What Now for RTÉ Lyric FM? – An Interview with Aodán Ó Dubhghaill
Aodán Ó Dubhghaill has been head of RTÉ Lyric FM since 2003. He joined RTÉ in 1979 and moved to Limerick just before the new music and arts station opened twenty years ago. In May of this year the station celebrated its two decades with a new harp concerto and a gala concert at the National Concert Hall. But in September, during an RTÉ Primetime discussion on the broadcaster’s finances, a contributor mentioned the possibility of shutting down Lyric and it immediately alarmed listeners and staff. A public outcry followed that demonstrated the support for the station, but in November RTÉ announced that it would be closing the Lyric studios in Limerick and moving its production to Cork and Dublin. It also said it would be seeking to reduce overall costs at the national broadcaster by €60m over three years, including a headcount reduction of 200 next year.
The staff in Limerick heard the news at the same time as everyone else. A week later a campaign, #KeepLyricinLimerick, was launched to try and reverse the decision, with support from the University of Limerick and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, a group that is based on the campus. Many listeners and artists have spoken out, including Sir James Galway, conductor Jorg Widmann and Los Angeles-based composer Patrick Cassidy. A delegation from Lyric subsequently met a group of TDs and Senators in Dublin and received further support, but nonetheless the studio and the staff’s future is still in peril.
The decision has shocked political representatives and the music and arts world as it further reduces national infrastructure outside Dublin, particularly in Limerick where Lyric has been an important part of the city’s regeneration in recent years. The studio’s closure also runs counter to the current Government’s 2040 plan launched last year, which aims to spread infrastructure evenly across the country.
So what does it all mean for the future of the station’s content and its staff? ‘Lyric will have to be run on a much more efficient model,’ says station head Ó Dubhghaill speaking to the Journal of Music, ‘and it’s not just Lyric, it’s also the music output of RTÉ.’
Radio has changed. The whole ecosystem in radio has changed. The way people listen to music has changed. We have to change with that. When Lyric was set up twenty years ago we had fabulous digital studios in Limerick and it was the most up-to-date radio station on the island at the time. But the way people work is still the way people worked twenty years ago. We need to change work practices.
What these changes will look like and how they will happen is not clear, particularly because there is no clarity yet on how the broadcaster will be structured after the cuts and staff reductions. RTÉ management had its first meeting with union representatives this week. In this environment, Ó Dubhghaill argues, his aim is to hold on to as much of Lyric’s output as possible.
Of course I would love more investment in Lyric. The reality is that RTÉ doesn’t have the money, and the alternative to having no money is having no station. … We need to protect as much of the output as we can in whatever way we can for the future. RTÉ have given a commitment to keep Lyric on air, so how are we going to do that in the most cost-effective and cost-efficient manner? That’s what has to play out now over the next number of months, with the staff, the stakeholders, everybody. I’d love if there was a magic solution to it but I don’t see one.
The initial saving from closing down the studios next year is circa €330k per annum on the annual lease and the cost of the building’s services, but the fact that RTÉ is seeking redundancies across the broadcaster may mean that the Lyric staff count is also reduced further. It depends on ‘if they want to be part of the new model,’ says Ó Dubhghaill. ‘The savings have yet to be defined because the station has yet to be defined.’
Lyric had a twenty-year lease on its studio in the centre of Limerick in Cornmarket Square but it ran out last year. Aware of the fact that the lease would run out, Ó Dubhghaill was having informal talks with the University of Limerick about moving the station there, but when the operations directors from RTÉ and the university began discussing the idea, it was decided it was too expensive.
It would be a whole new build… Lyric isn’t just one studio. There’s two big studios and the smaller edit studios … as well as the RTÉ regional end which incorporates the news output.
The staff of Lyric, however, have suggested that they could have used less of the current studios because they have fewer staff than when it was founded (Lyric has already received heavy cuts and its staff numbers were reduced by 60% by 2013) and that the reduced rent would be a saving. According to local Senator Kieran O’Donnell, no attempt was made by RTÉ to look at rent reductions through a reduction of Lyric’s footprint in the studio. The owners of Cornmarket Square say they are open to renegotiations. The staff have also queried why a decision was not taken to move more of RTÉ’s creative staff down to Limerick from Dublin to make better use of the studio space. In the past, Ó Dubhghaill, says, he ‘did have requests from people who were working in Limerick to move to Dublin, but I never had any requests from people in Dublin to move to Limerick.’
Ó Dubhghaill says the principal challenge goes beyond changes in Limerick: ‘What we actually need to do is get more listeners… I believe there could be more listeners. There should be more listeners, particularly for our daytime output.’ Lyric currently has 282,000 listeners on a weekly basis (which, staff argue, is better than BBC Radio 3 as a proportion of population). They also argue that the Lyric listenership has been achieved despite the fact that the station has had no marketing budget or PR representative for at least a decade.
‘[The Lyric listenership] has been pretty consistent,’ says Ó Dubhghaill, ‘Very small, very niche, very passionate, but it is growing older… we need to be prepared for the future. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing now.’
We have to come up with a new model for music radio. The biggest problem is actually deciding what that is and what that will look like. Some people would argue that you need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and my attitude is absolutely not…. We need to build on the audience we have.
Moving to Dublin
Although RTÉ says that it is moving Lyric production to Dublin and Cork, in reality it may be mainly moving to Dublin. ‘A large proportion of the station will have to be based in Dublin because that’s where the new studios are going to be built’. In its November strategy statement, RTÉ said that it will create ‘new visualised radio studios’ in the capital, i.e. studios that have the technology to create pictures and audio.
Lyric has 34 people working for it, 27 of which work out of the Cornmarket Square studios, and 20 are living in Limerick. 80% of Lyric’s programming is broadcast from the city. It also records and broadcasts live music concerts across Ireland and engages in outreach in schools in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. The Lyric FM label has recorded and released the work of many Irish musicians and composers. Lyric nonetheless receives the smallest funding of all four of RTÉ’s main radio stations.
‘The staff in Lyric are very upset obviously,’ Ó Dubhghaill says. ‘Their world has been turned upside down and there are families who need to be thought about in this whole process.’
The reality is RTÉ have no money and it doesn’t look like the budget is going to be there because there is no commitment for licence reform. … But I do also believe that we need to change… I want to see Lyric developing its audience and developing an audience particularly for classical music.
As well as being Head of Lyric, Ó Dubhghaill is also now Head of RTÉ Orchestras, one of which is currently in the process of moving to the National Concert Hall. ‘I have two crown jewels that I’m in charge of, RTÉ’s orchestras and Lyric FM, and I’m determined to protect both.’ The process of moving the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra to the NCH has been ongoing since last year and another meeting of the steering group is taking place next week.
Ó Dubhghaill is ‘disappointed’ at the Lyric decision because ‘I have made my home around Lyric for the past 20 years’ but he believes that Lyric having a base in Dublin may be an advantage for the station in the future.
In the last three years I’ve been involved in Dublin more, and it does help… You need to be in touch with the mothership…. Sometimes if you don’t do that, you’ll be out on a limb.
Download RTÉ’s recent strategy document below.