Career Capsule: I am from Dublin, Ireland and have been involved in radio, like many, since being a spotty teenager! Getting my first gig spinning late nights before being “allowed to talk on air” at the age of 15, I’ve worked in several commercial and not-for-profit radio stations in roles ranging from promotions to sales, and on-air presenting to programming. I set up a national networked FM all Christmas Radio Station (ChristmasFM.com) with radio colleagues in 2008 that now has a national temporary 1-month license in December from Ireland’s broadcasting authority and streams to over 10 million users worldwide in December.
I joined Spirit Radio in Ireland at its launch in 2011 through 2015 and came back again to oversee programming at the station in 2021 (having been back looking after music since 2020). Spirit Radio is Ireland’s nationally licensed Christian AM and FM network run on a small budget, but with the coverage reach close to other big commercial mainstream radio networks. The station has only a handful of full-time staff with most of the staffing done by part timers, contractors, and volunteers.
Garvan, tell us what’s new at Spirit Radio … news, changes, & what’s new with YOU… etc?
The station celebrated its 12th birthday recently, having first launched on AM and FM in 2011. So, it’s still a young station. It has grown to cover the 24 main cities and towns across Ireland and it’s still expanding.
We have started to focus on tightening up our presenter breaks while still making sure when we do longer stop sets, that the content spoken is engaging, going right into the “headline” of the content to grab attention with the “hook” link. Newspapers, TV, influencers, and social media do it, so radio should also grab the attention before a listener switches.
We have also put a lot of effort into smart speaker skills and promoting streaming options, now seeing growth with listeners in that area for the station.
How have you (and your station) been affected by the pandemic, on and off the air?
It impacted us, like almost every person and organisation on the planet. It also gave some opportunities. People spent more time with radio, and it gave us a chance to really connect and be encouraging. As the pandemic dragged on, people wanted to find something with hope and not the daily gloom and negativity dished out by a lot of media and that’s where Christian radio stepped in. It also gave us a chance to up our game with more remote working and connectivity across the organisation.
What is the show advice you can give to your on-air presenters?
Smile, be a friend and always be encouraging.
As we all learn at the start of our careers in radio, we are speaking to that one person right now. For us, it could be at that exact moment that a listener might need us. This is so important at Christian radio where people often turn to in a time of loneliness or despair. It’s not only the music we play, but what we say that must connect with our listener. We have heard from countless listeners who’s lives have been impacted by the station and that really keeps all the on-air presenters focused.
What are the biggest challenges for your station regarding the fundraising, tips, things you’ve learned, experiences etc?
This has been a tough year so far, coming off the back of a cost-of-living crisis with energy prices, interest rate increases and inflation across the economy taking a hold on people. As the ministry tries to expand and add more sites, the costs of running rise.
As the station grows and becomes more professional, one challenge is that we need to stand out from commercial mainstream radio. As it becomes more popular, and the station adds more commercials, then it can be a harder sell to receive donations. Often Christian radio can sound too good, too polished and too professional and when you ask for help, support and donations then sometimes a listener might ask “WHY? “You sound pretty good as you are”. It’s constantly reminding people that the station sounds good and solid BECAUSE of a listener just like them donating or by supporting advertisers and sponsors.
What are your thoughts on AI in Christian Radio?
People are often fearful of new technology and are slow to embrace change. Having said that, I think everybody is a little fearful of AI and the impact on jobs in all sectors and walks of life. I have heard a number of radio AI shows and demos and although not perfected yet, you could easily see how this might play out in 5 years’ time. I believe Christian Radio should resist some of this, as we are selling hope and truth and listeners need to know that a real human is connecting with them in a heartfelt way one to one and they are not being communicated with by an “AI being”.
I can see some information like weather, traffic and basic information being voiced by AI but a human presenter needs to be able to be there doing what radio does best ……communicate one on one by one human to another.
Where will new up and coming air talent for Christian Radio come from?
This is a difficult task for radio across all genres. Many teens growing up used to want to be on the radio or TV and made the coffee and tea and then did the overnight shift as a way in.
That’s changed. Now, they want to be youtubers or influencers, so our new talent pool has got smaller. However, those that engage across the platforms including radio can often bring even more talent and skills to radio than any generation before. It’s about nurturing new talent and encouraging them to add social, video and podcasting to the skill of radio presenting and vice versa. We need to be part of new media and shift the thinking for what radio is now – interactive full-service content in one place and not just the old electronic device in their parent’s kitchen!
Generally speaking what’s the biggest differences you know between Ireland Christian Radio and that in the US?
There are many small differences but perhaps 4 big ones come to mind.
Of course, the music might be slightly different and the sound a little more Christian pop based here than parts of the US. Spirit also plays some positive mainstream hits. Just as we see Lauren Daigle and For King & Country get airplay on mainstream AC stations in the US, I feel there is a place for some positive mainstream hits on Christian radio. It brings new listeners in who recognise a song and then stay for the message and encouragement of Christian artists, become a new listener and a new follower. We are always careful with the lyrics.
As an island that has had religious differences within the Christian communities for hundreds of years, the opportunity to bring Catholics and Protestants closer together has been a big part of the mission of the ministry, so everything on air reflects this.
Thirdly, like other parts of the world, Spirit Radio runs 3 support drives a year as the station is mostly listener supported BUT the station also does take some commercials and sponsorship, as it needs both to survive. Ireland is a small country and even the national public broadcaster RTE takes in adverting along with the government’s media license fee support as part of their funding, unlike the BBC across in the UK, which only takes in the government funding support.
Finally, our broadcasting framework in Ireland, like other nations outside the US requires a certain percentage of home-grown music played (Irish artists). There is also a percentage of news and speech content that goes with the licenses that must air daily, so we need to navigate both and incorporate these into programming output.
Who are your radio heroes and influences? and why?
Like many of us, we grew up listening to the radio as teenagers and I was always fascinated by good on-air talent. I was never into the technical side of radio, as it was always about the programming for me, and how the songs played out. I would have had some local radio heroes inspired by Local Top 40 Radio Nova and on an international stage, presenters from BBC Radio 1 would have influenced me as a teen. I was always amazed by the slickness and professionalism of American radio, and I remember well before the internet, listening to cassettes and recordings of people like Casey Kasem. In recent years I would certainly give a mention here to Dick Jenkins formally of K-LOVE who has been an amazing mentor and influence about Christian Radio programming for me.