Syracuse, NY is a hot-bed of Celtic culture in North America. It is also the hometown of the Irish Power Hour weekly radio show. Host Sean Johnston fills us in on the details.
What is your own ethnic heritage / background?
My mother Alice is from Dublin and my father Augustine is from County Monaghan in the town of Ballybay. They came over to the U.S. in the late 1950’s. They met at a ballroom dance in Dublin and together they were unstoppable. They would enter dance competitions all over Dublin and eventually were told that they could not dance together because nobody could beat them.
When and why did you become interested in Celtic culture & music?
My parents would listen to Irish music all of the time. Every Sunday morning mom would turn the radio on and listen to The Irish Hour to hear to great traditional Irish music. My sister Ann started Irish Dance as a child and quickly took off. My mother was an All Ireland dancer as a child and Ann was the first person from Syracuse to compete in the All World in Galway. She has since become a teacher and adjudicator and sends many dancers to the All World – so Irish music and culture have surrounded me since birth. I really started upping my commitment in 2003 when I started a Celtic Rock band with Mike Centore. He and I work together and with a phone call to two of his brothers and some old friends we had started The Causeway Giants. Then in 2006 after the birth of my Daughter Hannah I started volunteering with the Syracuse Irish Festival which I now Co-Chair with Marty Cahill who was instrumental in getting the radio show started.
When did the radio show start?
The show started in March of 2009. I remember because I approached my wife with the idea as she was pregnant with our third child Liam who was due in April. To this day she cannot understand why she said yes at such a critical time in our lives when I already had so many other things going. So in addition to my real job of being the Sales Manager for Lamar Advertising I was also the President of the local Ad Club with Dan Austin who was the G.M. of one of the radio stations. I asked him what it would take to put a Celtic Rock Radio show on the air. The short answer is a lot of money but they do not just let you buy the time to put on your own show. However, Dan knew me and knew that if I did this I would do it right. I assumed I would be on an AM channel at 8:30 Sunday mornings. To my surprise I was offered a spot on one of their FM stations at 8:00 on Sunday nights. He assumed that I knew what I was doing but I had never been inside a radio booth until my first show. It was horrific – at least from my end. I played great Celtic Rock Music but barely spoke. That would all change when another friend from Lamar started guest hosting. The guest spots soon became pretty regular and we quickly realized that what this show needed was to be the Irish Power Hour with Sean and Cabrina. It has sky rocketed since.
What is the program’s mandate?
The Shows mandate is to provide Kick Ass Celtic Rock and have fun doing it. We are over qualified at having fun and from time to time have to be reeled in from all of the “Shenanigans” as one caller once remarked. We have joked that Danny Boy will not be played. Although it is a great traditional Irish song it is not what we are trying to promote. You can find a couple of traditional Irish / Celtic shows in Syracuse and I love them. But I didn’t want to try and duplicate what was already playing. So instead of the “Irish Hour” we have the Irish Power Hour, which was originally going to be the Irish Hour of Power. When Cabrina was creating the logo I realized that the people at IHOP would probably be looking to sue me if we got big enough.
What are the challenges of putting the production together?
The first challenge of putting the show together was finding enough music. Then came Marty Cahill who Cabrina has nick named “the Patron Saint of IPH” He handed me two large CD cases filled with Celtic Rock. We would not have gone far without his help. The second big challenge used to be finding someone that wanted to come in and work with us for an hour on Sunday Nights. We lost count of how many “knob jockey’s” as Cabrina would put it. They were all pretty cool for the most part but not really into dedicating one hour a week on a Sunday night. We actually started on a Nationally owned radio station that got bought up by another Nationally owned radio station and we were kicked to the curb in the transaction. I reached out to Mimi Griswold who was the Program Director for Galaxy Communications. They are locally owned in Syracuse so I thought it might be worth a shot. When I talked with her she had actually heard of our show and had friends that liked listening to us. We were welcomed with open arms. Our first producer at Galaxy was Alex Conn and he has been with us ever since. We love him! He records all of our shows and takes funny parts and puts them into promos for us. He finds interesting sound bites and puts them in. I love that I can be listening to TK 99 during the week or on a weekend and hear a promotion for our show. The Team at Galaxy has really taken the challenges out of the production. Occasionally we will try and do interviews with bands and scheduling the interviews can be tough on a Sunday night because they are usually on the road.
What are the rewards?
