Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Future of Irish Radio Broadcasting. Is the end nigh?

What is the future of Irish Radio? Are the next five years make or break for FM in Ireland? Perhaps the best place to begin to answer that question is to define what ‘radio’ is today. Radio has come a long way since the dots and dashes of the early twentieth century, through the first speech broadcasts and the arrival of new mediums like FM. Its demise has been forecast many times with the arrival of talking pictures, television and the internet but traditional radio broadcasting with a host in a studio broadcasting via a radio frequency with a set schedule and playlist has survived but no longer the only definition of radio.

Traditional radio in Ireland today is as popular as it has been over the past fifty years with over 80% of Irish adults listening to radio at least once every day (JNLR). Revenue is generated by stations especially in the independent commercial sector by selling spot 20, 30 or 60 second advertising. The Irish radio sector has changed little in a quarter century since the end of the pirate radio era with the introduction of commercial radio and ending RTE’s legal monopoly. Many of the same on air personalities are broadcasting for a decade or more with opportunities for new talent limited. The opportunities are also limited as show lengths have expanded and there is less on air personalities for example a two hour show was the norm ten years ago but today Andy Preston on FM 104 is on air for five hours. The way broadcasters perform the duties with the studio has also changed, no longer are there turntables with records having to be lined up, advertising recorded on carts and a dedicated telephone assistant available to take requests, today the studio is completely computerised, there are a multitude of avenues for the listener to contact the station and the presenter now just needs to talk into the microphone.

Radio today is not solely transmitter based, digital radio is available (DAB) and through satellite and digital platforms like Virgin Media, stations are available online via platforms such as Tunein and many stations have their own app for mobile devices, FM104 according to the Google Store has 50,000 downloads. By choosing the FM 104 app you are limited to their content on air and online but permits the consumer to view content and listen to the station’s on air programming.

With the myriad of ways to listen the choice of who we listen to has also expanded. Transmitter based stations like 2FM, Newstalk and FM 104 are available on these platforms but other stations like Z1, Garden County Radio and Dublin’s ABC are solely available online and on digital the choice includes UCB Ireland, RTE Pulse and RTE 2XM. Tunein carries over 150 identified Irish radio stations including stations that were once pirate radio stations on FM but are now solely available online and others aimed at the Irish Diaspora overseas. The Irish Radio Player app allows you to choose from the licensed stations on air across Ireland.

Podcasting is also a form of radio broadcasting and is a growing market both for listeners and revenue. Podcasts are not confined to broadcaster to companion (B2C) but it is also companion to companion (C2C) and allows listeners to instantly become broadcasters without many of restrictions applied to conventional broadcasting.

The restrictions on Irish broadcasting policed by the BAI has also loosened perhaps unintentionally as shock jocks like Adrian Kennedy and Chris Barry pushed the boundaries and drew large audiences often disenfranchised by society who air their grievances in a uncensored fashion with vulgar language the order of the day. It may not be to everybody’s taste but listeners generate advertising and that is the life blood of Irish radio

How we listen is also evolving as technology expands. The days of a large Bush radio as a piece of living room furniture has been replaced by the transistor radio and today in Ireland FM is available through your mobile phone devices to be listened to anywhere. Still our radio bosses control what you listen to through their content and playlists and while you can change station it requires action by the listeners and in today’s society everyone is getting lazier, something station bosses must embrace. The FM radio (RTE AM transmissions closed in 2008) is still a cheap way of listening to radio and is not subject to internet reception black spots.

The car radio is one of today’s primary source for listening as traffic volumes increase and the rush hour shows maintain the highest ratings and therefore the loins share of the advertising pie. We are spending more time in the car but even the traditional car radio is changing with technology and traditional transmitter based stations unable to rely on this captive audience. The solitary radio in the dashboard is vanishing. Dashboards now have screen displays with the ‘radio’ icon fighting for space with wifi availability, the mobile phone, engine performance and even the SatNav.
In the US satellite radio provider SiriusXM provides a plethora of commercial free stations in all genres including sports based on subscription and is available in car once the owner has signed up.

 The mobile device also provides access to FM radio while we work or play. On this side of the Atlantic we are quite privileged as in the US the FM radio chip is not activated by mobile phone companies as they prefer you to pay for radio content and platforms. Even the work place and the supermarket background music is now selected on the basis of productivity and attempts to increase sales. According to Shilcock & Hargreaves (2003) classical music at a restaurant makes consumers buy more than does pop music or no music, so you will rarely hear Spin 1038 in the Italian restaurant but may hear it in the fast food outlet as turnover on seats is regarded as a bonus.

Radio is also competing with music download platforms like Spotify and Apple Music but just like cinemas who have had to compete with television, VHS and online services like Netflix, movies are still being made and Cinema’s are now not just a place to see a movie but an experience radio must improve they way they deliver their content to improve the listener experience.

Irish radio listeners are poorly served despite the fact that so many of us listen to radio every single day. Television has an Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) where you can see what on now and what’s is on next, even online guides like Entertainment.ie provide a comprehensive guide to television but there is no such service for radio listeners despite the fact that more people listen to traditional radio than traditional TV.

