“It is with regret that we are announcing the station’s proposed restructuring plan to continue to deliver an alternative music service for young Dubliners”.
A dry enough sentence, full of standard business speak, but one that is set to resonate through the Irish music scene. It – and the larger statement of which is forms a part – appear to sound the death knell for Phantom 105.2, the radio station that has fought the good fight on behalf of not only the domestic listener but homegrown artists for just shy of twenty years. Starting as a pirate in 1996, the station endured plenty of ups and downs over the years – not least the High Court case that held up its licence by a, perhaps crucial, two years in 2004. Yet endure is what it did, until now it seems.
You could argue that the writing has been on the wall for a while. Like other media outlets – ourselves included – the station has found the task of providing what is a niche product in tightening financial times a tough one. Even with some heavyweight backers a move under the Communicorp umbrella in 2011 was deemed the only means of survival, after which the ‘old’ Phantom was steadily dismantled. Management were cut (including station founder Simon Maher, presenting a final heartbreaking episode of his own show), as were the first wave of weekend programmes.
And then on Friday came the deepest cut of all, with up to twenty staff being given a month’s notice in one hit. This will leave a rumoured name change, just three regular daytime shows (all of which clock in at a lengthy four hours) and most probably computer driven content the rest of the time. No human input, no expert opinion, no banter, no nothing. It’s a grim prospect, as detailed by Steven Dunne on State last year.
The sad irony is, of late, that the station seemed to be finding a unique voice once more. While it’s daytime output has suffered from a lack of distinction against Nova and the big nationals, away from those main hours Phantom was starting to shine. With specialist shows of real knowledge and depth (Metal Notes, Laura Lee Conboy’s Spiral Stares) covering those particular bases, there was a pleasingly freewheeling music policy developing – with healthy doses of hip-hop, soul and electronica breaking up the guitar tunes. It all came together in the Richie And Richie show on weekday evenings, a glorious hotch-potch of an affair presented by two genuine broadcasters and home to a dizzyingly eclectic playlist policy (just take a look at this example). Not only is the best show on Phantom, it’s pretty much the best thing on Irish radio period.
Yet in a month all that will be gone. It’s doubtful a focus group programming a computer will countenance Cliff’s ‘Move It’ into the new We Cut Corners single. It won’t champion young Irish acts, as Cathal Funge’s Icon has over the past few years. It won’t give a damn about where the next Jenny Huston, Cormac Battle or Dan Hegarty will learn their craft. Phantom isn’t perfect but as least those involved are doing the best that they were allowed to do. The figures may not have added up (the last set of accounts showed a loss of €4.2 million) but this scorched earth policy suggests that a different long term plan was in place.
Will we see it’s like again? Probably not, although digital has opened new doors. As I write, 8Radio (founded by Simon Maher) has played TV On The Radio into Eurythmics. Curious Broadcast is doing good things and Turning Pirate is on the way. All depend on people doing if for the love of it, as does pretty much everything in music these days. It’s hard to see a way back, which makes you wonder how the landscape will look in twenty, even ten years. Hopefully, those still reeling from Friday’s news will eventually pick themselves up and still find a way to do what they do best. The music needs them.