Dublin.
Simon Maher, one of the station’s founding members, explained its early success: “It was word of mouth, people saying ‘I put on the radio and heard Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ or National Prayer Breakfast’s ‘Feeding Frenzy’.
“There was enough talk about it when it started to spread.”
Despite being granted a license by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland in 2004 (now the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland), there was a two year delay until the station began broadcasting on Halloween night 2006. “We lost a lot of momentum,” Maher said.
Financial troubles first began in 2009, leading to an intervention by Communicorp.
The Denis O’Brien-owned media group owned one third of Phantom. It was largely responsible for its commercialisation in recent years and Maher’s exit.
He said: “Dennis O’Brien was brought in to rescue the station and given executive control. That came down to a board vote and I voted against it.”
The station lost shows with cult followings such as Villagers drummer James Byrne’s Nightlink, and Pearl’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’. With them, dissatisfied fans soon switched off.
“By eroding it over time, people became apathetic. Then it was doomed,” Maher said.
With Phantom’s current survival strategy also comes the loss of 24 staff and a new moniker, TXFM to be ‘more aligned’ with Today FM.
The exit of niche shows like Metal Notes, The Lounge or I-CON, a show dedicated to giving audience to undiscovered Irish bands, demonstrates that the indifference to the problem will probably continue.
Speaking on the eve of his last show ‘The Lounge’, Derek Byrne talked about the presence Phantom had in Dublin’s music scene with events in venues like the Workmans Club and Whelan’s, saying “They’re very good for Irish bands. It gives them a stage to play on.”
Like Maher, he explained that Phantom never found the right business model, saying: “We went in as a little naïve with business and how a station could be run.
“But we served Irish music well. I don’t think anyone who’s worked in Phantom won’t look with a lot of pride at what we’ve done. If we didn’t have a licence would have been on air for seven years? No.”
The end of Phantom begs the question: What is the future of alternative music radio?
Not much is known about the future of TXFM except that most content will be automated with three staff members left.
“To be honest, I don’t know what the new plan is going to be. I probably know as much as you’ve probably read in the Irish Times,” Byrne said.
The end of the distinctive ‘Lounge’ won’t stop him presenting eclectic music: “I can only hope that something will happen in the next few weeks. I definitely won’t stop trying to find some space to broadcast.”
Maher has found a way to return to broadcasting without the ‘soul-destruction’ of FM. He founded 8radio.com in March 2013.
He explained the station’s concept as “finding a load of records we like and playing them”.
“It’s not because of a focus group saying you should or shouldn’t. It’s because it’s a good song. You trust people to make their own judgements.”
However, he knows the convenience of FM radio versus relying on an internet connection.
He said: “Obviously the easier it is to access your audience type, the better. It’s still tricky trying to access radio because you’re on the move.”
8radio.com will broadcast on radio for seven weekends and eight weeknights in the summer under a temporary licence. With Phantom gone, alternative enthusiasts may now have a new place to tune in.