Jonny remembers his time spent at school as a turbulent experience. He was taken out of one school as he felt he was being victimised and at 16, Jonny left school and enrolled in a course called Quest. It meant he could gain the skills to become a DJ whilst being paid for it. When the Institute, where it was due to take place, was liquidated in his first week there, his prospects looked bleak. “I had no job, I had no work, I had no prospects, I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Jonny feels fortunate not to have experienced many of the effects of the Troubles. His early life was spent in Germany and then in Newcastle, Co. Down and Lisburn. “It’s funny when you look back and realise how growing up, how much of an influence from a very early age it has on you. It obviously shapes your thought processes. I just feel really lucky to have moved to Belfast without any of that baggage and not being a part of that.”
Although the violence and sectarianism was steadily decreasing, Jonny was still aware of some aspects of the Troubles, “I used to watch my parents, especially my mum, everyday she would get up and watch the news and there’d be an update and she’d be sitting there really tuned in to thinking, flip what’s happened? Which side’s done what? Who’s been killed and what’s went off? You could see the fear in her face. When we lived in Lisburn the town was cordoned off at nights so you really couldn’t get in and out of town past a certain time. There was always army patrols out on the streets.”
A moment of good fortune gave Jonny new optimism when he won £1,128 on the lottery, almost the exact same amount of money that he would have been paid for attending the two-year Quest course. “All of a sudden it meant that I could buy a mixer and records and that’s what I started DJing with.”
Again a chance meeting was a significant factor in the development of AU magazine. At the end of a house party, Jonny played a set which went down really well with the home owner who himself was a DJ, “He was like ‘This is great. I’m going to start a club night in Vico’s in a few weeks, do you fancy coming down and being a resident DJ?’ As an 18 year old I would DJ in hardcore techno to a room full of people going completely mental and sweating absolute buckets.”
Jonny began to play gigs across a range of venues across Belfast which effectively snowballed into live promotions and performances that he organised.
He contemplated the idea of developing a local radio station to promote the Northern Irish music scene and was introduced to a website www.Fastfude.org by one of his friends, “The first thing I saw on the top right hand corner was this link saying ‘do you want to get your material played on the radio?’ So I clicked the link and it took me though to the websites for Northern Visions.”
The link was advertising the launch of Northern Visions Radio 100.6 FM, one of 15 access radio stations in the UK. The idea, for this new level of radio broadcasting, was piloted by the regulator at the time, the Radio Authority, who, in 2002, licensed stations for a trial period to test feasibility. The trial was so successful that legislation was brought in for a third tier of broadcasting in the UK, which led to the community radio sector in the UK.
Jonny seized the opportunity to take his idea further and developed a radio show called Alternative Ulster with his friend Cathy, another chance encounter who began developing a website of the same name and same ambitions to promote local music talent. After writing a proposal, to Northern Visions Jonny and Cathy were invited to the studios.
“We thought we were going to be coming in to chat more about what we wanted to play and all of a sudden, Dave was like, go on ahead and record the show. Next thing they showed us how to work the desktop quickly and then we were sitting there looking at each other going oh my word, we’re actually doing a radio show now.”
The new show began to change the public perception of local music, “Local gigs weren’t the norm. There used to be this perception that, if it’s local it’s rubbish. It just started to change and gradually local bands started to pull in numbers to their gigs, they started to put out good releases, good singles and albums. And all of a sudden it went from being a difficult thing to get a gig to every venue in town wanted to be putting on local bands.”
Such was the success of Alternative Ulster’s radio and website platforms, Jonny decided to produce print media in the form of Alternative Ulster Magazine. Through networking and hard work it was launched at a party on Alternative Ulster’s first year anniversary.
“I remember in the first year I worked a 56 hour shift at one point to finish this magazine. The magazine, in its first 10 issues, must have melted down about 6 or 7 computers.”
The success of the magazine had a huge impact on the local music scene in Northern Ireland, providing high quality exposure previously not seen in Northern Ireland. “Our whole ethos at the time was saying that there were bands and talent, both musically and in film from Northern Ireland, that are every bit as good as talent and bands from anywhere else in the world.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Jonny once again joined up with Northern Visions on a new local television show Kick Out The Jams which delivered live music sessions with bands such as Two Door Cinema Club. They were later to go on to become one of the biggest acts in world music. “The local television station was also a really good outlet for local music videos. There were a lot of great local music videos getting made but apart from the Internet there weren’t that many places to see them so it was cool to be able to give them more exposure and to get them out there, it’s just a very different format.”
Today, Jonny is General Manager of the Oh Yeah Music Centre. “It’s basically like a music hub for Belfast. We have a music exhibition of Northern Irish music. There’s also an event space so we put on gigs, we’re open for hire for people to come in and put on their own shows and we also put on our shows.”
On his hopes for the future: “I think there is a lot of great culture and arts in Northern Ireland and it needs a form of expression and I think Alternative Ulster was a great way of expressing what we have here.”