The BBC had always been there. In Northern Ireland, it was part of the landscape, but even when moving to Dublin in 1999, the AM channels were easily accessible – BBC Radio 4 on Long Wave and BBC Radio Five on Medium Wave continued to feature in at least some part of the week, as they had before. Radio 4 was especially important, Irish broadcasting simply has not the resources to sustain such a station.
Moving from the east coast of Ireland in 2010 brought immediately noticeable changes. The digital radio that had been a Christmas gift in 2008 ceased to work; there is no digital signal much beyond the major cities, nor does there appear to be any plan in the short term to commence such transmissions. Much worse was the loss of the option of listening to the BBC on the car radio; Radio 4 is only audible through a fog of hisses and crackles and the Radio 5 signal is incomprehensible.
(Also lost was a multiplicity of the Irish stations available to Dublin listeners – sitting in a Rathgar rush hour traffic jam last week, flicking through the FM frequencies brought 23 different stations, some unlistenable, but each obviously having its own audience).
In the country, listening options are limited, the local stations, each which of which might cover a county or two, and RTE; a selection that has led to the purchase of numerous music CDs.
At night, the options are even more limited – mostly just a re-broadcast of daytime programmes, broadcasts punctuated with announcements advising people not to phone into the chat programmes or send texts to enter the competitions because while the transmissions are repeats, callers or texters might still be charged for their attempts to contact the stations.
One morning at the end of May, driving the M9 motorway through Co Carlow, heading to Dublin for an early flight, a scan of the FM waveband for some company, brought a live voice at around 94 or 95 FM. Between 3.45 and 4 o’clock, as the day was breaking, he played oldies and talked about the fine morning ahead. Assuming it to be South East Radio from Co Wexford or East Coast from Co Wicklow, the thought never occurred to note the frequency. A later check of the respective stations’ websites suggests neither was on air live at the time, certainly not to allow a broadcaster to comment on the weather prospects for the day.
It is perplexing that a moment of connection might never be open to the possibility of being repeated, that such a drive in the future might allow no reception of any living voice, that there might only be a sense of isolation.
Whatever the hour, the BBC is always there – even if it is the World Service news being announced at 3 hours GMT. Detractors of the BBC should try living in a world without it.