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National service, Irish-style: Everyone must do a stint on 2FM

There’s a new regime at RTÉ, but also some vacancies. Is it time to conscript Generation Z for presenter duties?

2FM stars leave station: the 2 Johnnies, Jennifer Zamparelli and Doireann Garrihy

It’s not often I take inspiration from outgoing UK prime ministers, but Rishi Sunak is definitely on to something with his “plan” to reintroduce national service, isn’t he? Everybody loves being told to do things they don’t want to do, especially teenagers, and someone has got to take on all those unwanted jobs.

You can see where I’m going with this. It’s in the headline. In Ireland, we urgently need our own version of national service in which every young person is required to complete a mandatory stint as a presenter on 2FM.

Sure, it would be tough. It’s possible that some if not most teenagers would prefer a more traditional form of national service in which they are forced to venture out into forlorn landscapes, follow strict orders from on high and go through the same old motions repeatedly for days and months on end.

A compulsory spell at Montrose, in which they are obliged to bus it out the dual carriageway, comply with the new regime of RTÉ (director) general Kevin Bakhurst, introduce the latest single from Billie Eilish and brave the occasionally rat-infested canteen would obviously be a completely different experience.

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It might be harrowing in its own right, yes, but it would also represent an important contribution to any government’s bid to boost the collective morale of the nation, if only by helping to cut costs at RTÉ.

I have a lot of sympathy with 2FM. It’s an ageing 45-year-old – as of this Friday – that finds itself desperately trying to stay relevant in a world of fierce competition, a world where it seems that there are just so many fresher, younger options out there for audiences to choose and employers to love. I am months away from knowing precisely how this feels.

When RTÉ first launched the station as Radio 2 on May 31st, 1979, it insisted it would be “comin’atcha”. It now needs a new slogan, a new strategy – one that invokes the legacy and status of its 20th-century origins while acknowledging that radio is evolving and so are the career paths of its on-air talent. These days you don’t even need to be embarking on a worldwide boy band nostalgia mega-tour, like Westlife’s Nicky Byrne, to have a solid reason to leave.

True, conscripting randomly selected young people who have not yet emigrated to fill holes in the schedule left by the exit of Doireann Garrihy, the 2 Johnnies and Jennifer Zamparelli would be less of a “comin’atcha” approach and more of a “comin’ to getcha” one.

Don’t dismiss it straight away. You might say you’re not one of the 764,000 people who belong to the station’s weekly audience reach, as measured by the Joint National Listenership Research survey. You might argue that 2FM achieves its 6.1 per cent share of listening among adults aged 15-plus – and its 12.2 per cent share among 15-34 year-olds – without the assistance of your ears, so why should you sacrifice your freedom or, more realistically if you’re reading this, that of your child or grandchild to the cause of keeping it on air?

But what you’re forgetting is that a 2FM national service scheme could be devised in such a way that it actually protects us all from our one true common enemy: podcasters.

In order to prevent the further proliferation of podcasters, only young people with absolutely no independent podcast ambitions would be allowed behind the State-owned microphones. This would usher in more realistic levels of pep at 7am and be character-building for all concerned, while also easing a personnel pipeline conundrum for RTÉ.

It’s a pipeline issue that will, in theory, be exacerbated by Bakhurst’s Government-placating proposal to axe almost all of RTÉ's digital radio stations, among them RTÉ Pulse, where Zamparelli’s official, voluntary 2FM replacement, Laura Fox, first got her foot in the studio door.

Indeed, given the available national service labour would exceed even the needs of 2FM’s presenter roster, RTÉ could save RTÉ Pulse, RTÉ 2XM, RTÉjr radio and RTÉ Radio 1 Extra from the chop and operate them using any free Gen-Z conscripts who haven’t managed to dodge the draft.

In the real world, 2FM’s simple but potentially fatal mistake is that it used to make money and now it does not. Some €2.60 from every €160 licence fee is devoted to running the station. In 2022, its costs arrived at €11.2 million, but the commercial income it secured fell short of this, resulting in what has become a fairly typical “licence fee revenue attribution” of €3.6 million.

A scan of Irish newspapers reveals that several commentators are advocating once again for the nuclear option of shutting down the station – a narrative that, as 2FM boss Dan Healy has pointed out to anyone who will listen, does not exist in the UK for BBC Radio 1, which has a 4.5 per cent market share. Other journalists, meanwhile, sound dangerously like they fancy a go at running 2FM themselves.

At the risk of joining them, a sensible person might conclude that the station should double down on its existing public service activities by supporting Irish music, engaging with more festivals, hanging on to its remaining presenters and exploiting the smarter distribution platform that will ideally arrive when RTÉ revamps its audio app, as it intends.

For an encore, it should then tell anyone who moans about shrinking listener figures to get lost.

But let’s not rule out a bolder, Sunak-style vision. Think of the wider societal benefits of a 2FM boot camp in which young people are compelled to learn about linear broadcasting history, hone their conversational skills and practise empathy by consoling listeners who call in with incorrect quiz answers.

Look, I haven’t quite worked out the details yet. But then neither, it seems, has Sunak.