Pure country faces off with easy listening at radio licence hearing

Sunshine 106.8FM and Country FM pitch their services to the broadcasting regulator

They’ve got sunshine... chief executive Seán Ashmore, chairman Paddy Cole and director Ciara O’Connor of Sunshine 106.8FM. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

They’ve got sunshine... chief executive Seán Ashmore, chairman Paddy Cole and director Ciara O’Connor of Sunshine 106.8FM. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Tue, Apr 15, 2014, 01:00

At a “pure country music” versus “easy listening” showdown in a Dublin hotel, opinion was divided over the merits of Michael Bublé.

A niche music radio licence for Dublin city and county is up for renewal, so the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland had called in the two remaining contenders for a public presentation of their application.

The team behind Sunshine 106.8FM, the incumbent licence holder, felt Bublé “would sit very well with us”. The crooning Canadian would be “a good example”, according to chief executive Seán Ashmore, of the kind of “complementary” music that would fill 10 per cent of its playlist. Songs by Irish artists and the two big categories, “soul/classic soul” and “country crossover” (twangy, Nashville-flavoured pop), would make up the rest.

Gerry Murphy, a director of challenging applicant Country FM, was not convinced. “I’m listening to the notion that you have to break everything up with Michael Bublé, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra and the Temptations,” he said in a tone that did not suggest approval. “Save me from classic soul.”

At the heart of the BAI’s contract awards committee is the following choice. It can opt for Sunshine 106.8FM, which insists that a “pure country” station isn’t financially viable, or it can side with Country FM’s position that there is a substantial audience for country music out there that is not being served.

Country FM says these dedicated fans can be catered for without the distraction of Bublé, but with much tighter overheads than a typical Dublin station. Its bid includes more modest revenue targets and employment plans, with the backers signalling they will need volunteers to go alongside paid staff, and income from ancillaries such as gigs and CD compilations to compensate for lower advertising turnover.

Star Broadcasting Ltd, the company behind Sunshine 106.8FM, has greater financial ambition and musically wants to move further towards a non-country “softer sound”. But the station, which counts showband veteran Paddy Cole and Senator Paschal Mooney among its directors, assured that it would still provide a “clear and distinctive” service from that of fellow “mellow” music purveyors, Q102.

The most-played artists on Q102 last week included One Direction, Bruno Mars and Mumford & Sons, said Sunshine’s programme director Andy Matthews. “You won’t hear these artists on Sunshine 106.8FM,” he promised. Instead, snippets of Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay and Ben E. King’s Stand By Me found their way into Sunshine’s sample medley. Nothing with too many beats-per-minute would get in the way of its “relaxed” feel.

Country FM executive chairman Martin Block argued Sunshine would do nothing to widen listener choice. “We respectfully submit that a niche licence should not be won by a service that plays a mix of styles currently played on other radio stations.”

In Country FM’s written application, it claimed Sunshine’s country output was dominated by “only seven artists”, which it listed as Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Garth Brooks.

It, however, would champion Irish country musicians such as Lisa McHugh, Derek Ryan, Mike Denver, Nathan Carter and Jim Devine.

Not that it would be sniffing its nose up at Brooks – if there was one artist that both licence applicants appeared to agree on, it was the man with the commercial clout to shift 400,000 tickets at Croke Park.