Radio NOVA wants to extend across Ireland

Kevin Branigan, Chief Executive Officer & Programme Director of Radio NOVA wants to take the station to a wider area. He explains to RadioToday how and why.

Plugging the diversity gap in Irish Radio – More Radio Services on the Horizon

“So we’re coming through the recession and there are signs of hope for the radio sector for the first time in 7 years. What now for radio in Ireland? Nearly every listener in Ireland has considerably more radio services available to them than 10 years ago. In addition to national radio services RTE Radio 1, 2FM, Lyric FM, Radio na Gaeltachta, Today FM & Newstalk, there are multi-city operators Classic Hits 4FM & Spirit Radio, regional services Beat, iRadio, Red FM & Spin, Radio NOVA licenced for Dublin city, county and commuter belt and every county has a local service. Meanwhile Dublin has FM104, 98FM, Q102, Spin 1038, Sunshine and TX FM.

Consider the change in 15 years; new services were born out the BAI’s desire to increase diversity and choice for listeners. Despite concerns expressed by existing operators at the time, new services were launched and everyone has survived. More radio services, more jobs, more diversity. The BAI were right to do this. They will shortly embark on a strategy exercise to assess the demand for new diverse radio services with a view to crafting a licencing plan for the next few years. They have an obligation to do this under broadcasting legislation. They must also ensure the sustainability of existing radio services and protect jobs in the sector.

Many feel the BAI should licence no more services. After all, the sector has gone through a very tough period. While this argument is somewhat valid, it is ultimately groundless. Many of those who would make this argument now work in radio stations licenced by the BAI after 2000. If the BAI had followed the desire of the Industry in the late 90s, there would have been no new services – we would only have two radio stations in Dublin (98FM & FM104) and the original tier of local services. 

So what formats could succeed?

Mainstream formats are now universally covered and it’s time to investigate demand for further specialist services. The BAI must first assess the interest from operators and potential operators in providing new services; after all, why advertise a service if no one is interested in operating it? And, such services must be commercially viable – and that’s where the difficulty will lie.

There is a clear difference between possible radio formats and those than be economically supported. As a radio enthusiast, I can think of many interesting, potential formats – jazz, ethnic, rock, country, classical, dance/club, indie, big band, Christian, 80s, 90s, 70s, pure oldies – yet I can only think of a handful that would be commercially viable. Those interested in providing these formats will have to demonstrate a credible business plan to the Authority – and the Authority must be sceptical of grandiose proposals. There are more than 1500 jobs in the independent radio sector; these must be protected.

Ultimately, for a radio station to be truly successful, it has to make money. That may be a painful truth for some but it is reality. Commercial radio depends on investors, who fund radio stations with the ultimate expectation of a return on their investment. For stations to be attractive to advertisers, they must have an audience to sell. If the audience is not large enough, the station will not reach escape velocity in the market and will flounder. That’s it in a nutshell. While many niche formats may be nice to have available, and the FM spectrum certainly exists for many more, few would succeed commercially because the audience would not be large enough to attract advertisers. To coin another commentator, there may be a gap in the market but that may not mean there is a market in the gap.

So what is diversity and what type of services might the BAI decide to create over the coming years. What is the true measure of ‘diversity’? Does the mere existence of a service, even with low listenership, mean that diversity is being delivered? Possibly but not if the audience to that service is so low that it cannot properly service its niche. And, is there an appetite from commercial investors to invest and finance such services if there is no realistic possibility of a return, even in the long term?

To date, there have been three specialist services licenced in the country – Sunshine, TX FM and Radio NOVA – all in the Dublin area. And it’s logical to look at the performance of these services to date when assessing how diversity could be provided outside Dublin. 

Sunshine was originally licenced as a niche, country music service and its operators found that this was not a commercially-viable format with Dublin coverage alone. 12 years of operation showed that this station racked up high losses and only a small, but stable, market share of just over 2%. It relaunched recently as an easy listening service and has grown its audience considerably and is carving out a strong niche for itself.

The alternative rock service, TX FM, continues to struggle, even with the considerable programming and marketing resources of Communicorp and Today FM and there must be a question mark over its continued purpose, with its most recent market share at 0.7%. Meanwhile, Radio NOVA, licenced as a classic rock music service, has carved out a sizeable 6% daily reach in its franchise area of Dublin city, county and commuter belt with a daily audience of 77,000.

Mixed performance, with some formats previously thought to be viable, proving unviable in limited geographical areas. It’s arguable that none of these three radio services would survive without the deep pockets and commitment of their shareholders. 

