RTE faces battle to rule radio airwaves
NEWSTALK, the radio station which is now in its ninth year of broadcasting, is to make its most concerted bid yet to secure rights to GAA football and hurling championship matches.
The knowledge that the station is determined to have a tender of real substance when the GAA puts its radio rights on the market shortly will be a cause for some concern in RTE. It is the first real threat to the state broadcaster's virtual monopoly since live commentaries began.
The current broadcast deal -- covering both television and radio -- began in 2008 and ends at the conclusion of this year's championship, when the bidding will begin for the next three years of coverage.
TV3 made history when it managed to secure 30 live games over the three-year period the last time. Buoyed by its autumn schedule launch last week, the commercial station will be keen to, at the very least, maintain its GAA output at current levels.
However, the GAA's director-general, Páraic Duffy, has already given an early warning that, in the face of falling attendances, the Association may look to reduce the number of games it allows to be shown live in an effort to entice fans back into grounds.
On a wider level, there is also a debate raging in the GAA over the impact the live television schedule is having on the club scene. These are certain to be stumbling blocks when executives from the two stations look to hammer out new deals in the coming months.
There are no such impediments, though, when it comes to radio rights and it is here that a much more interesting contest is likely to be fought between RTE and newcomer Newstalk.
In real terms, the last time these rights were available, Newstalk was still very much in its infancy and was scarcely a threat to the state broadcaster. Newstalk went on air as a Dublin-based station in April 2002, but did not go national until September 2006.
From the start, though, the one area where it has consistently challenged RTE is in sport, mostly through its flagship programme Off The Ball. The idea that a radio station could devote three hours every evening, Monday to Friday, exclusively to sport was a brave and novel one in Irish broadcasting and its success from the beginning highlighted deficiencies in Montrose. It exposed, for example, a lack of imagination in RTE, which was forced to react with its own nightly show which, in truth, is light years removed from Newstalk's vibrant and cutting edge version.
Newstalk has clearly matured and it is for this reason that it can now be seen as a viable alternative to RTE when it comes to the jewels in the Irish sporting crown -- the football and hurling championships.
On the last occasion, there were six packages up for grabs in both television and radio. Although TV3 made inroads into television, RTE retained a firm grip in radio. Only Today FM managed to infiltrate this dominance -- and then just to bring live updates on championship games. Newstalk was left firmly out in the cold, despite offering hours of quality GAA analysis every week.
It is understood that this time the radio packages have been reduced from six to two -- to be known as first choice and second choice. The GAA is also understood to have enlisted a UK-based firm of consultants with experience of working in the Premier League to assist in settling its broadcast rights this time round.
RTE is clearly the front-runner. It not only has years of experience, it is also a vast operation with far greater resources than Newstalk. And, although the quality of RTE's television coverage of the championships is questionable, its radio arm is more solid.
Indeed, with Micheál ó Muircheartaigh still its key asset, it has much to recommend it. By the same token, ó Muircheartaigh (pictured) has shouldered a considerable burden as the voice of RTE's summer for too long and it has become increasingly obvious in recent years that there is no heir apparent to the Peter Pan of sports radio.
Despite attempts to freshen up its radio product, and to blood new talent, the challenge posed by Newstalk's smaller pool of talented young broadcasters is a significant one for RTE with all its resources to fend off.
The last audited figures showed that Newstalk's Sunday afternoon sports show had 84,000 listeners, in other words just half of the RTE equivalent. But any reasonable assessment has to conclude that Newstalk is ready to take a piece of the action. In situations where there are multiple games on a Sunday, the 'second choice' package should allow for Newstalk to offer live commentaries. It should also allow for updates from other venues.
Newstalk already has live Premier League games on Sunday afternoons, a coup in itself. Should the station secure access to the GAA championships, it would confirm it as a genuine alternative to RTE. And for listeners, this competition -- and choice -- can only be a good thing.