RTÉ has announced that it will be closing its digital radio stations. The closures of 2FM, RTÉ Pulse, .RTÉ Gold and RTÉ Radio 1 Extra, alongside over 200 prospective job cuts, marks a fairly bleak time for the public broadcaster. As embarrassing and annoying as RTÉ’s financial nosedive has been, the closing down of RTÉ 2FM, 2XM and Pulse radio are particularly noteworthy. In a time of increasing creative strangulation for young Irish and international musicians and music lovers, the closure of pretty much all of the national alternative Irish music radio stations is another strong kick in the jaw. We are losing a key professional outlet for Irish artists to perform and display their talents.
I will be the first person to admit that I was not a frequent listener to these radio stations. The occasional hour in the car when I had no phone battery and was searching for something other than Ryan Tubridy’s condescending voice would have been the extent of my listening. Despite this infrequent listening, I was always hugely impressed by the quality of music and mixing on RTÉ’s digital stations. However, with the popularity of Spotify, Soundcloud and YouTube for music listening, the question must be asked as to who really was listening frequently to these stations? Because it wasn’t me and it wasn’t my friends.
Despite the impression that Spotify and YouTube have killed radio off, the listenership figures for radio in Ireland remain very high. A May 2019 study by the JSRI found that 82% of people in Ireland listen to radio everyday, with 2 million people listening to radio consistently every week. While the majority of these listeners tune into Joe Duffy and Sean O’ Rourke there are other listeners to sustain the alternative and music radio shows which have been closed down. There is a radio listenership base there, that is certain.
What does live radio give us which Spotify algorithms, YouTube Boiler Rooms and A-trak Podcasts don’t?
Listening to a radio show led by a host or a number of hosts is much more personal than an algorithm based discover weekly playlist. You get a little view into someone who you trust’s mindset and music taste. For the same reasons people watch DJs’ Boiler Room sets or actively seek out TV bloopers and corpsing compilations, the human aspect of radio remains enjoyable. There is a live, human vulnerability in hearing what Shampain is going to play next on his radio show or in hearing why Gilles Peterson is selecting a certain album to take selections from. Even if it is music you do not like, it is appreciable and enjoyed because you can recognise that someone else listens to it.
Historically, if we look at our near neighbours in London, the long tradition of Digital Radio and Pirate Radio formed the platform for the birth of many musical forms like garage, grime, UK funky and UK DnB. Rinse FM and Cool FM acted as springboards for young artists like Chase and Status and Skepta at the beginning of their careers and still operate fantastic functions on streaming services like Soundcloud. It is questionable that RTÉ did not even consider moving their digital radio stations over to a more online streaming platform, like Rinse FM in London, but instead just announced their closures.
While these two points are strong, they are questionable. How does a radio service differ from what Spotify or YouTube offers? What gives radio its real strength is its accessibility and ease. You don’t need a 4G connection to listen to radio. Obviously there are areas where radio connection loses signal but with a radio antenna it is easily improved. You also don’t need a Spotify premium account, or a YouTube account, or an aux cable, or a Bluetooth speaker to listen to radio. On top of this, actively listening to radio is easier. You do not have to get online, find a playlist and then have to change the song 25 times because you’ve thought of a song you’d rather listen to. Much like listening to a vinyl, or full album; you are forced to sit there and listen to whatever is played, and when this is from a DJ or selector you trust, this is such an exciting and engaging journey to go on.
There is fantastic work being done by local, digital stations which could benefit from these closures. Dublin District Radio and Power 87 (Formerly the legendary Klub FM) are providing as good a function as these other RTE stations previously were. There is no reason why the listenership of these more localised, independent radio stations cannot significantly increase now that RTÉ will no longer provide their services. Alternative radio stations provide a platform for music to be heard on a large scale. The closure of any service which provides this function should always be met with scepticism and disapproval.
Euan Lindsay – Music Writer