Cutting RTÉ Radio 1 longwave is a slap in the face for elderly emigrants

The service is a lifeline for thousands of elderly Irish in the UK for for whom the digital divide is a real barrier, research shows

This week Joe Biden, the latest in a long line of descendants of Irish emigrants to become president of the United States, made his celebratory visit to mark 25 years of the Belfast Agreement – a process in which the Irish diaspora also played an enormous role. Next week, Ireland will host the Global Irish Civic Forum; hundreds of community leaders, advocates and activists will gather together as Ireland looks to deepen and develop its relationship with its citizens abroad.

Ironically, this is also the moment when some of Ireland’s most vulnerable citizens abroad will be shut off from Ireland forever. RTÉ announced, with only two weeks’ notice, that it would be shutting down the Radio 1 longwave 252 service today.

This is a service valued by the Irish in Britain. It’s particularly valued by the oldest and most marginalised of the community, those for whom the digital divide is a real barrier, and who will not find the transition to online services an easy one.

This move is premature. When RTÉ threatened closure in 2014, there was such an outcry that the Department of Foreign Affairs funded research into the listenership, and brought RTÉ together with community representatives in a consultative group to work out recommendations for the future. The commitments to the community in 2017 included a plan by RTÉ to broadcast on the DAB+ multiplexes, which would enable listeners to continue to listen on inexpensive, simple-to-use radios, saving RTÉ energy and money. The longwave service would continue while the DAB broadcast was being established, and the department would work with community leaders on a plan to reach out to the listeners to transition them to the new service.


UK media Bill

None of this has come to fruition, with RTÉ facing regulatory difficulties in the UK. But on March 29th, the British government published the Media Bill 2023, with a clause specifically intended to allow RTÉ to broadcast in Britain using DAB+. Instead of embracing this opportunity to fulfil its commitment to the Irish community in Britain and begin the planning for a transition from longwave to DAB+ service, RTÉ instead chose to announce, a mere two days later, that it would cease broadcasting on longwave in just two weeks.

The timing is extraordinary: two weeks’ notice would be inadequate at any time, but politicians are away for the Easter break and community leaders are on holiday. RTÉ has abandoned its commitments of 2017 at the precise moment when the British government has published the Bill that, when passed, would facilitate them.

The research found that new technologies were an inadequate substitute, with most saying they would need help in figuring out how to access online services

Those of us advocating on this issue are seeking not a cancellation of the shutdown, but a postponement, to enable RTÉ and the Government to work together to bring to fruition the plan arising out of the 2017 consultative group’s recommendations. The Irish in Britain worked with RTÉ and the Department of Foreign Affairs in good faith to come up with a compromise solution. For RTÉ to fail to honour its end of the bargain is inexcusable.

We know how valuable this link is to its listeners – they told us so themselves, in the research commissioned by the department’s Irish Abroad Unit, which said: “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’.”

New technologies

The research also clearly found that new technologies were an inadequate substitute, with most saying they would need help in figuring out how to access online services. Some 68 per cent said they knew no one who could help them and 72 per cent were over the age of 60, and 45 per cent were above 70. Only 41 per cent reported attending or using 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.

Researchers did not attempt to determine the listening audience, but noted that one of the limitations of the study was that were “inundated with an unexpected volume of calls from listeners”, receiving 3,282 calls which impacted their ability to complete aspects of the study as they had planned. From this we can extrapolate an audience in the tens or hundreds of thousands. It was starkly obvious that RTÉ’s stated estimates of 7,000 listeners had been grossly underestimated.

It was right to keep the link alive then, and it’s wrong to shut it down now. Two weeks’ notice is a slap in the face to its loyal listeners, and to the generation that gave Ireland so much when it had so little – often at tremendous cost to themselves. The sacrifice of that generation seems to have been forgotten. Meanwhile, Joe Biden is cheered and leaders around the world pack their bags for the Global Irish Civic Forum.

Is this really how Ireland wants to be seen to treat its diaspora: celebrating us when successful, courting us when useful and betraying us when there’s no more to be gained?

Noreen Bowden is the former director of the Emigrant Advice Network in Dublin and a founding member of