Donal Dineen, Irish music, and whether radio really matters

Does radio really matter? Does it matter to you, to me, to him, to her, to bands, to venues and listeners and dancers and writers?

Of course it does, you might say.

But does it really? It wasn’t that long ago when the only way you could hear a new track was to tune in to a specific show at a specific time; before Bandcamp and SoundCloud, before blogs and mp3s, you had to wait for music. Now, music is everywhere. Rustle the cyber-branches of the internet and mp3s will fall on your head; two listless clicks and you have a free song in your Downloads folder. With or without the band’s permission.

Radio is an intimate, vital force. The presenter is a curator, handpicking music they love and that they want you to love too. They search and find, paw and poke through shelves and boxes, because they know you like to do that too. They want your feedback; they want to speak to you. With you.

That’s what Donal Dineen does, what all great, talented, special radio presenters do. They invite you in. They open the door, hand you a mug of tea, and sit you down. Or they tuck you in, give you a book, tell you to breathe out. They offer you this chance to escape for an hour, or two, to dive into an aural world with them, to share with them.

But they don’t just extend their headphones to listeners – it’s bands, too, who need radio shows, and presenters who are excited about finding new music. Bands want their music to be loved, to be played and gifted and discussed. They want people to find the secrets they placed in their songs when they were recording them. They want people to understand why they made this music. Or maybe some of them don’t; maybe some of them say they don’t care if you give a damn. But I wager they do.

On his show The Small Hours, Donal Dineen was all of these things for listeners and bands. This two-hour show had a gentle, almost apologetic name that belied its importance. He started his show at midnight and kept on playing and chatting until 2am. The wee hours indeed. Having slept through most of his shows, my contact with it lately was through his playlists, and the listening back feature on the Today FM website. I have a habit of coming to things late, or of assuming things will always be there. I am always proved wrong.

Who was this man who fearlessly played Moondog and Arthur Russell, but also championed Irish musicians and spoke to them – really spoke to them – about their music? Ireland is a small place and Dublin even smaller, so it’s a little funny that I didn’t get to meet the man himself until Tuesday of this week, when I got to sit in and watch the third-last Small Hours going out live.

It was a privilege, a really special night, but a sad one too. Because it transpired that – of course – Dineen was just as I had hoped: someone who ‘gets it’. He didn’t present the Small Hours for status, he did it for the same reasons he has taken part in every other musical venture of his over the past few decades – because he loves music. That is all.

We shared a brief conversation about blogging, and the importance of blogging, and the importance of not slagging things off. (I’m all for constructive criticism, discussion and even frustrated rallying cries, but slagging off is a kettle of fish I’d rather not drink a mug of tea from).

He opened his show with one of my own favourite songs, That’s Us (Wild Combination), by Arthur Russell, and in a flurry of CDs and studio changes, red lights flashing and musicians tuning up, the show began.

His guests were Katie Kim, Patrick Kelleher and Sean Carpio – the former two having produced two of this year’s finest albums, Irish or otherwise, the latter creating beautiful, sparse music and with a seriously intense knowledge of jazz.

They chatted about music, jazz, polaroids and dressings gowns; music and radio and the Small Hours’ importance to Irish radio, to Irish bands. Katie and Donal shared their exasperation over the current condition of Irish radio, that playlists and mainstream music are placed above shows that highlight Irish talent.

They’re right, was all I could think. They’re right, and no one knows how they can fix it. I found it hard to get to sleep that night. I kept thinking about what they’d said, and what the end of the Small Hours means. At first, it felt like a heavy weight, one that had no purpose. Just a big ball of questions – what’s going to happen? Is radio finished? Is there a future for non-mainstream music shows? What about Irish bands – until I realised that there are some birds tweeting truths on the horizon.

Donal will move on – to something better, where he isn’t broadcasting just as the morning breaks. Some of us won’t sleep through his future shows, and he will have even more freedom in what he does. I don’t know what is going to happen but I feel it in my bones that it will be special.

Perhaps digital radio holds the key here, because digital radio is really the only medium in which radio can remain pure right now – scratchy around the edges, a bit homemade and frayed – and true to itself. Sure, I don’t get tons of listeners to my show, but 2XM is doing well, despite the usual barometers of success that suited businessheads enjoy, the advertising and JNLR figures. Those are very important, of course, in their own way, but not when you’re listening to music radio for… music.

Digital radio may be our saviour, or it may not, but at the moment it is a malleable, customisable way of listening to and sharing music. I feel lucky to be part of that, even if it’s just two people who listen to what I do.

So, yes, I think radio does matter. It matters to all of us and it matters that the Small Hours is coming to an end this week. I don’t know the exact reasons why Today FM pulled the show but it demonstrates that radio ‘bosses’ and radio listeners don’t always hear the same things.

But the future is, as was once sung, wide open. There will be a future for Donal Dineen beyond the Small Hours, and people like him, the Forces For Good – of which there are too many to name but you all know who they are – will keep on keepin’ on. Without them, the Irish music scene would be a flatter, sadder and much less tuneful place.

Donal Dineen will present his final The Small Hours show tonight at midnight on Today FM.


The Small Hours – Today FM playlists

Everything changes in the small hours (a beautiful recent post from Aoife Flynn)

In Praise of Donal Dineen (a lovely blog post by Darragh Mc)


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