Last month I took a trip to Ireland and was particularly excited to check out the college radio scene there. It turns out that there are only 3 official, regularly broadcasting student radio stations in the entire country and that student radio is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland. Unfortunately none of those three stations were broadcasting during the last 2 weeks of August; with two on summer break and one (Flirt FM) readying for a move to new digs.
Cheers to Flirt FM for welcoming me to their station, even though they were in the midst of a construction zone and were in a pre-move frenzy.
Located at National University of Ireland in Galway, Flirt FM went on the air in 1995. According to founding station manager Andrew Ó Baoill, the station "started as a student effort," whereas the other college stations in Ireland were initially less student-driven.
Thanks so much to Flirt FM's current station manager Paula Healy and Programme Controller Louise Clarke for touring me around the old station and talking to me about student radio in Ireland.
I stopped by for a visit on Thursday, August 27, 2009. It was summer break (although you wouldn't know it by the torrential rain) and the campus was fairly deserted except for construction crews feverishly working on various projects.
A group of people were hanging out inside the Flirt FM offices rolling up posters in preparation for the beginning of the school year. Paula told me that they work really hard to get the word out about the station and she was particularly pleased that for the past two years they've been able to get posters in the hands of all 1st year students. She told me that it's really important for students to know that Flirt FM exists and that it's a "proper radio station."
With a pretty large broadcast range of about 15 miles in every direction (in an "egg shape"), Flirt FM has listeners from not only the campus, but also from the surrounding community.
Paula's been involved with Flirt FM off and on since 1998. She told me that she joined the campus "Radio Society" and was both shocked and happy to learn that there was a station on campus. She's been the official Station Manager since April 2007 and is driven by her love for both the station and for music.
According to Paula, the station exists not only to provide a service to listeners, but also to provide training for students. Like college stations in the U.S., it's primarily a station of volunteers (as many as 120).
Paula and Louise are the only paid staff members. According to their license, Flirt FM's emphasis is to be an alternative to mainstream radio. About 60% of their programming is music and 40% is talk. Within these categories, 15% of the music is supposed to be of Irish-origin and 20% of the talk should be current affairs programming.
The Irish version of the FCC is called BCI (Broadcasting Commission of Ireland) and this regulatory agency grants licenses to stations and follows up to make sure that stations are living up to the terms of their contracts. Paula mentioned that the station had recently been audited, with the BCI listening to a 12 hour sample out of a week's worth of programming.
In terms of their schedule, Flirt FM broadcasts 20 hours a day on weekdays. Night-time is when their air "specialist music" beginning at 8pm. Paula told me that Monday nights are devoted to punk and metal, Tuesdays feature indie and alternative, Wednesday nights focus on "left field" or noise, Thursdays are dance music, techno, IDM, etc. and Friday nights are for "chill out" sounds like hip hop, soul, ska and reggae. Specialist shows are one hour in length and there are 20 different DJs filling those particular slots. At midnight they close the station and air repeats of shows that normally air from 4pm-8pm. Paula said that they hope to be a 24/7 station soon.
Flirt FM also airs some Irish language programming, including a music show, a magazine show and an Irish news headlines show. Paula mentioned that in the past they've also aired shows in other languages, including French and Polish, depending on the native language of station volunteers.
What struck me as I took a look around was that Flirt FM doesn't have much in the way of a music library. When I asked about this, Paula unlocked the "little if ever" used collection of CDs to show me. They primarily play digital music (and have 60 to 70 gigabytes of ripped material on a computer) at the station and she said they used the "CDs as backup."
They have 2 "rarely used" turntables and no vinyl library. Paula told me that "even the DJs are getting away from" using vinyl. Although the station gets sent some music, they don't get any vinyl. She jokingly showed me the one 7" that they have at the station, telling me that they use it to test out the turntables.
