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Let’s Meet Charlie Kurtz – Presenter On D15 today

“I think it’s for the sake of plurality of voice and to give everyone an opportunity to be heard, I think it’s important that we retain a strong and vibrant community radio section.” -Charlie

I sat down with longtime D15 Today presenter, Charlie Kurtz who has been hosting his show on D15 Today alongside his co-host Jeff Murphy for a number of years now.  Charlie is very passionate about radio and community, both areas which we delve into during our conversation.  We get to know some highlight moments for Charlie throughout his radio career along with how he got into radio, his thoughts on the future of radio and how COVID has affected his work.

So, Charlie, can you want to just tell us a little bit about yourself?

Well, David, where do I start as the expression goes, going back a few years? Well, let’s just put it this way. I’m not just out of secondary school or out of college. I’m around a few years. But I’ve been living out here in Dublin West. We bought our house in Clonsilla in 1980. Back in the day, where the edge of the development of housing was just Clonsilla itself. It started just north to the Clonsilla village in a place called Lahunda Park. And they were starting to develop around Hartstown at that stage just at the edge of Clonsilla So we were living there for 16 years. Back in the mid-90s. Then we moved down to theCarpenterstown area where we’ve been since. So I’ve been in this area over 40 years now, 41 years starting this year. So I’m longer here than I was in where I grew up in Dublin 8 and what is now called the city centre because we’re inside the canal area so I’ve had a, shall we say,  great exposure to old communities and new communities. That was one of the issues that when I came out here as a young man, a married man, we started our family quite young. What took me at the time was the absence of any community facilities. Development in those days, in communities, was very much a finger up in the air which way is the wind blown, it was very chaotic in the ways that everything was after that houses arrived; transport schools, public facilities. For example, it wasn’t until 16 years later, the mid-90s, that the Blanchardstown Centre was opened.

I suppose from an early stage having lived and grown up in a very community-focused area in Dublin 8, my views towards after I’d say after about five or six years out here was that I wanted to become engaged with community development; helping communities to form and take care of ourselves. Back in those days, the politicians used to say you don’t need residents associations or community groups, “we will take care of you, we look after you”, “tell us what your issues are”. Naively a lot of people thought that was the case. What they did realise was that a lot of this work that was so-called Community focus was really part of a much bigger agenda of looking after vested interests on a bigger basis, like, for example, developers, keeping communities out of their hair, and distracting them from the real issues, such as providing decent housing, quality housing, affordable housing, and community facilities in tandem with that. To this day, we’re still trying to learn that lesson. For example, in this area at the moment, we still have a great need for secondary Primary School places.

Development started out here in the 70s, almost 50 years on, we still haven’t learned how to play the game properly. So there’s a huge need out here in Dublin 15 or greater Blanchardstown area for ongoing community development. This is one of the reasons that a number of years ago I got involved with Phoenix. In fact, my first involvement was probably about 15 years ago, if I remember, rightly, as a community activist, with the Dublin 15 Community Council. What I wanted to try and do was to help them form communities, understand what their rights were, what needed to be done in the area, and how to go about organising and empowering themselves to get the services and the facilities that were required for a new community.

So we did a series of programmes over six months, hour-long programmes on a weekly basis, covering everything from transport, education, policing, planning, working with local authorities, working with local political representatives, to organising at a local level for residence groups, and so forth, so it was a very broad spectrum approach. But really what it was was like, a DIY kit, for local communities, how you as an individual or how you as a local community could learn to look after yourself.

And, that has brought you to doing D15, where you are now?

Yep. So that moved on then I took early retirement about eight years ago. And part of that work experience, when I went on a community development course is part of my re-education after work was a scheme where I took a qualification in community development, and part of that was developing work experience with local radio, which I had chosen myself. And seven years on, I’m still here.

What made you choose radio in particular?

I think was that stint with radio back 15 years ago, where I spent a very intense six month period of putting out a programme every week, I found it very stimulating. Very interesting. You had a great bunch of people, like-minded people who are very committed, and they were driven to work for the betterment of their local communities, you know. There was this great sense of altruism, teamwork; We’re in this together, we need to work together to get this a better area, a better place. But as a young fellow, I used to have the transistor radio in the bed beside me, because we didn’t have all the gadgets you have today, you know, and I used to listen to a lot of radio at night. It was just something I did. So I suppose I’ve always had a fondness for the radio. And then as time went by, in more recent years, I said, you know, something, I’d like to give this a spin. It’s completely different to what I’ve done in life prior to this, and something new, something bold, you know, all of that. And I have to say, I’ve enjoyed the experience, a great bunch of people in Phoenix and for me, it has been something that has really given me a lot of satisfaction, challenges and sometimes difficult, but we’ve managed to enjoy it, and along the way, I met a great bunch of people.

What have been some highlights for you on your D15 show?

