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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 26 May, 2020
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There is a light that never goes out: Why we still need an alternative music radio station

With the closure of TXFM there is a real opportunity for the BAI to make a commitment to shaping Irish music radio for the long haul, the radio station’s former CEO Peter McPartlin writes.

Peter McPartlin

THIS EVENING, IN an office block in central Dublin, the final song on one of Dublin’s shortest-lived, but critically-acclaimed commercial radio stations will be played and the studio lights in TXFM will be switched off for good.

Unlike the heyday of pirate radio in the capital, there will be no protest marches from disenfranchised music fans and no histrionics or studio lock-ins from the utterly professional band of remaining presenters. But like Phantom before it, the demise of TXFM means that music listening choice on the nation’s airwaves has been dealt another blow.

It is sadly ironic that at a time when ‘indie music’, both international and Irish, has rarely been more diverse, interesting and talent-laden, that the industry is losing one of the few outlets that has helped promote, encourage and generate sales for artists involved in it.

Yes, there are still alternative stations like 8Radio.com scraping by on temporary FM licences and RTE’s 2XM transmits almost invisibly on DAB. But the closure of TXFM means that there is no major radio outlet here providing a daily mix of contemporary and classic, alternative music across the main FM spectrum.

With the primary champions of ‘music from beyond the mainstream’, such as Paul McLoone, Dan Hegarty, John Creedon and Tom Dunne, all relegated to the fringes of national radio schedules, there is less FM exposure than ever for music that is not uniform, shiny and safe.

Let me declare my interest here. I was one of the people involved in helping to get TXFM off the ground after the demise of Phantom. That station too had its fans but was cursed by a combination of the advertising downturn post-2008 and a schizophrenic schedule in its latter years which cost it audience numbers.

‘Antidote to polished pop’

The primary aim of TXFM was to provide an antidote to the polished pop output of the more established and better resourced stations. The station’s only funding was advertising and while the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) had accepted a broader interpretation of its original licence as an ‘alternative rock station’, an age cap of appealing primarily to ‘Under 35s’ was an anachronism and an unnecessary restriction to a licence that is arguably the most niche of all 34 commercial operators.

The TXFM shareholders bravely went into the last two years of its current licence hoping that it might just get to break even. The contention was that although the Dublin radio market is crowded, there are a range of music audiences not being catered for. We estimated that there are 120,000 alternative music fans aged under 35 and a broader base of 300,000 if the age cap was ignored.

TXFM set out to provide a more enlightened approach to music playlisting. It was not elitist, it was for more of the people some of the time: those who wanted a station to help them discover new music as well as occasionally playing heritage acts like The Clash, Nirvana or The Frames, who rarely make it onto Irish playlists anymore.

This might have meant a bit more Kings of Leon and Mumford & Sons to bulk up its audience numbers, attract advertisers and the casual indie anthem fan. But the station would also use the opportunity to introduce them to newer acts like Royal Blood, Future Islands, St. Vincent and Tame Impala and provide more than just lip-service to Irish acts like Villagers, All Tvvins, Soak and James Vincent McMorrow.

The other goal of TXFM was to provide exposure for new presenters through new shows across a range of music genres that were un-catered for on Irish commercial radio. Some presenters such as Cathal Funge, Claire Beck and Kelly-Anne Byrne had been on Phantom, but on TXFM they were up front and centre.

New voices such as Gavin Glass, Brian Keaveney, Paul Donegan, Nialler9, Esther O’Moore Donohoe and Shelly Gray were given the opportunity to showcase their passion and presentation abilities. They were given equal billing on the schedule alongside more recognisable music heavyweights such as Joe Donnelly, Donal Dineen and Paul McLoone.

There were weekly shows devoted to soul, alt. country / Americana, electronica and dance. Unsigned Irish acts were showcased, there was a show majoring on vinyl releases (with John Caddell), a live dance show (from Bodytonic) and an energetic mix of sport and music at weekends (with Paul Lynskey and Johnny Cullen). Meanwhile, the ‘desert island downloads’ show, Songs in the Key of Life (with Nadine O’Regan), attracted some stellar guests across the two-and-a-half years.

A smaller and nimbler structure enabled TXFM to be more spontaneous with its schedule when the occasion demanded too. This led to great ‘event radio’ over the course of its short life: John Grant as DJ for a day, a virtually live Beatles reunion, and spontaneous tribute days to Bowie and Prince.

More recently TXFM went all ‘1991’ with a whole day devoted to the release of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’. These may not quite qualify for a Nobel Literature Prize but they were a departure from the relatively safe leanings of commercial radio.

So why should the market mourn the loss of a privately-owned enterprise, which ostensibly failed because it didn’t gain enough listeners or make enough money? And, in an age of age of Spotify, Apple and YouTube, when the availability of music in all its flavours is limitless, does it really matter anymore?

As a people with a culture and tradition of punching above our weight in the contemporary music space, the answer has to be a resounding ‘yes’.

Spotify can provide playlists to match every mood or occasion for thousands of people, one at a time. But the best radio curates music so that thousands of people can recall, discover and share moments, driven by music which can have a really powerful and unifying effect.

Radio is also still one of the most powerful platforms for any new or established artist to have their work heard at scale and frankly, put in danger of being purchased.

Irish radio needs a station that can act as a champion for new artists from both Ireland and abroad; one which provides an outlet for the wealth of new voices, musicianship and production talent that exists but not given wider exposure.

If Lyric FM, which provides a thoroughly professional service for fans of classical and jazz, can receive annual funding of €5.8m from the licence fee, couldn’t even one-fifth of this amount be found to underwrite a station which has potential appeal to a much broader base of music fans?

It might never have the biggest audience in the country but when has popularity ever been a measure of importance and relevance?

This is a real opportunity for the BAI or maybe even RTÉ, to seize the opportunity from the closure of a small station with a big heart, and make a real commitment to shaping Irish music radio for the long haul.

There is a light that never goes out but it does need fuel for it to burn brightly.

Peter McPartlin is a former CEO of TXFM and Today FM.

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