Radio is alive and well. That may seem a rather obvious statement but in an era when the public’s attention is held by an ever increasing range diversions, there remains a strong and comforting certainty in the the humble FM signal. Whether it is heard in cars, homes, offices or hospitals, radio is a completely embedded element of Northern Ireland’s daily routine. From Stephen Nolan’s ‘biggest show in the country’ to Raidió Fáilte’s Irish language output, the range and scope of the arena continues to grow.
In the digital age, radio’s past reveals a modern concept. ‘It’s really the original in social media, the very first thing that could bring people together through a shared experience at the one time,’ says John Rosborough. ‘With the radio, if they’re listening to a station, they’re hearing it at the same time as everybody else.’
Rosborough was the first managing director of U105 and is a former chairman of the Radio Academy, the professional organisation representing all those working in the industry. Now an independent broadcaster and consultant, his late-night music show goes out every Sunday on Downtown Radio. He recalls the onset of the live phone-in, a seminal moment in which the medium linked a set of diverse callers, in real time, on specific issues: ‘Phone-ins really began in the Seventies and gave people the opportunity to be heard expressing their views.’ Such innovation, he believes, is indicative of the sector’s historical — and essential — ability to adapt to changing landscapes. ‘It’s reinvented itself,’ he says, ‘the ways to be in touch with radio, and to get something from it, have just blossomed.’
Northern Ireland’s airwaves are somewhat distinct from the rest of the UK. It may be linked to its relatively small size but, as Rosborough points out, much of the region’s character has been retained. Meanwhile, contrastingly, the rise of nationwide radio brands and shared content throughout Britain has perhaps whittled away the old character. ‘You don’t get the same sense of local connection whenever something is coming from elsewhere,’ contends Rosborough. ‘People here really appreciate something which is coming from within their own part of the world.’ Indeed, the availability of both solid national (BBC, RTE) and local commercial radio would appear to foster a healthy choice. Even the powerhouse that is the BBC maintains a quasi-regional service through Radio Foyle.
Weekly listening figures are impressive. Up-to-date numbers from the measurement body, RAJAR, place the audience of combined commercial radio in Northern Ireland above all BBC services: 953,000 to the Corporation’s 920,000. In a country possessing a modest population, the essential fact is that every second person interacts with the some kind of broadcast on a weekly basis.
These levels of listenership represent a major contributor to the nature of the marketplace’s commercial corner. Robert Walshe is chief executive and head of programmes for the Q Radio Network. ‘It’s a pretty competitive field,’ he says. ‘Downtown Radio and Cool FM have a very strong brand presence. You also have a very strong Radio Ulster and, obviously, you have digital now which is available across Northern Ireland.’
Walshe’s network operates six stations offering sport, music and local news. They cover much of the north, from Portrush to Warrenpoint, Carrickfergus to Beleek. The distinction he draws between his organisation’s remit and that of the BBC explains, perhaps, the popularity of the more localised frequencies. ‘You’re looking at two very different products. The BBC, obviously, would have a very strong public mandate with the licence fee.’ Walshe goes on to suggest that pointed stories, even those reporting on traffic problems in Enniskillen or potholes in Newry, lend Northern Ireland’s commercial sector a significant advantage. ‘People relate to that, they like that,’ says Rosborough in support.
An industry on the rise, Northern Ireland’s radio scene is set to grow in the near future as Rosborough himself looks set to bring in a new Belfast station by June 2015. Bearing the name of the city alongside its as-yet-unassigned frequency, this latest broadcaster will be community-focused and intends to operate as a nonprofit entity. Its mix of chat, news and music is designed specifically for those aged 55 years and over.
In Rosborough’s estimation it will bring something new to an area in which there is, undeniably, a place for many tastes. ‘The music itself will be very different to what’s being provided already.’ The onus, he says will be on the communal spirit at the core of this most enduring of technological forms. ‘The talk sections will be very much aimed at informing and creating a sense of togetherness with that age group… We’re hoping we can provide a connection to what’s going on. When people tune in they’ll feel part of the wider community.’
By Matthew Coyle