Sunday 28 May 2017

Farewell TXFM: Why has a radio station clearly loved by artists and listeners alike failed?

TXFM will close down before October
TXFM will close down before October

Stephen Byrne

It’s been a horrible year for music lovers with the unexpected deaths of music superstars such as David Bowie, Prince, and ‘Fifth Beatle’ George Martin, amongst others.

Closer to home the closure of HMV stores was a major hit to the industry as the march from physical to digital consumption continued. And radio has not been immune to the changing landscape of the music industry either.

Alternative radio station TXFM will cease broadcasting on Wednesday October 26 just two years after its rebranding from Phantom 105.2 - with the loss of six jobs.

And while the closure of this small Dublin station will not receive the fanfare of the aforementioned celebrity deaths its closure will be just as devastating for the niche acts it supports, especially the Irish ones.

“The closure of TXFM is a devastating blow to the domestic music industry.” says Dave Reid, founder of the Choice Music Prize. “The support and passion displayed by DJ's & personnel station wide for Irish music was second to none.”

This sentiment is echoed by Saoirse Duane, from Ireland’s premier vocal harmony group Wyvern Lingo

She told Independent.ie: "We had the absolute pleasure of playing on TXFM a few times and we got to meet some of the amazing people behind it all. TXFM has introduced us to a lot of new music and loads of talented Irish bands. It's a radio station that we will be truly missed."

TXFM was the smallest commercial radio station in Dublin with a listenership of just 19,000. The announcement of its closure was met with a pang of sadness and Déjà vu rather than surprise as the station had struggled to gain traction following its rebranding in 2014.

The Communicorp station was often mocked as being nothing more than Indie landfill. However, it was not without its merits. It was the only commercial radio station in Ireland that actively sought out emerging Irish musicians by design and it often acted as a gateway to airplay on major commercial radio stations in Ireland.

Speciality shows aside, the likes of Kodaline, Hozier and Le Galaxie could all be heard on TXFM and its predecessor Phantom 105.2 long before they were added to the playlists of other commercial stations. Countless other acts such as Rusangano Family, Wyvern Lingo, All Tvvins, Bitch Falcon and BARQ have all benefitted from TXFM airplay.

All Tvvins live in studio
All Tvvins live in studio

 Many Irish musicians have taken to social media in recent days to express their gratitude and admiration for the station and its DJs.

 “Radio is the most intimate medium in the world," says Kieran McGuinness from Delorentos.  “To have a radio station that speaks the way you speak and goes to the gigs you go to. It can really be a big part of your life. So it's very sad that it can't work in Ireland. “

So why has a radio station clearly loved by artists and listeners alike failed?

The Everybody Else Gets Wet singer believes that the way radio listenership is calculated is outdated and that the station is the victim of an antiquated way of calculating popularity.

“The only reason TXFM are not still on the radio is because the ratings did not reflect their actual audience.” says McGuinness adding “I think there's a big question about the way the ratings are decided.”

Listenership figures known as the Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) are calculated by Ipsos MBRI on behalf of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).

The JNLR’s estimate listenership by collecting data from interviewees from a sample sets around to country, forming a national profile of circa 16,600 homes; rather than collecting live data. In April 2016 the JNLR report indicated that TXFM had as little as 0.8 percent of total weekday listenership between 7am- 7pm.

“I don't think that the ratings ever really represented how many people were listening to it and loving it” laments McGuinness.

There's no appetite from the big stations to change the way the ratings are done and that just keeps the status quo but that's not the way you should be working out how someone's listening to a radio station.”TXFM was a radio station that people loved whereas some of the big radio stations are stations that people flick around. But people who listened to TXFM were loyal and respected the amount of effort they put into it”

Gaz Coombes with Claire Beck, Kelly-Ann Byrne, and Joe Donnelly
Gaz Coombes with Claire Beck, Kelly-Ann Byrne, and Joe Donnelly

“It's a huge loss to the Irish music scene. A tragedy even,” says Jess Kavanagh, frontwoman with agro soul outfit BARQ. “Emerging Irish artists are more diverse and vibrant than ever and we need a radio station to represent us.”  