For the most part DJs bring in their own music and it's primarily the news and talk-oriented shows that use the station's digitized music library. Paula told me that DJs aren't expected to play specific pieces of music from the station's library, although she creates a "playlist" every month in order to encourage people to check out new music that fits with the station's overall programming philosophy. According to Paula:
"I do the playlist up every month. DJs aren't expected to play from it like a playlisted radio station, it's there to provide people with backup if their music doesn't work, or of they're too busy doing news headlines to worry about the music choice.
It's also a way to get across to listeners the kind of thing that Flirt FM likes to play and champion. I try to have lots of Irish artists on it each month. Other stations (most of them, to be honest) rely on old classics or very obvious mainstream choices. The playlist is a way of setting out our agenda. And you can stream it too (not this month, unfortunately, as I'm too busy to do a new one)."
Student radio stations in Ireland are part of a larger community radio organization called CRAOL (Community Radio Forum of Ireland), which works to help stations organize and connect with one another. Through this group, Paula has organized a get-together for all the Irish student radio stations. "Craol Campus Connections" will be held at Flirt FM on October 17th and stations from Cork (Cork Campus Radio), Limerick (Wired FM), Belfast (Queens Radio), and Dublin (Belfield FM) are invited to attend.
According to Paula last year's conference (at Wired FM in Limerick) had about 50 attendees and featured sessions on promoting one's show, production, and Adobe audition. She plans to hold similar sessions this year and told me that she's excited to get to host in their new studios. Around 60 people are expected from Wired FM, Cork Campus Radio, Belfield FM, DCU FM, and Trinity FM.
As I mentioned, Flirt FM was off the air when I visited in preparation for their move to shiny new studios. As we walked around the old station, Paula pointed out things like the "potato sack" walls and talked about how she thinks the fancy new studio will give the station more prominence and will even help to boost station morale.
Although they are only moving one building over, the new space will be filled with campus societies (aka student clubs), so they will have more of a community there with other student organizations. Paula joked that her old office is being "replaced by a boiler," as others will be taking over the old station space.
The plan (when I was there) was to move the station in 5 days, so Paula had been busy buying new furniture and making sure that everything was ready to go in order to get back on the air. Generally they are not off the air during the summer (although they do cease broadcasting during Easter and Christmas breaks), so this was kind of a big deal for them.
The new station is 20% bigger than the old, with 2 full-sized studios, a "proper editing suite," a dedicated rack room, and an office for the managers. Paula was excited that they would finally have both air conditioning and their own bathroom.
After my visit I checked in with Paula to see how the move went. She sent along some photos of the glitzy new space and told me that they are back on the air again as of this week.
For now they're only on from 4pm to 4am with "repeats and pre-records," but she added, "we're inching closer to fully operational studios every day." When I asked if she had anything else to add, she said, "Student radio in Ireland has so much potential to be fantastic, and I'm exhausted!"
Thanks again to Paula and Louise for their gracious hospitality during a truly crazy (and exciting) time at Flirt FM. Best of luck to them in their new studios.
Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips:
Field Trip to WECB at Emerson College
College Radio Field Trip 2 - Cal Poly's KCPR
College Radio Field Trip 3 - Notre Dame's WVFI
Radio Station Field Trip 4 - WFMU in Jersey City
Radio Station Field Trip 5 - East Village Radio in NYC
Radio Station Field Trip 6 - WNYU in New York City
Radio Station Field Trip 7 - Northwestern's WNUR
Radio Station Field Trip 8 - Stanford's KZSU
Radio Station Field Trip 9 - University of San Francisco's KUSF
Radio Station Field Trip 10 - Santa Clara University Station KSCU
Radio Station Field Trip 11 - UC Berkeley's KALX
Radio Station Field Trip 12 - KSJS at San Jose State University
Radio Station Field Trip 13 - WBAR at Barnard College
Radio Station Field Trip 14 - KFJC at Foothill College
Radio Station Field Trip 15 - UC Santa Cruz Station KZSC
Radio Station Field Trip 16 - Haverford College Station WHRC
Radio Station Field Trip 17 - FCCFree Radio in San Francisco