Wednesday 21 March 2018

Pressure on RTE in battle for listeners

John Greene

John Greene

Irish people love radio. Amid all the attractions and distractions of other forms of media and entertainment, we cannot escape that basic conclusion: Irish people love radio.

The most recently published JNLR figures, which cover April 2010 to March 2011, show that 85 per cent of the country's adult population listened to either national or local radio, or both, every day.

As a nation we have maintained a healthy relationship with radio and the increased choices available to listeners has led to an informed audience cherrypicking to suit its own tastes and preferences. And this means that although the headline figures in the most recent survey for RTE were strong, there are underlying concerns for the state broadcaster which it must address.

Colum Kenny pointed out recently in this paper that while on average one in every three listeners is tuned in to RTE Radio at any one time, more people are tuned in to local or regional stations, while Today FM and Newstalk continue to make gains nationally.

Naturally, since the onset of competition to RTE's decades of dominance, the key battlegrounds have been in the area of current affairs and music programming.

The first challenge to Radio 1's sports coverage was from the new local stations when they came on the air in the late '80s and early '90s, although as it evolved their service actually complemented rather than competed with RTE. The local stations could go into territory beyond RTE's reach and it was this which helped the better of those stations to attract and subsequently maintain a large market share -- stations like Highland Radio, Radio Kerry and Tipp FM enjoy a greater than 50 per cent share. The local stations could cover local sporting events, and also feature local sportspeople of interest -- all territory which was simply impossible for RTE to cover. Nationally, though, Radio 1 remained dominant. And the most recent figures show that Saturday Sport, which recorded a total listenership of 174,000, an increase of 3,000 on the previous study, is the only sports show to feature in the top 20 of national radio programmes. Sunday Sport is the station's flagship but, worryingly for RTE, it showed a decrease of 11,000 listeners to 174,000.

Still, these figures compare strongly to its main rival in both slots, Newstalk, whose Saturday programme attracts 79,000, with 72,000 listening in on Sunday afternoons.

That said, there are worrying trends for bosses in Montrose to consider -- not least the fact that Newstalk commands an audience of 64,000 under the age of 55 on a Saturday (against 63,000 for RTE) and 59,000 on a Sunday (against 74,000 for RTE). In other words, a significantly higher percentage of Newstalk listeners are under 55, offering plenty of room for improvement.

Then there is also the fact that Newstalk's content challenge to Radio 1 grows stronger by the year. The station has live coverage of Heineken Cup games, and Sunday afternoon Premier League games. And next Saturday, the stations go head to head when both have live commentaries of the Leinster v Northampton game in Cardiff.

And this summer Newstalk enters the Gaelic football and hurling championships arena. It is the first time a station other than RTE will have live commentaries from championship games. Newstalk will have exclusive live broadcasting rights for 21 games, including the Ulster and Leinster football finals, the Leinster hurling final -- which could be the most fascinating in years -- and two All-Ireland football quarter-finals. Their deal with the GAA is for three years.

The station has enlisted an interesting mix of analysts -- including Liam McHale, Conor Deegan, Dermot Earley (pictured), David Brady, Daithi Regan, Jamesie O'Connor, Ollie Canning and Derek Lyng -- and in a novel twist plans to use two experts alongside commentator David McIntyre, as well as a sideline reporter.

It is hard not to think that this is a pivotal moment in Irish sports broadcasting, coming as it does as listeners face into their first summer in 60 years without the comforting tones of Micheál ó Muircheartaigh to accompany them.

Most of us, in fact, have never known anything else and his departure seems to have created an air of uncertainty within RTE, which has yet to pinpoint a successor. It is all fine and well talking up the virtue of a rotation policy with commentators, but this was never a factor when the Kerryman was there and suggests RTE don't feel they have an outstanding candidate to take his place.

It is hard also to avoid the feeling that sports coverage on Radio 1 is in need of freshening up. Any objective analysis of its sports coverage currently would have to conclude that it does not match the high standards the station set itself in the past.

Too many of the newer, younger presenters have failed to shine and, when compared to their Newstalk counterparts, do not appear as well informed or up to speed.

Newstalk's sports presenters too are less prone to the kind of gaffes which seem to have become commonplace on Radio 1, or the kind of nonsense which also has become all too common, like recently when one sports presenter on Radio 1, without a hint of irony, favourably compared games in the League of Ireland to games in the Premier League.

RTE, with its greater resources and greater experience -- combined with its household names -- will continue to lead the way on listenership figures for some time. But it knows too that Newstalk is a genuine threat, and that it needs to pick up its game this summer more than ever before.

Sunday Indo Sport

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