RTÉ’s decision to cut longwave radio service will sever a vital link with Irish abroad
Opinion: Move should be postponed until elderly emigrants have other options
‘RTÉ’s digital radio alternative, DAB, which the company advises people in Ireland to turn to, has no reach in either Britain or the North’. Photograph: Getty Images
RTÉ has announced the imminent closure of its longwave service, which was the last remaining broadcast radio service still available to the Irish in the UK. The move comes six years after the shutdown of its medium-wave service. At that time, RTÉ officials assured the Irish abroad of its commitment to them, and that the longwave service would continue.
The shutdown, announced with only one month’s notice, is scheduled to take place on October 27th. The news is unlikely to cause a stir in Ireland. RTÉ says 98 per cent of its listeners have other options. Most of us used to spending our days online could be forgiven for wondering why on earth this technology wasn’t mothballed years ago.
Who will be affected? The Irish in the UK, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, will have a vital link with home permanently severed. This is a group that is unlikely to protest. Many won’t even know they’re about to lose their radio service until the day they go to turn it on and it’s not there.
RTÉ has been broadcasting Radio 1 to Britain since 1932. Older people rely on it as a valuable link with a country they left years ago; for many, it is their last link with Ireland.
RTÉ says listeners in the UK can tune into the station on the internet or satellite, but these solutions, which require cost and know-how, will be inaccessible for many. RTÉ’s digital radio alternative, DAB, has no reach in either Britain or the North. Longwave is not perfect: it’s unusable at night, when its signal is overpowered by an Algerian station sharing the same channel. But it keeps people connected during the day, and many people use it to listen to GAA matches from home.
Last week Brendie O’Brien, chairman of the GAA in Britain, described the impending shutdown as “a massive setback to the whole of the Irish community”.
“We have a lot of old people who won’t have any access to Ireland whatsoever once that [the longwave service] goes.” O’Brien described Radio 1’s role in the lives of many emigrants as that of providing “a home from home, and the shutdown would be depriving them of that.”
Six years ago, I was among those who campaigned against RTÉ’s move to shut down medium-wave radio, which also served the Irish community in the UK, because it would adversely affect the emigrants of the 1950s and 1960s.
That generation sent home millions of pounds in remittances and were, in return, largely forgotten by Ireland, until a spate of consciousness-raising in the 1990s. Then the media revealed there were high levels of poverty and isolation among this elderly group.
Ireland began to step up its commitment to Irish emigrants and the diaspora. The appointment of Jimmy Deenihan as Minister of State for the Diaspora is the latest in a series of positive steps. There are blind spots, however, and the shutdown of medium wave and now the shutdown of longwave demonstrate how far we need to go in ensuring we look after the last of that generation of emigrants who gave so much and were given so little in return. It would cost little to continue the service for a few more years, until digital forms of broadcasting become a viable alternative for our oldest citizens. We’re just not there yet.
RTÉ, which turned a pre-tax profit last year of more than €1 million, hasn’t said how much it will save by shutting down the service. The main savings will likely be in power costs. RTÉ has refused an FOI request to reveal those, but a reasonable estimate would suggest the electricity to run the transmitter costs about €150,000 per year.
As for how many people are affected, the facts are unclear. The Irish community in Britain number over 400,000 first-generation Irish alone. They come from a country where more than 80 per cent of people are daily radio listeners. But RTÉ doesn’t count its overseas audience, so we just don’t know.
Will anyone care about the effects of shutdown? The decision-makers at RTÉ seem to be dismissing them. Will the new diaspora minister? Our politicians? The rest of us? Possibly. But we should be aware of what this means: our public broadcaster is severing a vital link with Ireland from a generation that gave so generously when Ireland had so little. It is the oldest, the most vulnerable and the most isolated who will miss it the most. This move should be postponed until there are better options that will suit all the Irish in Britain. Noreen Bowden is a web editor and advocate on Irish diaspora issues. She was formerly director of the Emigrant Advice Network and is the founder of GlobalIrish.ie.