RadioToday talks to radio manager Dan Mc Dermott

In November 2015 Garvan Rigby one of the Directors of Christmas FM asked me to join the team and I was introduced to a man called Dan Mc Dermott who is the station manager.

My initial thoughts were that he could quite easily have walked off the set of Love Hate working alongside Nidge and Paulie. He had that masculine look, expensive heavily styled salon haircut and looked in complete control. As people started to appear in the office and we chatted I could see that his emotional intelligence and intellect were beyond any station manager I had experienced in commercial radio. If I had a radio station in decline I would instantly appoint Dan as the station manager for a couple of reasons, he has managed to grow Christmas FM over a few years and it is without doubt a national treasure here in Ireland. He will also bring out the very best in every single person who is under him giving any radio station the best chance of halting decline and improving morale. Dan Mc Dermott is the “Irish Radio Prozac” and a refreshing change to experience a station manager who actually cares about his team and has the gift of real people skills.

When did you decide being in radio was the job for you?

The earliest I can remember was when I was about 7 years old. I was listening to Ian Dempsey on 2FM Breakfast and heard U2’s “Mysterious Ways” for the first time. We had this big Ferguson radio/cassette player and the opening riff came blasting out as I sat there eating toast before school. Looking back on it now, I guess there was the beginning of a thought that I would love to do what Ian Dempsey had done that morning and introduce a song like that. That track was so different at the time – or at least I felt it was.

As I got a little older, I discovered and became a fan of Atlantic 252 – particularly Rick O’Shea – and I felt 252 was very different to conventional Irish radio at the time. I was especially interested in how fast-paced it was; the presenters were tight and the music was broader and more varied and that hooked me in too.

Through a friend whose dad had an electronics repair business, I acquired – for the princely sum of 5 pounds – a Sony CF-610. A very, VERY old CF-610 at that: the cassette door was missing, one of the rabbit ear aerials was taped on, but it had this beautiful green back-lit AM/FM display, linear faders and mic-in! Within a week I was operating my very own radio station from my bedroom. Now, I wasn’t being broadcast further than my own headphones, but that didn’t matter! I was talking up the intros, forward selling, making up competitions to be entered by postcard – the works!

Then I went to secondary school and discovered the overnight schedule on FM104 – Jason Maine: the deep voice; the pauses; the tight style. I thought he was the coolest jock I had ever heard! It was wall-to-wall music, very few ads, news on the hour from INN, and back to the music! As the summer rolled in I often stayed up all night, got out of bed with the earliest incarnation of The Strawberry Alarm Clock and went to school, where I would fall asleep at the back of the science lab!

Anyway – very late one night Jason Maine played D.N.A feat Suzanne Vega – “Tom’s Diner”. I was awestruck. Here I was, sitting in my tiny box-bedroom, with the almost full-summer sun coming up at what must have been 5am on a school night and this sound coming out of my worn-out Sony stereo was like nothing I had ever heard!

I knew at that moment I wanted to play that song – and so many other songs – on the radio. I wanted that to be my job. I wanted it to be a defining part of my character. It was everything: my calling, my vocation.

Who is your radio hero?

I honestly don’t know, or maybe I can’t say specifically. There are very many people I admire, and I have a broad array of reasons for that admiration. There are people who run radio stations on a daily basis that I believe to be some of the most passionate and driven people I have ever met – not just within radio, but in general. The ‘always on’ energy and enthusiasm of these people is incredible.

There are PDs who have a special part of their brain that understands flow and genre and tempo and gender in a way that is baffling. They think in clocks. There are commercial producers that have the vision of an artistic painter – but with sound – and they can hear the promo or sting before they switch on their computer.

There are presenters who come from very different worlds, say from politics & current affairs, or those who are solely music specialists, and each hold special places in my mind for their skill and talent. There are individuals who balance many of those sides – in the morning they present and in the afternoon they are the PD, or the Music Director, or the CEO. And again, I’m so impressed by these people.

I feel like it’d be wrong of me to name names, because I’ve been very lucky and I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the very best in the Irish Radio industry, but I’ve also learned so much from 5 minute conversations with radio people who have just been kind with their time.

There are yet more people who I have just listened to for years on end, and gained experience from them simply as a listener.

How did you get the gig with Christmas FM?

