Why RTÉ’s longwave closure matters
Opinion and petition: Move should be postponed until elderly emigrants have other options
In the Opinion pages of the newspaper today, Noreen Bowden writes about how RTÉ’s decision to cut long-wave radio service will sever a vital link with Irish abroad. The article had to be shortened for print, but runs in full below.
The Irish in Britain organisation has started an online petition asking RTÉ to postpone the shutdown. Add your name at change.org/p/rte-don-t-cut-off-the-irish-in-britain.
RTÉ has announced the imminent closure of its longwave service, which was the last remaining broadcast radio service still available to the Irish in the UK. The move comes six years after the shutdown of its medium-wave service. At that time, RTÉ officials assured the Irish abroad of its commitment to them, and that the longwave service would continue.
The shutdown, announced with only one month’s notice, is scheduled to take place on October 27th. The news is unlikely to cause a stir in Ireland. The Journal.ie reported it with the headline, “RTÉ is switching off Longwave 252 but don’t worry, most listeners won’t be affected”, blithely quoting RTÉ’s assertion that 98 per cent of its listeners have other options. Most of us used to spending our days online could be forgiven for wondering why on earth this technology wasn’t mothballed years ago.
Who will be affected? The Irish in the UK, with the most elderly and vulnerable among them likely to have what many of them regard as a vital link with home permanently severed. This is a group that is unlikely to protest and easily dismissed. Many of them won’t even know that they’re about to lose their radio service until they day they turn it on and it’s not there.
RTÉ has been broadcasting Radio 1 to the Irish in Britain since 1932. Older people rely on it as a valuable link with a country they left years ago; for many, it is their last link with Ireland. RTÉ says that listeners in the UK can tune into the station on the internet or satellite, but these solutions, which require cost and know-how, will be inaccessible for many of the older people most reliant on the service.
RTÉ’s digital radio alternative, DAB, which the company advises people in Ireland to turn to, has no reach in either Britain or the North. The longwave was not a perfect service: it’s unusable at night, when its signal is overpowered by an Algerian station sharing the same channel serving Algerian emigrants in France. But longwave is valuable for people to keep connected during the day, and many people of all ages listen to it in their cars; some use it to listen to GAA matches from home.
Last week Brendie O’Brien, chairman of the GAA in Britain, described the impending shutdown as “a massive setback to the whole of the Irish community”.
“We have a lot of old people who wouldn’t be into modern IT – and who will won’t have any access to Ireland whatsoever once that would go.” He says many in the community, himself included, rely on the service to listen to weekend GAA matches and to stay in touch more generally: “I find it a comfort to myself. I can tune in as I drive around the country.” He, like all others who rely on the service, will lose this comfort on October 27th. O’Brien described Radio 1’s role in the lives of many emigrants as that of providing “a home from home – and the shutdown would be depriving them of that”.
I was among those who campaigned against RTÉ’s move to shut down medium-wave radio, which also served the Irish community in the UK, because it would adversely affect the emigrants of the 1950s and 1960s. That generation sent home millions in remittances and were, in return, largely forgotten by Ireland – until a spate of consciousness-raising in the 1990s, when the media revealed the high levels of poverty and isolation among this elderly group of people who had done so much for Ireland in their working youth. A more comfortable Celtic-Tiger-era Ireland was shocked into a greater awareness of our responsibility for this generation, many of whom, despite leaving Ireland very young and ill-prepared, had sent money back to their families for decades instead of saving it for themselves.
A government task force was set up to examine the conditions of the Irish abroad. In 2002 their report finally acknowledged, “We owe much to our emigrants”. It was a turning point in Ireland’s relationship with the Irish abroad. Ireland began to step up its commitment to Irish emigrants and the diaspora, a process that continues to this day.
The appointment of Jimmy Deenihan as Minister of State for the Diaspora is the latest in a series of positive steps taken to improve relations between Ireland and the Irish abroad. There are blind spots, however, and the shutdown of medium wave and now the shutdown of longwave demonstrate how far we need to go in ensuring we look after the last of that generation of emigrants who gave so much and were given so little in return. It would cost little to continue the service for a few more years, until digital forms of broadcasting become a viable alternative for our oldest citizens. We’re just not there yet.
It’s easy to make the economic argument that we can’t afford this. But if Ireland’s commitment to the Irish abroad means anything, surely it could stretch to a public broadcasting service aimed at a marginalised community of people who have maintained their loyalty to Ireland for decades. We should treasure this loyalty and foster it, just as we should be conscious of the value of that loyalty to us – and in some cases, the cost of it to them.
RTÉ, which turned a pre-tax profit last year of over €1 million, hasn’t said how much they will save by shutting down the service. The main savings will likely be in power costs; RTÉ has refused an Freedom of Information request to reveal those, but a reasonable estimate would suggest the electricity to run the transmitter costs about €150,000 per year.
As for how many people are affected, the facts are unclear. RTÉ at first claimed about 2 per cent of its listeners would be impacted. Working with this estimate, JNLR figures (which only count listeners in Ireland) suggest this would be about 27,000 people. But the Irish community in Britain number over 400,000 first-generation Irish alone. They come from a country where more than 80 per cent of people are daily radio listeners. But RTÉ doesn’t count its overseas audience, so we just don’t know.
In the wake of RTÉ shutting down its medium wave service in 2008, an RTÉ spokesperson insisted it was committed to its audience abroad: “In terms of RTÉ’s commitment to the Irish in the UK the arrival of RTÉ International Television (or Diaspora TV) as announced by the Minister for Communications on the 17th March and planned for March 2009 should reassure you that RTÉ is not neglecting this important audience.” There was scant reassurance in these words, as Diaspora TV never materialised. The spokesperson added, “We are very much aware of our UK audience and will continue to provide them with uniquely Irish programming across traditional and new media platforms.” This is precisely the pledge that RTÉ is now breaking, as it cuts off its last remaining traditional platform for the Irish in the UK, with no consultation or even awareness of how many are affected. It would be hard to conclude that RTÉ is doing anything other than neglecting this important audience.
Will anyone care about the effects of shutdown? The decision-makers at RTÉ seem to be dismissing them. Will the new diaspora minister? Our politicians? The rest of us? Possibly. But we should be aware of what this means: our public broadcaster is severing a vital link with Ireland from a generation that gave so generously when Ireland had so little – and it’s the oldest, the most vulnerable, and the most isolated who will miss it the most. This move should be postponed until there are better options that will suit all the Irish in Britain.
Noreen Bowden is a web editor and advocate on Irish diaspora issues. She was formerly director of the Emigrant Advice Network and is the founder of GlobalIrish.ie.