Af­ter a dif­fi­cult year, at a time when RTÉ pur­ported to come to­gether to mourn a ra­dio leg­end, it was tear­ing it­self apart

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - RADIO 2019 - MICK HEANEY

In a year when Ir­ish ra­dio, like so much tra­di­tional media, con­tin­ued to face on­line com­pe­ti­tion and shrink­ing fi­nances, the ex­pe­ri­ence of two sta­tions stands out. One, which marked its 40th birthday in 2019, dumped its longest-serv­ing pre­sen­ter, alien­ated another star dur­ing a much-hyped re­launch, yet failed to stem a de­clin­ing lis­ten­er­ship. The other, which marked its 20th birthday, stuck steadily to its course, main­tained a sta­ble line-up and added to its au­di­ence.

The lat­ter chan­nel, Lyric FM, was re­warded with threats of clo­sure by fis­cally chal­lenged par­ent net­work RTÉ: in the end, the State broad­caster de­cided to shut down the clas­si­cal mu­sic sta­tion’s main studios in Lim­er­ick, putting staff at risk and dam­ag­ing morale. Mean­while, the other chan­nel, 2fm, hav­ing ditched the ev­er­green Larry Go­gan and botched the reshuf­fling of Jenny Greene dur­ing a spring over­haul, has been left com­par­a­tively un­scathed by the crisis grip­ping Mon­trose.

The con­trast­ing for­tunes of 2fm and Lyric are re­veal­ing about how the na­tional broad­caster views its ra­dio mis­sion, as well as how the sta­tions run them­selves. In its ef­forts to at­tract the ever-fickle youth de­mo­graphic in the crowded (and to the unini­ti­ated, largely iden­tikit) field of com­mer­cial pop sta­tions, 2fm re­vamped its line-up, re­cruit­ing the likes of social media in­flu­encer Doireann Gar­rihy. No­tably, the sta­tion’s re­jigged day­time ros­ter mainly fea­tured fe­male pre­sen­ters, a wel­come de­vel­op­ment in Ir­ish ra­dio.

While the sta­tion’s over­all share fell slightly, its head­line moves worked. Gar­rihy’s break­fast show part­ner­ship with Eoghan McDer­mott yielded in­creased lis­ten­er­ship, as did Jen­nifer Zam­par­elli’s shift to mid-morn­ing. That the appeal of some 2fm pre­sen­ters was lost on this middle-aged writer may be fur­ther vin­di­ca­tion of their youth-ori­ented strat­egy. Of more con­cern may be the fact that far more young lis­ten­ers tune into lo­cal rather than na­tional sta­tions, if they lis­ten to ra­dio at all.

Mean­while, Lyric kept its older (and smaller) au­di­ence sweet by ad­her­ing to a playlist of safe clas­si­cal and un­threat­en­ing MOR from pleas­ing hosts like Marty Whe­lan and Lor­can Mur­ray. Only the pres­ence of John Kelly and Bernard Clarke in the evenings risked star­tling the horses with their stim­u­lat­ing mu­si­cal choices. Over­all, it’s not a par­tic­u­larly novel or ex­cit­ing strat­egy, but it still man­aged to slightly in­crease Lyric’s reach.

But if Lyric and 2fm op­er­ated ad­e­quately within their own pa­ram­e­ters, RTÉ clearly viewed them in zero-sum terms, putting the more spe­cial­ist – and, sur­prise sur­prise, more os­ten­si­bly elit­ist – sta­tion on the chop­ping block. Even al­low­ing that the net­work is in deep trou­ble, the con­trast be­tween the ob­vi­ous dis­dain for Lyric and the in­dul­gent at­ti­tude to­ward 2fm sent out a deeply neg­a­tive sig­nal. If the State broad­caster can’t be both­ered main­tain­ing a rudi­men­tary com­mit­ment to its cul­tural or pub­lic-ser­vice re­mit, what hope for any com­mer­cial sta­tion to take even a vaguely sim­i­lar path? No won­der even peren­ni­ally up­beat Lyric pre­sen­ters such as Mur­ray and Liz Nolan were heard voic­ing dis­sent at their plight, al­beit in gen­teel terms.

Then again, Lyric fared bet­ter than RTÉ’s dig­i­tal ra­dio chan­nels, which are to be axed en masse. While the likes of oldies sta­tion Gold and al­ter­na­tive plat­form 2XM may only pos­sess, to quote Spinal Tap, se­lec­tive appeal, their clo­sure robs lis­ten­ers of choice and di­min­ishes RTÉ’s dig­i­tal foot­print, hardly bod­ing well for the longer term. That news of these plans co­in­cided with the death of Gay Byrne – the man who set the tem­plate for Ir­ish talk ra­dio – only added to the glum sym­bol­ism. At a time when RTÉ pur­ported to come to­gether to mourn Gaybo, it was tear­ing it­self apart.

Rule the air­waves

Even so, RTÉ Ra­dio 1 con­tin­ued to rule the air­waves, pro­vid­ing 19 of the coun­try’s 20 most pop­u­lar shows as well as the most mem­o­rable mo­ment of the year in the form of Sean O’Rourke’s as­ton­ish­ing in­ter­view with Maria Bailey. The hap­less Fine Gael TD’s on-air im­plo­sion was a ca­reer-end­ing fail­ure of judg­ment, but the man­ner in which her car-crash en­counter went vi­ral was surely a sign that lis­ten­ers craved re­lief from the daily cas­cade of Brexit news. That said, O’Rourke has thrived in the febrile po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere cre­ated by events in Bri­tain and the United States, while host­ing stand­out items such as his dev­as­tat­ing in­ter­view with for­mer garda Ma­jella Moyni­han. As such, he was Ra­dio 1’s strong­est per­former.

Oth­ers fared less well. Ray D’Arcy, in par­tic­u­lar, con­tin­ues to cut a slightly lost fig­ure on his Ra­dio 1 af­ter­noon show, more a grab-bag of ran­dom stuff than a prop­erly de­fined pro­gramme. With RTÉ cut­ting costs and re­duc­ing top salaries, one won­ders whether sta­tion or pre­sen­ter are get­ting the best out of each other.

Still, D’Arcy is a pic­ture of pur­pose com­pared with his old home, To­day FM, a sta­tion with­out di­rec­tion. While Ian Dempsey in the morn­ing and Matt Cooper in the early evening act as sta­ble (if dif­fer­ing) book­ends, the day­time sched­ule is di­vided be­tween the un­even za­ni­ness of Der­mot and Dave and the af­fa­bly generic style of Mairead Ro­nan, who re­placed Muire­ann O’Con­nell amid some ac­ri­mony but to no great ef­fect. How the sta­tion must long for D’Arcy’s old rat­ings.

Amidst all this, New­stalk was an oa­sis of sta­bil­ity. Ivan Yates ce­mented his po­si­tion as the sta­tion’s big­gest draw, Pat Kenny re­mained a solid pres­ence while Shane Cole­man and Kieran Cud­dihy con­sol­i­dated their break­fast show part­ner­ship. Over­whelm­ingly blokey and opin­ion­ated as New­stalk is, it has a clear identity which other sta­tions must envy.

That said, the sta­tion still main­tains its petty ban of jour­nal­ists from this pa­per over an un­favourable ar­ti­cle about Com­mu­ni­corp owner De­nis O’Brien more than two years ago. Any­one won­der­ing why a ro­bust pub­lic ser­vice broad­caster is nec­es­sary can find their an­swer there.

Above: Jenny Greene, sur­vivor of a botched 2fm reshuf­fle. Left: Sean O’Rourke, RTÉ Ra­dio 1’s strong­est per­former

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