In October of 2013, Kevin Branigan, Radio Nova CEO, approached me to manage a temp FM station for him – “The Rock” – the original pilot service that had acted as a test-bed for the early stage concept or Radio Nova a number of years previous. My role was to manage the station and ensure smooth operation for a 48 hour live schedule on Saturdays and Sundays to Cork, Limerick & Galway, over a period of 6 weeks.

Among the team of presenters on The Rock was Daragh O’Sullivan, who is one of the directors at Christmas FM, and after a couple of weeks of The Rock being on-air, Daragh approached me and asked if I would be interested in being involved in a similar role at Christmas FM. When Daragh talked about the chance to manage an almost nationwide station with such a strong following and all in the name of a very deserving cause – I couldn’t resist!

When the Directors originally came up with the idea of Christmas FM did you ever imagine that it would become such a huge part of peoples lives in the Republic?

When I came to Christmas FM first, the brand was very-well established already. The board of directors had done the very hard work of setting up the station from a technology perspective. They had built and developed a strong team of professional broadcasters and had grown an loyal audience on FM, online, and on mobile apps, as well as setting-up and developing a very strong social media presence and building a solid website.

They had also gathered a very talented group of people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to assist in the day-to-day operation of the station, to run the back end of the website, to rectify any technical issues and so much more besides.

On top of all this, the directors had also brought together all of their collective business acumen to create a not-for-profit company that would act as a platform for very deserving charities to fund raise. That’s something that requires a significant infrastructure to operate successfully – things like getting a text line provider, licensing from ComReg, an FM license from the BAI, and much more. Then there’s all the costs associated with the station.

The board have always held the belief that the proceeds of the listener donations must go directly to the charity partner. To ensure this is possible each year, the board works incredibly hard to secure sponsorship to cover the costs associated with the station while keeping the core promise of Christmas FM that not a single cent of the donations will be used to pay for the operation and transmission of the station.

When I arrived to the project in 2013, all of this had been well established. I can’t take any credit there; the board, the tech team, the presenters, and the behind the scenes staff all deserve huge praise for all their work. However, by 2013 the audience had grown to record numbers, donations were increasing every year, new territories were being added for FM broadcast, new apps were developed to enhance listener experience, and a new website had been developed to accommodate the increased traffic and donations.

There were three sponsors on board in 2013 to support all this growth, and each deserved and expected to be appropriately represented. The charity partner that year was Aware – an incredible organisation, who work to maintain and develop support services for those with depression and related mood disorders.

As a result of all this, there were many new challenges in 2013 and the previous station manager – a tireless and hard working gent called Chris Maher – had since moved into a full-time role on his own new project: The Musical Youth Foundation, and he could no longer give his time to the Christmas FM project.

It was my role to work with the board and bring all the elements together, to ensure all the stakeholders were appropriately represented, and to get this enormous machine of so many moving parts to hum smoothly along. And because there are so many amazing people, who give so much and work so hard, all I had to do was sprinkle a little Christmas magic in there.

Maybe it was a little harder than that – but only a little!

You seem to be the man that organisations go to when they want someone to manage their temporary licence …. Do you love the buzz, like feeling super stressed, or is it something you fell into by default?

It’s a mix of all of those things really. When I went back to college, at Ballyfermot College of Further Education, to study radio, I was 24. A lot happened between that first time hearing Suzanne Vega and going to BCFE. In between I had jobs in construction, I ran a busy city centre newsagents, I had done sales in the consumer electronics market – and then I moved to a Direct Sales role with Spin1038.

I took the job at Spin for a couple of reasons; 1 – I had always been a fan of radio, right through all of those jobs I mentioned. It was my constant companion, my anchor, the thing that no matter how crap a day you were having – there was always my favourite presenters and great music! I had a passion for the product, and in a sales job that’s a massive plus point.

Reason number 2 is that I thought I had missed my opportunity and this sales job meant I would still get to work in my dream industry, even if it wasn’t my dream job. Spin1038 Sales were on the floor below the broadcast studios, and over a period of about 9 months I felt this ever growing niggling feeling – as good as I was at selling, I was on the wrong floor.

I confided in a gentleman with whom I share my birthday, who shaped the careers of many within radio, who gave so many an opportunity to become great broadcasters. He was a gentleman who was unique and endlessly talented, a man who is sadly no longer with us: Johnny Lyons.

