Pulling the plug on TXFM
Lessons to be learned about Irish alternative radio from the demise of the Dublin station
The countdown has begun. Later this year, TXFM will go off the air and 105.2 on the FM band will go silent. The experiment which began with such high hopes when Phantom went on air in 2006 before TXFM took over the slot in 2014, is over. The experiment, needless to say, did not work.
The rebranding certainly didn’t work. A few weeks ago, I was standing in a queue in a coffee shop in Dublin and I heard a couple of people talking about music behind me so I decided to eavesdrop. They were raving about a brand new track by The Arcs which they’d heard on Phantom. All that money spent on branding and the listeners still think they’re listening to the other station.
You don’t have to rely on anecdotal evidence either. The station had 19,000 listeners – less than one per cent of the Dublin radio market – and you don’t become a big cheese in the radio world in the capital with those kind of figures. 19,000 is a decent number for an alternative station, but TXFM were in the big leagues and that was just not good enough.
It didn’t matter that the station had three wealthy dudes paying the bills in the shape of Denis O’Brien, Denis Desmond and Paul McGuinness (none of them are on Twittr or Snapchat). It didn’t matter that the station was under the Communicorp and Today FM umbrella. It didn’t matter – audiences were not tuning in and the businessmen had enough. Another way of putting it: “it has not been possible to make the station commercially viable,” said Communicorp chief executive Gervaise Slowey. Even alternative stations have to be commercially viable under the business model which rules Irish radio.
If you want the blame report for what happened at TXFM, you’ll find it here. It’s two years old but there’s nothing in there which doesn’t stand up. TXFM was doomed from the get-go, just as Phantom was. The only thing which would have saved it in this instance was if Communicorp decided to re-apply for the licence to block any competitor getting their hands on it. The fact that no-one else bothered their hoop to apply for the licence shows that the competition thought Communicorp were sticking not quitting.
That they quit meant you’d competitors like Nova and would-be competitors like 8Radio opportunistically saying they were interested in talking to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) about the future of the licence. Of course you are lads – the big dog is off the pitch so you’re prepared to go for it now unlike a few months ago. It remains to be seen if the BAI are for the turning – they’ve turned on a few things over the years to do with radio in Ireland – but it looks like this one has gone to the great wireless graveyard in the sky for now.
That’s it, then. A bunch of redundancies, a few people losing part-time gigs, a station which started out on a massive wave of positivity and goodwill scuppered by the conservatism and mismanagement of its original operators and unable to be rescued by the cutbacks and tactics of a lean, mean radio-making machine.
The TXFM experience says a lot about the big picture when it comes to radio in Dublin and especially the one-size-fits-all BAI model, which I wrote about here before. When it comes to handing out licences, “the BAI’s focus is more on business plans than music” and “their main aim appears to be to keep the show on the road no matter what it takes.” That piece was written on the back of a public meeting held by the BAI to hear what the two applicants for a niche music radio licence in the capital had to say for themselves. As you can read in the post, the emphasis was on advertising reveue and jobs and you needed one to keep the other going.
But there are other ways to skin a cat, though you’d be hard pressed to find this method in the BAI playbook. Why has no-one here not looked seriously at the listener-supported, non-advertising model which US NPR stations rely on to varying degrees of success? If there is really a demand for an alternative music station in the capital, would those same listeners be prepared to put their hands in their pockets to support it? Would those 19,000 TXFM listeners be prepared to pay €5 or €10 a month to keep a station on air? Would people who are currently getting worked up about signing a petition to tell rich dudes how to spend their money be prepared to subscribe to a new station and do something actually useful?
Such a subscription model would bring in anything between one and two million euro a year to run operations. Of course, you’d be looking at a much different business model to operate the station and you’d probably run into problems with the BAI – it certainly wouldn’t be commercial in their definition of things – but there’s an argument to be made that a station of this ilk would be serving a community of listeners across the capital who are not currently being looked after by any of the existing city or national stations. It would be new and would have umpteen teething problems – not to mention vexatious challenges from existing operators quibbling about unfair advantage – but it might be a way to get around the current onerous one-size-fits-all strait-jacket which the BAI operates.
One thing we have learned from this whole Phantom/TXFM episode is that an alternative music station, a station which plays (or alleges to play) non-commercial music, is not a mainstream operation because the numbers are not there to make it so. You can point to BBC 6 Music and KCRW as evidence to the contrary, but they’re based elsewhere and have have huge populations to support them. There’s no reason why Dublin and Ireland can’t support its own alternative music station – indeed, there’s no reason why such a station can’t pull in an international audience like the two mentioned in the previous sentence – but you have to cut your cloth to suit. Going along with the BAI flow and thinking you can do for indie, dance and alternative music what FM104 and Spin do for pop is not going to work. It might get you a licence but, as Phantom/TXFM found out very quickly, getting a licence is only the start of things.