Broadcaster says service is still going to be cancelled but just doesn’t have a date yet
RTE’s LW service – beloved of so many Irish group in the UK – has been given an indefinite stay of execution by the Irish station’s new boss Dee Forbes.
The service, which RTE says costs €250,000 a year to maintain and has already had one extension following RTE’s 2014 announcement it was killing it, was due to be axed next year.
The station says it has far better uses for the money and audiences here can get better reception using the internet and satellite receivers. But Irish community groups have long argued that predominantly older Irish audiences either do not have access to such digital technologies or are unable or unwilling to use them.
The Irish State broadcaster told the Irish World this week: “The service is currently under review, there is no set date – as yet – when it will be cancelled and, as previously stated it is costing €250,000 a year.”
It later modified its remarks and declared: “RTÉ has announced its intention to close this service in 2017. RTÉ is working with a consultant steering group, including the Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade and representatives of the Irish community in Britain, to explore alternative technologies in the context of maintaining link with our UK audiences.
“While this is principally an operational matter for RTÉ, we do not anticipate any revision of our position without the involvement of the consultative group.”
Irish in Britain, the Irish organisations’ umbrella group formerly known as the Federation of Irish Societies, welcomed the news from RTE and urged it to see its UK audience as an asset, not a legacy burden.
Its Chief Executive Peter McNulty said: “The link with home is very important in the lives of the diaspora community in Britain. They may have left Ireland but Ireland has never left them.
“Irish in Britain welcome continued discussions to ensure that this invaluable link and connection is enhanced through all forms of communication media, be it radio, online, TV, or press, facilitating ease of participation and engagement for a diverse and multi-generational diaspora and retaining that sense of belonging.”
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan has said that while it remains an operational matter for RTE he would – given the importance attached to it by a significant section of the Irish community in Britain – like to see it continued. The 248m LW transmitter which relays RTE to the UK and Europe is based in County Meath and was built in 1988. It was originally used to transmit RTE’s Atlantic 252 from 1989 to 2002.
It has been used to transmit RTE Radio One since 2004. In 2008 RTE shut down its Medium Wave services, redirecting UK audiences to 252.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade financed an analysis of RTE 252’s UK audiences, coordinated and carried out by Social Policy Research Centre, Middlesex University London and Irish in Britain in January of this year.
It found that more than 3,000 people completed the survey, nearly half of them over 70 years of age, and of whom some 92 per cent said they listened to RTE Radio 1 LW every day or most days. Almost 75 per cent said they would need help finding RTE digitally and only one in five had used a smartphone to listen to radio.
Irish in Britain, and other organisations, said the LW service was something of “a lifeline” to older people who had left Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. The retired former RTE engineer Enda O’Kane – who campaigned against the closure of the MW service in 2008 – has led a tireless campaign to keep the LW service.
He says RTE is not being entirely honest when it calls LW 252 an “expensive, poor quality and unpopular platform” and points out savings can be made and it can be moved further up the dial to avoid all the interference from Algerian radio. Mr O’Kane told the Irish World that it was only a fluke or coincidence that radio audiences in this country could get RTE Radio One at all.
“Were it not for a public campaign there would be no LW252 seeing that RTE had sold it off to Team Talk 252 that collapsed. It’s entirely by accident that RTE has a long wave service at all.
“I originally opposed the MW closure because audiences in Northern Ireland had few LW radios as BBC Radio 4 is relayed locally on MW.
“I was informed by a Department of Communications official at a meeting that the money saved was to be used for DAB which is now stalled as was widely predicted.
“The BBC has not set a date to close LW and the hardware is readily available to keep it on the air for as long as necessary. There may be special valves but there are solid state alternatives.
“What’s more the BBC recently replaced its main LW antenna so that does not look like a service that’s about to close.”
“LW could, and can, cover this island via a service called DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) but as it competes with DAB sectional interests in RTE who have committed to DAB might like to dispose of it. DRM receivers are now on stream but DAB is stalled.
“DRM can allow the small scale station to go digital and also allow RTE convert their existing FM sites to digital. DAB means perhaps two to three times as many broadcast sites as FM so who will pay for all these new sites?
“DAB means putting small stations into a larger melting pot owned by large commercial interest meaning that the existing community stations loose ownership of their hardware – a step backwards from what the pirates achieved.
“As I’ve said before the cost of going digital DAB nationally appears unaffordable. Another reason why I supported continuing MW was to serve the existing audience both sides of the Border and in the UK.”