Johnny told me not to worry, that he knew just what to do. “Keep the head down and keep pluggin’ away Dan. I’ll let you know once I have news.” And so Johnny arranged an interview at BCFE for me. I went. I waited. I got offered a place. I told Johnny. “I knew you’d get it! I’ve tickets to Journey in The Stadium: we’ll go to that and have a few pints to celebrate!” he said.

I told my manager within the next couple of days that I’d been offered a place at BCFE on the radio course and had decided to make the change, and he wasn’t at all surprised. I guess the draw of the floor above was clear to everyone around me! So off I went on my merry way, with a bit of break between Spin and college, and went to that gig with Johnny and I’ll never forget the laugh we had, but I won’t tell that story here!

A short time after starting my radio course at BCFE, I got in touch with Keith Walsh, whom I’d worked with at Spin (he was the ad copywriter – and he’s now at 2FM on “Breakfast Republic”), and he had recently made the move to i105-107 (now iRadio) and I asked if there would be an opportunity of work experience.

Keith was Assistant PD at i105-107 at the time, and he and Alan Swan (the then PD at i105-107, now at 2fm) gave me a great opportunity to produce a new Sunday night talk show with a chap called Paul Gill, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, and the idea of the show was like “Dr. Phil on the radio”.

I had been handed a blank slate. It was a gift. I got to learn all the theory in college Monday to Friday, and then put it into practice on a Sunday night. I did that for about 2 years until I had to step back from the show because I was about to begin my degree year at BCFE and I passed on the role to another upcoming student at BCFE.

Following the degree, and brief return to working in construction, I became involved in the very early stages of 8radio.com with Simon Maher in November 2012. Over the next couple of months I assisted Simon by testing various versions of the station on a range of online platforms and in December, he asked that I work with him building and fitting out the studios and helping to set-up the technology at 8radio.com HQ on Camden Row in Dublin City Centre.

On March 30th 2013 8radio.com launched on a temp FM license to Dublin, Cork & Limerick and that evening I had my first show under my own name, and aside from a few months in the middle, that pretty much takes us up to the first run of The Rock that I was involved with for Kevin Branigan in October 2013.

I guess I have had some great opportunities to work directly with PDs and CEOs on both fully licensed and temp FM stations and that has given me great insight and into how these projects work. Since then, I’ve remained with 8radio.com and been involved in two more temp FM runs there as well as a second temp FM run for The Rock in October 2015.

I’ve also continued to be involved in Christmas FM over the last number of years (in total 2013, ‘14 & ’15) and I believe my involvement in these stations is down to my ability to manage people and workloads in a competent fashion. My broad and varied experience in my life before I chose to make radio my career, and my experience since getting to work for some of the most talented people in radio, has resulted in me having strong knowledge of the industry, the temp process, technology and more.

On top of all that, I believe I’ve gained strong management abilities from my other non-radio roles, so I can easily work independently and confidently manage a team. I work hard for those who employ my services and outside of those times, I always keep in touch with those people and maintain my relationships. So I don’t like to say I fell into it by default.

The stress that is often associated with the on-air phase of those projects is only a very small part of it, and yes I do enjoy it. They’re fun, challenging and exciting ways to put my passion into action. And I do love the buzz! How could you not? All those decisions, ways you hope the listener will interact, chances to bring something new to the radio landscape, they’re the best fun. It’s almost not like work at all!

Christmas FM have a complex schedule of volunteers and notoriously the festive period is a busy time for people. I imagine you constantly have to juggle volunteers who cant make shows and also handle some extremely difficult situations. Do you collapse on 27th December?

It’s very simple and easy to answer that one: I do. Maybe not on the 27th; all the team are still running on adrenaline at that time. I actually find it takes a couple of weeks to wind down from the whole experience and then it kicks in. By the 3rd week of January I’m in full hibernation mode. Catching up on sleep, tasty winter dinners, lazy evenings on the couch. But it’s a great feeling, like I imagine an athlete feels after a marathon.

In terms of the juggling of presenters and difficult situations, when I took on the role in December 2013 and I was new to all of these people and everyone was new to me, it was a struggle. There’s only so much “getting to know you” a person can do under the circumstances, but over the years I’ve been involved we’ve retained almost 100% of the existing team and we’ve also grown in numbers.

