Today at precisely 3 p.m. GMT (or 1500 hours, as we say in the Navy) an era ended on the Emerald Isle. At that time Ireland's national broadcaster RTÉ switched off its last medium wave transmitter in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. With this last step Ireland's medium wave (MW) radio programmes ended after 82 years of stalwart service. Ten days ago RTÉ has switched off already the Clermont Cairn transmitter near Dundalk, Co. Louth, which had provided Irish radio service for the whole of Ulster, including the six counties of the North, as well as for the large Irish diaspora in England, Scotland and Wales.
So now there will be no more listening with hungry hearts to MW broadcasts, impeded by white noise and interrupted by high sunspot activity. Ireland's medium wave is dead, but long live the radio!
Like many other friends of the good old wireless, I was of course listening today to the very last MW programme, which began at 1.30 p.m. (1330 h). It was called "Medium Wave, Goodbye" and hosted by Brendan Balfe, one of this country's longest-serving broadcasters, who has been on the air for more than 40 years.
It was a sentimental programme, 90 minutes filled mostly with memories of the "good old times" and with music many of us heard first when we were wearing short trousers. Fittingly the last tune played was "Taking care of you", which had been composed in 1926 - the year Ireland's MW service began - and played on Irish airwaves many times since.
RTÉ began indeed as 2RN on the MW service in 1926, just four years after the establishment of Saorstát Eireann - the Irish Free State - and only three years after the Civil War had ended. Later known as Radio Athlone (because the transmitters were based since 1933 in Athlone), Radió Éireann and more recently as RTÉ Radio 1, it served the people of Ireland and many Irish ex-pats well for 82 years. RTÉ introduced the superior sound of the FM service in 1966, to counteract the common interference and poor reception on MW, and ever since the importance of MW has declined. According to RTÉ only about 10% of its listeners were still listening regularly on MW at the time when the decision to close down the service was made in February. But this figure might not take into account the large number of Irish ex-pats listening to RTÉ programmes abroad.
FM does undoubtedly produce a better sound quality, but the range is limited. There should be no problems to receive RTÉ radio programmes inside the Republic, but there might be reception gaps now in the North and in Britain.
Some areas of the North may also experience problems in receiving the Limerick-based Lyric FM, as RTÉ prioritised RTÉ Radio 1 versus Lyric FM for cross-border transmission. Most of the MW coverage will be taken over by RTÉ's long wave (LW) service on 252 kHz (1190.4 m) that started in 2002 after the demise of the once popular music station Atlantic 252, which closed in December 2001 after twelve years of broadcasting to Britain and Ireland.
Listeners who did tune into MW specifically for special RTÉ Radio 1 programmes like weekday sports broadcasts and Sunday religious services will find those also on 252 LW (where they have been already for some time), as well as on cable television and the internet. This means of course that listeners outside Ireland will be hearing a Catholic Mass and a Protestant Service on Sunday morning, when they would probably prefer listening to Diarmaid Ferriter and Marian Finnucane.
Other special broadcasts, like the alternatives to live sports on Saturday and Sunday, including arts programmes, features and drama, are shifted entirely to the internet and also available as downloadable podcasts. But what about all those who don't yet have a computer and access to the internet? (And there are many, thanks to the incompetence of Eircom...) RTÉ's digital test station, RTÉ Choice, is so far only on air in and around Dublin.
There have been critical and warning voices, arguing against the switch-off of the MW service, in particular with concerns for the Irish living and listening abroad. Despite last year’s broadcasting legislation allowing for license money to be spent on more radio broadcasting for the Irish abroad, RTÉ went ahead with its plans to get rid of the MW service.
Well-known podcaster Brian Greene and the Irish Emigrants Advice Network (EAN) had meetings with the Department of Communications, pointing out the folly of closing down the MW service. But obviously to no avail.
“The shutdown is a reversal of recent trends in which Ireland has acknowledged its debt to the Irish abroad, and the need for maintaining strong links. Both MW and LW are complementary solutions for the Irish abroad. Long wave on its own is rather inadequate and presents problems for the future. The move is premature it will make the transition to digital more difficult,” EAN wrote in a letter to the Irish Emigrant newspaper.
They argue that RTÉ should be working to improve access to its services for the Irish abroad, particularly the most vulnerable who will experience difficulties in making the transition from medium wave to any other format.
While most people in London could not receive the Irish MW service, there are large parts of cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester that could. They should be allowed to listen to a service that has existed for decades.
Brian Greene also questions RTÉ's choice of the new DAB broadcasting technology. He says that RTÉ plans to use DAB (digital audio broadcasting), but this is meanwhile an old standard and Ireland should be focusing on world digital radio standards like Digital Radio Mondiale or DAB-plus.
“The French have withdrawn funding for DAB. RTÉ needs to move to DAB-plus rather than an old standard like DAB,” he argues.
I am no engineer, so I could not comment on that debate. But what I have so far heard on DAB did not impress me.
It seems that radio is now following TV technology, where digital technology led to an explosion in channel numbers, but at the same time to a decline in programme quality. Perhaps I am a bit old-fashioned, but I like to listen to traditional radio on MW, LW and on short wave (SW), where one can find many international stations. I prefer that any time to listening over the internet, where the quality is often not good and I encounter frequently brief interruptions of transmissions.
It is also worth mentioning that a digital radio will use a lot more energy than a conventional one. In light of the increasing world energy crisis with ever rising prices for all forms of energy - especially electricity - I am not keen at all to exchange my good and very old radios for a new digital one.
It seems to me that once again a new technology is forced upon us by certain companies - like, for example, mobile phones on which one can watch films and TV (who needs such nonsense, especially on a tiny screen) - without any consultation. But consumers are very powerful (even a lot of them don't realise it) and can say no. This can stop new but senseless technology and gadgets in their tracks (and many times has already). Maybe it is time to make a stand against digital radio and demand that things are kept as they are. After all - since it ain't broke, why fix it?
The Emerald Islander