Radio silence of Irish in London a missed opportunity for ex-pats
IT'S Monday morning and anxious Greeks take to the airwaves to voice their concerns about the state of their nation. On the previous weekend the country voted for anti-austerity candidates in a general election result that threatens their ability to remain within the eurozone.
"We have taken a stand against these barbaric austerity measures," says one caller, but not everyone is convinced. "What have we done," asks one Greek lady, fearing her nation is on the brink of total anarchy.
But these emotive debates aren't taking place on a radio station in Athens or Thessalonika but on a high street in North Finchley. London Greek radio operates 24/7 and claims to have over 300,000 listeners. Since 1999, it has been "the heartbeat of the Greek community" here and says it also has 150,000 getting involved via the web.
Down the road in Wood Green, London Turkish radio, which has been broadcasting since 1990, has, according to regulators Ofcom, more than 80,000 listeners in the borough of Haringey alone.
Over in Southall, west London, the Sikh community tune into Sukh Sagar Radio; while Akash radio and community station Desi Radio caters for Asian and Panjabi listeners.
Meanwhile, further east in Plaistow, the presenters on the Voice of Africa station are finalising plans for how to celebrate African Liberation day on May 26.
In a city where at least three million inhabitants were born abroad, it's not surprising that radio stations set up to serve specific ethnic groups are thriving.
What is surprising, though, is that not one of them caters uniquely for the huge Irish community. For a nation that prides itself on the art of debating, on our traditional music and literature, on our native games and success in foreign ones, our voices on the airwaves are all but silent (Ryan Tubridy and Terry Wogan aside).
"A number of applications have been made for licences for an Irish radio station over the years but they've all been unsuccessful" explains presenter Gerry Byrne.
Gerry, from Cavan, presents the 'Irish Spectrum', the weekend radio show in London. He's also the voice of the weekly 'Irish Link on BBC Three Counties Radio.
"I've been working in radio in London for the last 20 years and know just how incredibly difficult it can be to get advertising and sponsorship from within the Irish business community here. The levels of investment needed for a 24-hour Irish station in London would be immense and I just can't see where it would come from" he says.
While the Greek, Turkish and other communities were getting their acts together in the early 1990s, it seems the Irish sat on their hands.
Nowadays it's all but impossible to get an old-style commercial radio licence, though opportunities do exist for community stations and getting a digital licence is relatively straightforward.
Surely it's a missed opportunity of epic proportions. The benefit for Irish businesses would be obvious, with pubs and clubs being able to let listeners know about upcoming events, while those on the lookout for work could find out what jobs were going with Irish businesses here.
Live coverage of the city's St Patrick's Day celebrations would bring them alive for those who can't get along to experience the day. The GAA in the city could receive a huge injection, with live commentaries from grounds in the city. And what about the music? Traditional musicians in London would have a wonderful platform on which to perform, while classic ballads and up-to-date Irish chart music could co-exist on the station.
Run along the lines of a local station at home, London Irish FM should be able to pull in the advertisers but Gerry Byrne believes those with very big cheque books would be required to secure such a station's existence.
"You'd need companies with multi-million pound advertising budgets to get involved but without large listenership numbers that would be impossible. I think the demand for a 24-hour station might not be sufficient."
Onfm in Hammersmith offers some Irish programming during the week but its listenership is small and resources limited.
It's a great shame that while London can help sustain two Irish community newspapers it can't deliver one Irish radio station. Of course, the investment needed would be substantial but somehow the Greeks, Turks, Asians and Africans managed it -- why can't we?