Interview: Radio maverick Robbie Robinson

Robbie Robinson is a radio maverick and intelligent businessman, he put his money where his mouth is and he respectfully followed his dreams.

For a generation of people in the sixties Robbie and his shipmate Johnnie Walker took Radio Caroline into illegality by continuing to broadcast when the Marine Offences Act came into force in 1967. For another generation though Robbie “the maverick” Robinson placed The Republic Of Ireland onto the World Radio Map with the fondly remembered Sunshine 101.

If you lived through the Irish Radio Revolution and believe there is a heaven then this man is the Radio God!

Can you tell me about you being part of a bid for the downtown radio original licence in the mid 70s and what sort of service had you envisaged for Northern Ireland at that time?

The type of service was mostly dictated by the IBA in Brompton Road Knightsbridge (an up market part of London). Some security concessions were given to Belfast at that time. Other than that the process was similar to the early days of the IRTC who produced “guidelines” dictating what they thought independent radio for Ireland must consist of. I see that a lot has changed over the years including the “commission” name, judge and jury.

Ulster appointed me when they felt a little more confident of getting the job. I was to act as managing director working alongside Basil Lapworth who was Head of Sales at UTV & Bram Henderson MD at Ulster Television, the Belfast Telegraph was part of the application. Businessman Mervin Solomon put me together with the other interested parties.

In the mid 70s, as I recall, it was a sad day for the whole group when the IBA chose our competitor “Downtown” who later set-up studios in Newtonards to run the first “independent” radio service for Northern Ireland.

In hindsight Belfast would have turned out to be a music driven news format. Somewhat like Sunshine Radio developed into in the mid 80s.

Who was the visionary that said get to Dublin in 1980 and set up an unlicensed radio station?

I’m not sure how to answer this question, what came first the chicken or the egg?

If my memory serves me well, it must have been Brian Mackenzie, Brian was running an early days computer repair & distribution shop in Dublin. Brian Mackenzie a former 1970s Radio Caroline jock first made contact with Chris Cary. In the late 1970s Brian had established an association with Chris Cary’s Comp-shop-workshop in Barnet, outside London. During the late 1970s Chris had identified the successful USA company launch of Commodore Computers, a true American revolution of its day. Commodore also took off in Ireland. In those days Brian Mackenzie was also involved in computers, he ran a basement shop somewhere at the back of Cleary’s in Dublin.

In early February 1980, the infamous Philip Solomon contacted me at home in Bushey Hertfordshire. Philip had met up with a couple of business people who wished to set up another offshore radio station on the UK’s south coast. Philip knew I had done some investigating & research into the offshore subject, so brought me in. Philip had agreed to put up the money to buy a ship in Hamburg Germany. Philip offered me a few points to bring me into the deal, he also agreed to reimbursing travel expenses.

I phoned Chris Cary at his workshop in Barnet to discuss the new offshore project before I decided to take Chris along to see the ship in Hamburg. Chris knew more about operating transmitters and aerials than I did.

We found the ship, It had been used as a German VAT dodge “Offshore Supermarket Ship” it was fitted with several powerful generators, had lots of space for everything we required. We return to London and made a positive report to Solomon & Co. Then we waited and waited for quite some time for the other two partners to put their bread on the table.

The Hamburg project in effect brought Solomon, Chris Cary and I together again. At that time Chris Cary was selling Comp-shop stuff from Barnet to Brian Mackenzie in Dublin. According to Chris, Brian regularly spoke about the immaturity of pirate radio in Dublin, mentioning Big D, ARD in the Crofton & Southside in a caravan in a field somewhere.

Apparently this was the opportunity for three old seadogs to set out on an Irish venture together, Philip Solomon and I had dual English/Irish nationality plus Phil was always the man with the money. Chris Cary was the primary acquisition man, Chris bought a new Alice mixer, a couple of Tannoy speakers, a couple of cart machines, Disco turn tables and the studio table. Chris gave Steve England £200 for an old jingle package,(Sunshine Radio was born). Jimmy White was responsible for acquiring the big prize, two 600 watt retired transmitters formerly used by BBC Africa, free of charge.

Then during our week long hunt for a location to set up a radio station we luckily met John Ryan at the Sands Hotel, with a hand shake the deal was settled. We trucked the gear to Ireland, that’s when the real fun started in earnest!

