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RTÉ Radio 1: anatomy of an old friend

Before Pat Kenny broke his chains  Gerard Cunningham looked at RTE Radio 1

 

At least no sign of Brendan O’Connor
At least no sign of Brendan O’Connor

Assessing the performance of RTé Radio 1 in the talk-radio market requires acuity. When it comes to radio, Radio 1 isn’t just paramount, it’s in a class of its own, which can make comparisons elusive and predictions treacherous.

With its broad range of what the vogue calls ‘marquee’ stars, its focus on serious issues – and hard news – and its stranglehold on the talk-radio market, it is peerless in Ireland. While such ascendancy may breed complacency, (BBC) Radio 4 it is not, however famously unfair it is to say so. Where are the documentaries, behind-the-scenes and foreign analysis, or even panel shows?  There are too many magazine programmes, too much personality-led rumination, too much sport (especially at weekends), traffic news (every bit as tedious as Radio 4’s ‘Shipping Forecast’, but without any redeeming style) and – of course – obtrusive advertising.

Of the other national broadcasters, Raidió na Gaeltachta may have national coverage, but its minority-language medium means that it has limited reach and appeal. Otherwise, only Newstalk makes any attempt to cater to talk audiences. Newstalk pitches itself to a younger audience than Radio 1’s. In effect, this leaves Radio 1 with the older, more ‘serious’ audience by default, while Newstalk occasionally indulges the zanier demographic with offering programmes such as the tonal and querulous Seán Moncrieff. RTÉ 1 dominates among the over-35s, a market left untouched by other stations. Newstalk, by avoiding head-on competition with the behemoth and choosing instead to chase 18- to 35-year-olds, is left to fight it out with music-orientated stations. from easy-listening AOR to contemporary and current hits.

The trouble is, the kids aren’t all that interested in news talk.

Indeed, it’s notable that the best performing Newstalk host is contrarian George Hook, hardly a youngster, with a show that is more news radio, less talk radio. Hook stands out in sounding like he’s addressing an older audience, albeit with a grumpier tone than a listener might hear on RTÉ. What the BAI will make of his partisan stances in light of their new guidelines on balance remains to be seen. Such opinionatedness is never more than implicit on RTÉ, establishment radio.

Too many magazine programmes, too much personality-led rumination, too much sport, traffic news and obtrusive advertising

But despite Hook’s strong persona and performance, Newstalk seems uncertain of its own voice, barely tuned in. More talk than news, it often sounds like 2FM without the music. All top-ten most-listened-to programmes in the latest Joint National Listenership (JNLR) Survey, are on Radio One. Remarkably, only three of the Top 20 programmes –Ray D’Arcy, Ian Dempsey and Ryan Tubridy, all one-time tv stars – are from stations other than Radio 1. Hook, the only Newstalk presence in the Top 30, barely scrapes in at number 28, beaten into third in the drive-time news wars, with Today FM’s Matt Cooper’s ‘Last Word’ at 21.

That said, the national flagship station does show a regional bias. In particular, Radio 1 owns the dormitory belt, the large swathes of counties Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow with a captive automotive audience. Four in ten commuters in the Pale tuned in yesterday to Radio One according to the latest JNLR figures, covering the year up to the beginning of April 2013, compared to a paltry 15% for Newstalk and 9% for Today FM.

Meanwhile, it is striking how sharply Radio 1 listenership falls off the farther one travels from Dublin (41%), falling to 29% of over-35s in the southeast and northwest.

Listenership also waxes and wanes throughout the day. Radio 1’s first (and highest) peak comes around 8am, falling off after 9am before peaking again with the lunchtime news, a peak which it carries through most of Joe Duffy’s ‘Liveline’, before its final crest again during the first half of ‘Drivetime’.

‘Morning Ireland’, with its major audience share as Ireland goes to work Monday to Friday, is still an agenda-setting programme. Roughly half the two-hour slot is taken up with set-pieces. (news headlines every half hour, weather, sports news, traffic reports, business news, It Says in the Papers, and the “And finally…” slot at the end, but it still manages to fit in a ground-breaking interview more often than not, either breaking a story or – or more often – moving on a story which broke in the newspapers overnight or in the previous evening’s ‘Prime Time’. That story will often dominate the news agenda throughout the day, not just on RTé but elsewhere too. Still, in contrast with the ‘Today’ programme which performs analogously on BBC’s Radio 4, it is less broad-ranging, international, challenging or thoughtful.

