John Purcell, Chairman of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) said,
‘Ireland is a nation built on the airwaves and in times of crisis it is to radio that people turn to get the most up to date and reliable information, for entertainment as a reprieve from the stress of our current daily lives and to hear local stories from local voices’.
Since its invention over a century ago, the medium of radio has dominated how the consumer has been both entertained and informed. The pandemic that has enveloped the world in 2020 has had a drastic and profound effect on radio both in Ireland and worldwide. So, on the off chance that you have spent most of your lockdown time watching TV, scrolling through your social media news feeds or binge watching box sets, this is a look at radio in Ireland during lockdown. Radio is an intimate and immediate media that requires plenty of fresh and live content. Unlike TV, radio broadcasters are less able to fall back on archive material to keep the airwaves filled.
The negative effects on Irish radio are confirmed when put into context of the global radio situation. In April, the major US radio network NPR cut pay and benefits in a bid to “save jobs and support the future of NPR” after the coronavirus pandemic ballooned its projected losses to as much as $53 million over the next two years. Employees’ pay was reduced on a sliding scale of up to 9% through Sept. 30th and workers were also offered furloughs said NPR Chief Executive Officer John Lansing.
One of the earliest consequences of both the lockdown the came into effect just after St. Patrick's Day, was the need to socially distance was that presenters and DJ’s began to work from home. Linking to the studios via the internet. Presenters including RTE’s Claire Byrne, who contracted the virus, were broadcasting from sheds, attics, hot presses and bedrooms. It was a through back to the heyday of the Irish pirate radio stations where these were often the location of the illegal studios. It affected all stations, national, commercial and even community stations like Flirt FM where the staff had to quickly adapt to working remotely. Ciara Kelly on Newstalk, a trained doctor was another broadcaster to both broadcast from home and to contract the virus, sharing her experience with her listeners.
The consumption of radio was also to suffer the effects of Covid 19 as up to the virus’s arrival in Ireland, most listeners got their radio through their cars as they commuted to and from work or on school runs. As a result of the stringent Government announced lockdown in March, the car was parked up for many months. While many turned to exercise to relieve the boredom and to stay fit replacing the gym, their earphones were more likely tuned to their own musical playlists from apps like Spotify rather than a radio station. It was also to the detriment of radio stations that newer phones do not allow the use of the FM radio on their devices and so stations relied on listeners downloading individual apps or apps like ‘Ireland Radio Online’ or ‘Tune-In’.
Irish radio, just as it is globally, has suffered as the Advertising spend has contracted and put financial strain on radio stations. Radio has lost out as the result of major changes in what the listener consumes and spends their money on as they cocooned for weeks. As we spent more time in our homes, only leaving for exercise or shopping for essentials at the supermarket or the pharmacy, we spent more time online, both to entertain and to spend. The advertising Euro migrated from the radio and traditional media to online spend. According to the Irish Times Google and Facebook in 2019 ‘collected an estimated 40% of the total advertising spend in Ireland’ adding ‘The Irish advertising market, which for so long was the source of income for independent radio, has been lost to these two unregulated global giants’.
The financial viability of this new radio landscape for stations came under the microscope. As early as March, Communicorp, headed by entrepreneur Denis O’Brien and operating a range of stations including Newstalk and Spin announced that all staff would be suffer enforced pay cuts of up to 25%. The rationale was that a pay cut would eliminate the need for redundancies. The media giant attempted to paint a better picture of how their product was being received by its listeners. According to ADworld.ie,
‘New research carried out by Media Central for Communicorp Media shows that Irish people are listening to more radio during the Covid-19 outbreak and that engagement levels with radio have increased significantly. The research received over 6,000 responses over a 48hr period on the March 24th and 25th and focused on Communicorp’s stations including Today FM, Newstalk. Dublin’s 98FM, Spin1038 and Spin South West. According to the research, Communicorp Media stations have seen a significant growth in listenership with reach growing by 34% while people are listening for 45% longer. In addition, the research shows that app downloads for Communicorp apps have increased by 47% while there has been a 54% increase in the number of listeners accessing their stations via a smart speaker.’