I feel like I have done everything in my power to create an inviting and friendly atmosphere where people feel welcome, trusted, and valued, and that has made the job a lot more manageable. Because all of those involved are giving their time for free, there will always be last-minute changes. But those 90-something people are a team: they look out for each other, they swap, they cover, they fill the gaps.

They do that as much for each other as they do it for me as their manager.

You must feel a huge sense of pride and achievement when you see the part you played in making the dreams of children who are seriously sick or terminally ill, become a reality for Make-A-Wish Ireland?

It’s such an amazing thing that all the staff of Christmas FM do each and every year. I know that every single person who participates in the Christmas FM project is so proud of what the station does for very deserving causes each year.

If you’re a bricklayer or a carpenter or a plumber – someone with very clear practical skills – you can build them a house, or at least contribute to the building of a house. Or you can do some repair to their home. If you have a strong grasp of finances, you could help a family with their budget. You know what I mean? There are really clear ways that many people can make a difference for someone else.

As a radio professional, whether you are a presenter or a programmer, a commercial producer, a station manager, an editorial producer, a reporter, a researcher, your skills are often considered quite specialist, and many might think that they have no practical value to someone in need, whatever that need might be.

Christmas FM is this incredible vehicle that allows women and men, who sit in a chair, speak and press buttons for a living, turn that into something very tangible, something that does good in the world. Now I appreciate that is an enormous over-simplification, and I stress that it is NOT what I think of the work my colleagues do, but I’m sure you can get my meaning.

What I do, or what I aim to do each year I’m involved, is to bring all of the talents of those people together. It’s the people who bring their skills and offer their time who are crucial. I take pride in the fact that I can help ensure that the Christmas FM project provides a space and a framework to huge group of people do enormous amounts of good, but without them my role would be of little value.

To all of those involved: thank you for making the job of managing the station such an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

In relation to Make-A-Wish Ireland as the charity partner for 2015, it was our absolute pleasure to have been involved with such an amazing charity. Make-A-Wish Ireland receive no government funding, so they rely entirely on donations from members of the public and corporate donations.

Each year, the board of directors at Christmas FM work so hard to seek out a charity that will benefit from the involvement with the station, and from the immense generosity and kindness that listeners of Christmas FM show time and time again. Of course ALL charities perform incredible work, and each charity and all the staff involved with that charity are so dedicated to the cause to which they give their time and energy. I can say, with first-hand experience, that the team from Make-A-Wish Ireland are at the top of their game.

It was so rewarding to have played a part in achieving such an incredible result in terms of donations for Make-A-Wish Ireland last year. The loyal, kind, generous listeners to Christmas FM in Ireland and all around the world gave over 265,000 euro in 2015. That figure was beyond everyone’s expectation and it will make an enormous difference to so many Wish Children and to their families over the coming year and beyond.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the team at Make-A-Wish Ireland for helping all of our team at Christmas FM to understand so clearly what our time meant to the organisation, and for helping us to share the stories of so many of the Wish Children and their families. I also want to thank the brave families and children who took part in our recordings to share the stories first-hand: your strength and determination is amazing.

I want to thank the directors of Christmas FM for giving me the opportunity to be involved in such a superb project: Daragh O’Sullivan, Garvan Rigby, Paul Shepherd and Walter Hegarty. They have made a wonderful time of year all the more wonderful for me, and for so many others.

I’d also like to say a special thank you to everyone who donated this year, or any of the previous years: your donations made a real difference – Thank You!

What is also hugely important to mention is this: while fund raising is one of the main goals each year, raising awareness of the Christmas FM charity partner is equally important. Christmas FM has played a crucial role in helping our various charity partners over the years to increase their profile far beyond the month of December.

It is so important to ALL charities that they are supported right throughout the year, so that they can continue to perform their great work on an ongoing basis.

You love alternative radio and you have a huge passion for 8radio.com. Is that the time you dedicate to yourself and shut yourself off from the World for a couple of hours?

I wouldn’t say I take it as time to shut myself off necessarily, but I would agree that it is certainly an opportunity for me to indulge my passion. 8radio.com lives by it’s motto – “Playing the music we like”. I love music. It’s one of the most powerful forces in my life and I’m so lucky to be a part of a station that allows me to enjoy that in such a pure way.

