Sybil Fennell – in conversation with RadioToday

If ever the time was right for the Irish radio industry to recognise the achievements of the dominant super pirate husband and wife teams like Nova and Sunshine then it is now!

Sybil Fennell is undoubtedly the best news presenter ever to grace the airwaves of a stagnant Republic in the 80s. She naturally understood the skill of creating theatre of the mind radio.

Nobody cared that “compiled from the wires of the press association” actually meant stealing the news from RTE and others! Just as nobody cared that “the weather forecast for the bay area” actually meant dodge the coke cans and used condoms on a local beach!

Sybil created a dream, she made news sound sexy and aspiring news presenters all wanted to be Sybil Fennell.

When you said to your parents you were going to work for a pirate radio station in Dublin was was their reaction?

In 1980 I was at university in Dublin, but always with an eye on a career in something broadcast related.  A friend of a friend took me on a tour of Dublin’s radio stations. We drove in a loop past ARD, Radio Dublin and possibly Big D before climbing up into the hills to reach Radio Leinster and dropping back down to the coast at Dun Laoghaire and Southside Radio. 

I like to describe Southside as a ‘boutique’ radio station, although technically it was broadcasting from a rather shabby portakabin in the car park of the Victor Hotel.  From memory we shared a mains plug with the hotel’s toaster.  Toast for the guests or radio for the Southside of Dublin – but never both.

I can’t quite remember how I came to join the station – it certainly wasn’t for the money – but it was there I first went on-air.  Other bright young voices on-air with me at the time included Brian Dobson and Scott Williams.

Once Nova came on air that autumn, it seemed a natural progression to go and knock on the door of 19 Herbert Street – which is exactly what I did.

There was no ‘Broadcasting Act’ so technically all the stations existed in a legal void.  Plus, at that age I was afraid of nothing – and Dublin was just waking as if from a deep slumber and embracing all sorts of wonderful music and ideas.  Radio Nova fitted perfectly into a city that had already given birth to U2, Thin Lizzy and the Virgin Prunes. We had the Dandelion Market, the beaches at Brittas and Johhny Fox’s in the mountains to amuse us,  we had live music at Simmonscourt  and Slane Castle and we were reading Roddy Doyle.

Did I mention that it was a friend of my mother’s who first took me on that tour of the stations?  So, you see it can’t have come as that much of a shock to my parents when I signed up to read news.  Although I don’t for a moment think they expected me to make it a full-time career – nor could any of us have foreseen the highs and lows that would follow when I first sat behind a microphone on Andy Ruane’s Southside Radio.

But that’s why life is so brilliant – you have no idea what the next adventure will be.

Radio Nova was an amazing success and for a generation Sybil Fennell was Radio Nova, are you proud of your achievements and also heading up the newsroom?

I’m assuming that you’ve written this question tongue in cheek! The whole evolution of the newsroom at Radio Nova was quite a natural process. 

Radio Nova’s existence attracted the most amazing amount of talent – the station ‘went viral’ in the days before anyone knew what the phrase meant.

We were totally spoilt for choice with on-air talent. 

It’s no secret that we were never able to successfully subscribe to the wire services of the day – and the news was partly compiled part from monitoring what other stations were doing and partly by phoning around to confirm/source stories.  Wasn’t the portable Uher a wonderful invention!

I felt a generation gap the other day when I was explaining to a class of pupils what a ‘chinagraph pencil’ was and how you spliced tape together to edit audio (this was during an introductory lesson to using Audacity.  They can’t get their heads around the idea that audio has ever been anything but digital).

We did employ some really good journalists to write local stories and our magazine programmes.  Although I haven’t kept in touch with Linda Conway and Jenny McIvor since the Nova days, they were two such journalists.   

As Radio Nova became more established people would contact us with news stories and tip-offs and the whole process of news generation became much easier.

Within a short period of time we had accumulated an enviable array of on-air talent.  I think Mike Edgar was the first newsreader on the station. Terry Riley (who emailed me out of the blue not so many months ago) was there in the very early days, and it wasn’t long before Bob Gallico’s rich tones were added to our talent bank.  There were so many others who cut their teeth in Nova’s newsroom – and remain on-air to this day.

Am I proud of what we achieved as a team?  Very.

Am I proud that so many of those of us who started our careers in the newsroom at Radio Nova remain to this day in radio, television or print media?  Immensely.