“TXFM have allowed bands like BARQ to get genuine exposure as an emerging artist, playing music that a lot of mainstream stations wouldn't touch. TXFM was one of the first stations who played us, showing us as a credible member of the music scene.

That has been invaluable to us. Who is going to play the next group of bands with an experimental sound?

This is a concern also shared by McGuinness who believes that alternative artists will be overlooked by the “often quite conservative” mainstream stations. “There isn't really a place for alternative music at the moment on Irish radio”

“TXFM was very good at giving opportunities to bands. There was lots of space for younger bands to be heard. It's about opportunity and a chance and that needs ears.”   

If Irish radio stations aren't going to support Irish music no other radio stations in the world are. I'm not sure if quotas are the way to go but there definitely has to be support. I hear DJs saying if it's good enough it'll get played, but I hear what gets played and I don't care what anybody says the best Irish music is not played on commercial radio.”

The lack of Irish music on Irish commercial radio has been a bone of contention for many years. TD Willie Penrose has bemoaned the fact that as little as 3 percent of airplay is devoted to Irish music and recently refocused attention on the issue by bringing forward an amendment to broadcasting legislation which states that 40 percent of music on Irish radio shall be:

“…reserved for musical compositions that relate to some distinguishing element of the culture of the island of Ireland.”

It is interesting to note then that the commercial radio station type with the most proactive approach to playing Irish music in recent has failed not once, but twice to be a viable self-sustaining entity.

Radio in Ireland is often accused of being tokenistic in its approach to playing Irish music, shoehorning established acts like U2 and The Corrs into overnight playlists and exploiting loopholes in legislation re the definition of what an Irish song is to fulfil the stipulations in their licenses. 

“My concern is every time they put in a new rule people just find a way around it. So, they'll put in a lot more U2, classic Irish hits. There's no Bills going to be put in for alternative music. I think a lot of smaller radio stations will be looking at TXFM and saying 'We have to go more commercial'

“I don't trust a lot of Irish radio stations to make decisions on what the best music is, but with the DJs on TXFM you could trust that they would play the best music that they could.

Cathal Funge is second to none. Claire Beck, Joe Donnelly, their knowledge of music is unquestionable; they'll go on and be acclaimed elsewhere.”

Indeed, Kelly-Anne Byrne and Nadine O'Regan’s shows have both moved to TXFM’s sister station Today FM.

McGuinness also cites Dan Hegarty, Rick O’Shea (2FM) Dermot and Dave, Ed Smith (Today FM) and John Barker (Totally Irish, 98 FM) as DJs who support Irish music but notes that TXFM “had bands like that on every hour.”

The closure of TXFM poses many questions. Where does alternative Irish music radio go from here? Is its existence viable outside a state funded entity? Will the Willie Penrose Bill make it harder than ever for alternative voices to make it onto our airwaves? How will the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland react to TXFM’s failure?

Both 8 Radio and Radio Nova have previously expressed an interest in taking over a similar commercial license, but what’s the current state of play?

8 Radio, founder and former Phantom shareholder Simon Maher is cautiously optimistic. “We believe there is a demand for an Alternative music station.”

“The current business model won't work,” warns Maher. “Much depends on how the BAI re-advertises the licence. The Station has to be able to operate on a business model that makes the niche viable.

It’s unfortunate that there will be a gap between the closure of TXFM and any replacement.”

8 Radio will continue operating on “temporary FM licence” in the interim and Maher says the “BAI needs to work with stakeholders to find a permanent solution sooner rather than later.”

“We are ready, willing and able” says Radio Nova CEO Kevin Branigan at the prospect of running an alternative radio station. “We feel that (an alternative radio station) would be marginally viable, if run as a complementary radio station to Radio Nova.

“If the BAI gave us the go ahead to run an alternative radio station we would happily take over the 105.2 position on the dial and we could do it within a couple of weeks

“It’s a shame that TXFM is closing down this week. There’s definitely a market for more specialist radio on the FM band. “

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland declined to comment on the closure of TXFM.

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