After just moving to a new base in The Complex in Smithfield and on the cusp of hosting a new festival*** Dublin Digital Radio and all its acoltyes are stepping it up a notch. Sean Finnan, Brian McNamara and Emily Carson tell us the story so far.
“It feels like this haven that hasn’t been tarnished by horrible tech Dublin.”
Ever since Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of radio waves in 1896 – predating, by two decades, the first public transmission cast by Canadian inventor Reginald A. Fessenden – the ubiquity of radio, bringing us through banal blocks of our daily routines, is unequivocally one of the most essential developments in history. For well over a century, it has provided generations with a vital portal of discovery and escapism as a vessel of communication, entertainment and information. This aspect has remained constant since the early 1900s, even when faced with competing technological advancements of the twentieth century: television and mobile phones. The latter, to a large extent, has enhanced our relationship with radio by making it possible to listen to stations on-the-go or catch-up with shows at a later date.
Unfortunately, in Ireland, there’s a significant disparity between what audiences want to hear over the airwaves and what domineering mainstream commercial media outlets produce. This ultimately translates to a feeling of dissatisfaction on the behalf of the listener. Many listeners of Irish radio would hold the belief that little effort is made in programme diversity or facilitating fresh voices over the airwaves in an industry at the behest of long-serving gatekeepers.
In recent years, alternative broadcasting has suffered drastically from lack of funding and a change in listening habits illustrating a pivot towards the endless choice and convenience of podcasts and audiobooks. Driving home from Open Ear Festival in 2016, Sean Finnan and Brian McNamara conversely toyed with the idea of starting their own station, having been frustrated by what they heard emanating from the car radio. Four years on, Dublin Digital Radio is one of the city’s most valued cultural entities. As a source of promoting and nurturing underground artists – typically cast on the fringes of the music scene – as well as advocating for vital social issues affecting the city.
Since it launched in October 2016, the station, known acronymously as DDR, lists just under 130 residents on their site, is operated by a dedicated group of volunteers, has organised countless events to unite Dubliners to lobby governmental bodies for reform on pressing issues, and continues to captivate an ever-growing listenership. It’s the breadth of what DDR stands for that makes it so much more than just a go-to digital destination to discover the latest electronic music. There’s a general consensus that this independently run body has developed a community for those on the outskirts of society.
The smell of fresh paint lingers in the air when I visit DDR’s new HQ in The Complex on a windy February evening. The move from their former home in Jigsaw was prompted by the venue’s tenuous future in a Dublin transformed by large corporations planting homogeneous structures stealing the city’s identity. This led the team to seek out vacancies in artistic spaces which met their specific requirements, as far back as 2018. Once confirmation was made with a prospective location, the process leading up to the move – which included a fundraising campaign – happened relatively quickly.
Three members of the extensive DDR family, Emily Carson, Glenn O’Brien and Barry Owens, welcomed me to their newly constructed studio, which at that point had been operational for approximately ten days. The arts centre itself recently relocated a couple of meters down the road from its original spot amongst Dublin’s fruit and vegetable markets. Over two floors, The Complex has an array of residents from costume designers, fine artists and composers for film occupying studio spaces with ample room for events and exhibitions, also.
DDR’s corner in the former fruit ripening factory, in what used to be a fridge, is a compact rectangular shaped room divided into a co-working area, meeting space and, crucially, a soundproof studio. In their cosy studio, you’ll find an elongated table with equipment displayed like an audiophile’s version of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, swapping out plates of food for decks and monitors. Over the course of the evening, the trio were extremely forthcoming in sharing the station’s trajectory from the early days tucked away in Jigsaw’s Belvedere Court spot to their excitement ahead of the inaugural Alternating Current Festival, which they’ve organised with Tiny Cosmos and Enthusiastic Eunuch in The Sound House, this month. We spoke extensively about how DDR exists through an ever expanding rotation of volunteers (“It’s really hard for one person to count the number of people volunteering at any one time,” says Barry) and about their aspirations for the rest of the year, now that the dust has settled following an already busy start to the decade (“We’re trying to formalise our structure, we want to be seen as a credible alternative to mainstream radio,” Carson affirms).
