Kevin Branigan has been a big fan of radio since he was a young lad. As a teenager, he loved to play around with transmitters and get a hold of the controls. Back in the 1990s, he had a pirate station in his garden shed in Stillorgan. Today, Branigan runs Radio Nova and the goal he has set for the station is to become Dublin’s third most popular in the next two years.

Nova has earned a reputation for its print and TV ads, some of which have been close to the bone. Whether it’s a foxy lady playing air guitar or cute babies by the names of Bono Murphy and Jon Bon Reilly, the ads have caught the public imagination. Branigan says Nova has spent over €850,000 in hard cash on ads since it was launched in September 2010.

Nova’s shareholders have a background in radio and business. Himself and his Bay Broadcasting colleague Mike Ormonde have 38 per cent; Vienna Investments, with the original FM104 backers also with about 38 per cent; institutional investor and RiverDeep founder Pat McDonagh with 17 per cent and WLR boss Des Whelan, with 10 per cent.

Branigan was a radio and TV producer at Reelgood Studios, Midas Productions and later worked at Tommy Ellis Studios. His station work included producing shows for East Coast Radio and FM104. Apart from Nova, he has shares in 4FM and Sunshine. His own business interests include education publisher Learning Ireland and River Medical cosmetic surgery.

Branigan says before Nova arrived, all the newcomers had a track record of radio stations of promising the sun, moon and stars and not delivering. Nova came along as an extra station, with modest boasts. The Nova came out of research but they were hampered by copyright. Max 100, Big 100 and XL 100 were among the eight or so other names they considered.

Nova was thrown in the pot too. There was still a lot of affection for Chris Cary’s station of the same name. Not only did people over 35 like the same for nostalgic reasons but so too among young radio listeners, particularly females, with no recollection of the old Nova. It was a win-win. Branigan also likes Nova as it lends itself to great imagery and branding.

A typical top 20 Nova playlist would include Coldplay, The Killers, Kings of Leon, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Foo Fighters, U2,Oasis, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Rolling Stones, Snow Patrol, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Queen, The Eagles and The Police. Advertisers keen to chase Nova listeners include BMW, Eircom, Ikea, Meteor, Aer Lingus, KBC Bank, Netflix, ESB, Nissan, O2, RSA, Bord Gais, VHI, Vodafone, Sage, AIB, An Post, National Lottery, One Direct, 11850, Lexus and Renault.

So how do agencies see Radio Nova? Oilbhe Doyle of OMD says Dublin is the most crowded market in Irish radio with the local stations fighting with each other for share alongside the generally bigger national players. Despite a sometimes perceived sameness among the capital’s music stations, significant listenership changes have occurred over recent years.

FM104 and 98FM slugged it out for a long time. Now the market sees daylight between them asCommunicorp’sfounding station has struggled to keep up. Part of the pressure on 98FM comes fromitsown stable,as Spin has performed well among its youngish demographic and changed the shape ofradio listenership patterns withitsaudience peak around lunchtime.

Spin continues to perform well into the evening in a market where mornings have long dominated. It was into this world that Nova arrived in September 2010. As the radio sector flourished in the boom years, consumer demands for more niche stations were satiated, which in theory gave mediabuyersmore opportunities to display their fine targeting skills.

The recession has meant greater pressure and all media are battling harder than ever to win advertising. Nova has a clear identity for rock music. But when does a positioning become a niche and how viable are such offerings in these straightened times? They don’t have a strong early morning position,which, if secured, can often see continued for therest of theday.

It is no surprise as their rock music offering may make listeners feel like they need a coffee or two before they get in the zone. The most recent JNLR shows a fall off in the afternoon, which gives them a weaker base to build off. There is a degree of catch 22 that Nova faces. As a still emerging station, it needs to grow its profile to become synonymouswith Dublin radio as the other music stations. A lack of audience means less ad revenue for marketing. It is a vicious circle they need to conquer if they are not to fade into the background.

Sarah Murphy is broadcast director at Carat. She says the first JNLR book for Nova provided a useful insight into their audience. As a new station in a busy market, Nova reached 53,000 adults on a daily basis, a four per cent share. It was heavily male focused with 37,000 men tuning in daily. The station had an impressive 4.3 per cent share among 25-44 year olds.

Unfortunately, Murphy adds, Nova did not build on its early success. The January-December 2011 data showed all adult daily reach figure dropped to 49,000 and now stands at 44,000 for the latest data (Jan- Dec 2012), a loss of 9,000 listeners over the station’s two and a half year life to date. In Nova’s defence, the population decreased, so naturally they would lose audience but they still remain flat at four per cent daily reach, the same as at launch.

Presumably, Murphy says, Nova’s goal was to grow reach. A similar pattern is evident among male fans with the latest 2012 numbers showing 9,000 men tuning out on a daily basis (current reach is 28,000; six per cent). Interestingly females, albeit a lower level of listeners, have remained loyal to Nova consistently reaching 17,000, or three per cent since launch.

While listenership is erratic and varies by station, particularly in Dublin, overall listenership remains strong at 81 per cent across Dublin. So why is Nova seeing this drop off, Murphy asks? The core Nova audience of A25-44 is a technologically advanced group that has a world of musical choice available to them through sites like iTunes, Vevo and Spotify. Maybe Irish radio fans are not quite ready for a dedicated niche station. Talk-based stations and popular music stations still remain extremely strong in Ireland, attracting huge numbers each day. Maybe the current research methodology is not fit for purpose, perhaps it is out of step with today’s listenership behaviours. There may be a case for this argument, particularly for stations in the younger segment as their behaviours have changed most with technology. But no matter what the cause is, agencies can only go on the published facts and Murphy says Nova needs to turn the listenership tide if it is to weather the revenue storm in the market.

Ruth N

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