Irish people flocked to radio as the coronavirus crisis unfolded, leading to huge increases in the listenership of shows such as Morning Ireland, Liveline and Sunday with Miriam over the past year.
The RTÉ Radio 1 trio of shows were among the biggest gainers in the first Joint National Listenership Research survey (JNLR) to be published since the pandemic, with the figures revealing a Covid-19 surge for news and current affairs.
However, there were signs of softness for music stations such as 2fm as disruption to daily routines and ongoing remote working habits took their toll on programmes that depend upon the regular commuter audience.
Radio listening across the market was down before 8am, but grew after 8am, with many mid-morning shows attracting new or lapsed listeners.
Morning Ireland, Ireland’s most listened-to radio programme, now has 491,000 listeners, up 62,000 over the past 12 months. This is thought to be its highest audience in about 17 years.
Joe Duffy’s Liveline, which notoriously covered lighter topics such as the portrayal of sex in the drama Normal People as well as the fallout from the pandemic, added 41,000 listeners year-on-year, bringing its audience up to 404,000. This was also Livelive’s biggest listenership in some time.
The figures are based on a sample of 12,120 listeners surveyed face-to-face over the course of the year to the end of the September. No interviewing took place between April and June as Covid-19 restrictions meant researchers were unable to access people’s homes.
"It is a vindication for us, absolutely," said Peter Woods, head of RTÉ Radio 1. While streaming data had given RTÉ the sense that more people were listening to the station, the JNLR figures are the first confirmation of the Covid-19 bump.
“This JNLR is a snapshot of what has been an incredible time in the lives of people in this country.”
The Radio 1 Saturday mid-morning slot hosted by Marian Finucane and more recently by Brendan O'Connor, following Finucane's death in early January, remains the third biggest show on Irish radio with an audience of 382,000, up 39,000 year-on-year.
Ryan Tubridy’s 9am-10am midweek slot is now close behind, with the addition of 47,000 listeners taking his audience to 381,000. News at One shot up 50,000 to 370,000, while Drivetime’s listenership swelled by 54,000 to 265,000.
All Radio 1 weekday peak-time programmes made gains. The mid-morning Today show, which had three presenters – Sean O'Rourke, Sarah McInerney and Claire Byrne – during the survey period now has an audience of 369,000, up 54,000 year-on-year.
Overall, the pandemic as well as coverage of news events such as the February general election, helped Radio 1 expand its market share to 24.1 per cent, compared to 22 per cent a year ago. Its share of listening in Dublin leapt to 36.3 per cent, up from 30.9 per cent.
Some spectacular weekend gains also contributed. Miriam O'Callaghan's Sunday with Miriam was one of the strongest performers, adding 82,000 listeners to take her tally to 318,000, while Saturday show The Business presented by Richard Curran now has an audience of 376,000, up 75,000.
The Sunday slot presented by Finucane and subsequently O’Connor added 62,000 listeners, bringing it to 352,000. Time slots usually dedicated to sports programming saw more modest gains in a period that included the months where no sport was taking place.
RTÉ 2fm's market share slipped back to 5.8 per cent, down from 6.4 per cent a year ago, with its weekday peak-time shows dropping back especially at key travel times. "I'm not surprised we took a thump," said head of 2fm Dan Healy. "We've just got to take this one."
Its weekend shows was not affected by the sudden loss of the commuter audience, however, with presenters Louise McSharry, Chris and Ciara, Stephen Byrne and Keith Walsh all adding listeners.
Today FM and Newstalk
Today FM’s market share rose from 7.5 per cent to 7.8 per cent, a five-year high for the station. Its biggest weekday gainers were afternoon presenter Fergal D’Arcy, who added 22,000 listeners year-on-year to 125,000, and the mid-morning Dermot & Dave show, which was up 19,000 at 183,000.
Mairead Ronan added 14,000 listeners at lunchtime, taking her audience up to 103,000, while there were smaller rises for Ian Dempsey and The Last Word with Matt Cooper.
“If we are to take any positives from the last nine months of this pandemic, it’s that it reignited Irish people’s love of radio,” said Today FM content director Phil Manzor. “At a time when so much was uncertain, people looked for company in their day.”
Newstalk, which like Today FM is owned by Denis O'Brien's radio group Communicorp, saw its market share hold steady year-on-year at 6.7 per cent. Its big winner was The Pat Kenny Show, which added 14,000 listeners and is now back at its all-time high of 155,000.
Patricia Monahan, managing editor of Newstalk, said retaining its status as the second most-popular station in the busy Dublin market was "testament to the quality of our output and the dedication of our teams."
Although national stations gained share at the expense of local and regional stations, this was largely as a result of the trend in Dublin.
Radio 1, Today FM, Newstalk and Lyric FM all grew their market share in Dublin, putting pressure on other stations. Communicorp’s Spin 1038 retained its 6.8 per cent Dublin share, but Wireless Media’s FM104 – the third-biggest station in Dublin – slipped from 11.5 per cent to 9.1 per cent, while other music-oriented stations in the city fell back.
In Cork, Wireless’s 96FM and C103 both gained share, while Red FM, in which The Irish Times has a minority stake, was slightly lower. WLR FM, which is majority owned by The Irish Times, recorded a 44.6 per cent market share in Waterford, while youth station Beat 102 103, also part of The Irish Times group, had a 15.5 per cent share in the south east.
Donegal’s Highland Radio remained the local station with the largest market share in its licence area. After further gains over the past year, this now stands at 66.6 per cent.