2001 is a landmark year for Independent Radio in Northern Ireland, marking the 25th anniversary of the Province's first ILR station. In those 25 years, the ILR network in Northern Ireland has moved out from Belfast to the major urban areas, expanding the potential audience and advertising base into a competitive market.
Like television, the launch of ILR followed closely on the heels of the BBC's inaugural broadcasts in the province. The BBC's monopoly on local broadcasting came to an end on 16th March 1976, just 14 months after the launch of Radio Ulster.
The launch of Downtown, the 18th of the 19 original ILR stations to hit the airwaves, on 295m AM, was heralded by a jingle recalling Petula Clark's familiar 1964 hit. The spirit of the original station, a mix of music and social action programming, is maintained today, with regular slots for phone-ins, and a more diverse spectrum of musical tastes catered for than the pop format most of the original ILR stations have succumbed to over time.
1979 saw the IBA issue a new round of ILR licences, continuing the spread of stations among the more major urban areas across the UK. One of the areas earmarked for a new station was the city of (London)Derry, and in August 1980 the licence was awarded to a consortium called Northside Sound, with a planned launch date for late 1981. A committee for the group was convened and an office was established in the city, but the group was unable to raise suitable finances to provide studio facilities and launch the station properly, and the IBA allowed the consortium to postpone their launch date to Autumn 1983.
The consortium sought new sources of finance, but the station still hadn't surfaced on air, or even issued a likely airdate, by the start of 1984, so the IBA decided to revoke the franchise, and the licence wasn't readvertised. This allowed Downtown the chance to extend their transmitter coverage on a number of different FM frequencies, and the late 1980s saw a short-lived station rebrand as DTR-FM, endorsing itself as a pan-Ulster IRL station.
The North West's loss of an official station was finally satisfied in 1989, when a new station arrived on the air, Riverside 101. The station was not legally sanctioned by either the British or Irish radio radio authorities, and exploited a number of loopholes in both country's broadcasting legislatures. The station continued broadcasting for four years, resisting attempts by both the UK and Irish authorities to shut it down.
The 1990s saw the number of Northern Irish ILR stations picking up steadily, but the Greatest Belfast areas were first to benefit from new stations. In March 1990, two brand new FM licences went on air from the Black Mountain transmitter. On 1st March, Downtown's sister station, Cool FM, went on the air, using some of the same Downtown presenters and playing music aimed at a younger audience. Two weeks later, Belfast Community Radio (BCR) began transmissions, with a diverse mix of community and music programming.
By 1993, the unofficial reign of Riverside 101 as the North West's independent radio representative was to come to an end, with the Radio Authority announcing an official licence for the North West, 10 years after their original licence plans were shelved. The Riverside group, who had ran a successful operation for four years, gained the license, and to facilitate becoming "official", changed the station's name to Q102.9FM on 31st October 1993, keeping a similar register of presenters and studio base in the old Waterside Railway Station.
1995 saw two further licences introducing local radio to the Craigavon (Radio 1521) and Cookstown areas (the country music favouring Townland Radio). Bit by bit, the population was being offered an alternative to the Belfast-based and mainly Belfast-orientated stations; local voices and local opinions could now be articulated to the local communities, and a new medium of advertising became accessible to the smaller businesses.
By 1996, BCR, under the new ownership of controversial tycoon Owen Oyston, was renamed Belfast CityBeat. Oyston took a brief interest in Northern Ireland radio in the mid 1990s, buying and renaming the recently established Mid-Ulster ILR stations to complement his Belfast acquisition; Radio 1521 was renamed HeartBeat 1521, and Townland Radio became GoldBeat 828. However, after Oyston's sexual abuse trial in 1997 the two provincial stations, with little revenue and audience, were shut down, and Belfast CityBeat was later sold off to private interests.
Another impact on Northern Irish local radio in the 1990s was the parallel development of local independent radio in the Republic of Ireland, after the deregulation of RTÉ's broadcasting monopoly in 1989. Although Northern Ireland transmitters can barely carry their signals south of the Border, many Southern station's signals can be received across the Border, allowing most of the Province to receive RTÉ's radio networks. New independent local radio stations for the Border counties in the Republic of Ireland arrived in the early 1990s. These new stations gained audiences in the North, especially in areas without a locally based ILR station, a fact quickly exploited by NI advertisers who bough advertising space on the Irish stations. In 1998, two new dance-music orientated stations launched catering mainly for a Northern audience and advertising market, but maintained studio and transmitting bases south of the Border; Energy 106.6 transmitting from Monaghan, and Kiss 106 from Dundalk.
The new century saw a further geographical spread of ILR franchises to provincial areas. January 2000 saw the Q consortium open a new station in Coleraine, serving the North Coast, and 2001 will see the awarding of a new licence for the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, who will finally gain their own ILR station nearly 20 years after the promise of Northside Sound. In 25 years, the audience for ILR in Northern Ireland has gradually expanded geographically to ensure that all of the North's population can tune into ILR.