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How will Denis O’Brien’s departure change the Irish media landscape?

Hugh Linehan: The era of moguls has run its course; European conglomerates have arrived

Not surprisingly, most of the reaction to the recent sale of the Communicorp radio group to the German-based Bauer Media Audio has focused on the fact that it marks the final exit of Denis O'Brien from the Irish media stage. Just five years ago, O'Brien dominated Irish media to a degree which some believed was unhealthy. The manner of his departure, and the hundreds of millions of euro he is estimated to have lost along the way, have contributed to the thinly veiled schadenfreude evident in much of the coverage in rival outlets.

But now that he’s gone, and setting aside the turbulent and sometimes controversial story of his relatively brief ascendancy, what does the Irish media landscape look like, and how is it likely to change in his wake?

Communicorp, whose assets include the country's two privately owned national radio stations, Today FM and Newstalk, along with local music stations Spin 1038 and 98FM in Dublin and Spin Southwest in Limerick, was sold to Bauer, which already has a presence in seven other European countries, two years after O'Brien's sale of his interest in Independent News and Media (INM) to Belgian company Mediahuis.

The new owners (who last year dispensed with the old INM corporate identity) have focused on belatedly turning the Independent ship towards the digital subscription model which nearly all newspapers now recognise is the only route to survival in a post-print age. Similarly, the expectation is that Bauer will follow a strategy of consolidation and cost-cutting which has been successful for it in the UK and elsewhere. In both cases, the business challenges are immense, but both Bauer and Mediahuis have advantages of scale and expertise which should stand to them.

Communicorp always denied suggestions that O'Brien involved himself in day-to-day editorial decisions, but there's no doubt the station was largely built in his image

It seems that the era of Irish media moguls like O’Brien and his predecessor Tony O’Reilly has run its course and the age of European conglomerates has arrived. Many observers may see this as a good thing. This country’s weak regulations on media monopolies were exposed when O’Brien added control of Ireland’s biggest newspaper company to his ownership of Ireland’s largest private radio company. The fact that the two groups are now no longer controlled by a single individual lessens legitimate and longstanding concerns about over-concentration of ownership.

It also begs the question of whether the editorial voice of these still large and powerful institutions will remain unchanged. Communicorp always denied suggestions made over the years (including by at least one former presenter) that O'Brien involved himself in day-to-day editorial decisions, but there's no doubt the station was largely built in his image – differentiating itself from RTÉ with an unabashedly pro-business stance and building its schedule around Fine Gael-adjacent figures like George Hook and Ivan Yates. Equally, Tony O'Reilly, when he owned INM, was not averse to using its power on his own behalf (most obviously during the 1997 election campaign), and the group's newspapers generally tended towards the centre-right.

Gap in the market

For very good reasons, media companies are always obsessed with how they’re going to catch the attention of the next generation. That question becomes more acute when print and radio are in apparently terminal decline. O’Brien told Trinity College students last week that his decision to sell had been influenced by the changing listening habits of consumers. “I just don’t know whether a 12-year-old today who is going to be 15 in three years’ time is going to be listening to Spin.” Based on its track record, elsewhere, Bauer seems to have a strategy to address that question.

Whether it has a similar plan for a non-music station like Newstalk, which has leaked millions in losses over the last two decades, remains to be seen. But the future of music radio, while not unimportant, is less controversial and less contested than questions about news and current affairs.

Strangely, there is one glaring gap in the market which remains unaddressed. Last week's Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll showed more than 40 per cent of voters under 35 supported Sinn Féin. It would be hard to argue that those voters' views are proportionately reflected in radio studios or on the opinion pages of national newspapers. Broadcasters, of course, are subject to strict legislative requirements on fairness, balance and impartiality. Yet that hasn't stopped Newstalk from carving out a particular identity for itself which is, at least in part, ideological. And no such limits apply to newspapers. Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that some media executive in Antwerp or Hamburg, poring over a spreadsheet, might come across this fact and suggest an editorial repositioning towards the party preferred by the young?