Jamaica's All-Reggae Irie FM Radio Turns 10

Sly Dunbar, Tony Rebel argue that station's dancehall emphasis overlooks island's musical diversity.

BBC Monitoring Media

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Ten years ago, when Irie FM announced itself as Jamaica's first all-reggae radio station, there was a lot of skepticism about the viability of the project.

But today, Irie is still rocking and proving the skeptics wrong.

Management at Irie FM planned a quiet celebration for its Aug. 14 anniversary, but the Ocho Rios-based station also has been observing the landmark with commemorative gestures, such as playing the humorous jingles that endeared them to the public back in 1990.

Fittingly, Irie is marking its first decade at a time when polls show the station ahead of other local broadcasters, including the established Radio Jamaica (RJR, which bought longtime rival Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation [JBC] in 1997).

Both stations were already established when Irie emerged in the summer of 1990, but slick marketing and the hunger for more reggae on local radio saw the new station eating into the listenership of RJR and JBC in a matter of months. Said Bob Clarke, one of the founding fathers at Irie: "We came in the 40th year of RJR; we didn't follow their format, they followed ours."

Within two years, Irie had captured a large chunk of market share and has consistently been in the top ranks of listenership surveys since then.

Pioneers Bemoan Dancehall Emphasis

The station's success has come at a price. It has been blasted by reggae purists for not playing the music in its traditional form, as it did in the early days. Indeed, Irie's critics claim it has become too focused on dancehall music.

"They came at a time when there wasn't much reggae on the radio, and they set a precedent so that much more reggae is being played," said DJ Tony Rebel, one of the acts who received extensive airplay on Irie early in his career. "Now, they have no variety and play like a sound system."

Rebel is not the only Jamaican performer who has become frustrated with Irie's dancehall-strong playlist. Drummer/producer Sly Dunbar, who, along with longtime collaborator Robbie Shakespeare, changed the face of reggae in the 1980s, also believes Irie has lost focus. "There's just too much good music being made in Jamaica to be playing just one type of reggae," said Dunbar, whose 1999 track "Extreme Chic" displays his and Shakespeare's continuing evolution.

Still World's Only Reggae Station

But Brian Schmidt, Irie's marketing manager, disagrees. While maintaining that dancehall dominates the Irie playlist, he insists that the station still strikes a balance. "We play all forms of reggae: Lucky Dube, Burning Spear, Ernie Ranglin," Schmidt said, pointing to programs that offer African music and indigenous forms including mento, ska and rocksteady from the 1960s.

Yet Clarke says there was a time in the early days when certain forms of reggae would be frowned on by administrators at Irie because of their "foreign" sound.

"We wouldn't play songs like (the Wailers') 'Hurts To Be Alone' or Carlene Davis') 'Going Down to Paradise,' " Clarke recalled. "Now we hear Herb Alpert, Rufus Thomas and African music."

For all the changes that have taken place at Irie over the years, the station was a godsend to reggae producers and musicians whose music received little attention on RJR and JBC.

These frustrations were played out in 1972 cult movie "The Harder They Come," in which struggling reggae musicians suffered at the hands of station and studio owners, "who were usually of European, Middle Eastern or Chinese descent," to get their music played or recorded.

Even when Bob Marley became a major star in the 1970s, his music received only token airplay on the conservative Radio Jamaica.

In the 1980s, when dancehall declined into lewd and violent content, mainstream radio withdrew even further from homegrown music.

Irie FM's emergence in the 1990s changed that dramatically.

And even after 10 years, Bob Clarke believes there is still room for improvement. "As the only reggae station in the world, we should have gone further," he said.