Classic moves


It will, inevitably, be dubbed the middle-aged station, or music for oldies, but at least RTE's new music and arts radio channel is showing more imagination than all the other radio stations in not chasing an audience that is 24 to 44 years of age.

From May 1st, RTE will be broadcasting a new, 24-hour radio channel - and, this week, Limerick was chosen as its base. The music and arts channel will broadcast 80 per cent music, mostly classical, with its own news service. It is part of an evolutionary process that began years ago when RTE offered classical music during the afternoon when RnaG was off the air. That became FM3, offering classical music every evening. This year, FM3 started an overnight service and is now on air until RnaG resumes at 8.30 a.m. FM3 used to be called the "secret service" by the former head of music, Cathal McCabe, and its fans think of it as RTE's best kept secret.

Now it is to become a full-fledged station, in its own right, with its own studios and staff and a music policy that will include arts programming and classical music as well as strands offering jazz and other minority tastes.

Seamus Crimmins was appointed head of the project in June. This Queen's University music graduate is an energetic and enthusiastic man - as he should be, given he has a job that any music lover would die for. His office in RTE's radio centre is crammed with CDs. The bookshelves carry Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians and other reference books on opera and jazz. The magazines are Classic CDs and Gramophone and music is quietly playing on his stereo sound system.

This project for a separate service, with its own frequency, goes back five years, Crimmins says. Discussions were held, plans drawn up, schedules planned but nothing happened until the former Minister for Arts Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins, gave permission for it to go ahead, just before going out of office.

Even with Crimmins's infectious enthusiasm and a willingness to talk music all day, the project is a serious one that must attract audiences and advertising. The conversation turns quickly from Bartok or Beethoven to that subject beloved of all radio people, whether they offer wall to wall pop or Debussy - demographics.

Preliminary research indicates that the new channel will appeal to 35-year-olds, plus. Focus-group research shows the target audience wants serious music, but not pop and rock. They want mainly classical music and calm. Talk is to be serious and not "trivia or chit chat". They also want news.

Crimmins is predicting reaching 3 per cent of the radio audience in year one and 5 per cent after year three. The audience might be getting on, middle-aged or even old, but they will be in that important catagory for advertisers, ABC1.

The target might be small, but such niche radio is expected to be the future as the number of stations grows. Then, the only way to be heard above the general radio din will be to offer something distinctive to a definable audience.

Aidan Dunne of McConnells Advertising says he would be looking for broad appeal in the new station. Over a week, a lot of people should feel comfortable enough to dip in. It should appeal to a lot of minorities.

The new station has no name yet. It will not be FM3, because it will be different and broader than its predecessor, seeking more than just FM3 listeners. Lyric FM is the front runner but others being considered include Spraoi (the Irish for fun), Trio, Mezzo, and Festival Radio. Lyric has lasted the longest, and remains on the list as other suggestions fall off.

Cork and Kilkenny were considered as possible bases for Lyric FM (or whatever it turns out to be called) but Limerick, which is home to the Irish Chamber Orchestra, won out.

And the technical people are trying to see if the station can be broadcast on the 99 FM frequency - next year being 1999. Crimmins says the channel will play classical music, as well as jazz, world music and some traditional. It might also offer what he calls, "novelty music" - that is film music, musicals and there will be an opera strand. He intends to introduce listeners to contemporary music, slipping in something more challenging whenever he can. "The feeling is we should reach a significant audience. That would suggest looking at Classic FM (the successful British commercial classical station) but with possibly a wider music mix."

Classic FM, established in 1992, is the most successful of the British national commercial stations. It reaches more than 5 million listeners a week and has a market share of 3.7 per cent - as compared to BBC Radio 3's 1.2 per cent of the market. Crimmins says the new channel will be stranded, so listeners will know what to expect at any time of the say. He would like a "coffee break" every afternoon with a full work. A complete symphony would punctuate the day.

He wants to include as much live music as possible, from the National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall to the Met Opera Season at the Metropolitan Opera House received via satellite.

During the morning the stations will play good, accessible music, with news, traffic and weather reports. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. the music schedule should be more less familiar, though with exposure to different styles and periods. From 7 p.m. the music can become "slightly wacky" with jazz, contemporary and other forms. He would love a jazz strand, to incorporate live jazz.

When one turns to the new channel, he says, the feeling should be that you are never far from music. Other programmes will include "life-style" features, and book reviews. The news would have a bias towards arts stories. Advertising and sponsorship, he hopes, will be in sympathy with the pace of the channel.

Crimmins adds: "What we want to do is make listening to classical music a normal thing and that it can be enjoyed by as many people as possible."