This opinion article was first published
on CLUAS in October 2006

CLUAS Opinion: Phantom FM

Radio's Phantom Saviour"

Phantom FMIan Wright ponders on Phantom FM's imminent arrival on Irish airwaves and the difficult choices facing the radio station as it prepares for its launch...

So the long wait is nearly over. After a seemingly interminable period since they were granted the Dublin alternative radio licence Phantom FM will go to the air on 31 October 2006. At first glance it may appear that the granting of the licence to Phantom was the just decision. Over the many years that it existed as a pirate station Phantom gave the people of Dublin and surrounding areas the opportunity to hear music that was not being played on commercial radio, either on the nationwide broadcasters or on the local Dublin stations. The prevailing view among licensed radio stations was one that looked upon this sort of music as part of a niche market without much mainstream appeal and, hence, any show that played such music was closeted away in the evening or on Sunday nights.

Additionally Phantom provided a rare platform to hear Irish acts that were neither U2 nor from the Louis Walsh stable of artists. A quick glance through the "thank yous" in the liner notes of many of the Irish albums that came out in recent years will reveal the impact that Phantom had on the scene (only the near ubiquitous "Dave and Julie" seem to get more mentions). How many of these mostly independent records would not have seen the light of day were it not for Phantom's support?

Yes, with all the effort that Pete Reid and his staff invested over the years and with little to show for it (but for a little bit of kudos and a lot of heartache as they saw the likes Spin 103 beat them out for broadcasting licences) they deserve this opportunity to go legit and turn their labour of love into a little bit of filthy lucre.

Yes, it's the just decision, but is it the right one? Just because the pirate Phantom was looked on favourably by the public when it was on the air it doesn't follow that a licensed Phantom operating as a clone of its illegitimate self is what Irish radio really needs.

In the time that Phantom has been off the air while its licence bid was being considered, not to mention the additional delay due to Zed FM's court challenge, there has been a small but perceptible change in the face of Irish radio. Commercial stations in recent times have shown a willingness to play a "safe" type of alternative music that 3 years ago would not have got a look in. "Seven Nation Army" was a huge radio hit and The Killers and the Artic Monkeys get the type of airplay that would be unheard of for other "NME bands" that came before them. From my sickbed during a recent bout of the flu I heard Ray Darcy play Jeff Buckley and a distinctly unanthemic Frames song over a 15 minute period. He's also been known play Arcade Fire, Tapes n Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah when the mood strikes him.

Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of these acts the fact that the door has been opened to music that previously couldn't even get a look in is unquestionably welcome. The main consequence of this is that the goalposts have been moved as to what is considered "alternative" in this country; when the Frames can play to 17,000 people in one night, Paddy Casey can virtually take up residence in the Olympia and Damien Rice can look at the global sales figures for "O" and see 7 seven digits whilst selling out virtually unadvertised gigs in Vicar Street in less than 5 minutes, it's pretty hard to argue that these acts who had previously been Phantom staples could in any circumstance be referred to as "alternative".

The very fact that these acts are now getting exposure elsewhere can't be good news for the new station. Because these more-accessible members of the "alternative" genre have now wormed their way out of that label Phantom is left with a couple of difficult choices for when they return to the airwaves. Either they can prominently feature many of the same type of acts that they previously did and we'll hear shows with running orders consisting of The Arctic Monkeys followed by The Frames followed by Franz Ferdinand followed by whoever the hell NME is trying to tell us are the best band ever this week, all topped off by Interpol. Yet this hardly sounds cutting edge when you get the same thing from Jenny Huston on 2FM, and that's the station whose morning show is hosted by uber-hipster indie-kid Marty Whelan so we know how adventurous they are. Or Phantom can take the brave decision to reduce the focus on music that used to be part of their exclusive domain but isn't anymore and risk losing some of their potential audience by doing what they've always done: playing music that no one else will.

The problem with this 2nd option is that the niche of bands who Phantom will play and no one else will is significantly smaller this time around. Furthermore those that can still be categorised as such are likely to hold less of an appeal to the audience at large. Some of it might even turn those with less adventurous sensibilities off - as much as I love Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens I know that there are people that might think "What's that crap, when are they going to play Mundy again?", and aside from some vocal warbling and lush arrangements the two mentioned aren't all that out there. God knows how your typical fan of Irish singer-songwriters would react to Joanna Newsom, or The Mighty Stef.

It's a tough call, play it safe and probably be successful or take a risk in attempting to be all that they can be and maybe fall on their face. Phantom FM could be great if it continues to cast a light on music that currently exists in the shadows, it could be the kick in the arse that the Irish music scene needs and allow any number of wonderful acts, both Irish and international, to find the audience here that they deserve. Or it could be a massive let down like almost much else that goes on in this nation whose motto seems to be "sure it'll be OK, it's nearly there" and in a few years "serious" music fans will be viewing it much in much the same way that they view Hot Press today, an out of touch dinosaur that used to be a good idea but wound up getting fat, complacent and - because of its unwillingness to move away from what brought it to the dance in the first place - utterly irrelevant.

Oh, and for the love of all that is holy can we never again hear one of those 20-minute Blink 182/Sum 41 pop-punk marathons please?

Ian Wright

(bullet) Check out the discussion this article provoked on the CLUAS discussion board.
(bullet) Check out the discussion on Phantom FM's first day of broadcasting.