When the huge Sunshine mast was sabotaged at the Sands Hotel in Portmarnock and destroyed did you nearly give in or did it make you more determined to continue with your project?

That was a dreadful night cooked up by one of the most immature Dublin pirate stations. A couple of days earlier the riggers were busy constructing the first tower. Sammy Prendergast & Brian whilst working up the mast had spotted a strange character with binoculars lying in long grass in a field nearby.

Within a few days the tower and earth system was ready to go “finished”. Chris and I rigged a temporary studio in bedroom 110 in the Sands Hotel. We decided to run a test so Jimmy White could check out the two old Marconi’s he had gleaned from the Beeb. Jimmy had already tuned the aerial to frequency 531. Close enough to announce “Sunshine 539”.

We decided to modulate the signal that night (put some music on the carrier), then take a drive into Dublin so we could check out the signal for strength. It was solid on the North side. We figured it would be just as strong on the South side. We reported back to Mr White. Two happy but tired lads decided to get some sleep whilst Jimmy fiddled about with the transmitters for a while.

At about 4am, we were woken by John Ryan shouting there’s been an “explosion” the aerial had come down, falling across the overhead electricity cables, then falling on a massive half-filled tank with diesel to use for the Tamango back-up generator. I jumped out of bed and dressed immediately joining John Ryan to inspect the damage. The big boom occurred when the tower hit the diesel tank, sparks flashing everywhere like an explosion. John Ryan was a cool dude that night explaining that this was only a setback for Sunshine, he said that The Sands Hotel had overcome bigger problems. I recall Chris stayed in bed waiting for my return to the room. Chris was shaking with anger whilst I told him what had happened “I’m out of it” he said, “these fuckers are crazy”. The following morning after breakfast Chris went to the airport, caught a flight back to London having already said if I wanted his share of the project he would pass his 45% to me for £7.000 sterling, I agreed. In my mind it was a cheap buy having already given notice at work in London, I had nothing much else to lose.

I stayed on in the Sands with Jimmy White, we checked out the damages in daylight, the next day Jimmy needed to return to work at Hayden Labs in London. We discussed our situations and the Sunshine project. Chris had told Jimmy he was out of the deal and had an agreement with me before he left for the airport.

I still had a good engineer thank-goodness. Jimmy and I decided to continue with the station, rebuild the tower and install the first Sunshine studio in a section John Ryan had allocated at the back of the hotel close to the upper kitchen. All was still rock-n-roll.

Before leaving for London Jimmy White gave me a quick lesson in what he required me to do, having inspected the gear on the ground Jimmy White gave instruction to Sammy on how to salvage several mast sections,then use them to rebuild a shorter mast. Jimmy told me what I should do, he made rough sketches of the antenna he felt would work. Following Jimmy’s instructions during the following days I re-jigged the copper cable into three feeds to the top of the rebuilt mast, I used an old melamine WC seat to cope the high voltage at the top of the mast. When Jimmy White returned the following weekend, he saw the rig Sammy and I had made, Jimmy was astounded. He thought the WC seat was the final touch for a folded antenna that he could tune. That day Jimmy proved to me that he could tune anything.

During the final days of September 1980. We employed a lad to guard the installation by patrolling all around the hotel at night. Sunshine Radio was up and running. I recall, Stevie Gordon(Dunn), Tony Allan, Tom Hardy, Adrian Horseman, Declan Meehan, Mary Doyle and Shelagh O‘Donald then joined the team.

Philip Solomon had helped with the daily financing in the early days. Phil was excellent at book-keeping, he had me sign receipts for every penny he handed over.

Phil had bought a fancy apartment in Ballsbridge right next door to the Minister for Communication Albert Reynolds. Phil was again playing the money=power game.

Chris & Phil had the idea to move the entire station down to Wicklow on a big estate owned by an old friend. But by this time I had shaken hands with John Ryan and intended to stick with the man I knew to have the courage and confidence in the Sunshine project.