So, Dubliners have enjoyed specialist radio services for more than 10 years. And those outside Dublin surely deserve this range of choice too. But can markets outside Dublin support new services in each area? Probably not. Could Galway, Limerick or Kilkenny, for example, support a new specialist radio service in each of those counties? Being realistic, the answer is no. New services require investment and initial and ongoing expenditure such as set up, marketing and staffing. Can a county like Limerick, with a population of 160,000 support a new specialist radio station? With a daily reach of a realistic 5% (8,000), a new radio station would not be viable.

The stress that any new specialist service would put on franchise areas is significant and would probably result in commercial failure. The objective would not be achieved. 

Could specialist radio services be licenced to cover larger areas and gain a larger audience across, for example, a number of counties? Audience numbers could be higher, but any such services would require Dublin coverage in order to attract national advertising. To survive on local advertising alone would put sizable stress on current local and regional operators and would have questionable chance of success. 

It seems to me that the following are incontrovertible facts:

1. People outside Dublin deserve specialist radio services as much as those in Dublin do

2. Standalone specialist services need a wide broadcast area to garner any considerable audience

3. Services with a wider area need to cover Dublin if they have any chance of reach critical mass and attracting national advertising; it is unlikely that such services would survive on local advertising alone and their endeavours to do so would be significant stress on local and regional radio stations, which is not desirable. The success of Media Central, with its youth advertising package, demonstrates that youth stations were only able to realise their true commercial advantage with Dublin-based advertising agencies when they joined forces and offered a mass audience via a national platform. Youth stations have far larger audiences than specialist service would have.

4. Can Dublin support more specialist music services? Possibly, but very few and any such services would need to cover a wider area to survive.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast.

 Over the coming months, I will make our case to the BAI: that Radio NOVA can bring diversity to more areas with low cost, a virtually-certain degree of success and low effect on existing services. I believe we have a powerful argument. We already bring diversity to 148,000 people in our franchise area of Dublin, North Kildare, South Meath and North Wicklow. I will make the case that NOVA being available to more areas would bring an already-established, popular and well-funded service to more people. It’s a risk-free strategy for the BAI.

We have provided a significant level of diversity to our franchise area of Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow since our launch in 2010. My use of the phrase ‘significant’ relates to the audience share we have garnered in our short time on air – 77,000 per day (6%), 148,000 per week (12%) and 3.8% market share. The level of diversity is measured by the numbers of people enjoying our service. It is unlike any other service on air. Prior to our launch, there was no such service. So we have added a radio listening choice to all listeners in our area and 12% of them enjoy it every week.

We would now like to provide that same diversity to more people. 

We’ve already piloted a multi-area rock service. In 2013 and 2015, we ran The Rock, a temporary station that broadcast to Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, Kilkenny and the North East. The response was very strong. We could bring Radio NOVA to the people in these areas, and more, within two months of getting the go ahead to do so. Would the extension of NOVA to other areas bring diversity to these areas? Yes, undoubtedly. And what would the impact be on those areas? It would be far less than the introduction of a new, stand-alone service in those areas. The increased audience we would garner would help us compete with national stations and larger groups like Communicorp and UTV for national spend. And we would be happy to limit the amount of local advertising we would seek so the impact on locals and regionals could be minimised.

If the BAI wish to provide specialist services to more areas in Ireland, they should look at the largest market niches. Our research shows that rock, country music and easy listening are the largest niches, with the most chance of economic viability. The BAI needs to find ways to make these sort of services available to the most number of people as possible, without jeopardising the viability of existing services in new areas. 

On this basis, the extension of the NOVA franchise area, the creation of a new country music licence that covered multi-areas (as per the BAI’s 2005 licensing plan) and the possible extension of Sunshine, would provide three new specialist services to the Irish public, at low risk to current services.

A bolt on to the existing NOVA would mean a new rock radio service for a further 1.7 million people. The existing NOVA, with enhanced programming, could be extended to these areas for a fraction of the cost of a new service and it could be operational within two months of being given the go-ahead by the BAI. Its effect on existing radio services would be minimal; most of the services outside Dublin have high market shares and high local recognition and a specialist service will not adversely affect them in any large way. A larger audience would also give us the opportunity to invest more in programming, specifically in news, sport and support of new Irish rock music and presenting a different agenda to the current Newstalk-focussed agenda in the Irish radio industry.

Whether the NOVA proposal is of interest or not is a matter for the BAI. We will make our case and they will have to consider it on its merits. However, the measure of diversity is not just making the service available, it is also ensuring that the service itself is strong enough to actually provide the service in question.

It will be interesting to see what suggestions come from the forthcoming BAI public consultation and, of course, only the BAI can decide what direction they will go in.”

Kevin Branigan is Chief Executive Officer & Programme Director of Radio NOVA. NOVA is licenced by the BAI to provide a specialist, classic rock music service to Dublin city, county and commuter belt.

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