Converting local listeners to national ones a tough ask for RTÉ

Seán O’Rourke wants the Kerry, Donegal and Galway audience to move the dial his way

Is the fatness of the Communicorp marketing wallet getting to some people within RTÉ? On Monday, Seán O'Rourke, interviewing two members of Second Captains, observed that the sports broadcasting team was once employed by another radio station.

“I don’t think we need to name it,” said O’Rourke. “They have the town so decorated with posters, it’s looking like Pyongyang.”

In this analogy, Newstalk (and not the State broadcaster) is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and Pat Kenny, the face of its €1 million advertising campaign, takes on the guise of its supreme leader, the comparative whippersnapper that is Kim Jong-un. It must be the way they have lit his face.

As nicknames go, the RTÉ defector has done worse than Kim Jong-pat. In any case, the official line from Montrose is that when it comes to Irish radio's cult of personality, it is not a question of O'Rourke versus Kenny, but O'Rourke versus everyone who goes up against him in the mid-morning slot.


Radio 1 has a 23 per cent peak-time national share, O'Rourke himself has pointed out, and he wouldn't mind chasing the other 77 per cent. "There are people listening to Keith Finnegan down in Galway, or Shaun Doherty up in Donegal or Jerry O'Sullivan down in Kerry," he said at Radio 1's season launch. "This is not a two-horse race."

RTÉ Radio's acting managing director Jim Jennings continued the theme. "He brings things to [the show] that Pat maybe doesn't bring to it. Seán is a known lover of the GAA and sports. He has deep connections in rural Ireland and communities all over the country."

But hoping that listeners in Galway, Donegal, Kerry and other franchise areas will suddenly grow tired of local radio and switch to RTÉ simply because O’Rourke cuts a less D4-like figure than Kenny seems like a very big ask.

The three shows cited by O'Rourke, Kerry Today presented by Jerry O'Sullivan on Radio Kerry from 9am-11am, the Shaun Doherty Show (10am-1pm on Highland Radio) and Galway Talks with Keith Finnegan (9am-11.30am on Galway Bay FM) have an average of almost 90,000 listeners between them.

This is a substantial target when you are trying to defend a listenership inheritance of 328,000 and compensate for the likely loss of Pyongyang, sorry Dublin, listeners to your predecessor-turned-rival.

As the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland understatedly puts it in its summary of the Joint National Listenership Research figures, “local radio continues to be a strong performer”. Highland Radio and Radio Kerry – in common with MWR and Tipp FM – hold the majority market share position in their franchise areas. Indeed, when Highland Radio calls itself Ireland’s number one local station, it does so with some authority – the station has a 67 per cent share of peak-time listening in its area.

These mid-morning hosts pull in more listeners in their franchise areas than Radio 1 because they address the same national news topics covered by O’Rourke and Kenny but with the critical bonus of local voices. This is not merely the superficial matter of the right accent for the right audience. Their shows incorporate an information service that cannot, by definition, be replicated by a national station based in the capital.

So on the PPI-nominated Kerry Today, for example, the big talking point on Mon- day and Tuesday was Ireland's new insolv- ency service, with O'Sullivan interviewing a representative of Kerry's Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) and a Tralee-based insolvency expert about all the practicalities of the process.

Folded into the mix are the specific details of local gripes, which on the Shaun Doherty Show (this week presented by Greg Hughes) might mean poor Saorview reception, and on Galway Talks might involve the waiver system for Galway city bin collections. "The comment lines are kind of busy today, we do like to see them busy," said Finnegan.

Newstalk is likely to have an easier time encouraging Today with Pat Kenny listen- ers to "move the dial" to his new frequency than RTÉ will have in its bid to convert local radio listeners to national ones. This is because Kenny and O'Rourke's shows, for all the inches devoted to their rivalry, ultimately share the same basic format and provide a similar product: the day's current affairs with a dash of culture and a strategically large dollop of sport.

Perhaps with the prompting of Newstalk’s “Pyongyang” advertising campaign and RTÉ’s own cross-promotion efforts, some local radio listeners might choose to ditch the shout-outs and utilities updates in favour of big interviews with national and international figures. It seems an outside bet. But if they do, it probably won’t be talk of Croke Park that persuades them – what can inspire more tribal loyalties, after all, than GAA?