Jamaica’s Reggae Radio Station IrieFM Turns 30

Jamaica's Reggae Radio Station IrieFM Turns 30by Howard Campbell

KINGSTON, Jamaica – Though it is the home of reggae, there was a time when Jamaica did not have a radio station dedicated to playing indigenous music. Irie FM changed all that 30 years ago.

Based in Ocho Rios, the all-reggae station began test transmissions in June, 1990 before officially launching on August 13 that year. It challenged the established Radio Jamaica (RJR) and government owned Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) whose formats were dominated by American Rhythm and Blues.

Dr. Dennis Howard was one of the original broadcasters at Irie FM. He learned the ropes at JBC and was recruited by the new station’s owner Karl Young to also act as programs manager.

He recalls that not many people had faith in a reggae radio station succeeding in Jamaica.

Jamaica's Reggae Radio Station IrieFM Turns 30 - Dr. Dennis Howard

Dr. Dennis Howard

“It was funny…A lot of the music fraternity never believed in it. When we went to a lot of people and said, ‘There’s going to be a reggae station and we need your records and need you to give us your catalogs’, some said it wouldn’t work,” said Howard.

But work it did. By the end of 1990, Irie FM was embraced by artists, producers and music administrators who benefited from steady rotation. Previously, their products were largely ignored by RJR and JBC.

Howard, who spent 10 years at JBC, was the most experienced of the Disc Jockeys. He hosted Riddim Magic, an afternoon prime time show, from Mondays to Fridays.

His colleagues included Bob Clarke, a former singer who hosted the weekly oldies program; Ainsworth “Big A” Higgins, Michael “Mighty Mike” Jones and GT Taylor, all of whom quickly developed steady audiences by playing mostly contemporary reggae.

Irie FM started out playing traditional reggae with a sprinkling of dancehall music. But Howard insisted that with the latter’s growing popularity among Jamaican youth, it was logical to start playing the songs of artists such as Shabba Ranks, Papa San, Garnet Silk, Tony Rebel and Cutty Ranks.

At the same time, there was space for veterans like Burning Spear, Beres Hammond and Tiger who experienced a revival thanks to power-play on Irie FM.

Donovan Germain was one of the many music producers whose productions benefited from extensive airplay on the station. His Penthouse Records had a 15-minute weekly slot on Irie hosted by Higgins.

“Irie FM really changed the radio landscape in Jamaica because you heard more local content,” he said. Germain admitted that he gave the idea of an all-reggae station surviving in Jamaica little chance.

Howard left Irie FM after two years and has since worked in senior positions at the JBC and what became the RJR Group of Companies. Young died in 2010 while Jones passed away two years later.

Today, the station is still a force to be reckoned with. Howard, who currently operates Riddim 1 Radio station, credits the tireless work he and fellow founders put in for its longevity.

“It was a fun time, a time I’ll never forget. We did a lot of innovative stuff and 30 years later they’re still at it. Not in the same way, but they’re still at it,” he said.



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