'FROM a garden shed to this, hey?" remarks Martin Mackin from Q4 PR, the team hired by Phantom 105.2 to take care of all the necessities before the station launches on Halloween. 'This' is the rather genteel setting of the Odessa Club in Dame Court in Dublin, hosting the station's schedule launch last week. Much of the Phantom team looks like they'd feel a little more comfortable at the Stag's Head pub a few yards away.
In the week Phantom 105.2 FM made the final preparations for going live on air on Tuesday, Reeling In The Years on RTE featured 1979, the year RTE 2fm went on air to a backdrop of mass protests by young people on Dublin's O'Connell St, voicing their support for their favourite pirate stations. You can be forgiven for forgetting that in a world of sanitised broadcast media, radio occasionally means that much to people.
Since its inception, Phantom has formed a considerable number of vertebrae in the back bone of Dublin's music scene. Countless musicians credit the station with exposure and subsequent success. The Frames recorded sessions in the Phantom shed with dogs barking in the background, Bell X1 performed at their acoustic nights, and their club night 'Phantasm' was the only rock club worth going to, attended by those for whom Phantom was the only station worth listening to. Founded in 1996, the station operated as a pirate for years, being pulled off air frequently and occupying a defiant underground status amongst music fans and musicians alike. Since 2003, Phantom has operated as an internet station . . . with 20,000 podcasts downloaded . . . and the team, now backed by U2 manager Paul McGuinness and Dennis Desmond, finally won a license for a Dublin alternative rock station from the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) in 2004, beating Zed FM, Xfm and two other applicants. But there was no time to celebrate.
As other stations harvested Phantom presenters (Alison Curtis became the host of Today FM's indie music show The Last Splash and fellow Canadian Jenny Huston went on to present The Waiting Room on 2fm), the next two years were spent in and out of the High Court and the Supreme Court. The awarding of the license was contested by Zed FM, a consortium backed by former FM 104 chief executive Dermot Hanrahan, Hot Press's Niall Stokes and Bob Geldof. Zed FM accused the BCI of breaking the law by awarding two temporary licenses to Phantom. Broadcasting law states that only one 30-day license per year can be awarded to a station, but Phantom had found a loophole, and applied for the licenses under two separate names (Coxstone and Wireless Media). Eventually on 6 April, the Supreme Court endorsed the BCI's decision to award a license. Now the invites to Phantom's launch party read 'the dead arose and broadcast to many'.
In the roomy former Spin FM headquarters on Dublin's north quays close to the Point Depot, part of the Phantom team is busy at work. It's quiet, bar an occasional sawing or drilling din from builders putting the last touches on the studios. Anticipation, nervousness and expectation are all palpable. Brian Daly, Phantom's marketing manager, walks around the office, pointing out the nicelooking studios, the newsroom, boardroom and various offices. The space is big, bigger perhaps than they need. There's an unspoken camaraderie, but the overriding atmosphere . . . as all the staff say separately . . . is a surreal one.
Edel Coffey, the Sunday Tribune journalist whose new position with Phantom headed most of the press releases about the station's launch, sits at her computer at the end of a desk that stretches the length of the station's main room, working out her schedule for her programme Access All Areas. AAA will air from 10am to noon Monday to Friday, taking on Ray D'Arcy at Today FM and Gerry Ryan at 2fm. Things have come full circle for Coffey . . . she was in studio when the plug was pulled on Phantom for the last time. "Of course, I thought 'oh my God, I can't hear myself any more, what did I press!' So I was kind of pushing faders, thinking 'shite!' Then I rang Pete [Vamos, now Phantom's director of programming] and he said, 'yeah, I think we've been taken off the air' and I thought 'oh, it's not my fault.'" Today, Coffey is nervous "but I am also excited. . . if I wasn't doing this job, I think I would be feeling the same, which is looking forward to it coming back. I've got five presets on my car radio, and there are times I go through every one and end up thinking 'fuuuuck', and go through every one again. It [Phantom] was always one I had on my car stereo where you could hear music that wouldn't make you want to stick your fingers in your eyes."
Since the plug was pulled on Phantom, a lot of things have changed. Irish bands that made up much of Phantom's playlist have either moved to mainstream success or completely disappeared. There are mutterings that Phantom will have lost touch. "There's definitely not a worry in here, " Coffey asserts. "Everybody that works here has been associated in a very large way with that scene that has been changing in the last couple of years. . . It's not like when Phantom went off the air, everyone stopped listening to music, stopped going to gigs, stopped playing in bands and whatever else it is that we do.
Things have changed, yeah . . . you've got Ray D'Arcy playing Raconteurs, which I thought I'd never hear."
Further down the desk is perhaps Phantom's most recognisable figure, Pete Vamos aka Sinister Pete. He doesn't like the wait. He wants to get on air. "In a way, we've kinda been used to starts and stops and starts and stops. I think the one thing that the Phantom team have going for them is they're really resilient and very capable of sitting there going 'right, ok, this is a dead end, what else can we do?'
So, in a sense, the starts and stops mess with your energy levels, but there was no time where we said, 'let's just throw it in, we're not gonna get anywhere with this'.
We always had plan B and C and D and were ready to move on, whatever they threw at us."
To Vamos and most at Phantom, the enterprise is more than a station, it is a passion and a huge part of their life.
"When I was a teenager, a young teenager, really, the radio was my only friend, " Vamos reflects. "It was the thing that I could count on and it was like a party everyone was invited to. When I moved from my little mining town to Toronto, I found this station that just played the coolest music all the time. You could turn it on anytime you liked and it was always cool and people talked to you like you were a person. And I thought that is so the greatest thing ever. Saved my life. Totally changed who I am. So if we can create a station that has the same vibe, a party that everybody is invited to, and there's some kid that I'll never meet whose sitting there going 'this is the greatest radio station ever, it changed my life', that's what it means to me. I'd love to do that. I never want to meet the kid. I never want to know who it is. But I just would like us to have that kind of energy, you know? Or if it's a band and we play their song on the radio and they think 'oh, that's amazing'. And even if the feeling only lasts for a couple of days, that's what it's about."
This feeling is echoed throughout the team. Moss Bhreatnach, a presenter who met Simon Maher, another of the founders, in Ballyfermot Senior College and went on to start up Phantom, playing songs in a shed in Sandyford, is equally emphatic. "It means 10 or 11 years of my life fighting for what I totally believe in. . . It does mean a hell of a lot. It's really hard to comprehend, though. It's like your dream, and when you get it, it never sinks in."
Bhreatnach took the court challenges badly. "It really broke my heart. It affected me badly for a year. I thought they [Zed FM] were going to succeed in taking it from us. That was the hairiest, when it's just in your grasp and someone won't let you have your little toy to play with."
Now that they have their favourite toy, the Phantom team has to knuckle down to make it work. Chief Executive Ger Roe is well aware of the size of the challenge, "It's a lot of work. I think it's going to be a difficult thing I suppose to establish the station and to put it back on a footing that was better than before, " he says, sitting in his new office. "Once it gets on the air, that's one milestone, but there's plenty more to go. We have to get it up there, we have to get figures, we have to make it successful. It's a niche radio station, it's scaled appropriately, but still a lot of money has gone into it and it has to pull in the money to survive. That's the next challenge. This is only day one."
At the launch, the rocky history of Phantom's pirate and court-attending past was glossed over, but it is that fighting spirit that many Phantom fans relate to and support; a passionate and intelligent underdog that fought the law, and won.