RTÉ longwave radio a proven ‘lifeline’ for elderly Irish in Britain
Opinion: Retaining service would send powerful message of thanks to a generation who contributed so much in remittances
‘It is hard to imagine a more cost-efficient service to keep such a large number of people so well-connected to their homeland on a daily basis.’ Photograph: iStock/Getty Images
Almost two years ago, RTÉ announced the closure of its longwave service, with only a few weeks’ notice. Listeners in the UK, many of whom were elderly Irish emigrants who had relied on RTÉ as their link with home for decades, responded initially with stunned silence and helpless resignation.
Within a couple of weeks, however, a protest movement had begun. Thousands signed petitions, participated in write-in campaigns, and spoke out to politicians. A contingent of pensioners travelled from throughout England to meet with RTÉ executives in Dublin.
To their credit, those executives, perhaps realising they had underestimated the importance of the service, listened, and pushed back the closure until at least 2017. The Department of Foreign Affairs also stepped up and gave a commitment to fund a study to examine the needs of longwave listeners.
That study came out last week, and the results are incontestable. The longwave service is a well-used, well-loved link to Ireland, and there is no reasonably accessible alternative for the vast majority of its listeners.
Listeners responded enthusiastically to the calls for opinion that were broadcast on the station, far beyond anyone had expected: the researchers said they faced difficulties as they were “inundated with an unexpected volume of calls from listeners”.
In the end, 3,191 people completed the survey, with an impressive 92 per cent saying they listened every day or most days. The researchers note, “For the majority of respondents, longwave was seen as a ‘lifeline’ to Ireland - helping them ‘maintain a sense of Irishness’ and to keep up with events ‘back home’.”
RTÉ initially suggested longwave listeners could simply switch over to digital platforms. The majority of listeners, however, said they would need help in figuring out how to access these, and 68 per cent said they knew no one who could help them. 72 per cent were over the age of 60, and 45 per cent were above 70. Only 41 per cent attend or use the services of Irish organisations in the UK, meaning there would be difficulties in reaching those who need assistance in changing technologies. A third of listeners live alone, with half having health issues such as reduced vision or hearing and mobility problems.
The survey comes out as Ireland is working actively to encourage its citizens overseas to take Ireland’s needs into account as they enter Britain’s polling places to vote on Brexit. The benefits of having Irish voices and perspectives regularly beamed into the homes of UK voters with Irish ties is obvious: the stronger and more salient the link, the greater the chances that Ireland’s citizens abroad will be willing to don the green jersey as they enter the voting booth.
It is hard to imagine a more cost-efficient service to keep such a large number of people so well-connected to their homeland on a daily basis: RTÉ estimates running costs of only €250,000 per year, a minute fraction of the millions of pounds that were being sent back by these emigrants during their working years (in 1961, the total remittances to Ireland amounted to £13.5 million, while the entire education budget for the nation came to £14 million).
If Ireland has forgotten these contributions, the Irish abroad haven’t. As the researchers note: “In stressing the value of ‘an indigenous Irish radio station’ to the lives of Irish communities in Britain, particularly in terms of their link with ‘home’, some participants referenced their remittance contributions back to Ireland in the 1950s”.
The larger issue is, of course, whether we view the Irish abroad as a resource, a group to be courted when they can do favours for Ireland and otherwise left to fend for themselves, or whether we want an inclusive vision of the global Irish nation that will take into account Ireland’s tremendous debt to the Irish abroad. That debt can never be paid back - but retaining longwave for the benefit of the generation that left Ireland in droves to send money home to keep their families fed and clothed would be a concrete and powerful symbol that Ireland remembers and appreciates those sacrifices.
It seems clear that in our increasingly globalised world, Ireland’s need for the diaspora is not going to decrease. How can we in good conscience keep asking the Irish abroad for economic help and loyalty without also keeping in the forefront of our minds that the help should sometimes flow the other direction? Even if the costs of this connection were not a reasonable marketing investment likely to be repaid many times over by the work of the small army of what former president Mary McAleese once called “Ireland’s informal ambassadors”, an annual expenditure of €250,000 would be a small price to pay to maintain the lifeline for these listeners.
The survey also highlighted reception difficulties experienced by some listeners: the service has been hit by substantial interference from an Algerian station that shares the 252 frequency, which has boosted its power in an effort to reach Algeria’s own diaspora across France. The problem is particularly acute at night across Southeastern England, and the researchers noted that Luton, for example, had no access to the service for the year preceding the survey period.
It is not only users in the UK who experience this problem; we know from other reports that the service in the southernmost sections of Ireland is similarly afflicted. Additionally, RTÉ has been operating the longwave signal at reduced power.
There is a relatively simple fix: RTÉ should restore the service to full power, and could move its channel slightly up the dial, to the 261 frequency that has been vacated in recent years by Bulgarian, German and Russian stations. This would require a small amount of diplomacy to negotiate the switch with international governing bodies, and a relatively minor technical adjustment that could be done overnight. Listeners could then be given a clear channel, with no interference.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and the new Minister of State for the Diaspora Joe McHugh have both welcomed the survey findings. Officials should move quickly to reassure listeners that Ireland will preserve this connection for the foreseeable future. In addition, any switchover should be undertaken only when an inexpensive, highly accessible alternative has emerged into common usage by the listening public. Such an alternative is unlikely in the short to medium term. Any future transition period should be lengthy, and marked by clear communication and careful planning that will take the needs of the most vulnerable and isolated into account.
Retaining the service is a move that should be regarded as being in the national interest: longwave is a crucial tool through which to reach a large swath of our overseas citizens. The Government should work with RTÉ on coming up with a solution: if funding is an issue, perhaps the money could be ringfenced as part of the budget for diaspora outreach. It is urgent and essential to establish a solution that will allow the Irish in Britain to keep their lifeline to an Ireland some of them may never see again, but which they served so well when the nation needed them so much.