Can ‘Republic of Radio’ drag 2fm out of a midlife crisis?
The station is tasked with justifying its existence, placing big pressure on its new line-up of presenters
2fm is preparing to court its “key 20-44 demographic” by hiring Republic of Telly presenters Jennifer Maguire (above) and Bernard O’Shea to host its breakfast show.
‘It takes some feat of strength to survive and remain relevant,” Ryan Tubridy says on air. Later, he offers another theory. “The ones that are a bit quirky – they are more fun and more interesting to be with.”
It turns out that RTÉ’s highest-paid presenter isn’t offering a meta-commentary on the challenges of running a radio station or the optimum personality type for a DJ, but is talking about a) the career of 40-year-old Kate Moss and b) supermodels’ faces in general.
It isn’t quite 40 years old, yet 2fm remains mired in a midlife crisis. The station has two main problems: identity and money. It hasn’t got enough of the former and it isn’t making much, if any, of the latter.
Under the regime of Dan Healy, the commercial radio sales boss drafted into Montrose last year, the station is now preparing to court its “key 20-44 demographic” by hiring Republic of Telly presenters Jennifer Maguire and Bernard O’Shea to host its breakfast show. Assuming 2fm wants to create a “Republic of Radio”-style zoo format, the station will ideally also want to reunite Maguire and O’Shea with their former colleague Dermot Whelan, freeing him from the shackles of 98FM to form a tripartite coalition of banter and japes.
The name of the game at breakfast is to win listeners from Today FM’s Ian “radio hall of fame” Dempsey, while also improving 2fm’s performance in the Dublin market – the charms of axed presenter Hector were more rural – and giving Tubridy’s 9am-11am show a better “inheritance” of listeners. Oh, and the new line-up must also help 2fm justify its existence.
So no pressure at all then on the yet-to-be-confirmed breakfast hosts, who may be better advised to stick to the proven RTÉ Two successes on their CVs rather than go along with the RTÉ tendency to appropriate on-air talent that works in one context and place it in another completely different context.
The very rationale for 2fm is rooted in the long-gone context of a radio market where RTÉ was the only official indigenous player. In 1979, as it prepared to launch, all executives had to do was wear “Comin’ Atcha” T-shirts to drum up publicity. The pop audience was easy pickings.
But it doesn’t take John Purcell, chairman of Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, to notice that 2fm has since been eclipsed by a spectrum of commercial rivals. And yet, as Purcell noted, the station, which racked up losses of €13 million between 2010-2012, “still enjoys funding from the licence fee as if it was 1979 all over again”.
A certain opacity has always surrounded the way in which RTÉ accounts for the sharing of particular services across divisions, but officially, according to its annual report for 2012, €4 from every €160 licence fee went on funding the station, which cost €11.7 million to run.
Even Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, an RTÉ ally, does not sound as if he is an unqualified fan. “Does 2fm do something different from or better than the alternative options? That is a question, I think, that does require to be asked,” he told Newstalk.
This goes to the heart of the 2fm confusion. Is the station intended to be a commercial cash-cow for RTÉ, one that is designed to contain rather than swell the licence fee? Are its losses just an unfortunate stumble?
RTÉ director-general Noel Curran has said 2fm “should not lose money” and implied its advertising revenues should subsidise other RTÉ output, as it once did. Montrose clearly believes such a commercial turnaround is possible or it wouldn’t have appointed Healy as both head of 2fm and the overall director of radio sales.
On the other hand, RTÉ also suggests that 2fm is engaged in “public service activities” that are indeed different from the rest – “a bit quirky”, in Tubridy’s terminology, or “innovative programming” in the language of its annual report. Could it even evolve into the Irish equivalent of BBC 6 Music and be preserved, at a loss, on the grounds of listener choice?
Commercial radio operators, regardless of the quality of their output, can never be properly described as “public service media” when they are ultimately run by for-profit companies. And yet 2fm, with its licence-fee support but fewer permitted advertising minutes, can never be a totally commercial beast.
They play the same tunes, but they are marching to different beats. Can the market for music radio really sustain such complexity? More likely it is the destiny of 2fm, unlike both Moss and Tubridy, to fade out before it reaches 40.