Simon Maher interview: From Phantom to 8Radio

Dave Miller caught up with Simon Maher for RadioToday to have a chat about the BAI, Phantom FM and the future of 8Radio.

There was a real affection for Phantom FM probably due to its pirate heritage and struggles throughout the years. How can 8Radio gain a similar following?

The world of Radio has changed so much since Phantom first emerged in 1998. Dublin had this great emerging music scene and there really was no outlet for any of the music. There wasn’t even an outlet for the more well-known artists – you would be hard pressed to find anyone playing Nirvana or Kate Bush while it was still bright outside! That made it a bit easier for us in Phantom and when we got it right (through the hard work of a dedicated bunch of people), the response was brilliant. Nowadays, (I now sound like a 90-year-old man) music fans have access to all the music they could imagine so the key to 8Radio.com is something different.

It’s music that can be found elsewhere but brought together by actual humans who love that music rather than by an algorithm or a piece of research somewhere. It’s the connection between the music, the presenters and the audience that makes 8Radio.com a success.

Can 8Radio make profit with a conventional commercial model or have you other ideas for raising revenue rather than advertising and sponsorship?

I don’t believe that a conventional commercial model like the one we had at licenced Phantom is either feasible or sensible in 2017. We tend to approach modern radio station business models backwards in my view. It’s like we are so paralysed with fear about what Facebook and Google will do to our revenue streams and the default position is to stop, consolidate and batten down the hatches when strangely enough, the opposite is true. We should be licencing services (on whatever platform, be it FM, DAB or wherever) using whatever business model works (on a case by case basis) and competing for those ears and those Euros.

Mistakes were made in the past where protectionism and conservatism led to us never licencing DAB or led to the imposition of crippling rules on operation, cost and content where there was no need. However, there really is a chance now to make stations like 8Radio and others work and that model won’t be flogging 30-second spots and the odd outside broadcast. There’s a lot to be learned from some successful Irish websites and how they are maximising their revenues. Got to get the output right first and we have to believe the quality of what we produce and its ability to compete.

Radio Caroline in the UK has been in business for over 50 years and credit to them with an alternative service like yours that they remain solvent. Would it not be a sensible option to see if you can licence the name from them which would give you extra ways of generating income and more interesting press coverage?

An interesting idea! I know it would gain us more publicity and indeed press coverage but no, 8Radio.com is what it is and as a brand it can stand on its own two feet. There is much to be admired about Radio Caroline and it’s impressive longevity but we are two very different stations with different histories so no, we won’t be rebranding!

Steve Conway is a legend from Radio Caroline, Dan McDermott is one of my favourite people in radio… You seem to attract passionate radio people to 8Radio. What is it about 8Radio that makes people love working there?

I think its quite simple really. 8Radio.com is a collective of broadcasters who have a love for the music they are playing as well as the medium of radio. Some are more music than radio and some are more radio than music. People have that need to share the music they love and the human need to communicate and I think people see that in a station like 8Radio.com and are attracted to it. It’s all very diverse but I think that ironically that it is the focus to that diversity in terms of the format that attracts people to want to work here. It’s very carefully planned randomness!

Is 8Radio preparing to apply to the BAI for a full-time licence?

We would love 8Radio.com to get itself a full-time licence but only time will tell if that happens. Unlike 10 years ago, the ballgame has changed completely. Whereas with Phantom, the only game in town was the BAI, now the BAI are just one player in the market. We get the lions share of our audience online and that’s most likely where they will always be from now on because that’s where our target audience consume Radio.

As I mentioned above, the model has to be reversed from where it currently is. TXFM announced its unfortunate demise a year ago this month and closed 5 months ago. Since then, there has been no move to readvertise the licence or seek expressions of interest. If we’re looking at the same old beauty contest model and chaps waving their wallets around to see how much they can impress the BAI then any niche music service is doomed from the start.

The process has to start with identifying the desirability of a service (in this case an Alternative Music Service) and then working a model in around that. So for instance with 8Radio.com, that would involve a tight business model with a very small staff, minimal news and current affairs costs, no JNLR costs, no levies or any avoidable extra costs. Revenue goes into paying the wages and developing the service which would likely need to be on a multi-city basis at least to capture the maximum available audience.

Do you feel that commercial radio will go the same way as a milk delivery round or a Kodak camera, where it is completely insignificant?

Funnily enough, I get my milk delivered every morning now – a service which has only reappeared in the last couple of years! I don’t think Radio will ever become insignificant. It just needs to make sure it stays relevant. As broadcasters we tend to focus on platforms when honestly, listeners don’t care how they are listening so long as they can hear the content they want! Some people say that linear radio as we know it will eventually wilt, but I don’t believe that. If it’s good, people will listen! Radio does need to be minded though and needs to develop along with its audience and the technology.

Why are young people no longer listening to radio?

I think young people are still listening to some radio although not always radio as we know it. To a lot of young people, listening to music on Spotify or Youtube or listening to Podcasts is just as much Radio as listening to Nova or Sunshine was for me in the 1980s. We need to ensure that traditional radio as we know it becomes part of people’s bouquet of listening and the better it is, the more people will listen and for longer. Radio has changed and changed utterly but there is an opportunity there to push traditional radio front and centre, if only we have the vision and courage to push it.

What is Simon Maher’s vision for 8Radio?

I want 8Radio.com in the immediate term to get itself some level of permanence. Whether that’s with an FM licence, or on DAB or online or broadcast in other cities outside of Ireland I don’t really mind, but I think it has earned its permanence at this stage. If we can keep the quality up (and rising) and keep adding more and more listeners (as we are currently) then I see no reason why we can’t do that. Then I can sit back and watch the millions roll in. That’s how this works isn’t it?

Do you feel the temporary licences for 8Radio are well received and viable?

The temporary licences are great for us in terms of profile and publicity. It’s great to be able to go out into a retailer, give them a poster and ask them to have a listen and it’s great to get photos from people of their car stereo tuned to 8Radio at the weekend! There will always be a buzz from that. It’s an expensive operation to do the four cities but there is always a good response and I think we have definitely proved the interest in an Alternative Music service at this stage. Up to the regulator now!

How does Simon relax?

I have two small kids and a 10-year-old Alfa Romeo. None of these things are conducive to relaxation. They’re all great fun though!

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6 Comments

  1. Bern says

    Phantom and TxFM are missed by those of us who love new and independent music. I love 8Radio.com online, but I’m limited in access. I need an FM station when I drive (and when I listen most). I can stream via my phone but that is still clumsy and battery draining. So Simon, get the 8radio FM broadcasts more frequent. Your audience is here, we want to listen, we want to hear a station play something other than “safe”.

  2. Andy J. Linton on Facebook says

    8Radio is exactly the type of station that should be part of a DAB rollout in Ireland. That, along with another couple of dozen niche services. Leave the full service locals on fm, licence DAB countrywide right now and populate it with stations that will draw a smaller but nevertheless loyal audience.
    And do it with little or no regulatory cost.

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