Wow. You know, over the years, we’ve done loads of shows, and probably the type of guest that stands out for me is in areas where we’re dealing with individuals or organisations that are helping others, to make and improve other’s lives in ways that perhaps they’ve been let down by the state itself, or the lives have been difficult. And you get people who understand that we’re trying to fill the gap, and we’re trying to help others improve their lives or to improve the quality of life for them. There’s a topic which I’m very keen on, and that’s the issue of mental health. I’m always amazed at the number of organisations out there who are keen to help individuals improve themselves and to get them through very difficult phases of their life. You know, we have addiction services such as Coolmine Therapeutic Centre up in Collmine there. it’s just marvellous work. We have the Pieta house of the world, Samaritans, Suicide or Survive, you know. We have so many of these organisations out there who are working for the betterment. And then we have other organisations that are looking after the welfare of, for example, animals, that’s always something nice to see when you see the Blue Cross van pulling up outside the town centre there every week. I know as a kid, they saved a little puppy I had, and he went on to live for another 15 years after that. So these are all bits and pieces that pop up on a regular basis throughout the community.

Then you have the individual who comes in, who’s an absolute panic, who has you laughin’ from one end of the show to the other, telling stories about their lives, the interesting journey they’ve had, the challenges they’ve had, and how they’ve overcome adversity. All of those types of stories, they give a lift to you, they, I suppose give you a smile in your face every so often. It’s great to see people overcoming these difficulties and getting on with life. So I suppose [it’s like] we’re like shining a light onto areas of society as well [in areas] that people don’t want to talk about. So I would say regularly, we would have our local representatives vote at Council and national level on and they’re known for asking the hard questions from time to time, I would like to think we’re always fair. We would try to pull back the veil on issues where people are maybe being obscure, or less than honest with individuals. We like to ask a certain question that is relevant to the local area or the local community. So there’s a whole range of issues there that we get involved in, I suppose also, for example, is helping to educate people in trying to get more involved in their communities in an informed way, try to help to illuminate for individuals how the system works, the language of communicating with bureaucrats, and with politicians; they’ll engage with you in a certain way, but they won’t engage with you in another way.

You know, it’s trying to get that message across to the listener, how best to engage with the local authorities, for example, or if you’re dealing with the government department how best to do that. We have a monthly citizens Information Centre, slot. And we’re currently, during the COVID now, we’re trying to reestablish that, so to help keep people informed of their rights. So you can see there’s a broad spectrum approach here, broad brush, so to speak. And that’s what I like about it, something new, something different every week. And Phoenix is a great outlet for individuals who want to develop themselves and want to help their local communities. For example, David, you’ve recently arrived on the Phoenix frontier, and I’m sure that after a year or two at the helm there, you’re going to find that it has helped you enormously. And even some older people come to it after the retirement, for example, their life skills are being put to use and they’re passing those on to another generation; the information that they’ve gathered over a lifetime. It’s great to see them being able to channel that and use it very effectively through the medium of radio. That’s why I particularly like community radio, [and] you’re never quite sure who’s listening either. I’ll get stopped by a local who I’d know and say, “oh, I heard you on the radio the other day, that was an interesting topic you were talking about, I didn’t know this, or I didn’t know that”. And that gives you a little fill-up because you know that someone out there is getting the message. And that’s giving them the resource to help them deal with that issue into the future.

Speaking of the future, what do you see in the future of radio? I guess, being exposed to it from a young age, you’ve seen the progression of it,  where do you see it going?

Well, I would have said that a lot of people might have thought that radio was under threat, because of the development of the modern streaming services that are available; the alternative media channels that we’re seeing. But you know, it’s interesting, in the last few days, we’ve had an example of, “beware of what you’re using”, you know, not everything new is good. And we’ve seen the misuse of social media channels over the last few years, where there have been tremendous drivers of good but also for not so good purposes, and a lot of misinformation, and shall be called as bad actors getting involved in, you know, the likes of streaming channels like Facebook, Twitter. And the most famous recent example is where President Trump was banned from so many of the platforms for his misuse of them.

That’s where bad actors can bring about bad consequences to the misuse of it, I think radio is far more difficult because it’s an interactive type of medium. It’s more structured in that respect. There are more established rules for using radio. We have a stronger regulatory type of environment, which I think personally is good because it helps to keep people on message and aware of what they’re saying, and to who they’re addressing it to. They don’t have this unfettered access to a medium, and they can say whatever they like without the consequences. I personally like radio for that reason, because it gives that more disciplined approach. Irish people are great for listening to the radio, we have one of the highest radio usages or listenership in Europe from my understanding of it. And from that point of view, I’d like to see that grow. I think community radio is very popular here in Ireland, it’s particularly a strong feature down into rural areas, where perhaps, the local newspapers, which were strong sources of local information have dwindled because of the commercial pressures on them. So I think there’s a role for the likes of local/community radio, to act as a means for, as I said very early on: empowering people, as a voice for people and an alternative voice. Because a lot of the radio stations we have in Ireland are commercially owned and are owned by relatively few people. And that I would have a concern with insofar as it would drive a certain agenda.

