In the media business, it is never easy succeeding someone or something provably popular over a long period of time – the risk is all to the downside. And when a job becomes unexpectedly available because someone has died, the process of replacing them in their professional role must be sensitively approached.
In radio, where no change is made lightly and presenters form special connections with their listeners over the years, this is especially true. Choose the wrong successor and listeners in mourning will switch off, concluding that an era is over and they are not ready for the next one.
So it is to the credit of RTÉ Radio 1, Brendan O'Connor and the producers of his show that a new Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) survey suggests RTÉ management made the right choice when they gave O'Connor the weekend mid-morning slots presented for 14 years by Marian Finucane, the radio trailblazer who died in early 2020.
After she was moved to weekends in 2005, Finucane carved out a phenomenal audience on Saturdays and Sundays in an industry where “peak-time” has traditionally been a Monday to Friday concern.
While the JNLR figures recorded for the weekend slots have historically been more volatile than most, Finucane’s Saturday show was always one of the most listened-to programmes on Irish radio, and she gained listeners in her final months on air. Such is the intimate relationship between radio broadcasters and their audience, news of her passing will have come as a shock to many when they first heard of it.
After a tribute show presented by Rachael English, there followed an interim period when O'Connor and then Sarah McInerney hosted Weekend on One, before O'Connor, who had previously been a regular stand-in for Finucane, was awarded a permanent show with his name in the title.
According to the latest ratings count, published yesterday, O'Connor has 366,000 listeners on a Saturday, making this show second only to Morning Ireland in the Irish market, and 329,000 on a Sunday. These figures are down on the last survey, but hold up well compared with the long-term averages for the slots. "The numbers are brilliant there," said head of Radio 1 Peter Woods.
Of course, in media your work is never done. O’Connor’s next challenge is to hold on to the following he and his production team have won throughout the pandemic and earn the sort of status that the much-loved, much-respected Finucane enjoyed with a generation of listeners.