Even while on vacation, The Listener is hard at work for his readers.
I spent last week in Ireland with my buddy Karl. We began in Dublin, toured west to Galway in our tiny Opel (we sat shoulder-to-shoulder and were, I'm certain, as safe from impact as we would have been in a ball of aluminum foil), then turned northeast to Belfast, in Northern Ireland.
All across both parts of Ireland, I forced Karl to listen to the radio, seeking differences between radio here and there. What we heard there sounded like American Top 40 radio from the '70s--lots of variety, with rock and R&B played one after the other.
Though they are moving toward it, Irish radio stations are not yet so tightly formatted into niches, as they are in America. You hear old songs and new songs, black artists and white artists, rap and rock. For instance, the top three songs on Cool FM, a commercial Belfast station, were by Will Smith, Garbage and Len--one black artist and two alternative artists.
The reason is rooted in radio history. As in America, Irish radio is split into commercial and noncommercial sectors. What is different is that in Ireland, public radio came first--with a variety of programming that commercial radio later emulated. Here, public radio broke deliberately from the heavy-rotation playlists of commercial radio.
In socialist-leaning England and Ireland, the publicly supported BBC network from London was founded in 1922. In the Republic of Ireland, public Radio Eireann was founded in 1926.
There was no commercial radio in the UK until 1973, when Britain's Independent Radio Network--the BBC's competition--came on the air. It's much the same across Ireland. In Belfast, commercial Cool FM was launched in 1990.
In the capitalist United States, the first radio stations also emerged in the '20s. But they were commercial--the original, Pittsburgh's KDKA, debuted in 1920. It would be 50 years until the incorporation of National Public Radio.
Back in America, I sought analysis from someone who had worked both sides of the big puddle. Mark Daley is a Belfast native who has been a deejay in Ireland and in the States, first with WHFS (99.1 FM) and now with Zero 24-7, an Internet-only station based in Washington (www.zero24-7.org). He says Irish radio sounds the way it does because audiences demand variety. Because the BBC is publicly funded, it is not dependent on ratings-driven advertising revenue--as are commercial U.S. stations--and it can be riskier in its programming.
"You might find a big station that, if you like, pays the bills during the day playing pop music, then, in the evening, sugars the commercial pill by going into much more alternative music or indie, or maybe country music," says Daley, 33.
Further, deejays there pick the songs, unlike in the States, where playlists are largely determined by market research and program directors. Because of this, new bands can get airplay on big Irish stations; in the United States it's difficult for unknown bands to crack the prime time on big stations. Irish rockers U2, the Cranberries and Sinead O'Connor benefited from this sort of Irish deejay autonomy.
This kind of diversity is refreshing in war-torn Belfast, where Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are walled off from each other by concrete barriers, steel gates and razor wire.
"The way radio is done there is, it aims to cut across those differences and provide something everyone can enjoy," Daley says. "Ireland is a good example of music tearing down boundaries. There are not really Catholic or Protestant stations."
Which, in a city that has nearly niched itself to death, is a healing tonic.
The Washington area will get its first Spanish-language FM station next year, thanks to Mega Communications' purchase last week of WMJS, an easy-listening station in Prince Frederick, Md.
The 6,000-watt station, located in Calvert County, will switch to Spanish "sometime during the late second quarter of next year," says Alfredo Alonso, president of Mega, based in Silver Spring. Alonso says he can pick up WMJS (92.7) on his car radio in Silver Spring and Arlington, where the bulk of Mega's Spanish-speaking audience resides. Mega will petition the FCC to move the station's transmitter closer to Washington, Alonso adds.
Mega owns five AM stations in the Washington area and had been shopping for an FM station for two years, Alonso says. The stations, which broadcast several formats, have prospered. The addition of WMJS--purchased from MJS Communications for $5.25 million--continues the growth of the chain, which owns 19 stations in the east. WMJS's format will be either Amore--adult contemporary ballads--or Mega, the chain's up-tempo dance format, Alonso says.
After a week's hiatus, The Listener returns today at 1 p.m. to satisfy your radio jones. Log on at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline to chat it up.