Lyric FM: What price do we pay for culture?

JOYCE FEGAN3: Lyric FM: What price do we pay for culture?
Marty Whelan pictured at RTÉ, Donnybrook for the launch of the new season of entertainment, sport, drama and documentaries on RTÉ. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Every single thing always seems to come down to money, be that cuts or a potential return on investment. But where does culture fit into that equation, be that in the music we listen to or the public venues in which we gather, asks Joyce Fegan

Whether you’re stuck in traffic at the Dunkettle Interchange on a Friday evening or sitting alone in your kitchen on a Sunday afternoon in west Clare, as a people, radio is dear to us.

We listen to it, we shout at it, artists like Brian Friel immortalise it in work such as Dancing at Lughnasa, and, since 1925, our loyalty to the medium has never faded. Despite leading busier lives than ever, with the rise of distracting forces like social media and disruptive forces like streaming, 82% of us still listen to radio every single day in Ireland.

What is the first thing you do in your kitchen every morning? Turn on the radio or flick on the kettle? When you walk in the door from a holiday, do you break the deadening silence of your house by switching on the wireless?

That little box in car dashboards, by bedside lockers and on kitchen counters is as much a part of our culture as the GAA or farming.

And what price do we put on our culture? Must it, like nearly most things in Ireland be commodified and quantified?

Last week, it was revealed that the “future of Lyric FM was being considered”. This 20-year-old radio station, based outside of The Pale, in Limerick, which gives us everything from REM and jazz, to opera and music from the movies and the musicals, could possibly be impacted as RTÉ starts “cutting deeply”.

The reaction to the news which was announced on RTÉ’s Prime Time, was swift and international, even media outlets in France reported on it.

Helen Shaw, the former head of radio who launched RTÉ Lyric FM 20 years ago, took to Twitter and cut to the chase by talking immediately about finances.

“I can tell you, it is a tiny, tiny budget that runs that station and, compared to everything else in RTÉ, it boxes way above its weight in output and ambition,” she said.

Ask any GP in the country if they think Lyric FM boxes way above it weight and see what they say.

When the bricks-and-mortar fabric of this country was unravelling back in 2008, how often did you switch the dial to Lyric FM every time the news headlines came on? To this day, if a debate gets heated, and mud-slinging as opposed to solution finding becomes the name of the game on talk radio, what station do you switch to?

Lyric FM, “where life sounds better” and where the news headlines are only read out briefly at the half-hour mark, is an oasis to many in an increasingly frantic world.

In Ireland, approximately 35% of all GP visits are related to mental health. This translates to 6m annually to our GPs to talk about our mental health. Another statistic is that 10% of our population is on anti-depressants.

My GP plays Lyric FM in his waiting room and if you were to ask him about the news, he’d tell you he spends his time with his family, his dog, and keeping abreast of the latest changes in his professional field.

Were you to walk into a small and very busy charity in Cork, which gives practical help to severely disabled children, you’d hear Lyric FM playing on the radio.

In a world where access to classical music, be that through learning an instrument or attending the opera, is seen as the preserve of the wealthy, Lyric FM democratises it. You can get an FM clock radio in Argos for €8.99, and you can listen to opera without ever needing to own a tux.

The news came in the same week as the October closure of Dublin’s Bernard Shaw was announced. To some it’s a pub, but to others it’s an important music and cultural venue, that also hosts buzzing flea markets and is home to the famous Savita Halappanavar mural.

While the exact reason for the beloved haunt’s closure remains unclear, the operators of the venue said they had tried “really hard over the last few months to renew the lease, stay on longer, or buy the place”.

Log on to Google Maps and you will see that the area all around the Bernard Shaw is derelict and ready for development.

And who wants to stand in the way of progress?

Every single thing always seems to come down to money, be that cuts or a potential return on investment.

But where does culture fit into that equation, be that in the music we listen to or the public venues in which we gather? Does every single operation in this country exist to turn a profit, and if it it doesn’t, do we just come in with an axe?

I’m not sure of the footfall of the Bernard Shaw, but Lyric FM attracts 265,000 adults weekly and 118,000 adults every weekday. If Lyric FM was an Instagram account and those listeners were followers, nobody would be “considering its future”.

More than 100 years ago WB Yeats, in his poem, ‘September 1913’, lamented not the loss, but the death of “romantic Ireland”, lambasting us for fumbling in “greasy till” until we had “dried to the marrow from the bone”.

Here we are, on the horizon of 2020, and the Nobel laureate, who we hold in such pride, could accuse us of the very same thing.

Economic stability is absolutely essential to our wellbeing, but so are things like music, film, books, and culture. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

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