2fm turns 40: What’s next for RTÉ’s youth radio brand?
It had its heyday in the era of the late Gerry Ryan but as it turns 40, 2fm is chasing a less testosterone-filled schedule. John Meagher asks what's next for the national broadcaster's youth radio brand
It was one of those advertising campaigns that succeeded in being both enormously annoying and hugely successful. It was 1979 and for what felt like the whole of May, the catchphrase 'Radio 2 Comin'atcha!' was inescapable. RTÉ had finally bowed to pressure and was launching a youth-oriented station.
For the entire 1960s and virtually all of the 1970s, pop lovers were ill-served by the country's national broadcaster. The deeply conservative Radio 1 held little appeal and, instead, they were tuning into Radio Luxembourg and the glut of local illegal 'pirate' stations that had sprung up to meet the demand.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Radio 2 finally aired on May 31 and Larry Gogan - already something of a broadcasting veteran by then - was given the honour of playing the first song, the Boomtown Rats' 'Like Clockwork'. And, from the off, it largely ran like clockwork - a station that injected a shot of cool to the fusty RTÉ.
Fast-forward 40 years, and the station - long since rebranded 2fm - celebrates a milestone birthday with yet another schedule shake-up. From early June, a new breed of presenter will be comin'atcha, including impersonator and comic Doireann Garrihy and RTÉ's go-to host of irreverent programming, Jennifer Zamparelli.
But, for many, it's far less clear today what purpose 2fm serves in a world where there's a seemingly endless supply of radio stations, podcasts and streaming services.
By contrast, Radio 2 knew exactly what it needed to be - and who it wanted to reach -in the Ireland of 1979. Unlike the female-dominated schedule that 2fm will launch with the aforementioned Garrihy and Zamparelli plus Tracy Clifford and Jenny Greene, the original incarnation was testosterone-heavy.
It was a men-only environment in front of the microphones, although one presenter at the time points out that all media - newspapers included - were male-dominated in the Ireland of the time.
From the off, the station would be an important outlet for Irish music, with Dave Fanning, in particular, championing the young bands of the day. He was among the first to give a platform to U2 - and it was his listeners who were asked to vote on which of the band's songs should be released as their first single.
Although they were young, the presenters were far from callow. Virtually all had cut their teeth in Dublin's vibrant pirate radio scene. Vincent 'Fab Vinny' Hanley, exuded the sort of charisma that would ensure the station would have few teething problems. There was great sadness among his many listeners when he died in 1987 aged 33.
A station for the country
While Radio 2 was chiefly established to attract young people who had turned to the pirates, it was not as successful in getting Dublin listeners to turn the dial as it was nationwide. Even today, 40 years after it began, 2fm has a lower per capita penetration in the capital city as it does in the rest of the country.
Will Leahy, who presented a popular Saturday show on 2fm between 1999 and 2007 and now fronts the breakfast show on its digital sister station RTÉ Gold, has made an hour-long documentary on the station. 2fm 40: The Uncensored Story is narrated by Derry Girls' actress Nicola Coughlan and will air on the station at 7pm on Thursday, May 30.
2fm has made an enormous contribution to Irish society, Leahy insists. "While it was and is a pop station for young people, it has also been RTÉ's principal light entertainment channel for 40 years," he says. "And it's been the breeding ground for many things besides the music industry. It's allowed new talent to prosper. Ryan Tubridy would admit he got his big break on 2fm. Gerry Ryan was allowed to let loose there. There's no talk presenter in the country who can say that they weren't in some way influenced by him [Ryan]."
Gerry Ryan, Leahy points out, pulled in ratings in his best years that today's broadcasters can only dream of. "There were times in the '90s when he had 400,000 daily listeners. There's no doubt the station's heyday was '89 to '98 which, ironically, coincides with the advent of commercial local radio. And what a line-up - Ian Dempsey, Gerry Ryan, Larry Gogan, Gareth O'Callaghan, Tony Fenton - it was the real golden age. You also had the Beat on the Street and the Beatbox on TV all at the same time, so 2fm was everywhere."
It's a sentiment shared by John Clarke, who was head of 2fm between 1999 and 2009. "It had an exceptional line-up - Dempsey, Ryan, Larry, Gareth and the Dude [the late Tony Fenton]," he says. "Through the late '80s to the early '90s it had seven of the 20 most listened to programmes on radio.
"From the early 2000s, it was a cash machine. Despite a multitude of commercial stations across the country, it remained the number one music station in Ireland, and second to Radio 1. It was so successful, it was totally self-funding to the extent that its considerable cash surplus was supporting other sections of the organisation."
Leahy believes it lost some of its lustre with listeners when Dempsey left to go to the embryonic Today FM. "I was working in RTÉ at the time and there was huge shock that he would go," he says. "Today FM used to be nicknamed 'Radio One Per Cent' because it had such a small market share. But Ian was a huge loss to 2fm and he was a big success at Today FM."
