Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Anyone for a niche radio station in Dublin?

Sunshine and Country are competing for a niche radio licence in Dublin, but perhaps we should be talking about having far more stations on air

Wed, Apr 16, 2014, 10:04


Anyone interested in the state of Irish radio should have a read of Laura Slattery’s report from Monday’s public meeting held by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to hear what the two applicants for a niche music radio licence in the capital had to say for themselves. It’s a battle between the current licence holders Sunshine 106.8FM and would-be airwave rodeo-riders Country FM.

Turning up in their best bib and tucker, both sides were there to argue that they were the best equipped for the gig. While there are clear musical differences between the applicants – Sunshine would be bringing you easy listening morning, noon and night, while Country FM would be wall-to-wall stetsons, rhinestones and slide guitars – there are also some interesting differences in their business operations. You can be sure that it’s this more than Michael Bublé versus Garth Brooks which is what the BAI is probably paying closest attention to.

Per Slattery’s report, Country have “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.” Meanwhile, “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”.” According to the in-depth applications for the licence, both sides see advertising revenue for a station of this ilk at in or around €500,000 per annum.

Anyone who has watched the comings and goings in the Dublin radio market over the years will know only too well that the BAI’s focus is more on business plans than music and that their main aim appears to be to keep the show on the road no matter what it takes. Witness what happened when Phantom FM called it a day and re-appeared on the dial as TXFM. There was no question of the BAI taking the licence back from Phantom because it had utterly failed to do what it said it would do when its original management team won the battle for an alternative music station back in the day. Instead, the BAI said yes to the new plans, which are hugely different to what the station was promising back in the day. The dedicated news team provision is long gone, for instance.

Sure, you can argue that situations change and evolve and the economic recession of the last few years yadda yadda yadda, but the point remains that Phantom failed to achieve its targets, changed the rules and yet the station was allowed to be renamed and carry on. Once you have the licence in your hot mitts, you’re unlikely to be yanked from the air no matter what you do for fear of the signal this might send to the market.

Both sides in contention for the niche radio station know this and hence why they’re throwing so much effort into their application in the hope of convincing the BAI to plump for them. For instance, Country’s talk about unpaid volunteers is totally realistic in terms of keeping a station open and operating and happens at almost every local station around the country (usually filed under “interns” at the more metropolitan stations). But the BAI have always shown more interest in stations creating jobs from the get-go and their questions and prodding usually involve a long, hard look at the numbers intended to be employed by the applicants.

Indeed, you have to ask if the very notion of business ambitions for a niche radio station in Dublin are right to begin with. Given the low audience share which both applicants are after – even the mooted two and four per cent shares in an already saturated and chaotic market seem overtly ambitious, while a two per cent share of the Dublin market is unlikely to be attractive to potential mainstream advertisers – these stations will not be making cash hand over fist any time soon, if ever. It will be a case of bringing in enough to keep the lights on and the wolves from the door. In the old days, a radio licence of any sort was seen as a Willy Wonka golden ticket because some bigger operator would swoop in and buy you up, but those days seem over.

There is certainly a relationship between the BAI’s natural conservatism, low market shares and the unbelievable blandness of the existing radio market in the city and country. When radio stations exist to keep investors and shareholders happy rather than provide listeners with radio they want to listen to, you’ll always have a boring marketplace. Seeing as the numbers that existing niche stations like Phantom/TXFM get are so low, perhaps the answer is to completely loosen up the marketplace and bring in more stations?

I can hear all those vested parties in radioland gagging on their morning coffee and yelling about how too many stations will kill the market, but bear with us here for a moment. Given the tiny market shares we’re talking about – two per cent is a target for hobbyists in the greater scheme of things – the BAI should be looking at providing, in the first instance, up to half-a-dozen niche licences with the emphasis on adventurous, different programming over off-the-shelf business plans. It’s a matter of supply and demand, but niche means niche not mainstream so no-one, either at the stations or the BAI, should be expecting these stations to become Today, Spin or Nova.

More stations would also help to answer the question if people actually care any more about music radio. I certainly don’t listen to music radio any more, partly because I have way better music tastes than any DJ on any existing Irish radio station (yeah, tell me, I’m an arrogant boll0x) and partly because there is no Irish radio station which plays the music I want to hear. I know I’m not alone in this regard but I also know this is a niche concern. So over to the BAI – time for way more niche licences for the capital and country and let them sink or swim on their own merits. Just don’t judge them initially on their business plans or employment potential.