Talking for Newstalk
Next to Geraldine Kennedy in the Irish Times, Elaine Geraghty has the most senior position of any woman in Irish media, for Newstalk 106 may soon be a national station. By Colin Murphy.
On Monday 27 March, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) decided not to make a decision on Dublin radio station Newstalk 106's application to go national. The BCI could have rejected or accepted the application; instead, it will now hold a public oral hearing on the application on 24 April.
At stake is the new "quasi-national" licence, for which Newstalk is the sole applicant. "It's ours to lose," says Elaine Geraghty, chief executive at the station since September 2005. The licence would allow Newstalk broadcast to 80 per cent of the population, in all the main population centres, and would effectively set it up as RTÉ Radio One's main national competitor.
After four years, Newstalk has just 4.8 per cent market share in Dublin, has lost €14 million and has yet to break even. Yet the national licence will be no panacea. The growth area in Irish radio is local, with local stations across the country gaining in market share against RTÉ and Today FM. Local stations now have a 50.5 per cent market share nationally in the 1am-7pm period, with RTÉ Radio One at 22.2 per cent and Today FM at 10.9 per cent. If it gets the licence, Newstalk is aiming for a five per cent market share nationally by year five, Elaine Geraghty says.
In 2005, Newstalk finally started to make some ground in the ratings in Dublin. Eamon Dunphy went from 7,500 listeners in 2004 (average quarter hour listenership) to over 13,000 in 2005. Yet this still palls beside Radio One's Morning Ireland, which averages over 90,000 listeners in Dublin.
The station's big success, by its own standards, is George Hook, who has slowly but steadily built up to a point where he is more or less level with Today FM's Matt Cooper in the evening drivetime slot, with 17,000 listeners (per quarter hour, on average).
Outside of the peak slots, niche shows on sports, arts, business and foreign affairs have attracted favourable comment and audiences that are small, but appear to be loyal. The schedule will be "tweaked" if they get the licence, says Elaine Geraghty. Two key slots have been left open in the application: mid-morning and weekend morning. Have they contracted anyone for these? "We know who we want," she says.
That mid-morning slot is currently filled by the station's only Dublin-focussed show, City Edition, presented by Declan Carty. (Declan Carty will move to a late-night slot, she says.) Though George Hook likes to play to the audience stuck in traffic on the M50, and Sean Moncrieff's quirky afternoon show features regular vox-pops with Dubliners, there is nothing fundamental about the rest of the schedule that will need to be changed to go national: Eamon Dunphy, George Hook, Damian Kiberd all focus on national and international news, and the specialist shows are more likely to find an audience within a wider audience.
Newstalk is part of Denis O'Brien's collection of radio stations, and Elaine Geraghty has worked for him since 1989, when they set up Classic Hits 98FM and won one of the first commercial licences. She is close to O'Brien, one of his key advisors. She describes him as "completely driven" and a "risk taker".
She had gone to work straight after her Leaving Cert, initially as a receptionist at the Sunday Tribune, then moving into sales and marketing jobs there, and then to 98FM (the station eventually dropped the "classic hits" tag). At 98FM , she says, they pioneered a new model in Irish radio, using "radio doctors" from Australia and New Zealand to help develop a very carefully-researched, market driven radio formula.
Part of this was the now-common formula of an easygoing morning show co-presented by a man and woman team. Elaine Geraghty was working with consultants who were trying to find a woman presenter for the slot, when they asked her would she try it herself. She gave it six months, which became six years, and Pat and Elaine (with Pat Courtnay) became, for a time, the top-rated Dublin morning show.
Meanwhile, Denis O'Brien expanded his media interests, acquiring 61 per cent of Newstalk, buying Dublin's Spin FM, and looking eastward in Europe to acquire the Metromedia group, with stations in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland and Hungary, all under the umbrella of his Communicorp group. Elaine Geraghty eventually returned to behind-the-scenes work as project director with Communicorp, regularly visiting their European stations.
At the same time, she studied part-time for a MBA in the Dublin Institute of Technology, getting a first class degree. ("Married but absent", she labels it.)
She has worked on a number of licence applications with Communicorp (including an ill-fated one for the alternative rock licence). The chief executive job is "a big step for me personally", she says, though having worked in numerous positions on and off air, "there aren't a huge number of new things to learn".
She is proud of the station, particularly of the young team behind the big-name presenters. She cites the station's recent coverage of the riots in Dublin on Saturday 25 February as an example of the station's "willingness to take on difficult issues" – Newstalk ran live reports, while RTÉ Radio One stuck doughtily to its sports coverage.
Four hundred or so pages long, the Newstalk application for the quasi-national licence is substantial and slickly produced. Elaine Geraghty has steered that through, and will now present it in person at the BCI's oral hearing. The BCI will find her a formidable presence.
Name: Elaine Geraghty Age: 43
Job: CEO of Newstalk 106
In the news: Newstalk is seeking
a national radio licence
Home: Malahide, north Co Dublin
Family: Married to Tom Vavasour
(Village's company manager)
Pastimes: Walking their three collies
on the beach, reading fiction