It may not be very rock 'n' roll but research is the key to radio


Dermot Hanrahan does not match the typical FM104 listener profile but he tells Emmet Oliver that will not stop him from knowing exactly when they get fed up.

Dermot Hanrahan admits he is everything his listeners are not.

Middle-aged, children, comfortable middle-class home, old-style musical tastes, golf, skiing, he even collects antiques and reads the Economist.

Not exactly the typical profile of an FM104 listener. Mr Hanrahan admits as much, at least on the age point. "If you are over 30 in the radio business in certain respects you are too old," he says.

As managing director of FM104 and a major shareholder in NewsTalk 106, Mr Hanrahan, mixes every day with the suits of corporate Dublin, but he knows his radio persona must be constantly replenished by the energy and iconoclasm of the young.

At FM104 Mr Hanrahan says he has constantly hired the brightest and youngest talents in the radio business. He minds the books and lets them get on with the music and DJ-ing.

Mr Hanrahan says the personalities who shape the station - at least on air - are those who have a deep understanding of youth and popular culture.

The station is clear on its website about who its listeners are. "They are the spenders, trendsetters and influencers of the future and reaching them is essential to the continuous health of any brand".

FM104, which is owned by Capital Radio Productions, depends for its very existence on being able to tap into the fashions, preoccupations and obsessions of Dublin's teenagers and 20/30-somethings. So far in terms of market share it has been very successful, even if that gets up the nose of Mr Hanrahan's more high-minded critics.

Since its re-launch (it was previously known as Rock 104) in the 1990s the station has become one of the most successful commercial radio franchises in the State. It is hard to believe that back in 1992 its books were covered in as much red ink as those of the ill-fated Century. But since rebranding itself as FM104 Mr Hanrahan and his team have managed to turn things around. This week's JNLR/MRBI figures gave the station 20 per cent of the Dublin radio audience (based on "listened yesterday" figures).

This was down 2 per cent, but it was still a credible performance because a new arrival - Spin FM - was inevitably going to steal at least some of the station's younger listeners. Incidentally, 98FM, Mr Hanrahan's deadliest rival, was also at 20 per cent.

Mr Hanrahan says everyone in radio learned the bitter lessons of the Century debacle and radio bosses now exercise greater financial responsibility over stations. The days of chaotic DJs arriving into studios with hangovers and a few CDs under their arm are over.

Play listing is now the name of the game - in other words DJs play specially selected songs, at specially selected times. Mr Hanrahan's team at FM104 carefully research what they play.

He says pop songs are, not surprisingly, ephemeral and disposable. Most of them are governed by a simple curve pattern.

At the start the curve is essentially flat, nobody knows the song, as it is played the curve rises up and at its peak every person on your road seems to be humming the damn tune. But as it is played and played relentlessly people get fed up and the curve drops down and down. By then you better have dropped that song.

Making that fine judgment is what pop stations are all about. Playing one corny and jaded song can prompt thousands to switch you off, he explains.

"Research is the key to good radio performance nowadays. We are a heavily researched station and we make no apologies about that," he says. Mr Hanrahan can even trace the reasons for this week's small dip in FM104's audience share. "We know exactly the reason behind it, it is to do with female listeners and we are planning to rectify it."

But Mr Hanrahan's critics will not leave well enough alone. A letter writer to this paper two years ago summed up the attitude of some official Irelanders to pop driven stations like 104. "What Mr Hanrahan should try to understand is that a never-ending diet of trivial pop music coupled with sometimes vulgar presenters does not provide a credible alternative to RTÉ."

But Mr Hanrahan would be the first to admit that FM104 is not exactly trying to poach listeners from the likes of Marian Finucane or Pat Kenny. FM104 knows what its audience wants and gives it to them, for good or ill. When Mr Hanrahan decides to mix it with some of the more rarified souls in RTÉ or policymakers in the broadcasting arena, he sometimes surprises his audience with his erudition and mental sharpness. His membership of Mensa would probably also surprise them.

From the giggly Strawberry Alarm Clock to street argot of the Adrian Kennedy show, the station has managed to build up a strong brand presence, but where it goes from here is harder to fathom.

Over the years major radio interests have inquired about buying the station. Some of the shareholders understandably might want to sell, but so far any attempt to buy them out has been resisted. Among the shareholders are the McEvaddy Brothers, accountant Pearse Farrell, concert promoter Jim Aitken and music figure Maurice Cassidy.

The station made an annual pre-tax profit of £202,675 according to the latest set of accounts for Capital Radio Productions (to June 2001). It has also been busy stretching its tentacles into other areas of the radio market, including taking a 39 per cent share in Cork's Red FM.

However, the company's 12.5 per cent stake in NewsTalk 106 has catapulted Mr Hanrahan into the news more than anything else in the last six months. His decision a few weeks ago not to stump up fresh funds for NewsTalk surprised many in the radio industry.

Mr Hanrahan said there was no point in putting in fresh funds until the station found a cohesive strategy. He is understood to be highly critical of the station's output and its performance over the last few months, but he said he did not want to elaborate on his comments. Be that as it may, NewsTalk is experiencing serious turbulence and with an effective market share of below 1 per cent, there are obvious shortcomings.

But Denis O'Brien, another looming figure in Irish radio, also has a substantial share in NewsTalk and he has yet to publicly express his views on its performance. However, one suspects that these two powerful radio figures will ultimately decide the fate of NewsTalk, not to mention much of the commercial radio market in Dublin.