The contraction of the market and despite enforcing pay cuts on their staff, according to the Times newspaper in August 2020,
‘Denis O’Brien’s Radio Two Thousand has increased its shareholding in Newstalk after buying shares from the Loyola pub and restaurant group. In February of this year, Radio Two Thousand Limited, a subsidiary of O’Brien’s Communicorp, bought an 18.89% stake in News 106, which operates the Newstalk station. The transaction was revealed in the minutes of a Broadcasting Authority of Ireland meeting, obtained by The Sunday Times. The shares were previously owned by Hyper Trust, the company behind the Leopardstown Inn in Stillorgan, Dublin. The pub was acquired from examinership in 2015 by the Loyola pub group, which is owned by businessmen Stephen Cooney, Brian O’Malley and Eoin O’Malley, a former Leinster rugby player.’
Community radio stations provided updates and news for many rural communities and they provided religious services for a congregation who saw their churches closed. The Lions Club created their own new show, which was broadcast on Ros FM, a community station in Roscommon. Local Lions Club member Kathleen Shanagher said,
"We created our own new daily show 'The Rossie Way' on the community station RosFM and every day we feature everything except the news of the virus. We have comedy, sport, religion, gardening, cookery, local history and a daily quiz too - just no Covid-19. We even gave out 100 new radios (donated by Tesco), presenting them to people who did not have their own portable set and now 5,000 listeners listen every day."
There were many pop-up ‘radio’ stations using various platforms to ‘broadcast’ including on Facebook live. One of those stations was the aptly named ‘Covid Radio Swinford’. Located in the then closed White House pub on Chapel Street, the station run by the pub owners son had a huge following both at home and abroad, connecting Mayo people across the world with music and requests, although the broadcasts occasionally fell foul of copyright rules. With over one hundred broadcasts, Covid Radio Swinford made its final broadcast from the front window of the pub on June 28th just before the pub was due to reopen. Quarantine FM began on Monday March 22nd and was launched by Anna-Rose Charleston and Kate McKeown and proved popular. In Galway Benen Tierney launched Lockdown Live Radio online from him home, with presenters working remotely to entertain. As restrictions were lifted the station was renamed ‘Freedom Gold’.
In Northern Ireland, the Protestant/Loyalist traditions celebrate July 12th as the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne and is usually marked by bonfires, fireworks and parades throughout Northern Ireland but with Covid restrictions the Orange Order needed a different way of reaching their community. Radio Boyne described as a ‘pop up station’ was launched July 10th at 11am by Deputy Grand Master Harold Henning followed at 2.30 pm by the 'Twelfth Request Show.' The station remained on air for four days broadcasting including on The Twelfth of July, on various digital platforms and their own app. It proved popular and successful especially with listeners in Belfast.
Other stations opened in a blaze of publicity and quickly disappeared like Gold Radio which launched in early May in the midst of the pandemic. Gold Radio’s line-up included founder Mike Moloney (RTÉ 2FM, RTÉ Gold & Radio Nova), Chris Barry (FM104 & 98FM), Electric Eddie (RTÉ 2FM & Q102), Liam Quigley (98FM, Q102, RTÉ 2FM & Radio Nova), Mick Mulcahy (Cork’s 96FM & Red FM), Pat James (Radio Nova), Bob Conway (RTÉ 2FM, KFM & East Coast FM) and Dave Lyons (98FM, Classic Hits 4FM & DJ at Copper Face Jacks). Station Manager, Mike Moloney, explains why now is a good time to launch a radio station,
RTÉ announced that it was going to shut its entire digital service,
including RTÉ Gold, I couldn’t believe it! Turns out I wasn’t the only one and
out of that came the idea for Gold Radio. As the technology was easily
available to everyone, we decided it was timely to launch Ireland’s first fully
manned, digital-only, radio station. It’s going to be a fun station, playing
music everyone knows, staffed by DJs who the listeners will remember, and all of
them got involved to play the music they love and have a good time. That
attitude led to the station’s motto: ‘Gold Radio, Playing the Good Stuff’. The
original idea was that all staff would be paid from the beginning, but Covid-19
put an end to that. The plan stalled for a while and then it was decided to go
ahead anyway, with minimum funding, and at least get Gold Radio broadcasting.
