independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

RTE hasn't got a prayer of attracting young listeners

RTE is the Catholic Church of Irish broadcasting. The thought occurred to me the other day when I read that 2FM is abandoning its bid to attract younger listeners and instead is going to target the 25-44 age group.

Not that 25 is old, mind you, or even 44 for that matter. But as the station's Claire Duignan explained: "2FM has been targeting a 15-to-34 age group for a very long time. It is a very crowded part of the market. There are very strong local stations chasing that same audience."

In other words, the station has failed to attract its targeted age group.

The subtext of Duignan's remarks is that in trying to attract this audience it has alienated some of the audience it ought to be going after.

The fact is, 2FM is a station for mainly middle-aged people and Montrose is now, belatedly, acknowledging this fact.

But how does any of this make RTE the Catholic Church of Irish broadcasting?

Well, apart from trade unions and political parties, what other major institution in this country is having a tough time attracting young people?

The Catholic Church, obviously. The only real difference between RTE and the Church in this regard is that 2FM's listeners are about 20 years younger on average than Mass-goers and Radio One's audience is about 10 years younger.

The comparison doesn't end there. Ever since its inception, RTE has enjoyed a privileged place in Irish life. It has had a 'special position', you might say, that is rather analogous to the position enjoyed until recent times by the Catholic Church, a position, incidentally, that RTE has helped to destroy, and with obvious and unseemly relish.

RTE, again like the Church, wants to convert people to its point of view. In this one regard, RTE has been much more successful than the Church.

Of course, the Catholic Church has never quite had a monopoly over the religious life of the nation. In this regard RTE actually outdid the Church because for the first few decades of its existence it had an absolute monopoly over broadcasting in this country.

Not only did RTE enjoy a state-protected legal monopoly -- unlike the Church -- it also received, and receives, State money. (Let's not try and pretend the license fee isn't a de facto tax). In fact, when you think about it, RTE isn't so much the Catholic Church of broadcasting as the Anglican Church during penal times when all other churches were outlawed and suppressed.

Until fairly recently, let's recall, the only Irish stations you could listen to that were not RTE were pirate stations broadcasting from the equivalent of the Mass rocks and hedge-schools of old, waiting for the police to kick in the door.

Also, like the Catholic Church, RTE fought tooth and nail to keep its monopoly intact when proposals to break it up were seriously mooted. Today, it is surrounded by lots and lots of competitors in the form of Today FM, Newstalk, 4FM, Spin, iRadio, Beat etc, etc, etc . . .

These stations are the equivalent of Evangelical Protestant Churches; decentralised, light on their feet, not too bound by tradition, not tied to the State and therefore freer and more flexible than the Established Church of RTE.

The RTE hierarchy is now in the same Catch-22 situation as the one facing the Catholic hierarchy, namely how does it go after a younger audience without alienating its present, and older, audience? Is it even possible?

In its desperate bid to attract younger, trendier listeners, RTE is actually more like the liberal Protestant Churches than it is like the Catholic Church.

Those churches have altered their basic message to suit the times, throwing out one core belief after another. The result is that half of their congregations have jumped ship and no one new has been attracted in.

Newcomer 4FM is also trying to attract a middle-aged audience. They're obviously trying to do this with the right music mix but I've noticed some of their presenters, especially Tom McGurk, are much more willing to put hard questions to liberal-left panellists than anyone in Montrose would ever dream of.

Maybe they should go the whole hog and aggressively chase conservative-minded listeners in the manner of Fox News. No one else seems to want them and a lot of people are heartily sick of political correctness.

There's a big untapped market out there waiting for someone to cater to it and RTE for one specialises in treating these listeners with contempt.

It's probably a forlorn hope, but you'd like to think that some day RTE will conclude that as well as targeting middle-aged and older listeners, it should also try to be more even-handed in its treatment of the issues of the day instead of pushing every PC cause going. It mightn't attract the teenagers, but it might hold on to what it's got.

Who knows, it might even increase its market share.

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