With this in my mind, it was also necessary for me to return to London. I arranged a £30.000 loan with Barclays Bank putting our house in Bushey up as collateral. Barclays transferred the money to Bank of Ireland. I used some of the money to repay Phil Solomon plus another chunk to buy his stake in the Sunshine project. We paid Chris Cary twice the value of his share, Phil had already paid him for the gear, Chris was a very shrewd cookie.

The remaining money funded the daily running costs of Sunshine for a month or so. I moved quickly to form an Irish company “Sunshine Radio Productions Ltd”. It turned out to be a great move to protect the Sunshine name.

Fortunately by this time Sunshine had accumulated a sizable audience on North side, so I was able to sell some air-time to local traders. Alan Lawless of Lawless Brothers Malahide was our first paying customer .

Stella, Manon & Elliot had moved to Malahide. We sold the house in Bushey, the Barclays loan had been repaid. Stella & Mike Hogan set up a sales office in Baggotrath Place. Stella was a natural at sales. One of her first sales was a mega advertising/promotion package for Aer Lingus, at the time I thought she was pulling my leg! This led Stella to do many agency deals. We had finally broken into the advertising big time.

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Sunshine Radio was a very professional local style radio station, what made you decide the time was right for The Red Hot Sound Of Sunshine 101?.

Every dog in the street knew Chris Cary & Robbie Dale had parted company somewhat ignominiously. Chris knew about the Sunshine’s plan to eventually use 88FM, it was just a switch away from 539 MW. Chris had always been a shrewd cookie making money regardless of agreements was his modus operandi. Naturally Chris chose Nova 88FM. His clutter free format & slogans like “playing the best music” was beating Sunshine Radio into a pulp, the day had arrived when Sunshine Radio was sharing its advertising agency budgets with Nova.

Sunshine Radio was running a music & personality driven format, a format that comes with an amount of verbal clutter attached to it. At that time Tom Hardy was the acting programme leader. Tom was doing what he was good at. Tom had learned about running a radio music clock system from his days on Radio Caroline in the early 70s.

Finally I came to my senses, it was obvious that we needed fresh ideas with finesse, money, plus bigger & better prizes, this would beat Nova at its own game. Enter. Mr American fix it. Radio Doctor Bill Cunningham.

Tell us about Wild Bill Cunningham and the format flip, did you remain friends when he left and went to the rival Q102 or was it treachery in your eyes.

Bill Cunningham was the radio doctor we needed at the time Nova was kicking our backside. Make no mistake Bill was a breath of fresh air sweeping over Portmarnock’s silver strand, Bill Cunningham brought “theatre of the mind” “Don’t say hello” “Bee Bop Gold” “Big Guy” the generous manager Mr Robinson Cou-Cou-Ca-Chou. “No question about it, Bill’s strict regime worked”.

However radio doctor Bill Cunningham didn’t come cheap. Sunshine Radio Productions Ltd paid his weekly fees in advance, his day to day expenses flowed freely. Sunshine rented a fully furnished 3 bed-roomed house in Biscayne Malahide, his accommodation, we provided an up market hire car and big TV set. In addition Sunshine paid out thousands for two Dublin wide major outdoor 48 sheet poster campaigns. Sunshine paid the big prize money £10,000 a throw. We dished that cash out on 4 occasions, plus many smaller amounts as supporting prize money for the “Big Guys” promotions. (these are great tips for the current licensees)

We supported this level of promotion for over a year. Chris Cary was getting some payback. It wasn’t long before Sunshine had Nova running scared. Nova continued playing “Walking on Sunshine” to no effect: Research proved we were now the winner in the numbers league, 42% of 12 to 30 year olds listened yesterday to The Red Hot Sound of Sunshine 101 FM, compared to Nova’s 28%. We proved to be better at the music radio game.

I and our directors were more than content with the results. Bill Cunningham radio doctor extraordinaire kept them coming. Bill had worked his magic with “The Red Hot Sound of Sunshine 101”.

Amongst many discussions during meetings at the outset a year earlier and an integral part of my verbal understanding with Bill Cunningham was based on the success and level of audience Sunshine could achieve with Bill’s assistance. As our verbal contract was approaching its end. We at Sunshine agreed to fly Bill first class with his child bride Jeanie (that’s what Bill called her) back to Omaha Nebraska in USA with a handsome bonus in his pocket $5,000 to-boot.

