Treasured as the jewel in the crown of 2FM for nearly 20 years, station bosses are reluctant to move their star DJ, who, despite falling audience figures, has survived yet another reshuffle this week.DAMIAN CORLESS reports
It was musical chairs at 2FM this week as the pop station's management shuffled the time-slots of Rick O'Shea, Will Leahy and Ruth Scott, disgarded the old-hander Marty Whelan, and launched the froth-foaming Colm & Jim-Jim Breakfast Show. Presented by Colm Hayes and Jim Nugent, the double-hander was imported at lavish expense from Dublin station FM104 and represents the fourth attempt in two short years to stem an alarming exodus of listeners from 2FM's early slot.
According to the full-year figures compiled by JNLR/Mediaworks, the numbers listening to 2FM's breakfast show slumped from 111,375 in 1994 to 82,375 in 2006 - a fall of 29,000. However, in the same period, the audience for The Gerry Ryan Show, which immediately follows on the schedule, dropped from 231,916 to 194,333, a dip of 37,000. Where Ryan once held massive sway over the free-spending 15-34 listenership segment, he finds himself relegated to third place by his former 2FM colleagues Ian Dempsey and Ray D'Arcy - both now rivals at Today FM.
But while anxious station bosses have jumbled jocks and formats in an effort to tackle flagging audience figures, Gerry Ryan has remained the immovable object of the schedules since he settled into his 9am-12pm time-slot fully 19 years ago in 1988. When 2FM's latest action plan was unveiled some weeks back, it sparked an entertaining exchange of potshots between Ryan and one music critic.
Describing Ryan as "the elephant in the corner, the one who keeps farting to attract our attention", the heckler railed: "Every single JNLR book delivers more bad news for Ryan and his awful, dated show. Yet he continues to sit, Buddah-like, in the prime morning slot."
Ryan retorted on air that his critic was a "useless" and "awful" person.
Analyst Paul Moran of Mediaworks offers the reminder that while Ryan has been losing substantial audience share, he was starting from an exceptionally high base. Moran says: "He has been shedding listeners over the past three years, but he still has the biggest audience at 2FM. If I was doing the schedules for 2FM, I would exercise great caution about moving him."
Gerry Ryan's falling audience share is partly down to circumstances beyond his control. The Irish are amongst the world's most avid radio listeners. The proportion of the population tuning in every day is around 85%, far above the European average of 70%. The mass popularity of radio here means that the market for many decades has been operating at full capacity. But when you've got a market at full capacity, which RTE once had all to itself, there's no scope for anyone to grow that market. So any new competition had to take away listeners from RTE's big guns.
But even if there is justifiable concern at Montrose over Gerry Ryan's performance, the next question is what do you do with an under-performing superstar? Where do you shift him to on the 2FM schedule? Traditionally, when the pop station's presenters reach a certain wrinkle count, they migrate down the corridor to Radio 1, with Dave Fanning the most recent to take that stroll.
However, Paul Moran believes that the transfer option is not a realistic one for Ryan. Moran reflects: "Unlike Ryan Tubridy, who made the jump to Radio 1, I doubt if Gerry Ryan would be a success there because his style is more tabloid."
Exactly a year ago, RTE personnel were given a shock lesson that there is no room for sentiment in the harsh new competitive radio environment. Ana Leddy arrived at Radio 1 brandishing a new broom, and John Creedon, John Kelly and Myles Dungan found themselves swept overboard. Bowing to commercial pressures, 2FM's boss John Clarke dispensed with veteran Marty Whelan to make way for his new breakfast team, but Clarke has been around long enough to appreciate that Gerry Ryan, almost single-handedly, was the making of 2FM.
Launched in 1979, the station was a disaster for most of the 1980s, languishing in the doldrums with a dire shortage of listeners and advertising revenue. The breakthrough came in 1988 when Gerry Ryan was transplanted to a morning slot with the simple brief to listen to the listeners. His knockabout show was fresh and new and it worked the miracle the station desperately needed, bringing legions of new listeners to a station which had been widely ignored since its inception.
But that was then and this is now, and media analyst Dan McGuinness of the Catalyst agency believes that Gerry Ryan has got himself stuck in a time-warp. McGuinness argues: "At the start, all he had to do to draw an untapped audience was to be an alternative to Gay Byrne. Almost 20 years on he's still providing an alternative to Gay Byrne, while Gay Byrne and the rest of the planet have moved on. He's still the naughty schoolboy giggling at prurient jokes behind the school bicycle shed. These days, Podge & Rodge have moved that to TV, where they're ruder, and they're better comedians."
He contends: "He hasn't reinvented himself or his show. The format and content have remained pretty static for 20 years. One solution might be to shorten the show which is currently an overlong, lazy, three-hour ramble from Gerry about his schoolboy fixations. The show is tired and he sounds tired doing it."
McGuinness questions the "fear factor" at play in Montrose, justifying the payment of vast sums to big stars to stop them defecting to rivals, and taking listeners - and advertisers - with them. He points out: "When Pat Kenny or Ryan Tubridy go off on their long summer break, the dip in listenership is very small. I sometimes wonder what damage the loss of these highly-paid stars would really do, and whether or not the reality is that listeners listen to RTE because it is RTE."
There is no evidence that 2FM chiefs are thinking of moving Ryan, or that he's looking for new challenges elsewhere, and Paul Moran doesn't think that either development would be good for the station right now.
He reasons: "There are other things that need fixing at 2FM before you'd start looking at Gerry Ryan. The haemorrhage of listeners in the early slot is a priority, and they've moved again to tackle that. It's nine years since Today FM revamped, and the audience drift to that station should have stabilized by now - but it hasn't. There are more fundamental problems at 2FM than Gerry Ryan."