Revealing Q&A with Nova CEO Kevin Branigan

Ireland’s rebel past and creative genius in the 80s inspired a mass of people to the Industry, including Radio Nova’s Boss Kevin Branigan.

He is without a doubt a passionate radio person. From an Industry point of view I think it would be fair to describe him as marmite character somewhat shrouded in mystery!

I want to know if Radio Nova is a sustainable business model with the well-profiled level of debt associated with the station or is it a tribute station to the former Radio Nova without the pop music!

Chris Cary without a doubt was your biggest influence in radio, how would you describe your management style? Do you feel there are big similarities between You and Chris?

Chris Cary and the original Radio Nova were definitely my biggest influence. I was mesmerised by Nova – the excitement, unpredictability, sheer swagger and technical quality of Nova really made a mark on me as a young teenager. Chris Cary had a very mercurial management style and, while it produced fantastic results in the 1980s, I don’t think that sort of style would go down so well in this day and age.

You would spend a lot of time at the Workplace Relations Commission! I wouldn’t say there are any similarities between myself and Chris really. I have the same desire to make the current day Nova the most successful it can be as he had with the original Nova but I imagine I’m more reasonable and unassuming than he was, although I do become frustrated easily. I wish I was more like him sometimes. He was a trail-blazer, brash, a man who revolutionised radio in the British Isles, who inspired a generation of broadcasters to great things. I don’t know if there will there be anyone like him in radio again as those circumstances do not exist anymore.

I met him a number of times when visiting Nova in Rathfarnham as a young teenager; I could feel the electricity and energy whenever I went up to Nova Park to visit, the sense that there was serious work being done, that nothing but the absolute best was tolerated. That’s a good inspiration to have.

Do you feel Chris would approve of your version of Radio Nova?

No, I think he would be livid at our use of the Radio Nova name. People who think he would be flattered are wrong.

The majority of your daytime output is provided by presenters from the 80s Super Pirates. Is Nova a retirement home? Why are you not bringing fresh talent through?

Nova is no retirement home and we do bring fresh talent through. We’re a modern radio station and our largest audience demo is 25-44, which surprises some people. We do have a lot of presenters from the original Nova and that is for no other reason than they happen to be very good. Greg, Colm, Pat, Liam Quiqley and John Clarke are as good, if not better, today as they were in the 80s and that’s why they’re on our station.

We’ve other non-80s talent too you know – Marty Miller for one, Dee Woods, Lisa Gernon, Ruth Scott, comedian Paddy Courtney, Pat James and musicians Gavin Glass and Kieran McGuinness from The Delerontos. We’ve also brought talent in from the pirates over the years such as Steve McQuarrie and Mark Taffe, and people from community radio like John Neary, who was with us for a while. So we do bring new talent in when we can and we’ll continue doing this.

You have recently been very vocal about Radio Nova wanting a national licence. I don’t know of any rock station in UK that has ever produced profit on a balance sheet. What makes Nova so different that it can go against the grain?

Nova’s been a ratings winner from Day 1 and we would surely be classed as the most ambitious station around. On the commercial front it has been a real challenge but we have continued to invest in programming and our ratings are continuing to grow. We are not a radio station for tatoo-covered bikers in their 50s and 60s who want to listen to 15-minute guitar solos all night; we never undertook to be that type of narrow-focused radio station.

We are a radio station aimed at 25-54-year-olds who like music with guitars in it. That doesn’t have to be track 5 on 3rd unreleased album from Megadeath or Twisted Sister – and that is what makes us different to other rock stations that have come and gone in the UK and Ireland. We are a lifestyle radio station for people who happen to like music with guitars. I’ve seen how other companies have run rock services (both in Ireland and abroad) and most of them adopted an ultimately fatal approach – presenters with a singular obsession about music warbling on about artists and gigs they’d been to, trying to show off their musical knowledge to a small bunch of very loyal listeners.

Their stations became a closed shop to anyone who might like the music but don’t want to hear every detail about it. These stations ultimately closed down or had radical format changes and then claimed that rock music radio wasn’t viable when it was their approach that was wrong, in my view.

The question here is really what the BAI want for the people of Ireland. We have a situation where the radio band in Dublin is cluttered with radio stations sounding very similar. We sound different. Are the people outside Dublin entitled to more choice than their Dublin compatriots? I say yes. And I submit that Radio Nova being available across a wider area is the most sensible way for the BAI to make more radio services available.

Why is Nova not championing DAB in Ireland particularly after the success of the Ofcom trials over in the UK?

Why would we? I’m bemused by this obsession people have about DAB. I’ve no issue with DAB per say but why are people going around incredulous that Ireland hasn’t embraced DAB?

People point to Norway and write ill-informed articles saying how revolutionary they’ve been. Hold on – they’ve turned off all the national FMs and the major commercial FMs in the cities, they’ve tripled the number of radio services – and the daily listenership to radio in Norway has fallen by 11%. What?! I sat in a talk given by the Norwegians at Radio Days Europe and watched in amazement as speaker after speaker came out congratulating each other on the great job they have done – yet they have reduced the number of working radios in the country from 10M to 5M, deprived millions of listeners of perfectly-functioning FM radio – and they’ve dropped 11% off the daily listenership to radio in the country. What a disaster!