The programming pattern is simple, perhaps formulaic: a strong news programme, followed by a lighter show, then back to hard news. So ‘Morning Ireland’ gives way to the John Murray show – a wafer-light mix of lifestyle and human-interest features that fails to exploit its host’s range, before ‘Today with Pat Kenny’.

Kenny may lose radio as the morning progresses (all radio does) but it still holds its own as a flagship, carrying reactions to Morning Ireland stories, as well as its own fixed features, though in Kenny’s case the features aren’t daily staples as much as regular items: an audio package from Paddy O’Gorman or Brian O’Connell, intermittently excruciating ‘recipes’ with Pat, the “Friday gathering”.

Kenny, always much more at ease behind a microphone than in front of a camera, moves consummately – though he is weak on humour and passion – through the weekly staples to lighter feature interviews or breaking news, often from Leinster House. And there’s more… In the longer term, Kenny’s ownership of the mid-morning slot poses its own problems for RTé planners. He turned 65 this January, and senior management must be aware that he will eventually call it a day.

News at One catalyses the second spike of the day, and is the least mechanical of all RTé’s flagship offerings. Apart from the initial headlines, and brief business and sports updates, there are no fixtures. It is pure news: a mix of reports from correspondents and interviews. Its audience feeds directly to ‘Liveline’, which manages to hold most of it as Duffy tuts his way ingratiatingly through the nation’s problems.

‘Drivetime’ bookends Radio 1’s daily news coverage, and in many ways is a mirror image of ‘Morning Ireland’. Like the morning show, it has its stipend of fixed points: the mix of news, weather, sports, traffic and business reports at fixed slots. In between these are crammed a mix of interviews, reports from RTÉ and other correspondents, and regulars – from Olivia O’Leary’s diary to the weekly provincial-newspaper roundup.

All top-ten most-listened-to programmes are on Radio 1. Remarkably, only three of the Top 20 programmes are from stations other than Radio 1

The Radio 1 schedule is extraordinary stable. Every few years, there’s a tweak here or there, such as moving ‘Drivetime’ to an earlier start time at 4.30PM, but for the most part, even as new faces take over, the flagship shows remain the same. Behind the scenes, new producers soon succumb to the rhythm of each show, getting a feel for its particular mix of heavy and light. Shows seem to have their favourites and the range of voices is shown up by the more ambitious catholicism of the likes of Vincent Browne’s ‘Tonight’ tv show.

Aiming for an older audience few other radio stations have targeted as intently, Radio 1 remains in a class of its own. That makes for very conservative radio. It’s not that the station is politically cautious, though that criticism too is levelled, but that it is predictable and conservative broadcasting. A documentary during daylight hours is practically unheard of, and if the listener comes upon one, then it’s a fair bet that it’s either a weekend or a bank holiday. Specialist programmes are also consigned to weekends and late evenings, when listenership will have been dropping dramatically since 6pm. Full-packaged reports are rare, though not unknown: Philip Boucher-Hayes produces regular pieces, and, where a reporter has recorded interviews, the format is more likely to be an interview, during which the reporter introduces sound clips, than a stand-alone report. The model for this may be Pat Kenny’s regular pieces with Marie-Louise O’Donnell, where the  unchallenging senator is sent off somewhere, and then reports back what others told her.

Above all, there is the sense of studio-bound news. Radio 1 sits in Dublin, and the news comes to it. When reporters go out, it is often to report back on the alien creatures they have encountered, typified by Paddy O’Gorman’s bulletins from dole queues and county fairs. Despite its national reach, Radio One often comes across not so much as a nation talking to itself as Dublin taking to the nation, and perhaps that goes some way to explain its lower listenership figures in the southwest and northwest. Colourful, dangerous, paradigm-altering, it is not.

Clare Duignan has moved on from four lugubrious years atop RTÉ radio, her attentions characteristically diverted by the implosion of 2FM’s certainties with the rise of local and regional stations, such as FM 104 and  Nova in Dublin, and Beat 102-103 in the South-East.  Her successor may find the precarious strengths of Radio 1 every bit as diverting.