Several months passed before, Bill Cunningham returned to Dublin, we at Sunshine had put his radio ideas into our successful operation. Bill touted his skills around Dublin. Q102 took the bait. I could not believe what I was hearing on Q102. My faith in mankind had taken yet another blow. I recall thinking “Bill Cunningham had taught Sunshine well”, he had poured out all of his ideas. I listened to Q102, Bill had no new ideas for Q.

Sunshine had Nails Mahoney with “Bee-Bop-Gold” On Q102 Bill Cunningham had a poor copy “The Bop Shop”. I reasoned Q102 were now paying the piper and Doctor Bill Cunningham was playing the same tunes & promotional fun for Pierre Doyle & Martin Block as he had played on The Red Hot Sound of Sunshine 101.

You rightly called it “Treachery”. Or luck of the Irish.

Then Chris Cary had his well documented punch-up with the NUJ. Then Radio Nova folded. NRG & Power were sad Cary copies of Nova. Sunshine now had a free run.

Paul Kavanagh the Programme Director at Sunshine 101 is a radio genius that continues to fix radio stations all over the World. It must make you feel amazing to know that you were the person that gave him his big break?

Paul Kavanagh came to Sunshine at the age of 16, at that time he showed his great love for radio and eating at “Abra-kebabra”. When he was not in the studio or Sunshine’s city office he was to be found eating kebabs on the ground floor next to JWT House in Baggot Street! Paul Kavanagh took everything into his head before he took it to heart. Bill Cunningham spotted Paul as a young star player. Paul was respected by everyone at Sunshine, Mark Byrne, Nails Mahoney and all of Sunshine’s team. Later more employers in England & Monaco continued to sing Paul’s praises.

Paul did a great job maintaining Sunshine’s high audience numbers up until the end of 1988. Then Paul organised the saddest time of all, the on air closedown of “The Red Hot Sound of Sunshine 101” To this day I remain in touch with “Kavo a true radio man”.

You were a clear favourite for the Dublin City and County Radio Licence and you took a case out against the IRTC (Now BAI) at the time after they awarded the licence to Denis O’Brien’s Radio 2000. How do you reflect on what I would say was an unfair decision?

What more could I have done at that time, “Shit happens”. Sunshine Radio Productions Ltd made many substantial submissions to Ray Burke & the Department of Communications. We had many influential movers & shakers routing for us, these included both Performing Rights organisations, The Central Remedial Clinic and a mountain of other charities Sunshine had supported throughout the years.

The IRTC was handpicked by the party in power, publicly announced by Minister Ray Burke. At the time we at Sunshine were unaware of the many powerful commercial players running for the so called “prime licenses” in Dublin. In my humble opinion Sunshine Radio (Dublin & County Broadcasting Ltd) put together and submitted a viable plan for the development of a network for independent radio in Ireland submitted to the Minister Burke at the Department of Communications during 1987 & 1988.

For the IRTC, Sunshine (Dublin & County Broadcasting Ltd) had prepared and submitted the most comprehensive application. Our team of directors was later called to make a verbal public submission during hearings in the National Concert Hall. The following day all the Dublin newspapers praised what we had presented to the Commission (IRTC).

“To be honest I thought Sunshine was home and dry”.

Many folks will recall, Sunshine (Dublin & County Broadcasting Ltd) took a case to the High Court (Dublin’s Three Goldmines). We requested a judicial review of the decision made by IRTC.

In a nutshell I will summarise!

Firstly, I had been contacted on the phone by Q102’s Pierre Doyle who cast doubts on the selection process. Pierre had identified a substantial joint shareholding help by IRTC commission member Fred O’Donavan & Denis O’Brien in a company called E-Sat, the company appeared to be a key participant in the Radio 2000 application for 98FM.

The IRTC demanded that we advance a substantial amount of money as security of costs in court. The name of the presiding judge for the judicial review changed twice during the run up to the hearing. At the hearing we were told that on the day prior to the hearing in the high court Fred O’Donavan had transferred his share in E-Sat to his long standing friend and Manager on the National Concert Hall. Denis O’Brien & partner Luke Mooney were not mentioned during the hearing.

