Electric Mainline on track as it reaches 10th anniversary

Stephen McCauley.
Stephen McCauley.

This Thursday, 11th February, the Electric Mainline show on BBC Radio Foyle will be ten years old.

It’s a decade in which the presenter Stephen McCauley has made his mark as a voice of local radio, and as a respected music aficionado.

In fact, just last year he picked up the 2015 PPI Irish Radio Award for Specialist Music Broadcaster of the Year.

Talking about the show he says its main purpose was “to put alternative music on Radio Foyle.”

He said, “I was always keen at the start to have a concept which anchored it locally but while having your eyes very firmly on the international stage. Playing local bands and reflecting local culture but not becoming too safe in that territory.

“It’s very easy to take on this local hero mantel while ignoring the rest of the world but I firmly believe that local music needs to be in an international context.

His research for the show is constant too. “I do think when you listen to Electric Mainline you will hear things that you won’t hear other places. I’m constantly on the search for stuff - that’s one of the driving forces for me.”

His start in radio happened while he was working in the Post office customer service, and he took part in a scheme called Radio Heads.

He explained, “The idea was for people from the local community to come in and make some radio - and go back home and do their jobs. When I sat down in Studio 1A, and switched the microphone on, it all clicked. I felt ‘I belong here; why have I not been here for all this time. To this day I still broadcast Electric Mainline from studio 1A.”

Despite feeling so at ease in the studio, Stephen did lose heart in the following months. That didn’t stop him leaving his job at the Post Office anyway, and he readily admits that radio was still in the back of his head - “it was still in the ether.”

He subsequently made a pilot of Electric Mainline which received good feedback, and just before she left to join RTE Radio One, the then editor of Radio Foyle, Anna Leddy, put it forward for commission - and it was approved two months later.

Since then, Stephen is immersed in local radio, and besides Electric Mainline on a Thursday at 7pm, on Radio Foyle, he also presents ‘Soundscapes’ on Radio Ulster/Foyle on Wednesdays at 10pm, as well as the 3pm-5pm slot on Radio Ulster/Foyle, Monday to Friday.

But the show which gave him his break is now a decade old - and it’s also the one that’s gave him his “dream job”.

“I remember vividly the first show; my finger hovering over the button ready to play that first song - which was ‘In This Home On Ice’ by an American band called ‘Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah’.”

Alternative music is Stephen’s passion, be that “heavy punk guitars, dance music, classical - anything that seems to be off the mainstream.

“I love mainstream music too, I’ve been reared on it, but I suppose my passion is discovery. I like being hit with things I haven’t heard before. It was always that way from day one.”

A number of local bands also had their first radio play on Electric Mainline, including Soak, PORTS (and under their first moniker Little Bear), Two Door Cinema Club and Ego the Jackal - and many more. But Stephen does “listen to a lot”.

“You get loads of stuff through - it used to be CDs but now people email me tracks.

“If I hear something I love, I want to get it out on radio as fast as I can. It’s a real hunger.”

Stephen puts together what he calls ‘research tapes’ to listen to while he drives, knowing that if a song is strong enough to get his attention away from the concentration of the road, then it has to be good.

In the ten years since Electric Mainline started things have naturally changed, especially the technology side of the business, as Stephen explains, “Young people are less engaged by music in the way that I feel that they once were, and perhaps more engaged by expressing themselves through social media.

“That’s not to say there’s not a killer passion out there for music because there is but as a social driver, things like social media has taken the place of the old jukebox.”

Describing the Derry music scene he said, “On a more local level, there’s a great sense of community, which isn’t a genre-focused scene. It’s multi-genre, with real extremes like Autumn doing noise rock; experimental material like Strength; bands like PORTS; singer-songwriters like Ego the Jackal and Soak, firebrands like the Wood Burning Savages, and electronic pioneers like Ryan Vail; so you’ve got this whole gamut.

“A whole spectrum in one city, and all of it coming from this deep-seated love of music. I don’t believe that any one of bands I’ve mentioned are in it for fame or fashion, nor anything other than the love of music - that to me is always inspiring.

“One thing that hasn’t changed, is that excitement you feel from other people that love music.

“If I have a new band that I’ve never met before, you’re re-engaged in their excitement in music and that hasn’t changed - they make it with a great deal of passion.”

Stephen’s Radio Foyle colleagues are also his second family - “It’s a small team, the support network is there, and I’m working with heroes, people like Mickey Bradley who I grew up listening to and of course, the late Gerry Anderson, who was the sole reason I got into radio.

“He was my icon. I listened to him every single day of the week, and miss him about the building. How do you replace someone like Gerry?”

His real family are also a huge support - his brother and sister remain his biggest critics and his sounding boards. “We definitely have different opinions on music - but they’re my unofficial production team.

“Unfortunately, a lot of what I’ve done on radio has been a one-man-band - presenter, producer, researcher so I have needed people that I can go to, to ask ‘Does this work?’”

Going ahead he would like to take the show to a more visual level - and hopes one day to simultaneously broadcast a live version of the show online while the audio goes out traditionally on radio.

“It would be a chance for people to see the programme for the first time. I would like that to be the future of the programme.

“Every year I always ask myself ‘What’s this year going to be about?’ but the work takes over; bands are sending you music and it happens itself. My rule for everything is ‘play the great stuff’.”

In the meantime, Stephen will be curating an Electric Mainline stage at the Output Festival in Belfast at the end of February - and more impressively, taking a huge leap and having the Electric Mainline logo tattoo-ed on his arm. Never mind the music - that’s dedication.