Thursday 22 March 2018

The 2fm identity crisis

Leaking listeners, 2fm is set for an overdue relaunch next month. But what must the station do to win back its core audience?

Tuning in: Rumoured new hosts Bernard O’Shea and Jennifer Maguire.
Tuning in: Rumoured new hosts Bernard O’Shea and Jennifer Maguire.
Making waves: Mark Cagney, Gerry Ryan and Dave Fanning in 1985. John Cooney/RTE Stills Library
Larry Gogan
John Meagher

John Meagher

Bruce Springsteen released his new album last week, but on Monday his legion of fans were able to listen to the exclusive Irish stream of the album on Today FM's website.

2fm may have been the country's original music station, but it was its rival in Dublin 2 that got its mitts on High Hopes first.

For one 2fm presenter, such a development has become all too familiar. "It's not huge in the scheme of things, but it does show that once again our rivals are stealing a march on us."

Thanks to competition from the likes of Today FM, the youth-oriented station Spin and the substantial presence of local radio, the loss-making 2fm has seen its share of the market decline to 7pc. Its share had been 17pc as recently as 2008, thanks, in no small part, to the enduring popularity of The Gerry Ryan Show.

Later this month, 2fm will attempt to arrest the fall-off in listeners with a major restructure. New presenters, rumoured to include the Republic of Telly duo Jennifer Maguire and Bernard O'Shea, will be unveiled. It is set to be a statement of intent from 2fm boss Dan Healy, who had cut his teeth in the Communicorp group and in Independent Radio Sales before taking up his new position at the helm of the ailing RTé station last May.

"We've been here several times before," the presetenter, who does not wish to be identified, says. "There have been so many attempted reinventions over the past 10 years and the upshot is the station doesn't have a clear identity of what it is or should be.

"Despite the huge amount of talent that's here -- both behind the mic and in the background -- there's a feeling among many of us that we're the poor relation in RTé, and have been for a long time. While Radio 1 and Lyric have been cared for and developed and know exactly what their audiences are, we feel like we have been left behind.

'The constant shake-ups don't do much for morale and only end up confusing the listener. Today FM have a much stronger brand identity and continue to take some of our potential audience. It helps, of course, that all Today FM have to focus on is Today FM. There are so many different strands to RTé."

The latest JNLR ratings must make for difficult viewing for Dan Healy or anyone associated with 2fm. Former RTé stars Ian Dempsey and Ray D'Arcy present Today FM shows that trounce the 2fm opposition each morning. Dempsey, whose ratings rose, has 180,000 listeners, compared with the 124,000 attracted by Hector ó hEochagáin. And D'Arcy -- despite seeing a drop in his audience -- attracts 231,000 listeners as opposed to Ryan Tubridy's 152,000.

Despite expressing his faith in his presenters last summer, Healy dropped ó hEochagáin's breakfast show before Christmas. His listenership had fallen by 14,000 in 12 months amid comment from some -- including the former FM104 broadcaster Adrian Kennedy -- that he was alienating Dublin audiences. It is this 7am to 9am slot that Maguire and O'Shea are likely to fill.

Healy -- who declined to speak to Weekend Review this week in advance of the restructuring -- was in bullish mood when interviewed by this newspaper in June. "All I want to begin with is our fair share of the advertising pie. 2fm has a 7pc share of the listener market so I want my share of that for advertising," he said. "Since taking over four weeks ago, I've been out in the agencies asking 'where's my bloody money?'"

But Michael Cullen, editor of Marketing magazine, believes advertisers have been slow to spend with 2fm -- and with good reason.

"It has an identity problem and its market share has dropped," he says. "Today FM is attracting more listeners for many of its shows and, at the end of the day, advertisers want to reach the greatest number of people so they'll spend with them.

"2fm is not perceived as dynamic a station as Today FM is and there is the sense that it has not been able to fill the void left by Gerry Ryan's death. They've got nobody who attracts the sort of listeners he did in his heyday."

University of Limerick journalism lecturer Tom Felle is even more critical. "You have to ask yourself do we need 2fm any more? Would RTé be better putting the resources it allocates to it to better use? I think it would.

"The station doesn't know what it is and it hasn't known for a long time. It has had no long-term solution to replace Gerry Ryan and persisting with Ryan Tubridy in mid-morning is clearly not working. Tubridy is a brilliant broadcaster but he is completely miscast on 2fm -- and the continuous drop in his audience shows that.

"It's lost any sense of edginess that it might have had in the 1980s or 1990s and has become largely irrelevant for younger listeners. They've moved elsewhere and getting them back will be very difficult."

Healy attempted to attract the 15-34 audience shortly after his appointment by banning older music from the playlist. "We'll be playing the new stuff and then the really contemporary hits," he told the Irish Independent in June. "After that there will be music from the 1990s and Noughties but nothing before 1990 for now."

It's a policy that is said to have ruffled some feathers at 2fm and it won't be until the next JNLR figures this summer that Healy will see if it has paid dividends.

"They need to put a five-year plan in place," says Tom Felle. "Devise a clear identity and stop chopping and changing. Personality broadcasters can still have an impact -- just look at how Ray Foley is pulling 98FM up by the bootstraps. They just need to find the right people."


COMINATCHA: The heyday of 2fm -- from Larry Gogan to Gerry Ryan

* RTÉ Radio 2, as it was then known, went on air on May 31, 1979. The Boomtown Rats' 'Like Clockwork' was the first song played -- by Larry Gogan.

* 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 most successful programme by far was Gerry Ryan's titular show, which ran from March 1988 until hours before his death on April 30, 2010, and at its peak attracted 350,000 listeners.

* In the final years of the Celtic Tiger, with advertising spend at an all-time high, The Gerry Ryan Show attracted €27,000 in ad revenue each day.

* 2fm's current schedule has come under attack for its low female representation. The only woman who presents a show on weekdays is Jenny Greene -- and her programme is confined to Friday nights.

Irish Independent

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