Time to do the right thing and turn off Phantom 105.2
Redundancies and restructuring signal the end of the line for the ill-fated Dublin music station
Two questions can sum up things before we go any further. When was the last time you actively listened to Phantom 105.2, Dublin’s alternative music station? And when was the last time you actively listened to an Irish radio station to get your music pointings? In a time of excess, plenty and gluttony when it comes to how we consume music, a station like Phantom was always going to find it difficult to stand out. It could, of course, do so if it did things differently. Unfortunately for all concerned, management down through the years took the wrong decisions when it came to this task.
Such wrong-headedness could never last. As we found out last week, the station will make most of its existing staff redundant and restructure the station. The former means there’s likely to be just three full-time presenters to take care of the daytime shows and the latter means the station will go on auto-pilot outside of these hours. Yes, a giant Spotify playlist is going to save the station the just-above-minimum-wage it paid part-time pesenters and help it recover its multi-million euro losses. Now, where did I leave my Sony Walkman?
The problem with Phantom is that it forgot about the music. At a time when many stations are finding favour again thanks to making truly exciting music radio, Phantom plodded on without a clue. Despite the fact that it had a rake of people in its ranks down through the years who were genuine music fans and great radioheads, it persisted time and time again with putting lowest common denominator radio on during peaktime hours. The music fans got their way and their say during the evening, night-time and weekend shifts. It was if you’d two different stations, which is never a great look.
Yet the station’s management persisted in making mistake after mistake after mistake when it came to programming. The nadir in Phantom’s downfall was reached with the unpalatable breakfast show pairing of Joe Donnelly and Keith Walsh, two lads who genuinely didn’t have a clue what they were doing on a music radio station. They’d open the microphones and simply say what was on their mind. Of course, this sometimes works, but only if there is something on the person’s mind to begin with other than damp tumbleweed. It was not about the music, it was all about the bants and those bants were not very ace to begin with. But Donnelly has apparently survived the redundancies, while Walsh was picked up for by 2fm for its new breakfast show so hurrah for lowest common denominator radio.
There will always be spin about the station’s problems – the fact that there was a two year delay in coming on air, the fact that the station began as the good economic times came to an end, the fact that the original owners were forced to sell their shares to profit-seeking businessmen etc – but these are all red herrings. The station came on air with so much goodwill from the local music community that it beggared belief how quickly things changed.
Instead of playing to its strengths – that goodwill and a great cast of DJs – the station’s music policy was undefined, watery and bland from the beginning. As soon as it went legal, it stopped being exciting, idiosyncratic and different to everything else on the dial. It plucked its wares from the major label indie landfill instead of going with new, fantastic acts and tunes which its specialist DJs were playing and its audience wanted to hear.
I was reminded of this by something which happened at the Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip gig at Vicar Street over the weekend when they gave the station a shout-out for playing its tunes from the get-go. Back in 2007, I was doing a Saturday night show on Phantom and playing “Thou Shalt Always Kill” off some dodgy MP3 rip from XFM (sorry everyone). Week after week, I remember being told by management that I shouldn’t be playing any hip-hop on the show. It didn’t matter that this was a massive hit – it was supposed to be indie rock all the way, even on a late Saturday night show that even my own loved ones weren’t listening to.
That wasn’t the only instance of playlist conservatism. Again and again, you’d hear great new bands or tunes on the non-primetime shows which would only appear on the daytime playlists when the act was signed to a major or when it became so bleeding obvious that the tune was a hit. That’s no way to run a music radio station.
The pigeons have come home to roost and I feel sad about it. I did a weekly radio show on the station for six years and had a blast every single week – what music fan wouldn’t relish the chance to go into a studio for two hours every week and play their favourite new and vintage tunes on air? It was a real wrench to leave that behind because of other work commitments – and it was also hard to say goodbye to the good folk who also manned the desk and did some great shows (big up the fantastic crew of night-time and weekend DJs on the station from 2006 to 2012).
But those shows should have been on during daytime Monday to Friday hours. Instead of safe, conversative, heavily playlisted shows and inane chatter and bants from 7am to 7pm, there should have been shows by presenters like Cathal Funge, James Byrne, the two Richies, Pearl, Nadine O’Regan, Derek Byrne and many, many others. Shows helmed by people who loved music and had a burning desire to be enthusiasic about what they were playing. Shows which you didn’t want to turn off because you genuinely had no idea what was coming next. Shows which didn’t play the same narrow, carefully researched dozen tracks every two hours. Shows which were about the music and not the format. Shows which were not about the Kings Of Leon (the band currently staring back at you from the station’s Facebook page). Shows which were not about the same music you got on every other station on the dial (too much U2 and Kodaline, dudes).
Funnily enough, that was the only format which the station didn’t try in its eight years on air to date so perhaps that’s next. The problem is that they got rid of that particular unique selling point when they culled their DJs again and again leaving the station with nothing but the bant merchants and button pushers. The other problem is that its management, past and present, became prickly about constructive criticism and people pointing out the obvious about what was going wrong. Even simply pointing out facts resulted in attacks on the messenger rather than looking at the message (the tweeted retort from station has now been deleted but you can get the gist of it from the replies to the above tweet).
So, goodbye, goodnight and good luck Phantom. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland may well have rolled over and given you permission to restructure, thus negating many of the conditions of your licence in the first place, but the audience isn’t so easily fooled or convinced. They’ve departed in droves – a daily audience of just 15,000, which is half what it was four years ago when the station was supposed to be really in trouble and brought in Communicorp – and are not coming back. A truly sad state of affairs.