Ryan proves a DAB hand at riding radio waves
Communications Minister promises ‘fast-tracking’ of digital licences but avoids any specifics
The "garbage" standard of radio ads and the scope to label a Kylie song "Irish" were just some of the discussions at the inaugural Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) conference.
They were nothing if not diverse as the industry's heavyweights gathered in the Four Seasons earlier this week.
Communications Minister Eamon Ryan was first to the podium, striding up at 10 o'clock, the day already running close to half-an-hour behind schedule.
His was a much-anticipated speech, what with his comments in the weekend newspapers about RTE returning to its quality programming roots, and TV3 boss David McRedmond cut the figure of a particularly attentive listener in the front row.
In the event, though, Mr Ryan's speech was of the steady-as-she-goes variety. A licence is a public good, and there's an obligation on broadcasters to do something in return, he told the assembled bleary-eyed delegates, before imparting wisdom like "content is king".
In the dying minutes of his speech he wandered into the murkier areas of the Broadcasting Bill and DAB digital radio, promising that the bill would include some form of "fast tracking" for uncontested licence renewals, while mentioning he remained behind RTE's project DAB.
"We've been promised fast-tracking of licences before," came the response from the floor, "nothing has happened, can you be more specific about what'll be involved?"
"Are you really still behind DAB after it's cost the UK so much money?" demanded another conference attendee.
"No" and "yes" came the minister's responses as he beat a hasty retreat to a cabinet meeting.
Next up came Starcom Mediavest boss Alan Cox, who quickly took his life in his own hands by denouncing the quality of radio advertising as "garbage".
Creative agencies see radio as "unglamorous", he said. The quality of radio ads has dipped to a deplorable level and some advertisers are now taking radio off their media plans altogether.
"We did a focus group and asked consumers what they'd think if they heard Prada on the radio, the response was 'I would think it was on special offer'," added Cox not without flourish.
He found a kindred spirit in FM104 sales director Margaret Nelson, who recalled recently losing a booking because she didn't feel an ad with a Daniel O'Donnell soundtrack "fit" with her station.
"I don't think I'll ever get on the advertiser's schedule again," she said.
As the mood turned towards setting up forums and awards to develop the craft of radio advertising, Today FM boss Willie O'Reilly grabbed the microphone.
"I'll worry about Prada not advertising on radio the day I see Permanent TSB advertising in 'Vogue'," he retorted. "We're not glamourous and we don't set out to be, we're cheap and cheerful."
Meanwhile, the glamour contingent of the IBI conference was missing in action, as 'Hot Press' editor Niall Stokes broke the news of the non-appearance of music guru Louis Walsh.
"He's caught in a moment he can't get out of," the magazine boss told the group, opening the debate on how Irish stations treat Irish acts.
And what a debate it was.
Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) boss Michael O'Keeffe was first up to the podium, addressing the group in his usual slow measured tones.
Radio stations have been repeatedly breaking their own commitments on Irish content, he said, and "it's up to the sector as a whole to take some action to address this issue".
Universal Music's Dave Pennyfeather was far less measured as he bounded onto the stage.
"Having spent a huge percentage of my career plugging records, this is heaven. I have all you sh*ts in here and I'm going to plug you to hell," he said gleefully, before imploring the music bosses to voluntarily dedicate between five and seven percent of their airtime to "music by Irish artists domiciled in Ireland".
Next up came FM104 programme director Dave Kelly who seized the moral high ground by listing his station's illustrious contributions to the Irish music scene, including a raft of award winning shows like 'Uncovered Unplugged'.
Imagine the audience's surprise then, when Pennyfeather later revealed that Kelly's stations considers a Kylie song "Irish".
"It was recorded in Windmill Lane," Kelly retorted, finding support in the surprising quarter of O'Keeffe who said Kelly's position was "absolutely" in line with the BCI's policies.
"I'm a bit speechless," replied the usually voluble Stokes.
"I blame you for this Niall," O'Reilly chimed in. "You pitted the record companies against the radio stations by asking Europe to saddle us all with [a] 30pc [quota of Irish content] that was never attainable. If you'd gone for something closer to 10 or 20pc it wouldn't have been nearly as controversial."
The delegates' fighting spirit returned to the fore at the afternoon's five-way debate on the future of broadcasting.
Of the panel, Communicorp chairwoman Lucy Gaffney's was the most anticipated slot of the day, thanks to an excerpt from her speech circulated ahead of the event which spoke of years of declining real-term revenues.
"She's not really going to say that, she can't, there'll be war," as one delegate put it.
And say it she didn't, as the passage was conspicuously absent from her speech.
Before embarking on the path to DAB, we "need to get a real understanding of the additional costs", she stressed.
If Gaffney was lukewarm on DAB, iradio's Dan Healy was positively frigid. "What genius was it that said let's go and get the 10-year-old technology that is DAB?" he railed. "RTE need to stop this, they're hurting us", while Today FM's O'Reilly also professed to be having doubts.
"The level of debate on DAB is a little bit disappointing, but it's a more complex narrative than it seems," piped up RTE operations boss JP Coakley, aka Mr DAB.
Gaffney later hopped on another quirk in the DAB plan, as a section of the 2001 Broadcasting Act that allows digital stations to operate under more liberal regimes than FM stations.
"Could everyone relinquish existing licences and go for new ones without constraints?" she asked panelist BCI deputy chief executive Celine Craig.
"Absolutely", came the reply, while stressing that the BCI had not yet said radio's future lay in DAB.
"Lets do that Paddy, could you have it ready by next Friday?" she called down to Communicorp's Halpenny.
One part of broadcasting's future sorted, then, before the weary 120 delegates scattered to the four corners of Ireland.