Newstalk tears up rule book with new weekday schedule

Communicorp station hopes to double down on its 25 to 54-year-old, urban audience

Newstalk’s breakfast team from September: Shane Coleman, Colette Fitzpatrick, Paul Williams and Alan Quinlan. Photograph: Maxwell’s

Newstalk’s breakfast team from September: Shane Coleman, Colette Fitzpatrick, Paul Williams and Alan Quinlan. Photograph: Maxwell’s

 

Conventional wisdom posits that listeners are creatures of habit with quasi-emotional attachments to the voices they hear on air and that to risk annoying them even in the slightest is a gamble on a par with betting on England to win a major football tournament.

This week, however, Newstalk has done what radio stations do not do lightly: it has ripped up its weekday schedule.

Its hand was partly forced by the resignation of its biggest draw, Ivan Yates, while retirement had been on the mind of its second-biggest draw, George Hook (75). But the station, under new chief executive Tim Collins, has also taken the opportunity to make other changes designed to double down on the 25-54-year-old, urban audience.

Here are 10 things to know about the new schedule before it begins in September.

1. Breakfast bedfellows: Paul Williams, the crime journalist employed by Independent News & Media, will be part of a “rotating” morning team. “I’m a total novice, I’m a virgin,” he told the current hosts Yates and Chris Donoghue. Newstalk stalwart Shane Coleman and TV3 anchor Colette Fitzpatrick are the appointed designated drivers, with Alan Quinlan delivering the sport.

Win breakfast, win the day, goes the radio adage, and while Newstalk Breakfast is unlikely to see off Radio 1 kingpin Morning Ireland, it does have the power to hurt it, just a little, with just the right amount of controversy.

2. Format issues: As well as trialling potential new presenters in recent months, Newstalk station editor Garrett Harte has been testing new formats. With a two-hour running time from 7am to 9am, the new breakfast is likely to be a tight, zippy affair. As for the subject matter, Williams says he knows “a little more than just about crime”.

3. Ratings boost: Pat Kenny’s listenership figure of 126,000 at the last count could be better. Thanks to Joint National Listenership Research survey methodology, the 30-minute extension to Kenny’s show should boost his tally – assuming the slot isn’t undone by a weaker inheritance of listeners from the Yates- less breakfast.

4. Female voices: Fitzpatrick’s move from a one-hour Sunday morning show to breakfast and the hiring of Sunday Times political correspondent Sarah McInerney to co-host a drivetime programme with Donoghue means Newstalk now has two female presenters on weekdays, as opposed to, er, zero – a state of affairs that made Newstalk far too blokey and 20th century for many.

5. “Content pillars”: There will definitely be “banter”, but Newstalk’s research concluded that news, sport, technology and business are the four key “content pillars” its listeners want. People don’t come to radio for news headlines, according to Collins, but to hear people analyse what on Earth has just happened.

6. Midday Hook: George, having been persuaded to stay, moves to a lunchtime slot where he will offer “a unique point of difference” for listeners. His regular contributors on The Right Hook will be joining him, so everybody gets both to stay in touch and go home early.

7. Moncrieff blues: When Newstalk announced its new schedule on Tuesday, most of the messages that came my way were of the “What about Seán Moncrieff?” variety. Well, he will now be on air from 2pm to 4pm, which shaves one hour off his current slot. Let’s just say some Moncrieff fans were not impressed.

8. New generation: For once, a high-profile serious news programme will be steered by not one but two journalists in their 30s. The pairing of Donoghue and McInerney at drivetime seems, to me, to be a real point of difference from Radio 1, the change that really does highlight that it is not a “me-too station”. And who knows? This could be the beginning of a millennial uprising at Irish broadcasters.

9. Unlucky for some: Radio is a cut-throat business, one in which on-air success depends on catching elusive breaks. There were some losers in this reshuffle, from both within the station and outside it. Some potential presenters given trials have the right to be disappointed not to have made the final cut – it’s not like there are lots of media gigs knocking around.

10. Forget the dial: Newstalk’s new commercial strategy of focusing on 25-54- year-olds is being matched by an investment in digital and “cross-platform” activity. Essentially, it wants to recruit and retain the audience that has never even touched the dial, never mind moved it.

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