And it looks like the entire Norway DAB initiative is controlled by the state broadcaster and two huge commercial groups, with all the smaller stations left out. They’re still on FM.

Separately, a UK guest speaker at Radio Days Ireland told us all that London DAB coverage fades out 15 miles outside of London. What?! And people talk about a UK FM switch-off as being long overdue and inevitable? Are they off their heads?!

And what does the success of the Ofcom trials show in the UK? Yes, it’s interesting. Micro DAB networks can be set up and the collaboration with the Irish Radio Player is particularly interesting and it’s good to explore new technologies and their uses but I think we need some real-world talk about DAB in the Irish context. We don’t have the same frequency capacity issues in Ireland as in other countries – there is still plenty of available FM spectrum, even in Dublin. I can count 8 available citywide FM frequencies that the BAI have already allocated for Dublin. There are no issues with the quality of FM.

And the BAI have one of the most helpful and open temporary radio policies in the whole world, whereby you can apply for a temporary licence and can broadcast an almost national radio service on FM if you wish for a nominal fee.

It seems to me that the DAB lobby in Ireland is an unlikely combo of vested interests, technical services companies, anoraks and RTE trying to do a land grab of DAB frequencies. (And RTÉ is funding its DAB services and staff using taxpayers money – how is that even allowed?!)

My view is that be it FM or DAB, people should come forward to run radio services if they feel they want to do so. I’m constantly amazed why there aren’t more people applying for temporary licences. If DAB is to happen in Ireland, is it going to be rammed to the gills with jukebox radio services, run off a computer, with no staff and no investment in content or jobs? I don’t think it would be so good for anyone if hordes of stations, run off a stack of computers, end up on air on DAB to compete with radio services that employ people and broadcast news and current affairs and costly content.

Bay Broadcasting also have a shareholding in 4fm. The balance sheet of 4fm makes my eyes water. How can you turn it around or are you happy with its place in the market?

Classic Hits has been a difficult project from Day 1. We joined as a 22.25% shareholder. The consortium was a coming together of a number of groups, to give us the best chance to win the licence. Within 12 months the company was in turmoil and all the other shareholders departed the business. We took over responsibilities and debts in return for 100% of the venture; we then had to remodel the business in a changing economy and radio market.

If it wasn’t for us, 4FM would have closed and all the jobs would have been lost. There’s no doubt there have been challenging years but we have always believed in the project. We’ve tripled listenership since we took over in 2011 and brought the station to the cusp of viability. Classic Hits suffers from a negative perception on account of its turbulent early years, despite being a very good station, in my view. We have the potential to be the largest radio station in Ireland outside RTÉ, Today FM and Newstalk and that is something that we’re working hard on to achieve. That would be a valuable position for us to own. We’re very happy with the progress so far.

The pirates have accused you of being a gamekeeper turned poacher claiming that you run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Has it been a difficult balance being a pirate king at Kiss 103 is the nineties and then being a legal king with Radio Nova? Or is Kevin still the same passionate radio man he was in the nineties?

No difficulty with the balance. I love radio, particularly radio that has lots of listeners. I, like many other people, started with pirate radio in the late 80s and early 90s. I loved it and have great memories of it. I moved into legal radio in 1995 through East Coast Radio and joined FM104 in the same year. While I enjoyed my pirate time, I didn’t want to be a pirate forever and got great enjoyment and life experience out of working in FM104. And that’s always what I wanted.

I’ve always been interested in successful radio, whether during my time as a pirate or as a legal operator. I’ve no issue with pirates at all and I understand the excitement of it all. The 90s pirates took over commercial radio in Dublin – you go back to the early 90s and all of the presenters and staff were ex-pirates from the 80s. It was a closed shop to new talent for a number of years.

From 1995 on it began to change. I remember that the first of the 90s pirates who made it into mainstream Dublin radio were Barry Dunny, Andy Preston and myself, followed shortly afterwards by Steve K, who joined FM104 in 1996. Within a few short years, the 90s pirates were the new talent coming through and made up a significant portion of the schedules on national and local radio. There’s no question about it – pirate radio has provided talent to Irish radio stations for years, since the early 80s.

Who do you most admire in the radio industry?

Believe it or not, I admire Denis O’Brien. He’s the largest employer in the sector and must have a deep-seated interest in radio to have stayed in it this long.

What would be your dream line up for Radio Nova?

I think we have it already and we’ll be adding to it within the coming weeks.

After Nova what would Kevin Branigan really like to do in his career?

Hopefully ‘After Nova’ won’t come for a long time although it definately will come. Things are changing. Radio needs to become multimedia, and faster than it is happening. Within a short few years, those of us who view radio in pure radio terms may find themselves obselete. It doesn’t fill me with joy but we all have to change our view of radio very quickly in the coming years. It will be about brand building more than ever before, being able to communicate with people through multiple media and still stand out as a local brand amidst a world of numuerous competing local and global brands. There’s a serious challenge coming down the tracks for ‘radio’. It’s won’t be like it was when I was a kid, tuning in stations on my hi-fi. There are commercial opportunities in the blending of media that is happening but even the radio ‘futurologists’ say they can’t predict what will be happening even in 5 years time.

When ‘After Nova’ does come, I have other business interests and will hopefully have plenty to do. I can’t think of anything that I would enjoy as much as radio though.

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