Digital Audio Broadcasting arrived in Ireland in 2006 but only still covers just over 50% of the nation but never quite captured the imagination like a Gerry Ryan or Joe Duffy scandal on the radio. According to www.digitalradio.ie if you live in a basement apartment or a steel framed building reception will be affected, not the best advertising slogan in the world. Today it is the source of RTE radio channels and independent broadcasters have shown little faith in DAB even in 2012 at the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland conference digital radio was not even on the agenda.

On fm frequencies there are over fifty radio stations ranging from the state broadcasters of RTE and Radio na Gaeltachta to national commercial stations like 4FM and Today FM to independent regional and local stations and community broadcasters, on Tunein there are over 150 choices for Irish stations (with full or partial regular schedules). On Virgin Media 31 stations including BBC radio channels are available for choice. There are even still pirate radio stations on FM catering for listeners who are not covered by the genres of the stations whom have licences. Recently I have even heard the local hairdresser, pub and butcher advertising on these stations as normal radio station costs are beyond their budgets and they are not being catered for and to be fair these SME’s are the life blood of employment and local communities.

So now what is the future? Stations that are now stuck in a rut must despite any concerns about must find new ways to broadcast and new ways for listeners to connect with their favourite presenters and new ways to create revenue streams.
HD Radio allows stations to create one or more presence on a single FM frequency. So for example if FM 104 broadcasts in Dublin on 104.4mhz they can use that frequency as a three legged stool. Their main programmes are still available on 104.4 but perhaps they want to broadcast FM104+1 or a different music genre the listener can press the HD button and one of the other ‘legs’ comes through your speakers.

These extra ‘legs’ could also be used as a pop up station, FM 104 may like to broadcast a special channel from outside a concert they are sponsoring concentrating the listener and appealing to a unique listenership with specific advertising and interactive competitions without interfering with their normal scheduled broadcasts. This worked extremely well recently in South Africa when the broadcaster SABC used HD Radio to set up a channel to broadcast only the Oscar Pretorious trial and analysis of the days events which proved extremely popular due to the high level of interest.

FM 104 can use their online presence to present something different with their on air personalities. For example a presenter does his two/three hour in the evening on air but then moves to a unused studio and broadcasts for another two hours online only with no real format, playing a different genre of music with no legal restrictions on the conversation perhaps call is FM 104 Dark. 

Perhaps the future of Irish radio will be like the online app ‘Omny’. Here the listeners can create their own radio station with content they enjoy which takes bits from various stations and online content. I could set up ‘Irish Future Radio’ on my app, and then choose the News headlines from Newstalk, Gift Grub from Today FM, the highlights of the George Hook Show, sports headlines from RTE Radio One, new music from 98FM, a documentary from Dublin City FM, my favourite podcaster, comedy from Comedy 104 and music from Lyric FM to break up each of the categories, my own station, my own choice and the app will recognise my choices and prompt new categories to add to my station.

Perhaps RTE News Now could provide radio news allowing you to swipe like Tinder whether you want to hear the story or not allowing the algorithm to gather information on your likes and dislikes providing you with the same ability to swipe but a more targeted news cycle and also allowing more targeted advertising.

You can then take your station to the next level and satisfy the advertisers. Next Radio in the US provides digital content to your device to make your listening experience complete. According to their website
‘See, Hear, and interact with your favourite local radio stations on NextRadio.
NextRadio uses 20 times less data and uses 3 times less battery than streaming.
NextRadio’s Live Guide lets you SEE what's playing on stations in your area so you can choose a station based on the artist or programme currently playing on-air.’
This is known as Hybrid Radio. RadioDNS.org (Domain Name System) is a leader in this field and they state
‘RadioDNS provides the link between what you're broadcasting over FM, DAB, HD Radio (or other broadcast platforms), and what you can also provide over an internet connection. Put simply, it makes radio better.’
Is this the future of Irish radio or is radio you can see the vision of the future. The camera within the radio studio broadcasting live on both radio and television begins to blur the lines of true radio broadcasting.

Imagine you are listening to your favourite music and the musician’s latest news, concert dates and new album comes to your screen plus the link to buy tickets and albums. You are listening to Lewis Black on Comedy 104 musing about being in an airport and flying and ads for holidays and Ryanair come on your screen as almost subliminal advertising. The sports bulletin previews the upcoming Leinster match in the RDS and a competition pops up to win tickets, news from Leinster Rugby including their merchandise store comes on screen plus the RDS advertises the Horse Show and local hotels advertise that they are the place to book, now.

Radio has survived many challenges and will have to defend against many more in the future but the static world of Irish radio needs to embrace and expand new technologies or our traditional FM stations will be left behind but we will still be listening to radio.  

About the Author
Eddie Bohan is a broadcast historian specialising in the history of Irish Broadcasting writing extensively on the subject. I have lectured at the media courses in UCC and in 2016 published a history of the use of radio during the 1916 Easter Rising ‘Rebel Radio’