Potentially major changes in the Irish radio scene

There’s a significant media-war and ownership shake-up on the way for Irish radio, if yesterday’s Sunday Business Post and today’s Irish Times (subs required) are to be believed.

Apparently British media group Emap, which owns numerous outlets across Ireland and the UK, is gearing up to sell its Irish interests, namely Today FM, Dublin’s FM104 and Donegal’s Highland Radio.

With only two national radio licences available to the commercial sector at present (one of which is not even 100% national), Today FM is the obvious jewel in Emap’s Irish offerings and this is reflected in its valuation with the IT putting its value at €100 – €120 million – double the value of their two local stations combined.

The most obvious suitor to the Today FM licence is UTV Plc., which has slowly amassed a radio empire in Britain and Ireland which now out-performs its TV operations.

As it stands UTV is no shrinking violet when it comes to acquisitions and has made it quite clear that it hasn’t stopped its recent growth-spurt just yet.

Also the bulk of UTV’s radio operations are in Britain at the moment (19 licences – one national – compared to just 6 here), meaning there’s plenty of room for growth in the Irish market. Their Irish licences are all local too, covering Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Louth and Belfast – a national station on the roster would go some way to making UTV more than a minor player in the Irish market.
With all this in mind and considering the fact that the only other national commercial licence is owned by Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp, it would be bizarre for a media company with such huge ambitions to overlook a strongly branded and much-liked national station like Today FM.

But with Today FM fitting UTV’s ambition perfectly, It’s hard to tell if FM104 would be as appealing a purchase. For a start UTV already has a Dublin station, albeit one which largely seeks a different market to FM104. What is important, however, is that the youth and pop radio market in Dublin is extremely saturated already and has a far more fickle listenership. Considering that FM104 are vying for the same market as Spin 103.8 and 98FM (with national stations like Today and 2FM also popular with this audience), there’s far more potential for mass-migration of listeners from one side to another and far more potential for uncertainty.
While UTV is likely to dig deep for Today they’re certain to be more conservative with 104. Of course they’d be stupid not to show an interest as FM104 is currently so popular in its own market, but you can be sure they’ll be holding back for the right price.
In the area of other bidders, the IT suggests that Doughty Hanson, the private equity company behind TV3, are also possible contenders. It made a failed bid recently for the Midlands/North-East regional licence and seems keen to expand its Irish media beyond a single, UK import-reliant station.

The Irish Independent is the only paper to suggest Denis O’Brien as a potential bidder but The Sunday Business Post feels he won’t make a move, probably for the same reason the II highlights. If O’Brien bid for Today FM and was successful he could be forced to sell off one of his other radio assets – that asset would almost certainly be Newstalk and given his investment in the station over the years and its slow creep towards financial success he’s unlikely to walk away now. If he bid for FM104 and was successful he could stand to lose  either 98FM or Spin – again, unlikely. (The owners of The Irish Independent, it should be noted, are in the midst of a feud with Denis O’Brien who has slowly been buying up chunks of IN&M, sparking rumours of a takeover bid.)

There is no doubt that if Today FM comes on the market many will be interested. The usual suspects are already lining up in what could be a once in a lifetime chance to grab a national footing in the Irish market.

As far as the Donegal licence goes, it’s likely to be less exciting but equally interesting. It’s worth noting that unlikely contenders like The Irish Times and Thomas Crosbie Holdings have both taken part in local radio licence bids in recent times, so perhaps they could be eying up the smallest of the three products while everyone else gets distracted by the big names. Who knows?

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