Media predictions 2009, Part 2: Today/Newstalk merger will be completed

My second Irish media prediction for 2009:

The merger between Newstalk and Today FM is already in its advanced stages, however 2009 will see it be completed on every level.

Since Denis O’Brien’s buy-out of Today FM in late 2007, the linking of both stations has moved at an impressive pace. From a standing start in October of that year the two stations quickly moved to sharing an office block and news-room, while at least some of their respective marketing teams are understood to have merged too.

What I think will come in 2009 is a complete combination of functions like ad sales and marketing, with the stations cross-promoting programming and sharing advert packages, and a slight re-working of each station’s focus to remove conflicts.

This further amalgamation of services and staff will be pushed through as part of an overall cost-cutting exercise in the context of the credit crunch and recession, which has already been the reason given for freelance journalist and programming cuts.

As part of these moves the stations will also need to iron out some kinks in their respective schedules to ensure the services compliment rather than compete with each other.

For the most part that is not really an issue – most time slots have different types of programmes on each station. The only real overlap exists in the 9:00 – 12:00 “morning” slot and the 16:30 – 19:00 “drive-time” slot. For Newstalk they have relative newcomer Tom Dunne in the morning and probably their strongest performer George Hook in drive-time. For Today FM they have the popular Ray D’Arcy in the morning and even more popular Matt Cooper in drive-time.

Exactly what might happen in the morning is tough to call. D’Arcy is regularly one of Today’s best performers in terms of listenership but Tom Dunne is a new arrival to the slot who management may want to give time to find his feet. Of course the station may decide that he isn’t drawing in the crowds quick enough and may move him out of the morning, perhaps even to a time closer to his show’s repeat slot at 22:00. That may depend on how well-performing this repeat programme is.

The drive-time slot is a little bit more predictable. George Hook has done relatively well for Newstalk since it went nationally, certainly far better than any of its other presenters. However The Last Word is regularly competing with RTÉ for the most listened to shows in Ireland and had previously managed to beat the state broadcaster’s time-slot equivalent, Drivetime.

Hook’s show has also been badly impacted upon by the recent cuts made to editorial operations – his team of freelancers and researchers is worn down to the bone. Newstalk won’t want to lose him as a broadcaster but there is no rationale in having him compete with one of Ireland’s strongest shows when he could boost the group’s performance elsewhere.

A palatable option for the station’s bosses would be to make a two-hour gap in the morning and push everything back. This would put Moncrieff on 12:00 – 14:00 and George Hook on 14:00 – 16:30, leaving Off the Ball to air alongside with The Last Word.

The Last Word covers plenty of sports, especially on a Friday, but this move would still give listeners a better choice and remove most of the overlap of content. Equally it could give Off The Ball a better space to improve its loyal fan-base while allowing George Hook to broadcast his show earlier, affording him crucial bragging rights over getting stories first.

The gap could be created by dropping Eamon Keane’s Lunchtime or Tom Dunne’s show, the latter of which would solve both schedule problems at once. Lunchtime (which would have to be renamed, of course) could provide a slightly more newsy counter-balance to Ray D’Arcy while Dunne could move into the 19:00 – 21:00 (or even to 22:00) time to go back into his old Pet Sounds slot, albeit on a different station.

Whatever does happen to the schedule it is unlikely that either station will re-brand as part of the merger – at least not in the near future. Unique management structures will also be maintained at the top, just like they are across the RTÉ stations, but operations below that will be merged or re-worked to allow for greater co-operation.

Effectively, they will be genuine sister-stations by December 2009.

Disclaimer: I’m a relatively regular guest on The Last Word and have guested on Newstalk programming also.

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