by / October 1st, 2012 /

Top Story: Radio free Ireland

In 1948 plans were drawn up by Radio Eireann and the Fianna Fail party to rebuild Irish radio. This overhaul was to establish a 100 kilowatt output from a new station that would feed receivers in places as far-flung places as India, South Africa and, obviously, America – the natural landing pad for much of Ireland’s ‘shamrockery’ and propaganda during the fight for independence. In fact, it is widely believed that Irish rebels were the first to use the radio waves for such purposes, despite the signal dying on the vine just off the coast of Galway.

As the then Minister PJ Little put it, the purpose of this expansion was to put forth the best of Irish culture and tell the “everyday story of Ireland, spoken with it its own voice”. A noble declaration and one that perhaps under the right stewardship might actually have worked. As progressive in thinking as this concept was, bearing in mind that the technology at the time was laboratory-fresh, Irish radio was then, as it is now, an integral part of life. As far as mass media goes, radio is unique in its ability to passively feed the consciousness of its recipients. How many among us listen to the radio as we busy ourselves with day-to-day mundanities? Getting dressed, driving to work, cleaning the house, whatever. Television, print media, and most certainly the internet, demand our attention like a screaming child and all the while, radio is just there. So how exactly did Irish radio go from celebrating Irish culture, music, seanchais and life to the homogonous lump that it is now? Far from being a call to recreate the days of Irish media telling us how to be ‘Irish’, surely we should expect a little bit more from what is essentially an enveloping swarm of culture. Consideration for all would be a start.

This year, the BAI announced its intentions to keep the cap on radio ownership at 25% of the market. This meant that no one owner could own more than 25% of all radio output in the country. Tellingly, however, this does not include digital media and in light of advances in digital compression, RTE alone house some ten individual stations; each apparently catering for specific demographics and tastes. Despite calls to reduce this limit to 20% – which would have seen Ireland’s two largest independent groups, Communicorp and UTV, hold shares just over the cap – the original ceiling was maintained. But ragging on ownership is hardly going to solve matters; it is after all only one string in the bow. The most prominent snag here can very easily be argued to be the distinct lack of diversity on display.

Sure, there is plenty of Irish music being played but in the same way that the days of prescribed ‘Irishness’ have passed so too have the days of sameness. For every varying voice in the country there are similar numbers of varying tastes but media output only skims the surface of them. The near-hegemony that exists in Irish radio has seen many of the genuine independent voices either absorbed by the powerhouses and added to their mantra of targeting, or force their hands with regards programming. How else can the smaller, regional or independent stations compete for the lifeblood of advertising revenue if they’re not following suit and playing the game?

The overarching differential being that the big-boys are choosing music for a specific consumer base and the outfits with narrower budget-streams have little choice but to mimic them in the hope of catching crumbs from the table. Would many discerning (and that’s not to say elitist) music fans know the difference between Today FM and 2FM based solely on musical output? These two monoliths create the field of play regarding musical content and as such hold the paradigm. When you look at the criteria for obtaining a broadcast licence it makes reference to providing for specific demographics but when put into practice its clear that not everybody is catered for. Instead there is a glut of like-for-like programming across the spectrum. Although competition is healthy in this regard, how many stations competing for the same market can the airwaves hold? And how many of them can afford to exist outside the holy grail of a high-consumption audience? If their choice of music is your thing you have no reason to be unhappy, similarly if you don’t care one way or another. But not everybody has room in their lives for Jesse J or Bruno Mars.

Clearly there is a market for ‘left of the dial’ programming and the story of Dublin’s Phantom shone a light on radio’s deficiencies. The Little Pirate Station That Could saw its way through theft, closure, temporary licensing and on-line only transmission and emerged from it with a fan-base as loyal as the station was dogged. Their adherence to promoting Irish acts and alternative music in general established them as a de-facto source of music for listeners and a home for emerging talent. Never exactly a diamond mine, they survived and thrived on a shoestring budget for years and only when Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp bought up a 30% stake in the company did cost-cutting reach redundancy levels. Although this hardly indicates the station losing audience numbers or moving away from their remit, only time will tell if the loss of some of the stations policy makers and staff will impact on the station’s appeal.

Far from pointing fingers at ‘the man’ or rallying against corporate and commercial ownership, they are after all an undeniably valuable part of modern media life nowadays; Irish radio listeners probably deserve a bit more than inward focusing competition and identikit programming. There is music that without the internet is destined not to be heard and therein lies the biggest shame of all. For anybody lucky enough to be able to listen to BBC 6Music on a daily basis what they’ll hear are music lovers loving music, always challenging and never predictable. Maybe if Irish radio had something similar it could fulfill its mission of telling our story as it exists in the 21st century.