The rewards for doing this show are too great to count. I have been able to meet some of my Celtic Rock Hero’s. I have interviewed some of the top names in our Genre. The Young Dubliner’s came to Syracuse for a gig a couple of years ago. After the show I got to meet the band and drink Irish Car Bombs with lead singer Keith Roberts and later they invited a handful of us onto their tour bus. I am still telling anyone who will listen that story. Cabrina and I have started many projects that we are very proud of. We watch to see when bands are close to the area and whenever possible we bring them into my fathers pub affectionately called the Ballybay. We have done a couple of Celtic Rock Clinics. We hired local musicians to give lessons to people interested in staring a Celtic Instrument with the hopes of continuing the Irish music in the area. Then we planned them when big bands would be in town. We have had The Elders, Scythian and Enter the Haggis on different occasions. The bands would volunteer their time to come in and talk with the students after the lessons and tell them what it is like to be in a real band. We couldn’t do it without the help of some local businesses. Kitty Hoynes Irish Pub in Armory Square offered to cater the events for us. The owners David and Cindy can appreciate what we were trying to do because they have live Irish Music every weekend.
Who are your listeners?
Thanks to Cabrina getting us on i-tunes and because our show streams live on the internet our listeners have grown to just about everywhere in the world. Every now and then Cabrina will pull up our website and show me places that I have never heard of before that are tuning in. Cabrina is from California originally and her family listens on the internet every week. The age and gender go from teens to retirees. We had a couple from Ireland that listened to the easy listening station that we used to be on and loved that they were hearing Irish music on Sunday nights. We have been receiving music from bands all over the world and they seem to be coming more often as of late. With Social Media we are much easier to find than when we first started. We have facebook and twitter so our listeners come from many diverse avenues. We have heard from parents that their kids listen every week to Grand Parents who never miss a show. And we love everyone one of them.
Aside from radio, how are you involved with the Celtic community there?
I belong to the Syracuse Ancient Order of Hibernians and a local organization called the Tipp Hill Athletic Club. They do great things for the Irish Community. As I mentioned I Co-Chair the Syracuse Irish Festival which is always the weekend after Labor Day. September 6th and 7th this year. I am in two Celtic Rock bands. The Causeway Giants is hosting its 10 year anniversary party here in Syracuse in October. The Second band called Attractive Nuisance was started by Cabrina and I last year as part of The Irish Power Hour. I wanted to get more people playing instruments mostly Irish like the Bodhran, tin whistle, fiddle or mandolin. As well as drums, guitar and bass. So last year we started the School of Celtic Rock where we stepped up our Celtic Clinics to actually invite people to learn to play together as a band. Similar to a Rock Camp. I learned to play the mandolin, Cabrina learned bass and we put together about ten people who practiced every night for two weeks leading up to the festival. And the “Graduates” got to start the Syracuse Festival on the main stage Saturday right after the Gaelic Mass and then were all invited back to jam with the headlining act The Elders to sing and play Whiskey in the Jar. All of the graduates also got a diploma signed by Ian Byrne of The Elders. Little things like that are paying off. My middle child Brendan has been practicing the drums more and more since then and tells me he wants to start his own Celtic Rock Band.
Are we doing enough to promote and preserve Celtic culture generally?
I think that the Syracuse Irish Festival does a good job to promote the Irish culture and music. We have an “Irish Village” hosted by the Irish American Cultural Society. where people can look up their Irish ancestry and learn what their name is in Gaelic. We have Kate Costello Sullivan who runs the Irish Department at Le Moyne College here in Syracuse. She is at the festival every year to promote the history and culture of Ireland with several clinics throughout the day.
What can we be doing better?
I would have to say that is an area that can always use more work and it I would love it if more people actually got involved in the AOH or LAOH. The more people that we can get involved to volunteer at the local festivals and learn more about our history. I think it is imperative that we keep the traditions alive and make our kids proud to be a part of such rich culture.
What’s next on your agenda?
If I tell you what I have planned next you have to promise not to tell my wife. If she finds out I am planning anything new she will lock me in my room and throw away the key. Last year we created an idea of having people go to our website and vote for their favorite band that the festival / IPH brought to Syracuse last year. The band with the most votes had a beer named after them from a local brewery. As it turns out the winning band didn’t play the festival but did play at our Golf Tournament in July. And now people are enjoying the Screaming Orphans Red at select bars in Syracuse. We are working on not only continuing that but growing the competition to other festivals in the North East to include more bands and get more people finding out about our show and get the chance to listen to some Celtic Rock at least once a week and not having to wait for their local festival.