Tuned to God's frequency
Run on a shoestring, Christian station Spirit Radio is refreshingly upbeat, finds Darragh McManus
'There's a philosophy in news media, 'If it bleeds, it leads'," says Rob Clarke, CEO of Spirit Radio. "We try to do the opposite. Life is enough of a challenge; we see ourselves as having a role to encourage people to keep going.
"And the good side of life is as true as the bad. We've so much to be grateful for, but that's one of the weird things about human nature: people prefer to gripe. At Spirit, we want to do something different."
Doing something different: that could fairly well sum up Spirit, which just celebrated its third anniversary. The Bray-based operation is Ireland's first Christian radio station, which seems ironic in this traditionally Catholic country. Indeed, we were the last European nation to get a dedicated Christian service.
Rob, a genial New Zealander who's lived here since 1987, explains how Spirit became reality: "I got involved when they were looking for someone to take it through to the next phase. That was six months before launch in January 2011. I came in late in the day; there had been a lot of work done before that, by a lot of people, to create the momentum for Christian radio, including on the pirates.
"The broadcasting authority advertised the licence, we entered a bid and won – just as the recession kicked in. Which made it an interesting job, trying to get it off the ground."
Registered as a charity, Spirit hasn't done too badly at all in the face of inauspicious circumstances. Broadcast on FM in Dublin, Limerick, Galway, Cork and Waterford, nationally on AM and also online, it has a weekly listenership of 165,000 people.
"I'm happy with how things have gone," Rob says. "Some of the programming elements could be a bit tighter. But given our resources – we operate on a shoestring – and place in the market, we've done reasonably well. We're now trying to roll out to another 14 towns, and could do that faster if we had more income; that's the next big challenge.
"We're based in Bray, upstairs from East Coast Radio. We were tied into a lease in Dublin but had to move out to a more economical facility. We probably had unrealistic ideas about how quickly we'd raise finances, and needed to cut costs to make the whole thing fly. Radio isn't cheap."
The ethos of Spirit is resolutely upbeat, a refreshing change from the diet of doom and gloom ladled out by most broadcasters. Across its well balanced mix of music and talk, Spirit aims, as Rob puts it, "to present another option to the public".
He adds: "It's a challenge to focus on the positive. Obviously with our news programme, sometimes it's bad; you can't ignore the negative. But we consciously look for good things happening around the world: neighbours helping neighbours, an organisation going the extra mile for their community, some breakthrough in science."
There's also, of course, the religious angle, which is fundamental to Spirit. But it's not in a heavy-handed way: there's no pious craw-thumping.
"We believe there's a place in the market for upbeat and encouraging, with a clear Christian ethos," Rob says. "Our goal is to affirm people in their faith, or try to address questions they have about Christianity, and touch all the ordinary issues of life too. Music, comment, chat shows – through it all, the Christian ethos is there.
"The goal is to help people have a fresh think. Faith is sometimes seen as something from the past, irrelevant, even bad news in Ireland. We're pitching to people inside the church, or outside who have questions. Committed Christians would probably like a lot more Christian content, but we'd rather be accessible to people who perhaps have drifted away."
Spirit is avowedly ecumenical; management, board and on-air staff hail from the full spectrum of Christian faiths: Catholic, Church of Ireland, Evangelical, Pentecostal.
"We want everyone to feel at home with it – or equally uncomfortable." Rob says. "It's nice to have that ecumenism. In the early days, we'd be asked, 'What sort of Christian radio do you want to do?' We answered: 'There's a space for something that's broadly inclusive.' I think, three years on, we've achieved that in a reasonable measure.
Music policy is centred on a genre little-known in Ireland but massively popular elsewhere, especially Stateside: Contemporary Christian.
"That's 70pc of our playlist," Rob says. "In some countries, it's huge, very established, but hasn't really been played here. The other 30pc is mainstream music, something that sits well musically as well as in ethos. Our evening stuff is a bit rockier, but the sound won't stray too far away from the centre."
Rob first came to Ireland in 1985, with Christian organisation Youth with a Mission. He returned two years later, working for the same group. Since married to an Irishwoman and rearing a family, he retains the Kiwi accent, joking: "People still ask me if I'm having a good holiday." His own faith, Rob says, "only really became meaningful at 16 or 17".
He's positive about the future: "We get great responses from listeners, people struggling at the margins, or are successful but unsure about things. And we appeal to a broad range in terms of age."
See www.spiritradioe.ie for programme schedule and FM/AM frequencies.