Caoilfhinn Hegarty speaks to one of the founders of Ireland’s only Christmas station to find out their plans for their 2020 broadcast
Christmas FM returned to Irish airwaves on Saturday the 28th of November, kicking off thirty days of festive radio on the FM frequency before retiring back to its status as a digital-stream on the station’s website, where it is Europe’s only year-round broadcaster of Christmas music. Walter Hegarty, one of Christmas FM’s five co-founders, describes the “Road to Damascus moment” that led to its conception one August evening more than twelve years ago: "Myself and some friends who had been involved in a few temporary license radio stations were sitting around outside a pub in Ranelagh", he recounts, "discussing what our next project would be, and one of them, Garvan, said 'It’s been years since there was a Christmas station in Dublin'".
Once the idea of a Christmas radio station had been hit upon, the group’s talk turned quickly to the logistical side; "many of the temporary licenses [stations] we’d done, we’d done at weekends because you can have thirty days for a temporary license" Hegarty explains. Christmas FM, it was agreed, would have to be "thirty days as a straight run" as opposed to having its broadcast broken up over fifteen weekends, as is common for temporary stations. Since its on-air debut in 2008, Christmas FM has traditionally broadcasted from the last weekend of November until the 27th of December, after St Stephen’s Day. Christmas FM “rents the service of transmitters and sites” annually, and began life as a Dublin-only regional station, but by 2010 was broadcasting to the South East, Cork, Galway, and Limerick. Kildare was added in 2011, with the North East and North Midlands joining in 2013, and various other counties being added over the years. In order to fund transmission costs, alongside the general day-to-day running of the station, Christmas FM relies on sponsorship deals, among the ranks of which they can now count such household favourites as Cadbury and Coca-Cola, alongside Irish stalwarts such as An Post. For actual studio space, they are accommodated by the Clayton Hotel in Ballsbridge, where they have "a small room which we’ve divided in two to give us a studio and an office space", an arrangement which Hegarty describes as “not a huge space, but absolutely fine for our requirements”.
the idea to ‘involve a charity element’ emerged very early in the station’s conception, with he and his fellow founders feeling it was ‘in the spirit of Christmas
Sponsorship is key for the maintenance of Christmas FM as all proceeds raised go directly to the station’s charity partner of the year. According to Hegarty the idea to "involve a charity element" emerged very early in the station’s conception, with himself and his fellow founders feeling it was "in the spirit of Christmas". Over the years Christmas FM has partnered with a range of organisations, from those focusing on homelessness, such as the Simon Community, to children’s charities like the Make A Wish Foundation. For 2020 the radio station will be lending its support to ALONE, a national charity which endeavours to provide older people with all they need to be able to live in their homes "safely and securely, for as long as they wish". In particular, ALONE focuses on aiding those older people who are isolated, unwell, or suffering from financial difficulties. Speaking on their partnership with Christmas FM this December, Seán Moynihan, the CEO of ALONE, said in a statement: "We are incredibly honoured and excited to be the charity partner for Christmas FM this year. Our 'Give the Gift of Home' campaign resonates so highly and thoughtfully with what we hope to achieve through this partnership – raising necessary funds to enable older people to stay in their homes for as long as they wish". According to figures from ALONE’s web page, in Ireland "29% of older people live on their own". The organisation also states that they have received "a dramatic increase in calls for support in [the] last two years". Hegarty emphasises the impact the pandemic has had on the situation: "The being trapped in your own home aspect of COVID becomes all the more intense the smaller the family you have directly around you". He points out that with many older people "their children might have grown up and left the house" and that there are "people who were married or had partners for many years who are now alone". "The weight of carrying that would be quite heavy" he adds. Hegarty feels strongly that this older generation "are people who have done their bit for the country [...] and now when things are getting financially more difficult it would be especially cruel to abandon them".
To date, Christmas FM has raised over €2 million for the various charities it has worked with, and the station will certainly be hoping to continue in this vein. They may be helped by the fact that, according to Hegarty, "radio is absolutely as popular as it has ever been, in fact, through the COVID crisis it has become even more popular". He characterises the radio as being "your friend in the corner, it’s a comforting voice, it is somebody who will talk to you as if it was one to one".
Christmas FM, we noted, had become the glue for people sending messages from back and forth across the country, or quite frequently from outside the country to people in Ireland, and from Ireland to the Irish diaspora
The Coronavirus pandemic may have boosted radio’s fortunes in one way, but it has severely curtailed them in others. "You can’t have loads of people in a studio the way you did before, it means working remotely, and most of the radio stations have done that" Hegarty says. Although what he calls (rather appropriately, for a seasonal station) "the advent of technology" has helped in allowing this remote setup; "because that has to be paid for, this year we’ve been forced to use less presenters than we normally would have done". As for the actual content of this year’s broadcast, "we’re not going to avoid the fact of what’s going on, because we’re bound by it as well, but we’ll be looking to provide relief from it". As far as Hegarty is concerned one of the most important things Christmas FM can do this year is "provide a glue for other people, because there’s a lot of other people who are not going to see people this Christmas that would normally be part of their lives". Elaborating on that he added; "in previous years Christmas FM, we noted, had become the glue for people sending messages from back and forth across the country, or quite frequently from outside the country to people in Ireland, and from Ireland to the Irish diaspora". For Hegarty, this sense of connectedness is quintessential to what Christmas means to Irish people. "We believe in it" he says "in the spirit of Christmas. That’s not, to me, the religious aspect, it’s the being together, thinking about peace and goodwill".