I’m sitting in a café in Schöneberg, Berlin’s gay district, as I let the news sink in of RTÉ’s plans to radically change how it operates. While there were many different changes announced by its Director-General, Dee Forbes, what hit home for me was the announcement that among those changes, RTÉ would close down its digital radio (or DAB) stations, including RTÉ Pulse, RTÉ 2XM, and RTÉ Gold.
For the first six (and a half) years of its existence, I had what I once considered the honour to host a radio show on RTÉ Pulse, the DAB station dedicated to dance music. The Cosmo was originally one of three evening programmes that made up ‘Gay Wednesdays’ on Pulse, presenting alongside Gordon Hickey in Donnybrook, and the BBC’s Nick Randell in London. When Pulse was launched alongside its sister stations in October 2008, it was an exciting new era for the state broadcaster, hailing a new generation of radio, and a new wave of on-air talent to go with it.
From the start, however, LGBT programming on RTÉ Pulse was going to be problematic. The dance music station’s then director envisioned a style for Gay Wednesdays to emulate Britain’s Gaydar Radio; commercial dance remixes of pop tunes, with some talk on gay community events, brief news headlines, and lighter chat. While having LGBT programmes on a dance music station was not going to appeal to all musical tastes within their target audience (if not being too much of a gay cliché), the expectation for such a genre to be light entertainment only was poorly timed. As Ireland’s marriage equality campaign (a topic that ironically ended The Cosmo abruptly in 2015) was picking up momentum and hope, neither The Cosmo nor Nick Randell’s Scratch ‘n’ Sniff were going to avoid conversation about LGBT rights and politics.
Combined with the voluntary status of the various RTÉ Digital Radio presenters, the shows received little to no support in their production or development by the full-time (i.e. paid) staff at RTÉ. This meant that its LGBT programmes (along with others on the DAB stations) received little to no feedback, until eventually, Gordon Hickey stepped away from Pulse, followed by Nick Randell’s decision to continue his London-based show as an independent podcast.
In hindsight, there were several serious flaws with RTÉ’s once well-intentioned LGBT programming experiment. First, three similarly-themed programmes, scheduled one after another, were arguably not needed for a relatively small target audience. Instead, one or two shows may have been more suitable. Second, a magazine-style show like The Cosmo would’ve been much better placed on talk-based stations like RTÉ Radio 1 Extra, RTÉ Choice, or even the more indie-style RTÉ 2XM, where its speech segments wouldn’t have been shoehorned in between dance remixes and Eurovision hits. Finally, for any programme on the national broadcaster, it was unfair of RTÉ to have their presenters as unpaid producers – using the old chestnut of payment in the form of work experience with a big brand. Suggestions and hints from management over the years to progress to a paid model, or gain semi-regular exposure on RTÉ 2FM, acted as the carrot to many of us, but only became a reality for no more than two or three presenters out of roughly forty.
For RTÉ to bring down the fader on its digital radio stations, eleven years on from their original launch, signals the end of Ireland’s experiment with DAB as a platform, for commercially-viable and community-focused programming alike. Personally, I have deep sympathy for the wonderful broadcasters and DJs whom I had the pleasure of working alongside, such as Christian Homan and Niall Redmond (both frequent names on Dublin’s gay club scene) as well as Dave Treacy and the fiercely talented Orla Feeney. While I can’t speak on their behalf, I know that many of the DAB presenters like them hoped for years to be rewarded by RTÉ in the form of paid work. For most, however, such hopes were sadly in vain.
As for the question of LGBT radio, marriage equality provided a watershed moment in Irish society, and arguably reduced the need for specific LGBT-themed programming on a national level. While others may argue the demand for discussion, debate, or coverage of LGBT news and issues, such topics are now more likely to be covered by other shows as part of a broader remit, or by community radio programmes on a more local level, such as Dublin Digital Radio or Dublin City FM, for example.
While RTÉ lost its last LGBT-targeted radio show in 2015, it has now lost a wealth of talent, passion, and skill in its closure of the DAB stations. Other media organisations would be wise to tap into this newly-available talent, and nurture them as they should have been while in Montrose.