Many Happy Returns: Fans, Creators Celebrate 1st Birthday of U2 X-Radio
By Tassoula Kokkoris
In the summer of 2020, I reported on the first 24 hours of the new U2-X Radio channel on Sirius XM. Now, a year on, I caught up with folks on all sides of the station—from fans to Creators—about how the channel has evolved and what lies ahead …
"I was excited when I first heard the announcement about the channel," said fan Kevin Shannon of Springfield, Mass. "My hope was that U2 would have an original take on radio, and I think they've accomplished that by minimizing the distance between the band and the audience."
Shannon was thrilled when he was chosen to participate with his own Desire playlist. "I saw it as an opportunity to tell the band how enthusiastic I am about them and what their music means to me — especially these five songs that were featured." In the future, he'd like to hear Willie Williams and Joe O'Herilhy on air.
A fan who subscribed to Sirius purely because of U2 X-Radio, Eileen Smee of Pittsburgh, Pa., was delighted to hear so much ‘new' music. "I had the U2 iPod that came loaded with all their songs, so I didn't expect to hear so much that I hadn't heard before. I'm also really enjoying the Desire fan shows and Adam's playlists."
On Smee's wish list for new content: Past live shows, a guest DJ slot with Neil McCormick, and specials featuring Bill Carter and Bill Flanagan.
I spoke to Bill Flanagan, a consultant for U2 X-radio, about his role there and whether or not we'd hear him on air, as Smee hopes.
"I think I'm called a Consultant because what I do is hard to define," he said. "I do everything from writing copy to coming up with ideas for promos or suggesting future guests. I wouldn't rule out being on the air, but currently there are no plans for that."
When the channel was being created, Flanagan says, the team agreed they didn't want it to be a cookie-cutter station. "We all thought that U2 X-Radio should have its own identity and voice; and I do believe that it does." He continued, "You feel immediately that you're listening to a unique station because the hosts have Irish accents; it wasn't planned that way, it was just synchronicity."
Flanagan says the most gratifying thing about working on the channel is how it covers issues of importance through music and culture. "The depth of conversations on Close to The Edge are like a great seminar."
As for how to keep U2 X-Radio fresh, Flanagan says, "We've got to keep innovating. U2 fans are very thoughtful and really pay close attention to what the band is up to — a great idea can come from anywhere, so we're open to suggestions and listen carefully to feedback."
Presenter Jenny Huston first became a U2 fan at age 9 when her sister bought October. "I was a music-obsessed child, saving my allowance, doing chores, mowing lawns — whatever was on offer in order to buy albums. Under A Blood Red Sky was my first U2 purchase (Mine! Not my sister's) and will always be extra special to me. There were posters on my wall … :)"
Fast forward to last December when she received a call asking if she'd consider doing a radio show again. Now, she's on U2 X-Radio each weekday morning. Huston explained, "I usually spend a half day planning the week ahead and doing some research on key dates in U2's career. Then I fill in any gaps in my music choices (I'm a nerd, so I tend to have a spreadsheet tab open on my laptop so that if a song pops into my head, I can add it to an upcoming playlist). It keeps me organised."
As a fan, Huston says she's "blown away by the talent on the station," not the least of which is The Edge. "I think many radio presenters should be glad The Edge is one of the busiest and most talented musicians in the world, as he is a natural presenter/interviewer and would put many out of jobs!" As part of the team, she claims the best aspect of her role is being immersed in music again. "The right riff/beat/lyric/chorus at the right time changes your day/mood/life/outlook! I love being a part of a station that is full of people that feel the same way about music as I do."
Another U2 X-Radio Presenter with musical roots is Cáit "Rocky" O'Riordan, former bassist for The Pogues who has known the band since 1980. She recalls, "I knew the band were doing an in-store record signing on Kensington High St to promote Boy, so I skipped school and went to get my vinyl signed. It was nice to meet the lads, they were completely open and friendly, answering all my geeky questions about the records, and without me realising it at the time, they were teaching me a great lesson about how to interact with the people who buy your music and come to your shows."
As a presenter on the channel, she endures a meticulous process to prepare each show. She explained, "I can spend days fussing over a playlist! U2 have always been generous in acknowledging the artists that influenced and inspired them, so every show starts with me thinking about what was I hearing around 1980 and where U2 fit into that. I aim for 50/50 U2 and non-U2 tracks, with half of the non-U2 tracks to be from women artists. I always want each track to have a link to the next, so I do a lot of research. But of course the more I research, the more I learn, so the list I start with is never the one that makes the show."
O'Riordan recalls something that made a strong impression from an interview she heard with writer/musician Viv Albertine. "She said that the things we loved when we were 15, the music, the books we loved, the films, the poetry, the artists – that's who we really are, that's our true self, and however long we live, we are still that person. I think that's a lovely concept, and I'm middle-aged now, but I get to play the bands I loved when I was 15 and talk about them. It's just a beautiful loop of happiness for me – I hope the listeners enjoy it too."
Creative Director Gavin Friday, spoke about developing the concept for his show, Gavin Friday Presents, "I didn't just want to do a playlist and talk about music — I wanted to really tell the story that not many people know. I started in '72 when I began taking music seriously as a 12-year-old boy. I thought back to what we were hearing and buying back in 1972 and what was influencing us. Ultimately I'm just telling little stories and anecdotes about us as teenagers on Cedarwood Road where we grew up."
The landscape has changed in Dublin since the gritty days of their youth. Friday explains, "You visit Cedarwood now and it's a nice place with Grannies that looks posh, but you go back to the ‘70s and it was a very different scene. Massive unemployment, Ireland was really under the wrath of the Catholic church and such a bleak place. In elements of Gavin Friday Presents, I try to conjure up that wrath and the power hold they had, but with little vignettes and humorous memories to give people a sense of how different the place really was back then."
About this trip down memory lane, he marvels, "It's incredible what music does and the memories it flashes back — it's sort of timeless. Music doesn't have a "sell by" date; it all sounds as fresh and inspiring as always. And even the bad tunes that you didn't really like sound wonderful when you listen back!"
Fans are especially curious about the band's involvement with the channel. Friday confirms,"All four listen back to the shows and Larry is actually the one who Christened the name of the station. When we were brainstorming during the last tour, he was the one who said, ‘Why don't you call it U2 X-Radio?'"
As for his personal show favourites, Friday says, "I'm like a surrogate mother to the band (laughs) and see the good in all of them — I also enjoy the DJs and other shows. On the radio you really get to know people; I think it's one of the purest forms of conversation and communication. The surreal madness of Edge and Woody Harrelson talking about Pop — that's something that really got to another level." On his wish list are longer-form interviews with those who have worked creatively with the band, such as Anton Corbijn and Wim Wenders.
When asked about any possible releases from the vault of live gigs, he responds, "There's a lot of romance about the early recordings on cassette, so sometimes when you listen back the retro bootleg feeling has a charm, but it has to go through the court and juries of Mr. Edge perfectionisms, so … (laughs) maybe?"
Going through The Virgin Prunes archive, Friday said he found a gem recently that may someday surface on the air.
"The Virgin Prunes performed a gig in Sutton, the night the band changed their name from The Hype to U2," he remembered. "Dik Evans just left to join us, but the backing was Larry, Edge and Adam playing a 15-minute version of I Can't Get No Satisfaction with myself and Guggi singing. So there are crazy nuggets out there …"
Friday reflects on how far the channel has come and where U2 X-Radio is headed, "I love seeing the baby grow in its own way. We have lots of ideas for the year coming .... Of course we're thinking about album anniversaries and milestones, but week to week we really just want to keep it fresh and maintain that spontaneous honesty."