Radio, Theater of the Irish Mind

What makes radio so meaningful in Ireland?

As I see it, for starters, Irish radio is rooted in our history and independence as a country. It began during a pivotal moment in Irish history, the first broadcast being widely recognised as a Morse code announcement from one James Connolly, a few hundred metres from the rebel-occupied General Post Office, in a school for telegraphy in April 1916.

The broadcast stated, “Irish Republic declared in Dublin today. Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession. Enemy cannot move in city. The whole country rising.”

Powerful stuff.

While it may have taken another few years for us to truly gain our independence, national broadcasting in Ireland began in 1925, with test transmissions from 2RN, a station that eventually became the channel we know today as RTE Radio 1. January of this year marked its 93rd year of uninterrupted broadcasting, making it among the oldest continuously operating public service radio stations in Europe, albeit under different names.

Commercial radio, however, was outlawed until 1989. This meant that the rebellious nature of the medium would continue with the birth of “pirate” radio stations. Largely due to public exasperation with the national broadcaster at the time, these stations became increasingly popular. The affinity that the nation had for radio was helped during this time by stations such as Radio Nova and Sunshine, their 24-hour schedules and constant updates catering to a younger audience. Further evidence of this was the outrage expressed by the public when there was an enforced crackdown on the pirate stations, showing just how much pirate radio had the support of the people. These independent rebel stations very much defined Irish radio up until the passing of the Radio and Television Act in 1988.

It’s not all about history, though. We Irish are an imaginative and creative people, and radio plays straight into this. A colleague informed me during the writing of this piece that one of her lecturers used to say that radio is “theatre of the mind.” An accurate description, because listening, as opposed to watching television, allows our minds to wander and imagine, and add to the story. Radio offers listeners a more personal and intimate way to experience the world.

The awareness that others are out there listening to the same things as yourself, while also potentially experiencing a moment of solitude (driving along a motorway at night, for example), makes radio a unique sharing experience. You are, at that moment, part of a larger community, experiencing something transient together. Radio, in Ireland anyway, can still drive the emotions created by that sense of community, and it certainly continues to capture the Irish imagination.

The latest figures from JNLR (Joint National Listenership Research) show that more than 3.17 million listeners tune in every weekday, and that 83% of adults are listening on licensed services. Radio clearly remains a powerful communication tool and not one that should be so easily overlooked.

It is imbedded in our identity and, like all traditional media, it will need to work to stay relevant as the onset of the podcast and newer media loom large for today’s younger generations. They don’t necessarily have the same nostalgia for FM as those who grew up in the 80s listening under the covers to Radio Nova for their favourite song, which was unlikely to be played by the national broadcaster.
Radio does, nevertheless, have a meaningful and powerful position to work from. With listeners in the 15 to 35 age grouping increasing for each station by thousands in the last measured JNLR report, it still has a place in Irish hearts, and it certainly seems that video hasn’t killed the Irish radio star just yet.