There is a team of endlessly talented and creative individuals at 8radio.com, who I get to share ideas and conversations with, and it’s all related to something that is so, so important to me. That’s rare, but what is even more rare is that there’s a whole community of people out there, and that’s one of the incredible plus points of the online aspect of 8radio.com – that community is not just here in Ireland, but all over the world – listening and participating in that passion right along with all the staff at 8radio.com.

There’s an element of my programme on 8radio.com that could be seen as indulgent I guess, but that’s a very two-dimensional view. I play the music I like, sure. But I also play the music that our audience likes, and I play the music my colleagues like too. It’s this big sharing collective!

8radio.com is a completely different model than Christmas FM …… Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole – are they guilty pleasures?

I’ve always been a fan of chart music / pop music / whatever you want to call it. Now, as many will know, or assume from my involvement with 8radio.com, I like to find new music and discover something a little away (or sometimes a long way) from that crowded and bustling centre. But really, the only difference is mass appeal and shared experience.

There’s a group called Polica that I’m really into at the moment. I discovered them through 8radio and they have been among my favourite groups for quite some time now. Right now they have a new album out and the current single is a track called “Lately”. For me the track will remind me of Feb/March 2016 forever more.

I believe the same thing is true for the majority of people, certainly for those to whom music is important, but there are also songs that capture a moment in time for a huge collective of people. For example, I’ll bet there are hundreds of thousands of people that feel a collective ‘something’ for a song like Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova”, or Faithless’ “Insomnia”. Those songs evoke a certain collective nostalgia that transports those people to a certain time or place, but more than that, it’s about a feeling.

Christmas music has this extra special quality of being able to distill all the goodness of Christmas into 2 or 3 minutes and each song is like a little gift when is comes around each year. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Britpop fan, or you love a good rave (I use the term loosely); with Christmas music it’s this bigger broader thing that crosses all sorts of divides, genres, tastes. It’s fantastic!

What would be the dream station for Dan McDermott to manage on a full time basis?

My dream station to work at, to manage, to programme, and to present on is 8radio.com. I know that sounds cliched and a bit of a shameless plug, but it’s true! I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t true.

The Christmas format is brilliant, but its brilliance is defined by its finite nature. As I explained before, it’s made up of these little gifts that come around once per year.

The nature of 8radio.com is that it’s flexible, reactive, broad and diverse in it’s output as a multi-format station. At 8radio.com we’ve gathered a talented and creative group of individuals, being the best broadcasters they can be, and they bring the music they love to an audience. Moreover, we have a two way conversation where the audience get to bring what they love to the party too – that’s awesome!

There are so many opportunities for 8radio.com to get to our audience; through online listening platforms like TuneIn, Sonos, Internet radio, our own bespoke mobile smartphone apps, and of course our temp FM broadcasts each year to Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Galway, and we also offer on-demand content where our audience can listen to their favourite shows, as and when it suits them.

We engage in conversation through social media; sharing playlists of shows, our presenters can discuss reasons for selecting songs or listeners can suggest tracks. Artists can engage too – with presenters and with listeners – and then it’s this huge shared conversation, with all the relevant parties at the table.

All of this amounts to a radio station that wants to take a different approach, a station that takes advantage of all available technologies, a station that is working hard at being different and winning back audiences who have moved away from the traditional radio listening habits/methods or who use online streaming services.

The internet is now – finally – the great leveller many claimed it could be. I think it’s a democratic arena, which allows the small bedroom-recorded artist to sit alongside the latest release from some of the biggest groups in the world. And that’s as it should be in my view.

8radio.com takes full advantage of this shift in music distribution and we pride ourselves on being first for brand new music, often only released 12 hours beforehand. We bring these brand new tracks to our audience alongside old favourites, classic album tracks, rare gems that have been all but forgotten – and all from a vast array of genres and eras.

Music is subjective, music quality even more so, and I know I’ve said it so many times already, but at 8radio.com we believe in playing the music we like – that freedom is vitally important and it makes us stand out to our audience.
All of this is brought together by passionate presenters, curating programmes and playlists, for the listener to discover something new, to hear the thing they love, to rediscover something old, to hear a new opinion on something they’d overlooked before – that’s gold!

Dan McDermott presents a weekly music programme on 8radio.com, Saturday 20:00 – 23:00 (Repeated Wednesday 22:30)

Dan is also responsible for the 8radio.com promotions team and is the stations Training & Development Officer.

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