Finer tuned radio

Finer tuned radio

Public service broadcasting in private hands is what the then communications minister Ray Burke promised when he introduced the Radio & Television Act 1988 which ended Ireland's pirate era and heralded the arrival of independent commercial radio almost 20 years ago.

So how did we get from where we had two national radio stations and a host of pirates to today with four national radio stations, 26 local independent radio stations with more planned, one regional operator with three more in the pipeline and a host of miscellaneous licences?

Burke established the Independent Radio and Television Commission (IRTC) and it awarded the new commercial licences. First was Dublin station Capital Radio, now FM104, soon followed by Denis O'Brien's 98FM and national station Century Radio.

As Century swayed from one crisis to another and eventually closed its doors in November 1991, a full-scale war developed between 98FM and FM104. The focus became more about building brands, audience research, cash calls, prize giveaways and ads on bus sides.

Programming content nearly became incidental to the real battle. One wag at the time remarked that the only one making money from commercial radio was Dublin Bus. A second stab at starting a national radio service was made in 1997 when Radio Ireland was launched.
Sadly, the content did not impress listeners. The station was re-launched as Today FM, with a schedule which sounded more akin to 2FM than the original service licensed by the IRTC.

In 1999, the BCI awarded three new radio services for Dublin. A youth service for the 15-34 year olds went to Spin FM, a music licence for the 35-plus market was awarded to Lite FM – a consortium of which I was involved and that later became Dublin's Q102 – while a speech service went to Newstalk.

Cork got a third commercial station with the launch of Red FM and Ireland got its first regional service when Beat 102-103 began broadcasting to five counties in the south east three years ago. With so many stations, consolidation was inevitable.

UTV acquired 96FM/103FM, followed by Limerick's Live 95FM, LMFM and Dublin's Q102. Scottish Radio Holdings (SRH) secured Today FM, FM104 and Highland Radio, while Radio Kerry bought Shannonside/Northern Sound.
Earlier this year, the BCI launched another licensing round including more regional youth services. The licence for the south west was awarded to Spin FM and at the time of press a decision is imminent on the north west region.

The BCI has advertised a regional licence for the Midlands and licences for a country music service, a classic rock station for Dublin and a multi-city single programme service covering Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway are expected to be advertised in the spring.
Phantom now provides alternative rock for Dublin. On the national front, RTE and Today FM have now been joined by Newstalk, which was awarded a quasi-national licence earlier this year. So has commercial radio in Ireland been a success?

If stats are anything to go by, the answer is a resounding yes. Radio employs 1,414 people and is worth about €100 million. Next year every local franchise area will have a choice of at least a local service, a youth service or a country and Irish service, plus the national stations.

Some commentators have asked if these services will result in commercial radio becoming “over-shopped” and lead to a dilution of market share across more competitors. Perhaps so, but there are a number of other factors to consider.

New stations are entering a mature market where the cost of entry is high and huge investment in brand building is essential for cut-through. New stations must market themselves properly if potential listeners are to be aware they exist.

Clear points of difference between competitors must be made. The success of the new regional youth stations will depend on them winning audience from 2FM, while the proposed multi-city station must win numbers from RTE.

Phantom FM is the one exception as it is expected to expand the Dublin radio market by winning a distinctive niche audience. From a client perspective, it will now be possible to precisely target specific types of consumers and use ad budgets better.

As more listeners decide to “programme” their own radio station by choosing programmes from a range of stations each day, advertisers will need to run commercials on more stations.

Research shows that even in this iPod era, it is the gaps between the songs and the commercials which drive listener loyalty. Radio bosses need to continually invest in content produced by talented people and to do it every day of the year.

After all the studies, audience segmentations and branding, the future for commercial radio is bright once the focus stays on what made the medium famous in the first place. That means great programmes, great content and great personalities. Sounds simple, does it not?

Scott Williams is chief executive of Dublin's Q102

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