The untimely death of Gerry Ryan in April 2010 rocked Montrose to the core although one former RTÉ staffer, who worked in 2fm for years, believes the station had been suffering an identity crisis long before then. "Even really successful shows like Gerry's had become a bit stale and predictable towards the end," he says. "There's only so long that you can be king of the road, although he was a great broadcaster right to the end. I think it was a case that the competition had caught up with him by then. And I don't know if Gerry was recruiting many new, younger listeners in his final years.
"After his death, there was a lot of pressure to get another heavy-hitter to replace him in the schedule but it didn't really work. [Ryan] Tubridy, for all his talents, just wasn't suitable for 2fm and the audience didn't buy it. You could say the station wasn't sure what it wanted to be - its remit is to broadcast to young people, but it sort of lost sight of that for a while."
Current 2fm head Dan Healy took charge in 2014. One of his first, much publicised diktats was to ban any music released prior to 1990 on the daytime schedule. He also made some controversial recruitments including ex-Westlife singer Nicky Byrne to co-host the morning show.
"I got a lot of hate for some of those decisions," he tells Review, "but I had to fulfil the youth remit of the station. And we have done that. In the 15-34 segment, 2fm is by far the biggest player."
Healy is excited by the forthcoming schedule, devised after focus-group discussions. Much of which will centre on a talk-led show from Zamparelli. The idea, apparently, is that she will find her feet over the first few months and by autumn her programme will have bedded in properly. One well-placed source says it is hoped that she will appeal to millennials in the way that Gerry Ryan did when he first took to the airwaves. "There's an edge to her," the 2fm backroom staffer says, "and she really connects with a younger audience. They like the fact that she says what she feels and she brings an energy that others just don't have."
Healy says he didn't set out to make the schedule quite as female-oriented. "I wanted the best presenters," he says. "Their gender wasn't an issue - you can't let that dictate your decision."
Despite this, he says 2fm's audience has a higher proportion of females than males and says his notional listener is a 27-year-old female. Doireann Garrihy, 26, is unlikely to have trouble connecting with such an audience.
One of the country's leading analysts on the commercial aspects of media, Paul Moran of Mediaworks, believes that despite its ups and downs, 2fm remains attractive to advertisers. "It continues to be popular with listeners," he says, "and the 15-34 segment is one that advertisers are keen to reach. There's been a lot of fragmentation in the way we're consuming audio - young people, especially - but 2fm is still seen as a strong brand.
"At a very basic level, its national adult share of listeners is on a par with both Today FM and Newstalk at 7pc. In Dublin, it's on a par with Today FM at 4pc although Newstalk are way ahead at 11pc."
Others are not convinced. Fergal Quinn, broadcast journalism lecturer at the University of Limerick, believes it is treading water. "What station does it want to be? Can anyone quite answer that question? It's certainly not edgy, whereas they used to be the edgiest thing on a fairly moribund scene. A lot of my students seem to be quite dismissive of 2fm. For them, it's podcasting and Spotify. If they do listen to it, they don't admit it.
"Musically, 2fm isn't pushing the boat out as much as a Spotify playlist would. A lot of it feels like bland facsimiles of what Gerry Ryan did with the likes of Eoghan McDermott. They haven't tried something totally new in a long time. And yet it has a solid enough listenership. Radio has been surprisingly resilient in terms of audience share."
Meanwhile, John Clarke believes 2fm can grow its market share. "Be different, change the rules and employ talent and allow that talent to add to your brand. And forget about narrowcasting and get back to broadcasting. Never underestimate the Irish listener - they are more open to new music than most of today's music formats which sees most stations all gravitating towards the centre and sounding the same. In a word, 'Choice.'"
Jewel in the crown
And there is one aspect of the new plans for 2fm that he is especially pleased with: "It's great to see a bit of sense that they re-engaged with Jenny Greene - a jewel in the crown [Greene left the station in March, only to be wooed back for the new schedule] - especially when back in the day Ian Dempsey was let go by management, something I would never have let happen."
Dan Healy says he is confident that 2fm can prosper well into the future, although he insists that it will have to change over the next decade in order to reach a youth audience who don't consume FM content as readily as their predecessors.
Larry Gogan, the voice that was first heard on Radio 2 all those years ago, is as well placed as any to gauge how stations like 2fm can remain relevant. "I still think radio can resonate with an audience in a very special way. Podcasts can be great, but there's something special about live broadcasting, where it's you, the broadcaster, and your audience."
Radio 2 went on air on May 31, 1979 and featured a pool of presenters largely culled from the Dublin and Cork pirate radio scenes.
The station was rebranded as 2fm in 1988 and was at the peak of its popularity in the years before the advent of local radio. It was the era of Electric Eddie, the Roadcaster and The Beat on the Streets.
Its biggest audience-puller was The Gerry Ryan Show, which ran from March 1988 until his sudden death on April 30, 2010.
At its early 1990s peak, Ryan's show attracted 400,000 listeners and during the Celtic Tiger years it pulled in €27,000 in advertising revenue per day.
As recently as 2014, the station was criticised for its low representation of female presenters. Four of its five daytime presenters from next month will be female, including Jennifer Zamparelli (above).