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'Irish radio needs pirate stations - the rest are too middle-of-the-road'

Enda Caldwell has a long background of working in radio – most recently with Non-Stop 90s, which went off the air in October. Here, he writes about his concerns about the industry.

Enda Caldwell

On 31 October, the unlicensed radio station Non-Stop 90s went off air, days after the licensed Communicorp station TXFM was closed down. Non-Stop 90s, a Dublin-based station, had amassed a solid following, says presenter Enda Caldwell. Here, he writes about why he thinks radio in Ireland needs to change.

We live in a world where the under 25s are not listening to radio in the same volume or numbers as the generations before them did.

At one time, younger people in Ireland tuned in to Radio Luxembourg under the bedsheets. Later, they turned to Radio Caroline North from The Isle of Man, BBC Radio One to listen to the latest tunes. Then came the ‘superpirates‘ of the 80s, leading on to the likes of Atlantic 252.

Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music are the ‘new media’. A 15-year-old in 2016 won’t have the same affinity or relationship with traditional FM or AM radio that any of the generation who came before them have had.

Nothing is being done to stop the rot that has set in, particularly within music radio in Ireland where a certain rotation of sometimes as little as 5-600 songs are the total song universe of most of the legal operators across the board.

This has meant that stations who provided a point of difference, variety, nostalgia and eclectic output like Non-Stop 90s and TXFM were loved so much by the public.

The station I worked for, Non-Stop 90s, spotted a niche in the already overcrowded Dublin radio market by picking one genre and decade in music and sticking solely to that format. We delivered our product in a fun, slick, no-nonsense manner minus all the clutter that you’ll find on BAI-licensed local and national services.

There must be a reason why pirates are popping up

non stop 90s Source: Facebook

Radio in Ireland from 1980 to the end of ’88 was exciting, unregulated and the motto “only the strongest will survive” meant that you got programmers and stations in general striving to be the best.

That’s why stations like Sunshine 101 and the original Radio Nova took a big chunk of the total Dublin market at one stage.

There must be a reason why pirates keep popping up?

Surely if people were totally satisfied with the choice they have been given by RTE 1 and 2fm along with the other legal stations then there would be no need to start other radio stations.

The main output for so-called “pirate” radio over the past 28 years since the killing off of superpirates Sunshine 101, Super Q102 and the original Radio Nova and Energy 103 has been to just turn on a transmitter and play dance or club music, with very little professional standards or broadcast industry rules being adhered to.

This would be with the exception of stations like Sunset 107FM, Kiss103FM, Pulse 103FM, Kiss FM and Wild Country Ulster and Leinster, Kick Country, Sun 80s Energy 106 and more recently Soul City FM and Non-Stop 90s.

Why were all these stations commercially successful and popular? Because they addressed a need for real music radio without all the restrictions that are placed on licensed stations by the BAI.

These restrictions include a high percentage of speech-based content required from even music stations who I would contend have no need to have so much talk getting in the way of the music.

Another issue is the quota for Irish music, and other music format and playlist restrictions that they must adhere to to stay within the terms of their licence.

What do we get?

Middle of the road.

No creativity

shutterstock_398422858 Source: Shutterstock/Syda Productions

There are no original or creative ideas anymore. We have at least three larger independent stations who could not come up with an original station name so they are using the name of the superpirates who helped create the commercial platform and “level playing field” that they now play on day in day out.

2FM, for example, has to get out there and create a proper noise if it is going to justify its future.

Having just recorded another loss in listeners in the JNLR results announced last week, and a loss in market share, where are they going?

Per the head of 2fm Dan Healy – in a nod to Moneyball – “we keep losing games but we know we are going to come good”.

With only a 10.6% market share of the all-important 15- to 34-year-olds, how does he propose to do this?

Lack of choice

No “focus group” or “music research” and “testing” is needed to discover that the songs that the big stations are playing are simply not working and that people have become bored by the outputs of most if not all the legal stations in Ireland.

The whole argument for taking the superpirates off air in the late 80s was to provide more choice and give people better radio and more innovation than ever before. This has not transpired to be the case and the bottom line is that revenue and market share is all that is cared about now.

The passion those pioneering broadcasters had has been beaten to a pulp and what we have now is corporate controlled cookie-cutter products that are racked with rules and limitations.

In the experience I have had over the years the best model is like that of a deregulated market such as the USA where there are more stations per head of population but there is also more choice and real diversity.

Stations are not forced to deliver Irish speech content, 15% country, 40% Irish music 20% news and current affairs or other such ridiculous and strangling stipulations.

They are allowed to get on with the job of delivering their format and generating an audience.

Are people listening?

shutterstock_207239767 Source: Shutterstock/artemisphoto

How is it that indie stations can survive in other parts of the world like Triple J, BBC 6Music, 107.7 The End Seattle?

Nothing will ever change in this country because no one will ever listen. If you say Atlantic 252 was good, then that will be dismissed as old hat. If you say TXFM should have worked they will say “no one wants that indie muck”, instead of making the format work commercially by hiring the right talent and marketing the thing correctly.

FM will die, digital radio is a very uncertain animal. Cars that can even pick up digital radio are a long, long way off here.

So, what should we do? Go back to the push-button AM/MW/LW radio thing that worked so well for many years?

Or rather accept that radio is changing, FM has a termination date and that there is no hard and fast solution in this country where we have no DAB culture like in the UK yet?

And also, bear in mind that much of the country outside of Dublin or “outta town” does not have the same speed of internet connection as the capital area does.

That coupled with the high internet data prices from providers in this country there is no real incentive to stream radio and listen on a smartphone.

The future is coming, that’s for sure. It’s just coming faster than you think. And it was up to stations like Non-Stop 90s to disrupt the marketplace and shake things up a little: to show a glimpse of how a de-regulated marketplace should sound and feel for the listener – who ultimately is the person all of this is supposed to be about.

What we need are not less Non-Stop 90s and TXFM style stations – we need more of them.

When the BAI wakes up and realises we are living in Ireland 2016 and not mid-70s independent local radio in the UK, then perhaps we can get somewhere.

Enda Caldwell has been a radio DJ for over 25 years, working for stations such as Atlantic 252, Today FM, Kiss 100 London and Radio Luxembourg. He also works as a radio consultant and online reporter. He was one of the presenters on Non-Stop 90s, an unlicensed Dublin station.

About the author:

Enda Caldwell

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