Interview: Martin Block – from the pirates to today

Dave Miller interviews Martin Block, who took radio from the super pirate era into legality.

The winner of the FM 104 licence, Q102 and 4FM is some achievement. It’s not surprising when you meet Martin why he won these contracts for radio stations as he’s awe-inspiring, a creative and a real businessman that knows the importance of survival in a relatively small marketplace. It’s not often you meet a real creative radio person with high integrity and a knowledge so deep about commercial radio that your mouth literally drops at the stories he tells about all the operations he has been involved with in his long career.

When did you suddenly say “radio is my passion and that’s what I am going to do in life”

It’s an interesting question. I loved listening to radio as a kid. My father introduced me to the BBC Light programme at a very early age. Every Sunday we’d listen to ‘Two-Way Family Favourites’, ‘The Clitheroe Kid’ and ‘Round the Horne’, with Kenneth Williams. When I was a young teenager I started listening to music properly and never missed the Top 40 on BBC Radio 1 with Alan Freeman.” Hello Pop Pickers” But I never imagined I would one-day work in the business.

The reality however is that I fell upon the radio industry very much by chance. It was 1981 and I was at a complete loss as to finding a new career when a friend convinced me that I had a good voice and that I should make a demo and send it in to one of these new pirate stations that had taken over the FM band. He introduced me to Noel Storey, an up and coming studio engineer now the owner of Beacon Studios, who produced a tape for me and set me on my way. I sent the demo to all the stations I could think of including Radio Nova without any luck. In actual fact, it was Robbie Robinson who I have to thank for starting my career in the radio industry. He heard my tape, asked me to call into his office in town one morning and made me read the front page of the Irish Times. He seemed to like the way I read and said to me you start next Saturday night reading overnight news Midnight to 6AM. And that’s how it all began. Strange enough the overnight jock happened to be the one and only Bill Hughes, now a TV and Film producer. The first few weeks were crazy and I undertook a huge learning curve, but within weeks I realised that this is what I wanted to do. It took up every minute of my day but it wasn’t like work, it was brilliant fun and I love the interaction with other like-minded individuals and the creativity it sparked. These were some of the best days ever.

You programmed the Super Pirate Q102, was this the best time for radio in Ireland?

Radio Nova was without doubt the most iconic music radio station in the country. It set the standard for all the other pirate and legal music radio stations in the future. By the Mid 1980s Nova began to lose its way somewhat and allowed stations like Q102 to contest for supremacy of the Dublin airwaves. The station was owned by a group of nightclub owners headed by the entrepreneur Pierre Doyle of Leeson Street fame who entrusted the output of the station to Mike Hogan and myself who in turn allowed some very talented individuals to perform and display their broadcasting skills.

It may be a cliché but a radio station is only as good as the people who work there and Mike and I managed to assemble some of the most consummate music radio broadcasters in the business. All I had to do was hone their skills and give them some direction while adding some great production and image elements to fit alongside them. We had some of the best stand out presenters around such as Scott Williams, Greg Gaughran, Colm Hayes, Jason Maine, John O’Hara, Gareth O’Callaghan and the late Henry Owens, even Bob Gallico made the move to the Q. It was also where news broadcasters such as Brian Jennings and Anne Cassin began their on-air careers; And to top all that Roland Burke and Bobby O’Reilly, two of the finest studio engineers managed to weave their magic around some incredible voice-over geniuses such as Tony Allan and Gerry Moore. It didn’t get much better than this.

You obtained the licence for the new commercial station in Dublin (now FM 104) do you think the creativity was gone as soon as it all went legal?

I have never been able to put my finger on the exact reason why everything changed when commercial radio went legal, but there is no doubt in my mind that there was a change of mindset. No longer was radio a medium of creative excellence that had to be maintained consistently, the emphasis appeared to become more about business and as a result that sparkle, that flash of brilliance that had set pirate radio apart from its legal competitors seemed to vanish. I am unsure whether it may have been as a result of becoming legal and part of the establishment with a regulator appointed to oversee the stations programming promise of performance; Or maybe it was because pirate radio was run by radio enthusiasts, people like Robbie Robinson and Chris Carey who would have lived and dreamed the medium and while making money was important, it was somehow generally secondary to how the station sounded. Unfortunately, most commercial radio shareholders were not broadcasters and lacked the passion and understanding of the dynamics of how radio worked. One thing was for certain; gone were the days that you could spend two days working on a promo that would only be played twice or three times. Everything had to be justified. Vindicated to management and then to the board. Everything had to have a purpose, nothing was done spontaneously. Pirate radio simply didn’t work that way. But that is the way commercial radio works today. It is a business after all.

Which of the three commercial licences you won was the most enjoyable to work at?

I suppose of all the stations it was Lite FM. Firstly there hadn’t been a new station in Dublin for over ten years. After leaving FM104 I had been very fortunate to spend several years studying the dynamics of radio in various different marketplaces and saw that there was then a huge gap in Dublin for a station that would cater musically for the over 35 audience. At that time both 98 and 104 were battling it out for younger listeners and 2 FM wasn’t interested in attracting an older audience outside of the Gerry Ryan show, while Radio 1 hardly played any music whatsoever. It wasn’t what you might have classed as rock n’ roll radio but the easy listening format added to the diversity of the market and gave listeners more choice. The timing was never better. We assembled a fantastic team of both on-air and off-air talent, researched the market in every aspect and spent a substantial amount of money on marketing, resulting in an incredible 17% reach in our first 6 months of operation.