Was it love at first sight between you and Chris and how did the romance start?

Wow… That’s a personal question.  Considering.

My introduction to Radio Nova came when I phoned to see if they were looking for newsreaders.  It was Brian Mackenzie who took the call and arranged for me to come in to 19 Herbert Street to record a demo. So it was Brian who introduced me to both Nova and to Chris Cary.

When I got to the studios I had with me a script which I had carefully crafted.  It ran to about 3 minutes and I was going to read it.  All the way through.  Without interruption. 

As I went into the recording booth at Bay City Studios, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of someone lying under the mixing desk.  I paid no attention. 

I can’t have been more than a minute into my script, when a head popped up from the beneath the desk and someone started banging on the window of the booth. 

‘Sod it’ I thought ‘If I ignore him he’ll just go away’. 

But he didn’t.  He flipped the talkback switch to say ‘Hi. That’s fine.  That’s all we need’. 

I glared at him. I ignored him.  I read on.  To the end. He seemed a little un-nerved by this.

And that’s how our relationship went for the first few months –  I considered Chris too forward and brash by half.  He thought me somewhat arrogant.  We were both right!

We continued this hedgehog–style friendship until one evening I was involved in a charity auction at the Berkeley Court Hotel.  One of the lots was to bid to take me out to dinner.  Chris was the highest bidder.  We had dinner, and from there our relationship began.

When the NUJ strikes happened were your loyalties stretched between Chris and your Nova news team and how did you deal with the situation?

The NUJ strike didn’t just ‘happen’ it was carefully orchestrated.  From memory I wasn’t working at Radio Nova at the time – I was hosting a magazine programme on LBC in London.

I have no argument with the NUJ as a union – never have had – my argument was how every possible tactic was being employed to force Radio Nova off-air. 

The strike was a deliberate move to bring pressure to bear on Chris and to bring about the closure of Radio Nova – as was the jamming.

RTE was not a happy bunny – their stations were hemorrhaging listeners not just to Radio Nova, although we were the most popular of the stations, but to a dial filled with radio stations delivering what the Dublin audience wanted. 

You could tune up and down the dial and choose from country (TTTR) to easy listening/classical (Radio Leinster) to the AOR (adult orientated rock) of Radio Nova – and in between you had rock/pop/indie stations to meet all tastes. 

The Dublin radio audience always knew what they wanted – and for the most part it wasn’t RTE delivering it.    

I made my voice heard because I wanted to support Nova and I wanted to support Chris.  I couldn’t bear to watch the deliberate destruction of what we had all worked to achieve. 

I didn’t regret my stance then, and I don’t know.  I stood up for what I believed in – and that was Nova and Chris Cary.

Was it crazy living with a maverick like Chris Cary, or were you really in control of everything?

Seriously? I can’t believe you’re writing this question with a straight face.

No, I wasn’t ‘in control of everything’ whatever that implies.

Yes, it was crazy.  Imagine that you step onto a ride in a theme park, a rollercoaster. A proper stomach-churning-eye-closing ride.  And you never get off.  Now you’ve got life with Chris.

Chris Cary was very much always in charge of his life, his fate and his destiny.  He very rarely listened to others – which when he was right, was absolutely fine.  But he also made some absolutely horrendous decisions from which there was no going back.

Life with Chris could so often be fantastic, you rattled along at breakneck speed lurching from one challenge and adventure to another. He was generous, gregarious and charismatic.

But whilst he was great in a crisis, he couldn’t deal with the detail of life.  He would explode for the most trivial of reasons.

Whilst our relationship was box-fresh, life was idyllic – we would travel, laugh and love.

You can’t be that close to someone without invisible threads being woven between you that fill those silent moments when you don’t need to talk to know what the other person is thinking.  We never lost that.  I would trust him with my life – and vice versa.

But over the years the circumstances, the situations and Chris’ health changed – and that altered the nature of our relationship.

All that said, we made it (by the skin of our teeth) to our 25th anniversary.   Sadly, we celebrated that day on our own in a hospital room on a hill-top in Santa Cruz, Tenerife.  Chris was so ill by that stage that although I sat cross-legged at the end of the bed and reminded him of how we’d now spent the last quarter of a century together I have no idea if he was aware of what I was saying.  Doctors tell me that hearing is the last sense to go so I’m going to believe that he heard everything I said.

