Sunday 8 December 2019

Was Wogan last of the broadcasting icons? When everybody is a star, it's hard to shine

'At its peak, Wogan’s legendary Radio 2 morning show was the biggest radio programme in Europe and when he finally brought the mic down on his last broadcast back in 2009, he was still pulling in an average audience of 8 million.' Photo: PA
'At its peak, Wogan’s legendary Radio 2 morning show was the biggest radio programme in Europe and when he finally brought the mic down on his last broadcast back in 2009, he was still pulling in an average audience of 8 million.' Photo: PA
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

If the month that has just passed will be remembered for anything, it will surely be for the unusually high number of celebrities who died.

The deaths of Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams), Abe Vigoda (Sal Tessio from 'The Godfather') and Dale Griffin (of '70s rock band Mott The Hoople), raised an eyebrow of recognition and memory of childhood, but the demise of Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, David Bowie and now Terry Wogan made a larger dent in the public consciousness.

Nobody wants to engage in a ghoulish posthumous competition for who was the most popular, but the spontaneous eruptions of genuine grief following the deaths of Bowie and Wogan were an accurate and fitting indicator of the esteem, and even awe, in which they were both held.

Gender-bending, genre-defining, and voice to several generations, David Bowie's name may not have often appeared alongside that of Terry Wogan, but while the Limerick broadcaster may have eschewed Bowie's eclectic and experimental sartorial tastes in favour of his beloved comfy sweaters, they were closer in age than their careers may have indicated - Bowie died at 69, Wogan was 77.

The grief many felt at the passing of these two very different icons has one unifying factor - the realisation that we will never see their like again.

That's not because we will never see such talents bloom so much as the fact that the cultural landscape has changed so utterly that it would be virtually impossible for any individual to have the same impact and longevity.

Bowie was one of the first musicians to see which way the wind was blowing with the decimation of his industry as a result of file sharing. But as much as the record business has hyper-evolved beyond all recognition in the last few years, the seismic changes to traditional radio and television are even more dramatic.

At its peak, Wogan's legendary Radio 2 morning show was the biggest radio programme in Europe and when he finally brought the mic down on his last broadcast back in 2009, he was still pulling in an average audience of 8 million - a figure that becomes increasingly unthinkable with each passing year.

There will always be good, even brilliant, broadcasters. But the simple reality is that there are now so many choices and options open to the typical listener that such a massive concentration of consumers in one place has become increasingly unusual - hence the vast salaries paid to those elite few presenters who can still hope to secure such vast figures.

When Wogan was in his pomp, his British audience had a choice of the BBC, a smattering of independents and that was pretty much it - if you could stake your claim with his casual brilliance then you had a good chance of virtually monopolising your fan base.

Nowadays, social media saturation, blogs, vlogs, podcasts and self-funded YouTube channels have atomised the potential audience to a degree that would have been simply unthinkable even a decade ago.

When everyone is a star, it's harder for traditional broadcasters to shine and that's the climate in which we now find ourselves.

After all, YouTube stars such as Zoella can claim a billion views of her own channel and boasts more than 6 million subscribers, while the most popular YouTube star, the baffling 'PewDiePie' Kjelberg, has a fan base in excess of 40 million. These are figures which TV and radio controllers can only dream - and weep - about. And it's not going to change.

Even though Wogan may have cut his teeth in RTÉ, he will always be remembered as the jewel in the Beeb's crown and while traditional media isn't going anywhere anytime soon, it is steadily and inexorably shrinking in the face of the increased choice available to consumers, particularly the much-coveted 18-35 demographic.

The audience cake may be the same size, but with so many people taking more slices, the margins become tighter, until figures which would once have had a presenter sacked are now considered enough to warrant a pay rise.

This is neither good nor bad. It simply is.

In fact, you only have to look at what has been the big water cooler moment of the year so far to see how the audience has moved on from traditional fare. It wasn't RTÉ's risible 'Rebellion', although that certainly provoked plenty of communal giggles.

No, the water cooler moment was 'Making A Murderer', a dense and attention-demanding 10-part documentary that aired on what was, until recently, a niche online provider.

The interesting aspect to the Netflix smash was that it would never have been the success it was if it had been aired on a weekly basis on a terrestrial or even satellite channel.

The first episode was too generic to be anything other than a standard miscarriage-of-justice piece of advocacy journalism and it was only the fact that eager viewers could binge on all 10 episodes if they so desired that allowed the strange case of Steven Avery to capture the zeitgeist by the lapels and give it a good shaking.

The one thing Wogan had in common with these new media upstarts was the ability to form a bond with his listeners, the TOGGs (Terry's Old Geezers and Gals).

But even that dedicated following (many of whom would also have been Bowie fans, although they would never have considered themselves an old geezer/gal when they learned of the singer's death a few weeks ago) was painstakingly built up over the decades, a freedom which is simply not afforded in today's cutthroat market with its insatiable demand for instant results.

There are still broadcasting icons, of course. Gay Byrne may have been unwell in recent weeks, but he is still the guv'nor of Irish broadcasting.

Ryan Tubridy may be the obvious heir to that throne, just as another Irishman, Graham Norton, is the obvious inheritor of Wogan's mantle in the BBC, but neither man will ever be able to replicate the dizzying audience figures so routinely enjoyed by their predecessors.

When informed that he had broken the 8 million mark, Wogan famously joked: "There are 60 million people in this country, what are the other 52 million listening to?"

He was laughing then, but it's a question broadcasting bosses are still struggling to answer.

Irish Independent

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