We begin at the start, with DDR co-founder Brian McNamara gaining invaluable experience with a Berlin-based community radio station during a stint in one of Europe’s most creative and inspiring cities. His time there made the prospect of bringing something framed upon this model to Dublin a less daunting feat. Equipped with the knowledge of setting-up a digital station, as opposed to a pirate one, the timing of the body’s foundation coincided with a period where going digital was “a lot more accessible,” as Carson, who has been heavily involved in the behind-the-scenes strategical organisation of the station, suggests.
Supporting this claim, Glenn O’Brien, host of Just A Blip and an architect by day (O’Brien drafted the plans for the studio upon viewing the space), recalls the abundant landscape across the capital’s underground scene prior to the station’s existence. “It felt like there was a lot of music being made in Dublin at the time.” He continues, “The city needed something for everyone to flock to and [DDR] solidified this whole community that was waiting to develop and when it did it gave everyone an anchor.”
Establishing a community of like-minded individuals was an integral motivation from the start. As a leading figure in the software team, Barry Owens remembers his impromptu introduction at the crucial point when plans were quickly turning into reality. “Brian contacted me the week before the launch party, which he wanted to stream live via the site,” Owens recalls. “He was having trouble with the website and asked if I’d be able to make one in the space of three days! Of course, I said yes.
On the first day of broadcasting, there was just a big circle in the middle of the screen that you’d click and it played whatever was streaming. On the night of the launch in Jigsaw, I made my way there with my headphones in, listening to the party. When I eventually walked into the room there was loads of people enjoying the song I’d just had playing in my ears. That was the first time I realised how deadly this was,” he smiles.
A limited rotation of participants in their embryonic period saw them struggle to fill a week’s worth of programming. This meant that, initially, broadcasting was isolated to the weekends, before regular shows populated the schedule during the week. Unexpectedly, Finnan and McNamara were met with a critical mass of people pitching to the station. Early on, the pair put out a call across their social media inviting more women to get involved in DDR. With that, Carson contacted them. “I was interested in working on the organisational side of the station. I’d been involved in a lot of arts organisations before joining so I was happy to bring my experience from that to DDR.” The wealth of experience each member of DDR brings to the table has been vital in the expansion and regulation of the station. As Carson points out, “There are some people where you can see an obvious link between a need in the station and what they do.” The reward and return in the station’s relationship with its volunteers is twofold, as Owens explains, “Often, people volunteer for things they aren’t doing in their day job. If someone is a software engineer, they might say, ‘I’d actually love to get into design,’ and use DDR as a way of gaining experience in that field.”
Furthermore, the quantity and quality of volunteers enables the organisation to stay fresh and relevant as demonstrated from the tremendous diversity in the shows it delivers. Whether it’s cultural round-ups (Anu Review or Art in the Contemporary World), explorations in soul, hip-hop and sampling in film and television (Hipdrop), or an assortment of ambient electronic tunes (Moot Tapes and Death Culture Blues), there’s something to satisfy all sonic proclivities. This is something the station prides itself on and is constantly seeking to expand upon. “I think what distinguishes DDR from previous iterations of pirate or digital radio is that it’s not just a bunch of DJs with a show. You can present an idea for a show, it could be current affairs, a documentary series, or field recordings. Naturally, this makes for a really interesting mix,” explains O’Brien.
The freedom enabling Dublin Digital Radio to hold onto their unique stance, compared to commercial media outlets, stems from a principle of staying afloat via the valued assistance of volunteers selflessly sparing time to the station rather than negotiating with external investment opportunities. This decision was made early as Carson tells me, “We’ve certainly had advertisers and brands approach us, regarding investors, it’s mostly been on a quid-pro-quo basis where they want to get a lot out of the relationship with DDR. We’re a voluntary community organisation so we’re against the capitalisation of it because, to a certain degree, once it starts to lose its DIY feel it, it loses what makes it special.” That’s not to say, however, that the organisation is opposed to building some sort of fund for future developments in forming a company structure, striding towards the professionalisation of DDR.
“Currently, our subscriber model is a good way to [generate a sustainable flow of income] because the minute you have someone offering a substantial amount of money, you have to question what the contingencies are and if that funding is taken away does that mean that the whole thing collapses?” rationalises Carson of the complex nature of responsible financial resourcing. Should the independent body find itself with a steady flow of money in the future, Carson reveals some exciting preliminary plans, “We’d love to do more community outreach, to mentor people who possibly wouldn’t feel as though they’re in a position to do a show from disadvantaged communities or from areas that wouldn’t necessarily have access to the studio equipment.” Elsewhere, she says that from an internal perspective, the studio would greatly benefit from hiring a handful of people to manage the space full-time.
