• FM104 back on the market, Communicorp free to take Today and Highland

    The long-awaited BCI decision on the sale of EMAP’s Irish stations has come through and Communicorp has gotten approval for the acquisition of Today FM and Donegal’s Highland Radio, but not Dublin’s FM104.

    Communicorp already owns a number of Irish stations including national operation Newstalk and Dublin stations 98FM and SpinFM. As a result of this it was expected that Communicorp would be forced to either sell one of its existing stations or be allowed to only take control of some of the stations on offer.

    As national commercial radio has a small market share in Donegal and Communicorp doesn’t already have a foothold there, ownership of Highland radio was never in question. It was clear, however, that ownership of Newstalk, Today FM, FM104, 98FM and SpinFM would give the company a huge command over the Dublin market (44.9% amongst adults, 27.6% amongst over 35s and a whopping 74.5% amongst 15-34s) and it was hard to see full approval coming under these circumstances. The question was whether Communicorp would be willing to sell an existing station and if this would appease the BCI, or if not whether the BCI would decline approval for the sale of Today FM or FM104 – or both.

    Short of full approval and no demand to sell existing holdings, this result is probably the most acceptable and expected outcome for Communicorp. 98FM has been Denis O’Brien’s pet project since the 1980s and he has built it into a significant force in the Dublin market; Newstalk has been an expensive investment since its launch and with its new-found national potential selling it would be somewhat short-sighted. In terms of the new stations, while FM104 is a powerhouse in the Dublin market, Today FM is stocked full of nationally-successful talent that has led the charge on RTÉ Radio over the years – there’s no doubt that it was the most coveted of the three by most bidders.

    What happens next is unclear. For a start Communicorp has to wait for the Competition Authority and Minister for Enterprise to give the nod to the deal too. After that FM104 will come back on the market and as Dublin’s biggest radio station it’s sure to attract plenty of interest, with previously unsuccessful EMAP bidders sure to pay great interest.

    But what will happen to the likes of Today FM once the deal is wrapped up? Given the fact that Today FM already operated in the company of FM104 before, it’s unlikely the Communicorp purchase will create any different a dynamic between it and 98FM.

    What will be worth watching is the dynamic between Today FM and Newstalk.

    For the most part the stations’ content does not overlap. However in the few places it does, it does so in very significant ways, the best example being in the drivetime slot where George Hook and Matt Cooper are pitched in a head-to-head battle for listeners.

    Hook has proven to be the strongest asset of Newstalk since it went national, while The Last Word has been a consistent draw and a thorn in the side of RTÉ Radio 1 for some time now. For these reasons alone it would seem foolish to mess with their respective formulae and timeslots, however it would seem equally odd to have them in direct competition too.

    Through a stronger partnership with Newstalk there is perhaps potential for Communicorp to step back from News and Current Affairs and leave that side of things to Newstalk; perhaps even to the extent of Cooper swapping frequencies.

    This would allow Today FM to become a more entertainment-based station than ever before and would create a dynamic between Newstalk and Today FM that would mirror the one already seen between RTÉ’s Radio 1 and 2FM. Perhaps Today FM, along with Communicorp’s local stations, could even look at outsourcing its news coverage to Newstalk, although this seems less likely in the short-term and any change to the amount of News coverage on Today FM could cause trouble with the regulator.

    One thing’s for sure, with FM104 coming back on the market in the near future and Today FM moving into the Communicorp fold the Irish radio market is in for another interesting period of flux.