You had a very public fallout with the board of 4fm. Do you feel that 4fm would be in a healthier place under your direction now?

My concept of 4fm was very ambitious from the outset. I wanted to develop a station that was an Irish version of BBC Radio 2 aimed at a sophisticated mature market; An alternative contemporary mix of music and talk that could compete with Radio 1. At that time pretty much all the stations in Dublin sounded the same. The research had clearly shown that such a station would take at least five years to evolve and begin to attract an older audience from RTE, as has been demonstrated by Newstalk.

Meanwhile after less than six months on air there appeared to be a difference of opinion with the rest of the shareholders who had originally bought into the concept, but were concerned about the impending recession.
To be fair I would have had to implement various changes in order to have overcome the advertising downturn. Whether the station would now be more successful is very difficult to judge, however it is disappointing that the service is simply just another music radio station.

Do you predict more licences being handed back to the BAI in the next two years and will TXFM kick off a game of dominoes with others falling?

Most radio professionals will tell you that there are too many radio stations in the market, particularly in Dublin. My view is slightly different. I believe that there are too many stations doing the same thing and really offering very little choice. Industry sources inform me that out of the current 36 radio stations in Ireland less than half made a profit last year and the advertising market is becoming more difficult for smaller operators as consolidation of the larger groupings have taken place.

Over the last number of years in the larger urban areas most of the music stations have drawn closer to each other in the middle ground and from the listener’s perspective sound the same. The average listener cannot distinguish the playlist of one station from the other.

Furthermore, the media market has completely changed; You don’t need me to tell you that you can find any genre of music you want instantly on a range of digital services. No longer does 10 songs in a row drive audience. It is more important than ever to develop content that is attractive and relevant to your listeners. Presenters who simply intro records and announce time checks are a relic of the 80s and 90s when less talk more music was king. The game has changed. It is the content allied to the entertainment and creativity factor that fits in and around the records that will keep radio listeners tuned in.

And if that is not enough to worry about from a revenue perspective, digital media now represents 50% of all the advertising spend in Ireland. Radio as a brand needs to do a lot more to ensure that it does not become even less attractive and irrelevant to advertising agencies in particular. Ironically gross audience numbers that stations have chased relentlessly for years as the solution to all their problems will be insufficient to guarantee advertising spend alone. Now it’s about the quality of the audience and the brand that matters not just the numbers.

So what’s all that to do with the closure of TXFM? Well, it explains the current backdrop to the radio industry and the difficult environment that services have to contend. In the first instance, Phantom/TXFM was never going to achieve more than a 1% share of the market for a genuine alternative rock station. (Even XFM in London doesn’t have more than a 1% share) Niche services can survive providing that they are based on a completely different financial model from the larger commercial operators and are allowed by the regulator to have merely a music promise of performance without the expense of news and current affairs programming remits. These type of stations have to be staffed mainly by volunteers with a limited number of employed operators. This is a model used for town stations in the UK and it does work, but these stations are based below the current operational staffing levels currently accepted as the norm.

There could well be more closures in the larger urban areas as stations that plainly replicate the market leaders find themselves with no unique brand position in the marketplace and therefore nothing special to sell. Also local stations who are complacent and take their audiences and advertisers for granted could ultimately find that their operation is unsustainable as universal fast broadband speeds reaches all parts of the country. Radio has changed. It’s not the way it used to be. Ignore the fact that younger audiences are spending less time listening to the radio at your peril.

You have a fantastic track record of winning FM licences do you still look at projects for yourself or clients?

There haven’t been that many projects in Ireland in the last few years. I have spent some time working in the UK and in emerging radio markets in Slovenia and Croatia. Currently I am working with Mike Ryan, Brendan McGee and Gerry Murphy on a future radio application for a Country Music station. Two years ago we challenged the renewal of Sunshine Radio’s Licence and gave them some very serious competition. There is clearly huge demand for country music at present. You only have to look at the ratings on RTE television every time they put on a country music show. Their Country Awards Show had the biggest ratings of any programme this year. In the meantime, Mike and Brendan present a television version of Ireland’s Country on Sky 266 every week and it’s gaining huge popularity among Country music fans here in Ireland and the UK. We want to bring country music to the radio.

I am hopeful that the BAI will commence their new strategic plan for radio in the coming months. The plan was due to be complete earlier this year but has been delayed. I have no doubt that there will be no big demand for more mainstream stations however I am of the view that niche services such as Country or even Classic Rock may be a possibility. Hopefully the BAI will examine their remit to bring further diversity to the radio spectrum, giving the listener further choice. The country music audience is growing. Country music is not mainstream but there is definitely a demand for country music and so far, there is no dedicated terrestrial station anywhere in Ireland.

Martin Block is now a Media Consultant and was interviewed by Dave Miller for RadioToday

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