Phantom’s demons should scare the music radio market

The “niche, alternative rock” station has struggled to make its investors a return

Phantom 105.2 FM: Even Arctic Monkeys can’t save the station from swingeing cutbacks. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga

Phantom 105.2 FM: Even Arctic Monkeys can’t save the station from swingeing cutbacks. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga

 

‘It is now safe to turn your radio on!” declares the website of Phantom 105.2 FM with all the enthusiasm of an operation that has just won its broadcasting licence. Sadly, the problem for Phantom is that it is now all too safe for its core audience to turn their radios off.

Jobs are being lost at the Dublin station, and among its community of listeners and former listeners, a wave of sadness has broken out. For indie music fans of a certain generation, Phantom retains a faint but lingering romance that belies its status as the three-way property of Communicorp, Evergreen Ventures and Gaiety Investments.

Officially on air since 2006, Phantom was “the pirate that went straight”, as a headline in this newspaper once put it, having begun life in a shed sometime in the mid-1990s. Some of its harshest critics believe it went too straight and was no longer either the “niche, alternative rock music service” for which it was licensed or the free spirit of its pirate days.

Even before new pressures on music radio are considered, there are questions here about whether Phantom has ever adequately served the potential audience for alternative rock music, and whether or not that audience – “niche” by definition - was ever capable of delivering a commercial return for its investors.

And Phantom’s listenership is niche. Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) data shows that in 2013 it had an average of 15,000 daytime listeners, down from 29,000 four years earlier. Its share of adult listeners from 7am to 7pm was just 0.8 per cent, while among 15-34 year-olds, it had a “listened yesterday” share of only 3 per cent. These are not good figures even for a player that is deliberately avoiding a mass market.

The station’s woes can be broken down into two main themes: developments in music and developments in radio. The first hangs on that phrase “rock music”. In broad brush strokes, rock music can be defined as guitar-led. But the cultural grip of rock music is not as firm as it was in the 1990s. Once, a plectrum-strewn indie music scene provided an alternative to “mainstream” rock. Now rock is itself an increasingly niche genre, so “alternative rock” is an alternative to the alternative. “Niche, alternative rock” is more of a tautology than ever.

Phantom may always have championed more than the genre pejoratively known as “indie landfill” and it has evolved
along with a shift in the culture towards dance, electronica, hip-hop and myriad other genres. A recent playlist features tracks by Damon Albarn, London Grammar and Joan as Policewoman that seem unlikely to be heard on Radio Nova. Everyone has their favourite Phantom show from the many that have come and gone over the years. Ultimately, however, its approach hasn’t been reactive enough either as far as the musical zeitgeist or patterns in consumer behaviour are concerned.

Radio bosses tend to play down the impact of Spotify and competitors such as automated digital channels and UK stations. But music radio executives will, or at least should, be warier than their cousins at speech-led stations.

A study conducted last year by Ignite Research suggested that 18 per cent of the Irish radio audience listens to hear music and for no other reason. This hints at the potential share of the advertising market that “pure-play” internet radio could snatch away from FM stations. And while pure-play currently accounts for just a fraction of all listening in Ireland, that fraction will be made up primarily of the music fans that once sought out Phantom and its counterparts.

In Ireland, FM radio is a traditionally strong medium. But it is not immune to technological shift and there are signs of slippage among both Dublin listeners and the 15-34s. Tellingly, Phantom was stronger in the demographic that may remember its pirate days, the 25-34s, rather than 15-24-year-olds hunting for sounds that will get them through the pain of exam revision.

Reports of its restructuring suggest an imminent swing away from “taste-maker” DJs to cheaper, automated programming – a Phantom that employs the smallest possible number of humans. The BAI, for its part, says its approval to “a series of proposed changes” was “given on the basis of live programming being broadcast between the hours of 7am and midnight”, and that the final details “are still being worked through”. The nature of the “niche, alternative rock music service” for which it was licensed “remains unchanged”, it adds.

Therein lies the problem. How will Phantom, and others like it, remain unchanged when the world is changing around them?

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