On Saturday afternoon in the VIP area of Electric Picnic, where RTÉ's studio looms facing the main stage, Dan Healy, the head of 2FM is buzzing. Last night, the radio station created another amazing festival movement with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, a double bill in the Rankin's Wood tent with DJ Mo K and the orchestra playing a Story Of Hip Hop show, and Jenny Greene's return playing dance classics.
After last year’s success of Jenny Greene’s stint, her show with the orchestra has played the 3Arena twice, Live at the Marquee in Cork twice, and the Galway International Arts Festival. After years of trying to find how to connect with listeners, 2FM has had an epiphany, linking with the orchestra to engage an audience in a way no one predicted.
What's unusual for such a success is that it's hard to find someone to take credit for it. With RTÉ the critic's favourite punch bag, and Dee Forbes as director general ushering in a new era within the broadcaster featuring widescale restructuring and hundreds of redundancies, the much maligned youth station has always been up for grabs. When Healy saw Mark McCabe play Maniac 2000 to a room full of screaming fans at Electric Ireland's tent in 2015, he realised what 2FM's role should be at festivals: "2FM should show up as an artist."
Healy grew up in a classical household. His 83-year-old mother is a classical pianist who has since become enraptured by Robert Miles' Children after Healy introduced her to it via the orchestra's performance. His dad was a trained tenor. Healy was practising conducting music in his living room as a teenager.
The initial idea to pair 2FM DJs with the orchestra came from multiple people. 2FM aren't claiming to be doing something original ("with respect to Pete Tong and the BBC," Healy defers) Rory Coveney (Simon's brother) is the RTÉ director general's strategic advisor, and loves electronic music. He introduced Healy to Pete Tong's orchestral interpretations of dance music, which coincidentally closes the main stage at this year's Electric Picnic on Saturday night.
Inspired by the idea, Healy flew to London to talk to Festival Republic's Melvin Benn, looking for a main stage slot. Melvin said 4pm, but Healy knew it needed to work at night, and so Rankin's Wood was pitched for 2016, with a 9,000 capacity. Others were involved too: programme director Paul Russell, head of music Alan Swan, and Mary Sexton, who coordinates the logistics of the orchestra. Asking execs, producers and PR at RTÉ about the origin story brings up a changeable roll call of names.
In 2016, the orchestra rehearsed the music the Tuesday before the Picnic. Healy was sweating bullets. Were 9,000 people really going to turn up to this thing? When he started walking towards the tent, he thought, "where's everyone going?" as crowds flooded past. He then realised they were heading to see this thing, Jenny Greene playing dance tunes with an orchestra.
The place went off, and it was the highlight of the festival. 9,000 people inside, a further 2,000 outside trying to get in.
“We were shell-shocked,” Healy says. “We’ve been trying to change 2FM, and it’s been a rough journey... but turning up here doing something that’s truly public service? ... we knocked it out of the park.”
Plans for 2017 started cooking. Weekend Breakfast presenter Aifric O’Connell, who along with Louise McSharry is viewed as integral to the future of the station, sent Healy a YouTube video of a Polish conductor called Jimek interpreting hip hop with an orchestra in a longform, sit down concert.
Meanwhile, Healy saw Rusangano Family walk off with the Choice Music Prize, and although he says "Louise [MCSHARRY]has been playing them from the get go", he realised he hadn't been doing enough to connect the station with the Irish hip hop scene. Then, Adam Fogarty who is responsible for Pulse, which falls under 2FM's jurisdiction, became involved in that orchestra-plus-hip hop idea. Healy cleared the plans with Jim Jennings, and the wheels started turning.
One of the most compelling aspects of the Story of Hip Hop show on Friday night was the dominance of the four MCs and singers; Mango Dassle – surely the star of this year's Picnic – Jess Kav of Barq, Jafaris, and Erica Cody. They operated like a seasoned troupe. The tent was absolute wedged, the soundsystem not powerful enough to carry the performance considering the number of people there (which stretched thousands deep outside the tent). Realistically, the gig should have been in Electric Arena.
Tunes by Dr Dre, Drake, 50 Cent, Beyonce, Eve, Nelly, Wu Tang, Salt n Pepa, Missy Elliot, Tupac... the crowd was hectic and up for it all. The place went off. Another hit.
When the orchestra players came off stage they were euphoric, hugging in celebration. For the orchestra, it’s a tough gig. They’re playing at 110 decibels on the stage, with a click track in their ears, massive bass coming up through the stage, and an almost overwhelming crowd noise, as well as trying to tune their instruments throughout the show.
Duchess Iredale, well known and respected in the live music industry, produces the live shows. "She's someone who knows how to do stadium gigs," Healy says.
Now, it's on to the next stage. The hip hop show will go to the 3Arena, and the dance show is almost certain to tour Australia. Presenting these gigs at Electric Picnic is hugely expensive, but for the 2FM and RTÉ team, it's been a massively rewarding enterprise. For the audience, it's a unique experience, and also delivers a sense of pride in how this is our orchestra, and these are our local heroes.
Who’d have thought that 2FM’s relevance resided in such a curious coming together of ideas? For a station searching so much for an identity, it has found it in a live setting, turning up as an artist, and most importantly, giving the people what they want.