Today FM looks for love as audience slides

Listeners have ebbed away from the Communicorp radio station. So, what next?

Do you love Today FM? The radio station has been asking listeners this very question when they open its mobile app.

With only two possible answers, "yes" or "no", I picked "no" to see what would happen and was then asked to submit my thoughts on how Today FM can make Today FM better for me. Well, now . . . it's probably best not to ask me.

The national station, owned by Denis O'Brien's Communicorp radio group, seems in need of some more love from more listeners.

The last set of radio ratings showed that it had lost 56,000 listeners over the 12 months to the end of September, leaving it with a daily reach of 397,000. Its national market share has been on the wane of late and it currently sits at 7.5 per cent, with new Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) figures due to terrify everyone next week.

Some recent history: Today FM ended 2014 with a market share of 8.7 per cent and a daily reach of 476,000, but with a hole in its schedule: Ray D'Arcy had just defected to RTÉ leaving a vacancy in the mid-morning slot, the biggest for the station. His final JNLR figure was 215,000, his audience having slipped a bit from its peak.

Weekend presenter Alison Curtis was installed in the interim before the station replaced D'Arcy with Anton Savage. But after just 22 months in the chair, he left Today FM in December in rather different circumstances, his contract not having been renewed.

Hugely disappointed

In a first-strike statement, Savage said he was “hugely disappointed” that he would no longer be working with the team on his show and would not get the opportunity to say goodbye to listeners. He also said it had become clear that his objectives had diverged from that of Today FM’s new management, with disagreements occurring on music quotas, playlist, topics for discussion, format, choice of contributors and choice of certain guests.

Savage got the Today FM job under the tenure of Peter McPartlin, now chief executive at the agency MediaCom Ireland, but under the reign of new chief executive Keith McCormack, it appears he was bereft of a champion at Marconi House – or perhaps it is simply McCormack’s time to put his stamp on the schedule.

Yesterday, after another weekday stint by super-sub Curtis, Today FM’s latest mid-morning hosts, Dermot (Whelan) and Dave (Moore) took to the air with their new show, starting as they mean to go on by interviewing laid-back actor Matthew McConaughey.

At a time when radio is being squeezed by changing listener habits – podcasts, Spotify, a plethora of local and international options – there may be a certain logic in promoting Dermot and Dave from lunchtime to mid-morning: Today FM obviously hopes the duo can provide a magic comedy-and-chemistry bullet that will differentiate the station.

Today FM is a hybrid of a music station and a talk station, and a highly successful one in many respects, with drivetime and weekend current affairs programming blending into the schedule alongside the music-driven, banter-toned shows. The mix of genres reflects its licence requirements. But in 2017, it feels atypical.

Uncomfortable prospect

For those who toil at Today FM, the boardroom row at Independent News & Media last year over the price tag for Communicorp’s Newstalk raised an uncomfortable prospect - the possibility that Today FM and Newstalk may yet go their separate ways. And in a Newstalk-less Communicorp, Today FM might seem an expensive anomaly compared to the “pure” music stations that make up the rest of the company’s portfolio.

The suspicion is that Communicorp's new chief executive, Adrian Serle, fresh from leading the sale of Birmingham-based radio group Orion Media to Bauer Media Group, has been hired to whip the business into a lean, mean shape before it, too, is put in the shop window.

Losing more listeners won’t help the cause either way. Savage revealed he was told when he started that he had to retain “65 per cent or more” of D’Arcy’s audience, which he did – the penultimate figure for his show was 166,000. It would be odd if Whelan and Moore were given similar official slack. The pressure is very much on them to stem the audience decline at a time when the radio industry is in a state of great flux.

Equality of airtime still being something of a pipe dream of mine, the answer to what Today FM can do to make itself better for me is to employ more female presenters – put more women on air. I really don’t see this happening before I age out of the target demographic. But in the years to come, change at the station may go far beyond who sits behind the microphone between 9am and noon anyway.