So I think it’s for the sake of plurality of voice and to give everyone an opportunity to be heard, I think it’s important that we retain a strong and vibrant community radios section. You know, we’re 30 years on the go, I think, this year in Phoenix FM, and you know, the number of people who have come through the channel over the years, some of them have gone on to bigger and better things, people of your generation. Over the years, we have gotten many issues dealt with and we have shone the light on issues that might not be popular with, say, for example, national broadcasters or commercial stations. We’ll give people here in Phoenix an opportunity to be heard.

Tell us a little bit about your experience during the lockdown in relation to working with Phoenix FM. How has that been for you?

Well, you probably know that it all happened rather suddenly around a year ago. The doors originally closed within a few days because of the severity of the first wave, and, I would argue it’s even more dangerous now with the higher rates of transmissibility and so forth.

So in terms of impact, the radio went from a very active 24-hour programming seven days a week, to almost zero overnight. The station has issues with its premises because we’re a small station in terms of physical space. And we make do with a lot of, shall we call it, working from hand to mouth, you know, it takes quite a bit of money to run a station, like ours every year. And we operate on a very limited budget and [are] very frugal with how we do things. So we wouldn’t have to scope like the national broadcaster commercial stations to reopen with larger premises and highly sophisticated ventilation systems and so forth. So we were under the cosh immediately in terms of the availability of volunteers to work on programming within the station. The D 15 team came off the air almost immediately, in terms of live broadcasting, the was very little scope for us to get involved in it. However, as the months moved on, we have this wonderful tool called “Zoom”, which you and I are using this morning. And I was sitting here twiddling my thumbs listening to historical programming and so forth, and I was saying, “there must be something we can do to get back out there”.

So I had a word with my co-presenter, Jeff Murphy, who’s heavily involved in the national community umbrella group, “Craol”. And we were shooting the breeze about, “can we get ourselves back out there somehow somewhere?” Or we go into individually or record segments, then the idea was, “why don’t we just use ‘Zoom’?” You know? And, look, “it’s not a major deal. I’ve used it, talking to my friends. I think we should use it for doing interviews, podcasting.” So that’s effectively what we did, sat down, developed a format. And within a couple of weeks, we had teased out how we would do it. And we got off our backsides and did it! I think we’ve been putting out a programme now once every week for the last six to eight weeks.

Now we’ve taken a little break during the month of January. But we will be doing this on a more regular basis until such time as we’re able to get back into the studio. I suspect that until people get vaccinated, the use of the studio will be highly limited. But personally, I have no issues with “Zoom”, I think it’s great. Mastering the technology as each week goes by, gettin’ more familiar with the little twists and turns in using it. It’s trying to get our guests to buy into it. That will be the next challenge. We’ve already had a number of interviews with people and they’ve been quite successful. We’re hoping that as time goes by, that more and more of our guests will be willing to interact with us like you and I are this morning so that we can bring, a more diverse programming to the listeners over the months ahead.

Yeah, we’re really lucky to have such technology. People during the Spanish Flu back in the early 1900s, they wouldn’t have had tools like us for communication. So we are quite blessed to have something at least to keep us connected. It’s great to hear that you’re still able to do your shows through the medium of this type of technology. To close off, Charlie, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you and getting to know your perspective. So, thanks so much for joining me this morning. Is there anything you’d like to close off with for our listeners and readers?

Well, I think one of the battles we’ve had over the last 20 years, I would say is this cult of individualism that has crept into the world around us where people have disengaged from their local communities. Where it’s been more about themselves, taking care of their own individual needs and wants, and whatever. We have lost some of the glue that we used to have as a community within the greater Irish society, the “Meitheal”, you know, helping each other out, and so forth. I was saying at the very beginning of the programme when I came out here in 1980, I came from a community which was used to, kind of, helping out other members of the community if there were difficulties. Or watching out for the older people, being respectful, you know, just basic civilization and getting on together and helping each other out. I think in the last while too much of society has been the instant gratification kind of syndrome, where it’s all about “me”. We’re seeing it in modern politics, for example, “Trumpism”, it’s all about me, you know, and that type of scenario. I would like to see community radio help to foster and develop a greater community awareness.

And during the times of COVID, I think perhaps there has been a bit of a creeping back in thank God, where we are looking out for her more elderly in the community, we’re having a greater perspective of others around us. Unfortunately, at the same time, because of the rapid rise of community infection in the last month, I wonder have we lost that sense of the need to sacrifice a bit of our own pleasure, our own wants for the greater good, or are we still too interested in just having a good time, regardless of who it impacts on and so forth.

So going forward with 60-100 deaths approaching this daily here, I would ask people to please have regard for others, heed the public health messaging, wash your hands, keep your distance, reduce your contacts, wear your face mask, and heed public service messaging. And also, if you’re in enclosed spaces, keep them well ventilated. All those things will help to improve our lot as a community. And also when the vaccine becomes available. Everyone who can please avail of it, because it’s only when we get widespread uptake of the vaccine that we will have significant improvement in everyone’s quality of life. So community, let’s get in there, help each other, stick tight. Work together and support your local community radio station, because we’re part of that messaging. We’re part of that caring. And we want to Dublin 15 wider community to be a vibrant, successful, and integrated community where we all get on together, and we have better lives as a result of that.