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The Irish radio market is defined by boundaries, franchise areas, spectrums, licences and other assorted analogue-era rules and regulations. In theory, the technology that encouraged the current carve-up has been superseded by digital platforms that are potentially borderless. In reality, Ireland is not Norway.
The Scandinavian country started switching of all national and commercial FM transmitters this year, and not everyone was happy about it. If anyone tried to do the same thing here, there would be war. In Ireland, we may not move the dial very much, but enough of us remain attached to the concept of a dial.
Ipsos MRBI research shows the majority of radio listening in Ireland (some 95 per cent) takes place via AM/FM radio at home or in our cars, with only 2.5 per cent taking place via mobile devices. All radio, meanwhile, is said to account for almost 88 per cent of total audio listening, far outstripping own music (8 per cent), Spotify (3.3 per cent) and podcasts/listen-back options (1.1 per cent).
When I see these figures – and the radio industry that commissioned the research is naturally keen to share it – I can’t relate to them at all. Only 8 per cent for own music? I’m pretty sure there are single artists that represent more than 8 per cent of my total audio diet in any given week, while even a non-premium Spotify dabbler like me devotes more than 3.3 per cent of my audio minutes to streaming. But the Ipsos MBRI share of listening data is, of course, based on the population as a whole. They are national averages across all age groups.
The figures for 15-34-year-olds look ever so slightly different. Among this age group, 7.4 per cent of radio listening takes place via mobile devices, while radio accounts for 75 per cent of total audio listening, with own music jumping to 15 per cent, Spotify to 7.9 per cent and podcast/listen-back to 2 per cent.
From Ipsos MRBI’s joint national listenership research (JNLR), it is also possible to isolate another divide: the one between Dublin and the rest of Ireland. Radio consumption trends in the capital have been going their own way since about 2012, when a pattern of decline set in. While 83 per cent of Irish adults listen to radio on an average day, that proportion in Dublin is 77 per cent.
National radio holds the majority share position in Dublin, but this is tied to speech stations Radio 1 and Newstalk, which outperform in the capital relative to their national shares. When it comes to RTÉ 2fm and Today FM, the trend reverses: 2fm’s share in Co Dublin (4 per cent) is below its national share (6.7 per cent), while Today FM’s is 3.8 per cent in the capital versus 7.5 per cent nationally. The woes of both stations in recent years can be traced to their weakness in the capital.
In fact, almost every local station does better than 2fm and Today FM in Dublin. They are led by FM104, the brand that descended from Ireland’s first ever local commercial station (Capital Radio, which went on air in 1989). Now owned by News Corp’s Wireless Group, FM104 enjoyed a strong result in the most recent JNLR survey, increasing its share of the Dublin radio market to 12.1 per cent.
Two Communicorp stations come next, with Spin 1038 (7.4 per cent) overtaking 98FM, another child of 1989, which slipped to 6.5 per cent. FM104’s sister station Q102 is not far behind with a 6.3 per cent share, while the other competitors are country-flavoured Sunshine 106.8 (5.1 per cent) and rock-themed Radio Nova (4 per cent), with Classic Hits 4FM bringing up the rear on 2.1 per cent.
Set this list of stations against a backdrop of near-infinite listening options, and it is not hard to see that there is very little elbow room in the fragmented Dublin radio market. Nor is it hard to understand why the perennially loss-making TXFM (previously known as Phantom) finally floundered off air in 2016.
The good news for the industry is that the most recent JNLR survey sounded no new alarm bells: a two-point rise in listenership in Dublin from 75 per cent will have elicited cautious sighs of relief. But was this the beginning of a turnaround, the establishment of a reassuring plateau or merely a teasing pause before the decline resumes?
As far as consumption of both streaming services and podcasts are concerned, it certainly feels like the only way is up. Remember that plenty of children develop a love of music and establish media habits long before they reach the age of 15, but the listening diets of anyone born after 2002 has yet to be captured by the research.
Most radio stations freely admit it is more difficult than ever before to recruit younger listeners, and that without that continual recruitment the medium will slowly wither. The Dublin music radio market may be the place to listen out for the first real cracks.