Irish people have always loved radio, but in a crisis, they don’t just love it, they need it.
The first set of listenership figures to be published since the pandemic hit have confirmed what many suspected and industry insiders have always maintained: for both the grim news and relief from the grim news, radio is a trusted friend.
If, during the first lockdown, you experimented with a programme or a station you weren’t previously in the habit of seeking out, then you were not alone.
The latest Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR), covering the year to the end of September, shows that 3,187,000 adults listen to the radio daily, up 38,000 year-on-year.
Those who listen are also tuning in for longer – even longer – with the average listening time in the prime weekday hours (7am to 7pm) swelling 14 minutes to 239 minutes. That’s just shy of an incredible four hours.
It’s easy to forget that in March, accessing trustworthy information about Covid-19 was literally a matter of life or death. Online and television news also recorded a surge in their audiences. But as soon as people were told to stay at home and limit their contacts, it was time for the intimate medium of radio to excel in its role as companion for the isolated.
"Our interaction with our loyal audience remained a two-way process throughout Covid-19 and we've never taken that special relationship for granted," says Gabrielle Cummins, who chairs industry group Choose Radio.
In both hearing and sharing “harrowing and heartening” stories from listeners, Irish radio has helped strengthen the community spirit that has been to the fore throughout the pandemic, she says.
While listeners were drawn to RTÉ Radio 1 in particular, there will also be some virtual champagne doing the rounds at the resilient Today FM as well as at local behemoths such as Highland Radio, Northern Sound and Radio Kerry.
The independent sector does not have the same level of resources as RTÉ and yet had to overcome the same logistical hurdles to even make it to air during lockdown. Market share gains for KCLR FM in Carlow and Kilkenny, LMFM in Louth and Meath, Galway Bay FM and Wicklow's East Coast FM, among others, are testament to the status of these stations in their communities.
Still, Radio 1’s gains will be music to the ears of RTÉ management. A search through the archives suggests Morning Ireland’s audience hasn’t been as high as 491,000 since 2003 – back then, Newstalk was only a fledgling Dublin station, with no national licence, and competition for attention was less fierce all round.
Some Radio 1 shows that saw huge rises in their listenership changed their main host or presenter line-up during the survey period but the impact of these new voices will not become clear until later surveys. The growth across the schedule instead points firmly to a Covid-19 bump, with exceptional times delivering exceptional audiences.
Not every broadcaster was in receipt of a boost. Music-oriented stations enjoyed by commuters in normal times suddenly had to cope with the near-complete absence of commuters for part of the year and it showed. At RTÉ, head of 2fm Dan Healy was not surprised by the softness in the figures, recalling his time spent running 98FM in the wake of 9/11 terrorist attacks. Radio, in general, is undervalued as a public service, he notes.
Slightly awkwardly, the phenomenon of younger listeners trying Radio 1 for the first time this year isn’t exactly brilliant news for 2fm. “Heaven help the rest of us, if they hold onto them,” says Healy.
Need for escape
But while news programmes proved essential listening for many, it is not as if the audience expects every second of airtime to be grave and foreboding. Indeed, the need to provide an alternative to Covid-19 stress and misery seems to be on every radio manager’s mind.
"Yes, [people] wanted to be kept informed, but they also wanted to escape from Covid from time to time," says Today FM's content director Phil Manzor. "Our job was to find the balance between the serious and the not so serious, give our audience a reason to laugh, provide a platform to share their stories."
Peter Woods, appointed head of Radio 1 in June, says he was conscious that his station's programmes shouldn't focus on Covid-19 from the beginning to the end of their slot. "It can't be the one note all the time," he says.
The day of the Liveline special on Normal People, in which listeners reacted with various degrees of consternation to the depiction of teenage sex in the television drama, was one notable distraction.
"I went and said thank you to Joe Duffy, " says Woods.
The late April edition of the phone-in show was very nearly the first programme Woods heard in the spring that didn’t mention the pandemic once. Alas, it fell to one caller to claim in passing that Covid-19 was “God’s visitation on us”.