RTÉ Radio 1: Anatomy of a predictable friend

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, June-July 2013 edition

Assessing the performance of RTE Radio One in the radio market is never an easy task. When it comes to radio, Radio One isn’t just ahead of the pack, its in a class of its own, which can make comparisons difficult.

RTE: Image via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/irisheyes/329057/
RTE: Image via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/irisheyes/329057/

With its broad range of marquee star names, and its stranglehold on the news radio market, it is, literally, unequalled.

The station’s focus on talk radio, and hard news at that, means it is pretty much has a market category to itself. Of the other national broadcasters, only Newstalk makes any attempt to cater to talk audiences (Raidió na Gaeltachta may have national coverage, but its minority language status means that it has limited reach and appeal).

While Raidió na Gaeltachta limits itself by broadcasting in Irish, Newstalk pitches itself to a younger audience than Radio One. In effect, this means that Radio One is given the older, more “serious” audience by default.

While RTE 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 the 18-35 year old demographic, is left to fight it out with music-orientated stations as with music, from easy listening AOR to contemporary and current hits.

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

Indeed, it’s notable that the best performing Newstalk host is George Hook, hardly a youngster, with a show that is more news radio, less talk radio.

For the most part though, Newstalk seems uncertain of its own voice. More talk than news, it often sounds like 2FM without the music. Hook stands out in sounding like he’s speaking to an older audience, albeit with a grumpier tone than a listener might hear on RTE. What the BAI will make of his partisan stances in light of their new guidelines on balance remains to be seen.

But despite Hook’s strong performance, Newstalk is barely in the running. Of the top ten most listened to programmes in the latest Joint National Listenership (JNLR) Survey, all are Radio One. Only three of the Top 20 (Ray D’Arcy, Ian Dempsey and Ryan Tubridy) are from stations other than Radio One, and Hook, the only Newstalk entrant in the Top 30, barely scrapes in at number 28, beaten into third in the drivetime news wars, with Matt Cooper’s Last Word at 21.

That said, the national flagship station does show a regional bias. In particular, Radio One owns the commuter belt, the large swathes of counties Dublin, Meath Kildare and Wicklow with a captive audience travelling to and from work every day. Four in ten commuters in the Pale tuned in yesterday to Radio One according to the latest JNLR figures, covering the year from April 2012 to end March 2013, compared to a paltry 15% for Newstalk and 9% who listened to Today FM.

Meanwhile, it is striking how sharply Radio One 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 one’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 peak 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 RTE but elsewhere too.

The programming pattern is simple: a strong news programme, followed by a lighter show, then back to hard news, so Morning Ireland gives way to the John Murray show, and it’s lighter mix of lifestyle and human interest features before Today with Pat Kenny.

Kenny may lose radio as the morning progresses (as indeed does all radio) but it still holds its own as a flagship, carrying reactions to Morning Ireland stories, as well as it’s 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, recipes, the “Friday gathering”.

Kenny, always much more at ease behind a microphone than in front of a camera, pulls off the trick of moving with ease from the weekly staples to lighter feature interviews or breaking news from Leinster House. In the longer term, Kenny’s ownership of the mid-morning slot poses its own problems for RTE planners. He turned 65 this January, and senior management must be aware that he will eventually call it a day.

News at One, sees the second spike of the day, and is the least formulaic of all RTE’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. It’s audience feeds directly to Liveline, which manages to hold most of it as Duffy tuts his way through the nation’s problems.

Drivetime bookends Radio One’s daily news coverage, and in many ways is a mirror image of Morning Ireland. Like the morning show, it has its fair share 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 RTE and other correspondents, and regulars from Olivia O’Leary’s diary to the weekly provincial newspaper roundup.

If anything, the Radio One schedule is remarkably 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 learn the rhythm of each show, getting a feel for its particular mix of heavy and light.

Aiming for an older audience few other radio stations have targeted as intently, Radio One remains in a class of its own. And in its own way, that makes for very conservative radio. It’s not that the station is politically cautious, though that criticism too is levelled at it, but that it is conservative broadcasting. A documentary during daylight hours is practically unheard of, and if the listener hears one, then it’s a fair bet that it’s either a weekend or a bank holiday. Specialist programmes are also consigned to the weekends, or late evenings (listenership falls off dramatically after 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 most extreme version of this may be Pat Kenny’s regular pieces with Mary Louise O’Donnell, where the senator is sent off somewhere, and then reports back what others told her, apparently verbatim.

Above all, there is the sense of studio-bound news. Radio One sits in Dublin, and the news comes to it. When reporters go out, it is often to report back on the strange 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 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.