In a similar vein, the DDR crew have become familiar with fundraising for various causes. Most recently, they were overwhelmed by the response they received from a campaign they launched via FundIt to fund the build of their studio in The Complex. In the space of a week, they reached (and substantially surpassed) their target of €15,000. The surplus money is going back into the station in the form of commissioned documentaries, Current Casts, which are due to be aired across 2020. Rewards to contributors were as varied as the station’s merchandise to dinner with the DDR family. Further down the tier of rewards was a training and recording session in their new space. In the near future, to broaden DDR’s annual 24 Hours of Womxn’s Voices, coinciding with International Women’s Day on March 8th, the station is looking to develop a separate programme which they’re hoping to run from April. Carson teases their plan, “We want more women, trans and non-binary people’s voices on air; that’s what 24 Hours of Womxn’s Voices was about and we realised that we had to go further. We have to offer training services to give people an entry point because that’s part of the whole outreach side of DDR.
With one project completed and more brewing in the pipeline, DDR are looking forward to the next event in their 2020 calendar; Alternating Current Festival, taking place between March 13th to 15th. What began as a sort of offshoot to the DDR brand – it originally took form as a commemorative zine coinciding with the station’s first birthday – has manifested into three nights of music held across several stages in The Sound House. The line-up features DDR DJs such as Cáit and No Place Like Drone with an array of alternative artists such as Maija Sofia, Post-Punk Podge, Fixity and Rising Damp set to perform over the weekend. The premise, as Carson reveals, is “to provide a platform, an alternative Paddy’s Day Festival, for acts who never get invited to partake in Paddy’s Day Festival performances across the city. That’s pretty much what we are at DDR; a platform for unheard voices, unheard music. It was to give a sort of physical presence to that.”
Coupled with providing the finest underground and alternative artists in Ireland with a platform, DDR has become known for its advocacy on a number of social issues as broad as homelessness, promoting women’s rights and voices (Strike for Repeal and 24 Hours of Womxn’s Voices) and looking for licensing reform in Dublin’s nightlife (Give Us The Night). This activism is something they inherited, in part, from the people they encountered in Jigsaw as well as some DDR members prior involvement with Rabble, a non-profit newspaper that offered informative journalism with a transparent dissection of misconduct across authority. Last summer, DDR were involved in the organisation, alongside the 1815 football group and Dublin Central Housing Action, of a marathon community football match held in Mountjoy Square Park as a protest against the Georgian Society and Dublin City Council looking to privatise the public space. Across the afternoon, a selection of the resident DJs, such as R. Kitt, played tracks over a thumping sound system as they broadcast the event live over the station. “There’s always been a political undercurrent in what we do, although we’ve always been really careful not to affiliate ourselves with any political parties and have it as more of a grassroots activist body,” says Carson.
The ways in which Dublin Digital Radio has enhanced the experience for many living and working in the city since its inception is immeasurable. O’Brien considers the undeniable draw and influence the station has had across the underground community, “There’s a strong network that has congealed around DDR. There’re people within the station with record labels releasing music by other members of the station. You’ve something like Alternating Current, giving a platform to both up-and-coming and established Irish artists, too. Looking from the outside, it does feel like it’s the hub of a lot of interesting things that are going on. There are different strands and the intersecting point seems to be DDR.” Outside of this, DDR has given Dublin’s younger generation a reason to remain in their native country. Carson has direct experience of this. “I remember myself and Yann (Chalmers, host of No Standards) were both uncertain about staying in Dublin,” she discloses. “I’d say that DDR was the linchpin reason why we didn’t, in the end. When I saw the response to the fundraiser at the end of last year, I’d say there were a few people who thought twice about emigrating or have felt a bit softer towards Dublin. I feel like that’s because of what DDR is doing. It’s so antithetical, in so many ways, to how commercialised the city has become. It feels like this haven that hasn’t been tarnished by horrible tech Dublin.”
Alternating Current Festival is on The Sound House on Eden Quay from Friday March 13 to Sunday March 15, weekender ticket €65***
***Update: A decision has been taken to postpone Alternating Current. For details see the following Twitter thread.
Check out Zara’s highlights from the station here.
Words: Zara Hedderman
Photos: Jordan Hearns