Do you still stay in touch with anyone from the original Radio Nova?

When the great Irish radio experiment that was Radio Nova ended, we disbanded and went our separate ways.  Then, over time, we naturally gravitated towards each other again.

A lot of it is thanks to social media – how easy is it to pick up the threads from thirty years ago?   I’m not normally star-struck, but I was hugely impressed to meet Sir Tim Berners-Lee.  Had he not made the decisions that he did and offered us freedom of access to the world wide web there are many things that would be very different.

So, in answer to your question – do I keep in touch?  Yes.

Bob Gallico remained a close friend throughout his life and came to stay with us in Surrey not long before he died.  He was doing a grand ‘farewell tour’ of England at the time.

Kathy Quinn, our beautiful talented American friend, remains on-air with Fox TV to this day and when she’s in London we meet and remember how it was ‘back in the day’.

As I mentioned earlier, an email from Terry Riley appeared in my Inbox just a few short months ago.

Tony Allan remained a fixture in our lives, and came to stay with us just a few months before he died.

I tried recently, but failed, to meet up with Mike Edgar and a couple of others.  Next time I’m in Dublin it will happen.  Plus, given Facebook/email/Instagram etc. there’s no excuse not to be in touch.

Joe King (who for the last 25 years has run the successful broadcast equipment supply and installation company BTS) is also in touch regularly.

Howard Hughes is another contact – he did a brief stint with us before he headed for Capital Radio via Radio City and Tony McKenzie pops up on Facebook threads periodically.

So many of those of us who worked together in Nova in the ‘80s still enjoy a broadcast related job that it’s easy to track us down – whether in the UK/Ireland/Europe/USA or Australia and New Zealand. 

What I’d really like is a grand reunion of the real Radio Nova team.  Now there’s a thought…

But let’s also remember those who were such an integral part of our team and are no longer here. 

Ladies and Gentlemen – be upstanding and charge your glasses please for Brian Edgar, Tony Allan, Bob Gallico and Roland Burke.

You were very vocal against the current classic rock stations using the Nova name.  Have you mellowed in time or do you believe the Nova name should be remembered fondly as the driving force of commercial radio in Ireland?

So much of success is down to luck and being in the right place at the right time – hard work and talent sometimes just aren’t enough.  You need that extra ingredient that makes you special.

That’s how it was with Radio Nova in the 1980s.

Chris Cary got lucky when he launched the station – it was exactly what Dublin wanted, at exactly the right time.  No marketing or advertising guru could have the read the market that well.  Chris was really good at what he did – but he needed that extra bit of magic to carry him over the line.

So it was for all of us for worked for the station – both on-air and behind the scenes.  The best recruitment/talent agency could not have delivered as strong a team as the one that lived behind the doors of 19 Herbert Street and later Nova Park in Rathfarnham. 

Radio Nova was us and we were Radio Nova.  We loved it.  We lived it.

At the time we had no idea, from the inside looking out, how big an impact the station had made.  To us, this was how radio would always be/was meant to be.  We knew nothing else.

When the station closed, that was it.  The great Irish radio experiment was over. 

Radio Nova and Sunshine Radio (and all the other pioneering stations that paved the way for the licensed broadcast stations we have today) were consigned to the pages of radio history and inducted into some great imaginary ‘Radio Station Hall of Fame’.  Their stories became the material of text books, articles and audio stories.  To be retold time and again.  Look – 30 years later and I’m still writing about it. 

Chris didn’t come up with the name Radio Nova.  It wasn’t uniquely his. That’s not the issue.

My challenge has always been that you can’t simply take the place that Radio Nova held on the dial by grabbing the name – as if you are rubbing a magic lantern to release a genie who pops out and recreates the success story of the 1980s.

Go get your own name, and make your own place in amongst the pages of the Big Book of Radio.  Be brave, be original.  You’re not Nova, nor Sunshine nor Q102.  That was then, this is now. The current situation with Top Gear is a case in point.

I also feel strongly that you can’t continue to ‘have’ Radio Nova without acknowledging Chris’ contribution to radio in Ireland.  If nothing else, induct him posthumously into the PPI Hall of Fame.  I want to give our sons something positive about their Father to celebrate.

Sybil Fennell has gone on to become a national broadcaster in the UK and enjoy a very successful career in broadcasting.  Is radio still in your blood?

