Audio streams abound as Today FM chases ‘digital pot’

Difference between Today XM and TXFM says a lot about where Irish radio finds itself

What’s another stream? Today XM is one of three new listening options inside the Today FM mobile app.

What’s another stream? Today XM is one of three new listening options inside the Today FM mobile app.

 

The latest update to the Today FM app is more than mere bug fixes or cosmetic changes. The Communicorp Media radio station has added three new audio streams for online listeners – Today FM 80s, Today FM 90s, Today XM – in a move that manages to be both unimportant in the grand scheme of things and highly representative of that grand scheme.

As with Spin Xtra, the Spin 1038 spin-off from the same stable, these audio streams came into being one day and now it’s as if they were always there: super-enjoyable, serendipitous “brand extensions” for the mobile audience, doing their thing amid an infinite universe of listening options.

I’ve tried them, and I like them, though that might be because there is never a bad time to hear Crash by The Primitives.

Adding audio streaming options to a radio station’s app is far from a new idea, but the late birth of this bunch still says something about where the Irish radio market is at in 2018. Especially revealing is the manner in which Today XM, home of “pure interrupted alternative music, 24/7”, differs from TXFM, the defunct alternative music radio station that Today FM used to run.

The two share a similar-sounding name and a fondness for Radiohead, but there it ends. TXFM was a proper station with proper presenters and an FM licence for Dublin from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), which it inherited from its previous incarnation, the ex-pirate station Phantom.

Out of time

TXFM, which went off air in 2016, also had proper regulatory overheads and accumulated losses. It was not properly commercially viable. It was out of time.

Today XM is not comparable. It has no presenters, no regulatory overheads, no accumulated losses. An audio stream will never be loved the way TXFM was (albeit by a small group of faithful listeners), nor does it seem likely to serve as a source of new music discovery as TXFM and Phantom were for some, or even as presenter-less Spotify and other streaming services manage to be today.

Instead, it is a heartache-free, news-free, ad-free (for the moment) and expectation-free marketing tool that, alongside its cousins, sits inside Today FM’s app as another way for its parent to try to retain the ears of the smartphone-native demographic that thinks nothing of deleting one app to make room for another.

Now for the obvious: there is no “F” in Today XM. While Communicorp Media chief executive Adrian Serle told staff last week that FM radio was “still the biggest thing we do”, and “will always be our priority”, there would be no need to state this were the suggestion not afloat that it might not be.

Likewise, no one felt obliged to declare that television was “not dead” in the 1990s.

Recent roasting

That FM listening in Ireland remains at an incredibly high level does not, sadly, mean that all is completely fine with the architecture of the Irish radio market, as evidenced by a recent roasting of the industry by the chief executives of the media agencies that buy advertising.

The event, co-hosted by the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI), heard calls for a “radical overhaul” of Irish radio to counter a decline in ad revenues. It also included the awkward observation that Today FM used to be one of the strongest consumer brands in Ireland.

That “used to be” won’t have been pleasant listening for the Communicorp representatives in the room. At its own briefing to employees last week, the general thrust of media agency criticism was acknowledged, but a more hopeful note struck. The group had to “change the perceptions of the media agencies” and “change the perceptions of the advertisers”, Serle said, because “standing still looks like a s*** option” in the current market.

Trying to get a share of a “digital pot” that is otherwise heading in the direction of Google and Facebook is easier said than done, but Communicorp Media was at least ready to announce some new tricks.

‘Banned’

These include a more gung-ho strategy on podcasts at Today FM’s sister station Newstalk, where some of the specialist radio programmes will now be released “podcast-first”, some podcast-only shows will be developed and the approach to digital will no longer be restricted to “clipping” interviews from live radio.

None of these will involve Irish Times journalists, who are still “banned” as on-air contributors.

One move that has already attracted the seal of approval from media agencies is the deliberate evolution of Off the Ball from a humble sports radio programme into a “multi-platform brand”, with live roadshows and a fully-dressed video studio.

This is a phrase that can be relied upon to instil dread into anyone who has had the misfortune to hear it more than once in their life. And yet there is no denying that for the media groups that possess them, they can be quite useful in bringing in cash – in a way that a regarded, but highly-regulated and niche-by-definition Irish radio station like TXFM was not.

Radio is not dead, but the days of “just being radio” may be fading.