How RTÉ Can Restore Its Leadership Role in Music

How RTÉ Can Restore Its Leadership Role in Music

Music and broadcasting go hand in hand, but RTÉ's leadership role in music has been shrinking in recent years. Toner Quinn suggests four ways to turn the situation around.

Public service broadcasting in Ireland would be unimaginable without the contribution of music and the Irish music sector. Music recordings make up the majority of radio broadcasting, and music permeates every aspect of television and online broadcasts, from music performances to music themes, soundtracks and all forms of entertainment.

The Future of Media Commission, recently established by the government, is currently deliberating on the future of public service broadcasting in Ireland, and it is important therefore that it recognises the centrality of music to Irish public service broadcasting.

The relationship between music and broadcasting works both ways. RTÉ has played a crucial role in the development of music in Ireland in the twentieth and twenty-first century, through its broadcasting, employment of musicians, commissioning of composers, use of music in programmes and broadcasts, plus its orchestra, choirs, quartet, recording, archiving, publishing, awards, competitions and live music events.

In recent years, however, RTÉ has been shrinking back from its leadership role in music. It no longer has a Director of Music, the position of Head of RTÉ Lyric FM is vacant, the RTÉ Lyric FM Limerick studios were threatened with closure in 2019, the Helen Boaden orchestras report from 2018 has meant that RTÉ is losing the National Symphony Orchestra after over 70 years, there is almost no activity on the RTÉ record labels, and there is a lack of investment in coverage of the full range of musical life with no regular television programme tracking new music in Ireland.

There have been some valuable recent initiatives, such as the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards, the 2FM Rising artist development project, and the screenings of RTÉ NSO performances on RTÉ One television, but the overall trend in recent years is one of shrinkage and does not reflect the centrality of music to public service broadcasting.

For the health of both music and broadcasting in Ireland, therefore, it is important that this situation is improved, and there are four things that RTÉ could do to start to address it.

Firstly, it could set out a clear plan for RTÉ Lyric FM, including its vision for the future of the station, the location of studios, programme development and commissioning. Along with RTÉ’s other radio stations, Lyric is a key part of the Irish music infrastructure: it broadcasts the work of Irish artists, it helps promote Irish events and groups, it keeps at the heart of our culture a knowledge of classical and contemporary music and more, and it acts as a connector for the Irish music community, contributing to the dynamism of cultural life. 

In addition, Lyric has commissioned major works by composers and its record label has been a key documenter of Irish orchestral work in particular, plus it provides representation for Ireland through its membership of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and International Rostrum of Composers. Despite the fact that the station has been under-resourced in the past, it has maintained a loyal listenership and now is the time to forge a new vision for the station.

Secondly, an RTÉ Group Head of Music should be appointed. It is not satisfactory that music is subsumed into ‘arts and culture’ or ‘entertainment and music’ in management structures. There is an RTÉ Group Head of Arts and Culture and an RTÉ Group Head of Entertainment & Music but there is no overall music leadership at upper management level.

The result is that music broadcasting at RTÉ lacks leadership and joined-up thinking. A new RTÉ Group Head of Music could set out a vision for music programming across all of RTÉ’s television and radio stations and online, establish a clear policy on music, and lead the engagement with the music sector.

Thirdly, RTÉ should relaunch its record labels. RTÉ has historically had an important record label, and in recent years the RTÉ Lyric FM label too, but both of these initiatives are now characterised by a lack of activity and investment. This decline is not only not regrettable, but RTÉ is missing out on a clear commercial opportunity. Although music streaming has received negative press in recent years, a less frequently acknowledged fact is that it is now 56% of the $20bn of revenue generated by the global music records industry. Labels with a back catalogue (such as RTÉ has) are benefiting in particular. According to the Financial Times in December, almost 60% of streaming income goes to the record label and performers. At a time of financial insecurity for RTÉ, it is essential that it start developing its record labels in order to grow its streaming income. This would not only be a significant source of employment for the Irish music sector, but a new source of income for RTÉ.

Finally, the issue of new talent in RTÉ needs to be addressed, and music should be at the heart of this. Currently, the broadcaster has no regular internship, trainee or graduate scheme programme. This makes it impossible for new generations of musical talent who are interested in broadcasting – either front of mic or in production – to find a clear career path into the station, and it means that RTÉ does not develop new, diverse talent as it should, whether it is in presenting, producing, researching or engineering.

As part of a new start with the music sector, therefore, RTÉ could establish an internship/trainee/graduate scheme that would attract musical talent and allow them become part of the future of the station. Increased musical expertise in the station across all sectors would not only benefit the music sector but also reflect the centrality of music to RTÉ’s output.

The Future of Media Commission is an excellent opportunity to put new energy into public service broadcasting, but the Commission’s report has to reflect the centrality of music. The objective is clear: RTÉ needs a thriving music sector just as the music sector needs a dynamic RTÉ. Implementing these suggestions would be a step towards achieving that.

Published on 20 January 2021

Toner Quinn is editor of the Journal of Music.

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