Judge Murphy in his final summery exonerated Fred O’Donavan, stating that Mister Fred O’Donavan was always considered an upstanding member of Irish society. “The judgment was made”. We considered an appeal. I and my group could not arrange additional funds to make an appeal to the supreme court. We decided to let the sleeping dogs lie.

When Century Radio was failing you were asked to step in and take it over. I presume the corruption of Ray Burke, RTE running the transmission system and Century Radio’s finance statements made you feel nauseous which was why you declined?

The Irish High Court had done their job extremely well, Sunshine was now financially broke. Personally, the IRTC had black listed me from holding a senior post in any future Irish radio grouping unless I made a public apology to Fred O’Donavan and the IRTC commissions members. The IRTC wrote a letter about me being black listed to a group applying for a license in Sligo. So what was this radio man to do? Move?

Together with Ray Burke’s OK, and the IRTC’s approval. Oliver Barry and partners at Century Radio “The Rich and the Famous” offered to buy some of Sunshine Radio’s equipment. It saddened me to see that fine upgraded TX gear sitting idle at the Sands Hotel, we agreed to sell the entire MW transmitter installation including the tower to Oliver Barry-Stafford & Co. I had discussed a deal with John Ryan owner of Sands Hotel. John was happy to do a deal with Century as long as Century gave him the same amount of on air advertising as Sunshine had formally scheduled to cover studio rent and power consumption. We moved ahead with the sale to Century who considered it to be a good interim AM/MW site for Dublin.

I did no more other than organising the sale to Century Radio. Mark Story was the Programme Director at Century. They had also appointed a non-radio man to be the first managing director at Century Radio. Studio were set up near Christchurch. As time passed several others including Capitol’s Aiden Day were brought in to try and save the sinking of the Century.

Ray Burke’s corruption did not surface until years later during tribunal hearings, Burke had been Minister for Justice, then he became Minister for Foreign Affairs under Bertie Ahern that’s when Ray Burke was finally exposed for corrupt dealings and taking big kickbacks during the 80s, at the time that Mr Burke was the Minister for Communications. All Burks’s skullduggery came to the surface including Minister Burke’s capping of RTE radio advertising revenue. A move that allowed Century Radio to get a bite of the “Advertising Cake”.

It was interesting to see the “advertising cake” grow so fast with the help from pirate radio. In the earlier 1980s Labour Party politicians under Dick Spring had opposed the introduction of independent radio because the “Irish Advertising Cake” was considered to be too small, enough only for RTE.

You moved with your wife Stella and your family to Lanzarote in the early 90s to run a successful holiday resort enterprise. Tell us about your life since the Sunshine days.

Having been stopped in the street a thousand times and asked WHY? And with no future in Irish radio, no regular income, it was time to get out and move on with life. Stella had the shout this time, she picked a place to live in the sunshine. “Lanzarote” was taking-off at that time as a tourist resort. We had no difficulty selling our house and sailing boat in Howth. We invested in tourism, worked hard at it until we retired 5 years ago. It was not as exciting as radio but we succeeded in the tourist accommodation business.

If any of the Irish stations today closed down overnight do you think there would be huge marches to Dail Eireann the way there was when the Department of Post and Telegraphs shut Sunshine and Nova down in ’83?

At that time the super-pirates ruled the airwaves. Getting listeners to bang the protest drum was much easier because government was slow to make new radio legislation. I recall sitting in the Dail listening to Ponsias de Rosa & Dick Spring waffling on about the potential damage Independent radio would do to RTE.

Nowadays radio listener choice has been fragmented into bits and pieces throughout Ireland’s town’s & cities. Generally listeners are content with the choice they have been given. How many independent radio stations are now serving Dublin alone 10?-20?

So many people reminisce about the “good old days” of Sunshine 101 (and Chris Cary’s Radio Nova). What do you think the Superpirates of the Maverick era had that the legal stations FM 104 and 98fm don’t have?

The spirit of the broadcasters, the excitement of the chase, plus the music of that period.

In Dublin there are three stations named after the super pirates with absolutely no connection to the originals. Radio Nova plays classic rock, Q102 plays adult contemporary and Sunshine plays easy listening. Are you flattered about them piggybacking off the success of the original pirate names or do you think they are a bunch of charlatans?

“Charlatans” not at all, Sunshine 101 asked me to use the name and I was honoured to share.

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