Your words not mine – but they are nice words so I’m not going to argue with them … You are too kind….

Radio is very much still in my blood.  I think of it like the process of osmosis – and I can’t send back what has been absorbed.  I hope it doesn’t end here either. 

Radio is simple, powerful and honest.  And I love it. 

No hiding under rocks here – you’re as good as your last link/broadcast story.

In Dublin I worked with Radio Nova, and Energy 103.  For a brief spell there was Buzz FM in Birmingham and then there have been LBC and Classic FM in London – very different stations with a commonality of talent and a desire to deliver the best to very different audiences. 

I have no idea what lies ahead, but I both curious and excited to discover.

What is life like after Chris and do you miss the adventure and living on the edge?

Of course I miss Chris, and the life that was.  In some ways (financially) I’ve lived my life back to front – silly amounts of money during my 20s and early 30s and then a far more frugal life beyond that. I used to drive to work at LBC (in Gough Square off Fleet Street: a square that measures about 6’ x 6’) in Chris’ Rolls Royce.  I was too small almost to see over the steering wheel. It was ridiculous.

This was an intoxicating lifestyle – from the all-night sessions in the Mirabeau where you’d go in for dinner at 8 and stumble out after breakfast the following morning, to leaving the Leeson Street clubs in broad daylight with the birds singing overhead as you made your way home to bed after a night of cheap wine and loud music.  To bowling up to the departure desks at Dublin airport on a Friday evening and asking for ‘the next standby flight you’ve got’.  Sometimes it was New York, sometimes Malta.  Always an adventure.

Those are not the strands on which a long and healthy life are woven.  Nor are they the stories you tell your children as they grow up.  You tone it down. A lot.

It was a lifestyle that was unsustainable.  Something had to give. 

There was a time to walk away, to slow down and enjoy the family – and that’s what Chris didn’t take.

I don’t think he had a wish to die young, although he did.  It wasn’t that. 

It was just that he didn’t want to /couldn’t live a ‘normal’ life. He had to juggle three or four projects at once.   

He packed more into his time than most us do in a life measured in far more decades.

Life after Chris is a lot more stable.  We have two boys – one of whom has grown up under the madcap regime that we’ll call the ‘Chris years’ and one who never knew his Father as the man that he really was.  I have been the better Mother to our younger son, and I know that he has lived a far more normal stable family life.  Our older son has travelled more widely, lived in something ridiculous like 15 homes in four countries in his lifetime – and survived.  I am immensely proud of both. 

I only ever heard Chris voice one regret: and that was that he wouldn’t live to see our youngest son grow up.  As in so many situations, Chris was right. 

The boys remember all the best bits about their Father.  Time is great like that – after a while mostly only the good memories survive.

Do you think Irish radio is as dull as ditch water – or do you believe the spirit of the original Nova is still alive in Dublin?

I don’t for a moment think Irish radio is dull. 

However, I’m not sure that I entirely understand the direction that it’s taken at the moment….

Here’s the story.  I was in Dublin a few weeks ago.  I’d been out for dinner, got home, went to bed, switched off the light and turned on the radio.  Within a minute I was bolt upright scrabbling for the light switch.  In the background two men were screaming abuse at each other – every swear word imaginable.  They were so threatening and aggressive.  It was all some complicated story about drugs and the effect of drugs.  Remember, I’ve stumbled upon the conversation halfway through so I’ve no idea what’s going on.  I thought I’d found some private two-way radio or walkie-talkie channel.  But, no  – apparently this is standard late-night talk radio in Dublin.  I don’t think this is quite what’s meant by the concept of a ‘Shock Jock’.  Not that I think the host of the show I heard got a word in edgeways.

Actually, I don’t get the chance to listen to a lot of radio when I’m in Dublin – but I know there are many of the original Nova team on Irish radio and television today and they’re keeping the Nova spirit alive.

But radio has moved on; there’s also a huge new talent pool on-air in Dublin.

Tony McKenzie always speaks so highly of you and Chris, do you remember the Nova/Energy 103 days with fondness of is it all a blur?

The Nova / Energy 103 days were wonderful, madcap, free, experimental, exciting and invigorating times.  Tony was a key player in both stations, and a good friend.

I remember that entire period with great fondness.