There was so much goodwill for the project that we found a load of presenters
who were quite willing, at least for the moment, to go on air and work for
Unlike most other stations these days, where presenters have to toe a company line and dare not adjust the computer playlist in front of them, our crew can happily change any track they don’t like that may appear on their playlist and say what they like, once it doesn’t get us sued! It’s that old-fashioned thing that we all grew up on – Personality Radio.
With the lockdown forcing Catholic Churches to close their doors and services including funerals held either behind closed doors or with limited numbers. Churches broadcast their services for their parishioners. In the urban area including the major cities, due to the lack of frequencies, Churches used webcams or Facebook Live to reach their audience while others used the WPAS licensed system but an increasing number of rural parishes began using illegal FM transmitters to broadcast mass every day including funeral Masses and even in some parishes broadcasting bingo and quiz nights. Online digital station Radio Maria based at the Red Cow Roundabout in Dublin saw its audience grew significantly as the faithful listened to services especially daily Mass through the Virgin TV digital platform. The station was also available on DAB and various live radio apps.
In July 2020, the Fine Gael caretaker Government led by Leo Varadkar was replaced with a Coalition Government formed by Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party. Following the formation responsibility for broadcasting transferred from the former Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to the newly created Department of Media Tourism Arts Culture sports and Gaeltacht. A new Government Bill was proposed that would see the replacing of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with a Media Commission. The Government and the BAI tried to assist the struggling radio sector by announcing a The Government and the BAI tried to assist the struggling radio sector by announcing a €2.5million package to be spread amongst the stations to offset the loss of advertising revenue and the costs associated with remote broadcasting. The previous March, prior to the formation of the Coalition Government, the Minister for Communications announced the waiving of the broadcasting levy paid to the BAI. He said,
‘I recognize the importance of local radio stations to their communities as a trusted source of information on the COVID-19 Pandemic. They play a crucial role, especially in broadcasting community-specific information across the country. In common with other businesses, the local radio sector has experienced financial strain as a result of a drop off in advertising revenue. To ensure that local radio stations can continue to play a role in serving local communities, I have requested the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to waive the broadcasting levy for the first six months of the year. This action will save local radio stations almost €1m.’
Pirate radio was not immune from activities during the crisis. On July 17th Wild Country who were broadcasting near the border were raided. https://www.facebook.com/106487707585931/videos/1197629210587522/
According to a post Wild County FM put up on their facebook page after a raid by ComReg and the Gardai,
‘Today at approx 11:30am, Officers from ComReg accompanied by Gardai conducted a raid on the Wild Country FM transmission site, which was located at Edentubber, Co. Louth. Equipment valued at €16000 (£14500) was seized and the station was taken off the air at 11:40. While we fully acknowledge that our station was operating without a license, it has filled a valuable void which has been left for local radio, particularly in the South Armagh and Down areas since the departure of Q radio from their Newry Studio. We had been broadcasting the public health advisories on Covid-19 twice an hour for both North and South and if the reaction to our station over the lockdown is anything to go by, we feel we have made this difficult period easier for our listeners by providing Irish and American country music around the clock. Alas this came to an end today, why it took 6 members of ComReg, together with Gardai to do this we will never understand when a simple phone call to us from the authorities would have sufficed. (The CCTV video from our site is like something out of Narcos - sledgehammers etc).’
Finally, Hollywood movie star Matt Damon found himself stranded in the south Dublin suburb of Dalkey with some of his family. Locals photographed the superstar which went viral and then two presenters on Spin 1038 began a tongue in cheek campaign to get Damon on air. In May 2020 to both the surprise and delight of presenters Nathan O’Reilly and Graham O’Toole, he rang in from Dalkey and the call made headlines around the world.