Plucky challenger Newstalk 106 has gone national and is taking the fight for listeners to the radio Goliath of RTE. Damian Corless asks: will there be blood on the studio floor?
Four months ago the Dublin station Newstalk 106 was awarded a licence to challenge RTE Radio 1 for listeners almost nationwide. In terms of available resources, it was David throwing down the gauntlet to Goliath. Talk radio does not come cheap and at the time investors had ploughed ?14m into Newstalk for no return. The State broadcaster, in stark contrast, has coffers filled by big advertising revenues and the licence fee.
But the Biblical David proved a resourceful foe, and yesterday Newstalk showed its mettle by launching its expanded service three days ahead of schedule and on a substantially wider scale than anticipated. The quasi-national licence it got last May envisaged that the station would reach 80% of the population. However, Newstalk surpassed itself, and this week signed a ten-year fully national licence in recognition of achieving 92% coverage.
But getting your signal to reach 92% of the people is not the same as getting 92% of the people to listen in. When Today FM launched in 1997 as Radio Ireland, its signal was available to most people, but they just wouldn't avail of it. After six months on air, with a listenership of just 1%, the newcomer was sinking without trace.
The drastic solution was a cull of presenters and a radical make-over. Eamon Dunphy's co-host was axed and he was heavily promoted as a solo act. The rebranded Today FM poached Ian Dempsey and Ray D'Arcy from RTE. Loyal listeners followed the dee-jays, advertisers followed the listeners, and the station took off.
Newstalk had been preparing for yesterday's national launch since its start-up in 2002. It learned well from the Radio Ireland near-disaster, and station bosses imposed a regime of relentless, sometimes ruthless, self-improvement. Presenters have been chopped and changed without sentiment, most notably when David McWilliams was ousted from the mornings to accommodate Eamon Dunphy. Yesterday's relaunch was preceded by more axeings.
As the country's top contrarian, Dunphy was to have provided Newstalk with its nationwide brand recognition. When he quit the key morning slot just weeks before yesterday's relaunch, shellshocked station bosses insisted they would go all out to capture someone with a profile to match.
Speculation that Joe Duffy would migrate from Radio 1 came to nothing, and Newstalk took on its rival yesterday without the big-name signing it promised. Its line-up of new recruits includes TV3's Claire Byrne, Senator David Norris, and the journalists Roisin Ingle and Brenda Power. All are well-known and admired, but none has the first-name fame of an Eamo or a Talk To Joe.
So might Newstalk's failure to land an A-Lister cost it dearly as it pits its lesser lights against Pat Kenny, Ryan Tubridy, Derek Mooney, Marian Finucane and Mary Wilson, all of them known in the nation's livingrooms thanks to their RTE TV exposure?
Media analyist Paul Moran says: "There are two ways of looking at it. Outside Dublin Newstalk will be a new station starting from scratch, and it is much easier for a new station to make itself known if it has a household name. It is crucial to get people into the habit of finding you on the dial and having you tuned in on one of the buttons on the car radio. The value of someone like Dunphy is that they stir up controversy, so even if you don't get a big audience straight away, the newspaper coverage that's generated brings in new listeners."
But, he says, on the other hand: "The lack of a big name doesn't have to be all bad, because you have to balance what a top star would cost against your overall business plan. Bringing in a big name would probably involve taking on their production team and researchers, which would be a very heavy cost. You might spend that money equally well on a blanket promotional campaign. One positive for Newstalk is that they're targeting an upmarket audience who are more willing to experiment with unknown presenters if the word of mouth is good."
In the absence of a big star, Newstalk has indeed opted to invest heavily in promotion. An ad campaign costing ?1.3m will run for the next six weeks, concentrating on the provincial media. As effective as this might be, Moran believes that some "lateral thinking" could still help strengthen the on-air product being advertised.
He says: "I'm surprised they didn't try to tie in Dunphy, even for the weekends. Someone like him or Vincent Browne stirring up controversy, even once or twice a week, would get media coverage which would alert listeners to your position on the dial. Back in the 1990s Dermot Morgan's satirical Scrap Saturday was required listening. Its huge success showed that by applying a bit of creativity, you can draw big audiences with just one or two slots a week."
In the event, it was Radio 1 which tied in Eamon Dunphy for the weekends. His new Saturday morning show begins today. RTE sources have described Conversations With Eamon Dunphy as a variation on Desert Island Discs which will take the guest interview format in new directions.
Just as Newstalk has been gearing up to challenge Radio 1 for the past four years, RTE bosses have been preparing to meet that challenge. When Newstalk first went on air with a 7am start for its morning news show, Radio 1 swiftly countered by shifting Morning Ireland to an earlier start time. And when Newstalk was awarded its quasi-national licence back in May, RTE's rapid response sent a shocking jolt through complacent Montrose.
Clearing the decks for the coming battle of the airwaves, Radio 1's new boss, Ana Leddy, swept three men overboard. John Creedon, Myles Dungan and John Kelly were the big names jettisoned with a ruthless decisiveness which signalled that Radio 1 had taken a leaf out of Newstalk's book.
In the months since, Leddy has shaken up the schedules. Housewives' choice Derek Mooney will go up against Newstalk's more racy Sean Moncrieff in the afternoons from next week, while Radio 1's 5-7 Live has been scrapped and the drivetime duties divided between Mary Wilson, Des Cahill and Dave Fanning.
From the outset, Newstalk has had a high testosterone count, and its excellent sports coverage will lure males, especially to the nightly Off The Ball hosted by Eoin McDevitt. In an attempt to redress the gender balance, Newstalk is hoping to steal female listeners in the mornings, with Orla Barry and Brenda Power going head to head with RTE's unladylike Ryan Tubridy and Pat Kenny.
Seconds away, Round One.