I know Tony has gone on to have a long and successful broadcasting career – but I haven’t been in touch with him for some time so it’s good to see his name again.

Strangely, nothing about the Nova and Energy 103 days is a blur.  You’d think it would be after all these years:  but I can remember most of what went down with great clarity. 

I don’t think any of us will ever forget.

It didn’t feel like years were elapsing – it just felt like one elastic time-period, in which no one aged or changed.  We were just always ‘on-air’ (unless Chris and Paul Cotter had transmitter or aerial issues to deal with)

Was there huge rivalry between Nova, Sunshine and Q102 – or did most of you get on well?

I don’t know when Q102 went to air, but it was late in the game so they weren’t a player in the early years of ‘classic’ Nova and Sunshine.

You can’t exist in a free and competitive market without competition;  that’s the way the radio market was and is.  You want to do better than the competition and are delighted when you do.  That’s all.  There was no horrendous rivalry.  Each station had a healthy respect for the other.  Chris and Robbie Dale were friends long before Nova and Sunshine existed – and continued so long after. The only thing I will say in Chris’ defense is that Robbie seems to feel that Chris deliberately chose 88 FM for Nova as Sunshine was at that end of the dial using 531 AM.  Not true.  I’ll find chapter and verse of the argument if you want it…..

In fact, in 2008… Actually, that’s another long story which I’ll come back to another time.

What is next for you? And, what is a typical day like in the life of Sybil Fennell?

Did I mention that I’m writing a book about our lives together?  I’ve drawn a line through the summer holidays of 2016 as ‘draft time’ – an eight-week period in which to pull together the strands from 1981 onwards.

I never thought anyone would be interested in the story.  But, as our boys have grown up they have begun to ask me to write it down.  Originally it was just going to be a series of notes to them about particular events. 

But there were so so many different adventures, projects, places and people to include that it became unmanageable.

Then the words ‘book’ and ‘memoir’ crept into the conversation. 

I still had and have my reservations. Life hasn’t been all been worth shouting about.  There are dark times as well as light.

I want to protect the boys from some of it; but actually they’ve been the driving force encouraging me to put pen to paper.

So… That’s what I’m doing.  The sitting room is a wall of Post-It-Notes, schedules, and storyboards.  It’s begun – and now I feel excited. 

Finally you asked me what a typical day is like?

After years of working in radio/satellite/computers I switched to a teaching career.  Some years ago I went back to university and took my PGCE. 

My subject is IT & Computing – with a particular leaning towards audio, animation and film.  I teach pupils from the ages of 7 to 13 years – and I love it.

My typical day starts around 5:30 when the radio wakes me.  It’s tuned to LBC.  I lie there listening to Steve Allen for about half an hour before I actually get up (Steve was on air at LBC when I got there in 1984 – and is still there.  Now that’s something to celebrate). 

I try to start the day with a healthy breakfast, and some yoga (which I love, although I do yoga very badly). 

I’m in school by 7:15. Luckily I work very close to home, so there’s no huge commute.  Lessons/paperwork and general school ‘stuff’ (of which there is more and more each year) takes me to about 8 o’clock.  It’s a long school day – first lesson @ 8:40 and last for senior pupils finishes @ 5:45 pm. 

Once I get home, I catch up on email traffic, cook dinner, socialize with whichever one of the boys is around (if they are!). By the time I’ve planned lessons for the following day, taken a quick walk and watched a snippet of television (I record nearly everything I want to watch – and rarely watch programmes live) the day is almost done. I try to read or follow an online course (I’m constantly trying to incorporate CPD by pushing myself to learn more online – there are the most amazing courses available ) for another 30 minutes.  I go for a short walk to shake out the cobwebs.  Then it’s bed before 10:30 – and I fall into a deep sleep listening to Classic FM.

Thursdays’ I work from home – I’ve got a second job that keeps me occupied with research and other interesting stuff one day a week.

Weekends are family, exercise, theatre (too expensive to be a regular event) or cinema (we have a fantastic local cinema with huge sofas and seemingly bottomless glasses of wine). 

Sometimes I get to do something completely different – like this Sunday afternoon when I’m answering these questions!

I didn’t mean to write this much.  I sat down to go through each question briefly and once the words hit the page it became more of a conversation with you. 

So goodness knows what will happen with the book.

If you liked this story, we can email you more radio news and alerts. Just fill in the form below.

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

You might also like