Tuning In: why local radio is important

Today was the launch of the latest Joint National Listenership Research results, or JNRLs, for the broadcasting sector in Ireland. It’s the equivalent of the ABCs for newspapers.


And everyone is claiming they have 100 per cent listenership – it seems to be a win-win for everybody. But that’s spin (PR rather than the radio station) as its best. There are some winners – RTE is doing well again – but mostly the figures are either up or down very slightly on last year. On the same vein however, two of my students hosted a really impressive seminar today on local radio in Ireland. I didn’t realise it until they told me, but the local radio sector, or to give it its proper title the ‘independent commercial radio’ sector which actually includes local, multi-city, regional and a couple of national stations, has been around now for quite a while, and is about to celebrate its 25th year. Like all media, it had a boom-phase during the Celtic Tiger and is now struggling for commercial survival (though unlike newspapers, its relevance is not in question). I made an introductory address to the seminar, whose speakers included Caimin Jones, former RTE broadcaster and long time local radio enthusiast; Michael O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland – the regulatory body which polices compliance, governs standards and practices within the sector, and issues licences; and John Purcell, chief executive of KCLR in Carlow/Kilkenny and the president of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, the umbrella lobby group representing the industry. In my remarks, I discussed how important local radio had become, and how it was as important a public service broadcaster in rural Ireland as RTE was. But I also criticised the shockingly low rates of pay for journalists working in the sector, and I strongly urged the industry to improve salaries if it wanted to attract talent into commercial broadcasting. Here’s an extract from my speech:

“Say what you like about journalists, journalism has a fundamental role to play in any democracy. At their best journalists expose corruption and wrongdoing, they investigate wrongs. They act – mostly – in the public interest. Fundamentally, as Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has said, they keep government honest.

Radio Telifis Eireann has been Ireland’s national broadcaster for more than 50 years, and I think it’s fair to say it is probably one of the best broadcasters in the world. And why wouldn’t it be, with the influences of our nearest neighbours the BBC.

But local radio has played an equally important role in Irish democracy. It has, in fact, had a transformational impact on the quality of public service journalism since it was officially licenced 25 years ago. In fact, I think calling the sector the commercial radio sector actually does a disservice to the stations that broadcast around the country every day. Many of them (though not all) are as much a public service broadcaster as RTE is, and I’m sure they wouldn’t agree with me if I suggested that the new broadcasting charge that will replace the television licence fee should reflect that in terms of funding to the sector.

The impact that local radio has had has been quite phenomenal. I’m not going to go through every listenership area, but any quick look at the JNRL figures will show you just how much of an impact local radio has had, and just how important it is to local communities throughout the country.

Journalists get things wrong, sure, but we never intentionally set out to do so. We are guided by principles of accuracy and fairness, and bound by defamation and privacy legislation when conducting our work. RTE in recent years has been left reeling from two whoppers, first the Fr Kevin Reynolds debacle and the bogus tweet on the Frontline programme. We have not seen these kinds of lapses from independent broadcasters.  

If I could move, briefly, to what has become known in the business as “newseconomics” – or perhaps radio-enomics is more appropriate. The Celtic Tiger was a boom time for the media, just like every other Irish industry. But those glory days of double digit ad growth are well and truly gone, and many media  organisations are now in crisis.

Newspapers are probably worst hit, though local radio is struggling as well. Those of us in the newspaper business are already predicting the end of newspapers not just within our lifetimes, but within a few decades.

Local radio, like the rest of the media, made hay during the Celtic Tiger years, but I think it’s fair to say it never got carried away, probably because property ads were in the main what drove much of the advertising in newspapers, and they did not transfer as easily to radio. We certainly saw hugely inflated prices paid for stations – many multiples of what they might be worth in today’s market. Independent broadcasters have, since 2007, felt the cuts, and unfortunately at the brunt of many of those cuts have been staff, who have had to take pay cuts, if not redundancies.

It would be to ignore the elephant in the room today if I did not at least make passing reference to the pay rates on offer for journalists in the sector. Freelance rates for local radio are on the floor; stations are under more and more pressure to cut costs; those who have jobs are struggling; in some cases journalists are leaving the profession entirely because they simply cannot afford to work in it any more.  

There are now – and correct me it I’m wrong here  – 27 local independent commercial radio stations licenced in the State, as well as 2 national stations and five regional stations. All with strict regulations on sharing of content. I have to ask the obvious question here, do we have too many radio stations licenced? I recently had lunch with a shareholder in a certain commercial radio venture, who said not only had the investment never made any money, it never would.

While it is difficulty to have a lot of sympathy for investors, the reality is that the sector needs to be profitable, and needs to be commercially healthy, if it is to continue to operate and provide strong public service local radio, and if it is to offer a realistic prospect of a career path for those who want to work in commercial radio.

Now I’m not talking about closing down stations and costs jobs in the sector, but it does seem to me that in order to survive – not just survive but offer a reasonable wage scale and a hope at a career for journalists – creative solutions may need to be found. Does it really matter if the latest chart show broadcast on Clare FM is shared with Galway Bay FM and Limerick’s Live 95?”

I did promise at the start of my speech to either not talk for too long or not insult anybody. I didn’t mange to avoid doing either.

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