Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Moving the dial when it comes to women and Irish radio

In the wake of Alison Curtis’ huge audience growth, you have to wonder just what is Irish radio’s ongoing problem with women presenters

Alison Curtis: 135,000 listeners say yes

Mon, Feb 16, 2015, 09:36


At this stage of the game, there are very few people outside the radio bubble who pay any attention to the quarterly JNLR figures regarding listenership to Irish radio stations and shows. In the couple of hours after every JNLR book is published, the stations go to work spinning. Everyone’s a winner on JNRL day, it seems, though it’s a far different story when you actually poke around in the figures long enough. A lot of the spin is disingenuous, as spin always is, as stations compare year to year figures here and book to book figures there. The aim of the game is to engage in obfuscation and ensure no-one is really any the wiser about what’s going on.

Because the figures are quarterly, the ups and downs are usually only in terms of a few percentage points or a few thousand listeners. It’s small beer really, because you can be sure the figures will be corrected by the time the next book comes along. The list of the 30 most listened to shows on Irish radio doesn’t change all that much and the world goes on as usual.

But the last figures contained one massive leap for a national radio show and that was Saturday Breakfast with Alison Curtis on Today FM. The show gained 51,000 extra pairs of ears – or 60 per cent in percentage terms – in 2014 compared to 2013 and marched straight into that Top 30 list with its 135,000 listeners, just a few thousand shy of the much hyped and heavily promoted Pat Kenny show on Newstalk. In anyone’s language, that’s a huge bump and that massive achievement is testament to the work that Curtis has done on the show. You’re only as good as your last book in the Irish radio gamea and Curtis can certainly reflect on a job well done.

What’s interesting about that huge rise is that it comes at a time when Today FM has been looking around for someone to replace Ray D’Arcy who decamped to RTE Radio One. In the end, the station plumped for broadcasting journeyman Anton Savage (interview with him in today’s paper here), though it’s worth bearing in mind that Curtis was the one called in to hold the mid-morning fort when D’Arcy skipped off to Montrose.

Of course, we’re not privy to the various reasons behind why a station plumps for one presenter over another when it comes to a gig like this, but it would be interesting to know what the criteria were given the above numbers. To be fair to Savage, his old Savage Sunday show also had a decent showing in the last JNLR figures (up 8,000 year-on-year to 118,000), though that pales in comparison to what Curtis did in the same period. If you were looking for an up-and-coming presenter who was pulling in very big numbers and who was very much on an upwards trajectory, you’d go for Curtis on that showing, wouldn’t you?

But there is one difference between the pair and that’s gender. Irish radio’s ongoing problems with women presenters is something which has been discussed at length for many years in tones ranging from patronising to exasperating. Indeed, Curtis wrote an OTR guest post about this very issue back in 2010. It’s a calm, rational, factual piece but, re-reading it four and a half years on, it strikes you that not a lot has changed. The number of female presenters on weekday, primetime national radio shows remains more or less the same. You have some new additions with Jenny Maguire on 2fm’s Breakfast Republic and Jenny Greene on 2fm’s The Nicky Byrne Show with Jenny Greene joining RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland anchors Rachael English and Claire Byrne, RTE Radio One’s News At One’s Aine Lawlor and RTE Radio One’s Drivetime’s Mary Wilson on the line-up. Meanwhile, it’s men all the way on Today FM (though Louise Duffy is currently in situ on the Tony Fenton afternoon slot) and Newstalk between 7am and 7pm. Hey, perhaps Communicorp have a problem with women presenters?

I’m as puzzled as anyone else about this. Over the last few weeks, I’ve done a fair share of driving around the place and have been listening to the radio a lot more than usual. With a few exceptions – Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk most notably – most talk radio served up in primetime from Monday to Friday is unbelievably dull, predictable and stodgy. You have the topics which trended on social media a week earlier, a few heavy-hitting interviews, political tittle-tattle (or what passes for politics in Ireland), the news of the day and, well, that’s it really. It’s early days yet, but D’Arcy on RTE Radio One sounds even blander than he did on Today FM, which is quite an achievement. Meanwhile, sone longstanding shows, like The Last Word on Today FM which has become a bit of an on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-the-other-hand caricature, desperately need rebooting and recalibration.

Yet there’s probably as much chance of me winning an All-Ireland hurling medal this year as any of the station bosses deciding to shake things up – or simply give good talent a chance to shine – by giving a woman a show during that 7am to 7pm weekday sweet spot. The reasons for this continue to baffle and bemuse. But when you see what Curtis can achieve with an off-peak show and how she can find and develop a new audience at a time of the week when most stations have turned on the repeats, you realise that it’s not outside the bounds of possibility that she could do something similar during the week. After all, radio stations always say that presenters live and die by their JNLR books. At least, putting some bright voices like Curtis into the mainstream mix might shake up the “safe and generic” world of Irish radio.