July 24th, 2016
Rob Clarke, chief executive of Spirit Radio Picture: Fergal Phillips
Even as Mass attendance continues to drop, a Christian radio station is going from strength to strength
There is no denying that Ireland is becoming more secular. While weekly Mass attendance levels in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese are estimated to be at about 22 per cent, this is expected to drop by over a third by 2030. Once-packed churches are now peopled by mostly greying heads.
But the fall-off in Mass attendance is not reflected in Ireland’s only Christian radio station, Spirit Radio. It has more than doubled its audience in the past year, and the vast majority of its revenue comes from listener donations.
According to recent figures from Amárach Research, the station has an average of 540,000 weekly listeners, up from 206,000 the previous year.
Rob Clarke, chief executive of the station, said people liked its unique offering. “During the worst years of the recession, people started to look for something different, and they felt our station had a positive feel about it,” he said.
About 65 per cent of Spirit’s listeners are church-going. Of that 65 per cent, half are Catholic and half are Christian, with many from new churches.
“We’re very intentionally broadly Christian and we try to steer a path that is inclusive,” Clarke said.
Spirit Radio has a quasi-national licence and broadcasts in the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, and Kilkenny.
In the past 14 months, it has started broadcasting in areas of Kildare, including Newbridge and Naas, Kilkenny, Carlow and Athlone.
By 2017, it plans to have launched in Letterkenny, Sligo, Navan, Drogheda, Mullingar, Portlaoise, Clonmel, Ennis, Tralee and Killarney. This requires coming to an arrangement with a mast owner, or sometimes private landowners let Spirit Radio set up its own masts.
“Our mission is to bring hope, encouragement, to dip into the Christian heritage that this nation has,” Clarke said. “We want to nudge people towards the important conversations in life. The conversation with God, with their neighbour, their own families, the wider community.
“We feel we have a role to play in helping people to see beyond themselves and bring a sense of perspective that Christian faith can bring.”
Last year, Spirit had a turnover of €573,000. Of this, 73 per cent, or €419,000, came from donations. Some 17 per cent, €96,000, came from advertising.
The remaining 10 per cent, €57,000, came from charitable donations.
It generates most of its income from its listeners, 600 of which have set up a regular standing order to the station. Spirit Radio has a supporters club, which is modelled on that of a football team, Clarke said.
It encourages its fans or listeners to support the team by subscribing. In return, they receive a car sticker, a subscription to its newsletter and a CD donated by a Christian book club.
Since the audience has more than doubled, Clarke said Spirit had been actively looking for more advertisers.
Its main advertisers include Calor Gas, Virgin Media, Des Kelly Interiors, Tipperary Water, Stena line, Trocaire, and Hugh Jordan Catering Supplies.
“We have something unique to offer. The kind of prices we’re able to offer for advertisers provides a great opportunity for reaching a pretty big audience.
“We’re not the total solution for any particular company, but it makes sense for a big company to put a proportion of their spend with us because of the loyalty of our listeners.”
Similar Christian radio stations based in the US talk about a “halo effect” of being seen on a family friendly station, and that principle works for advertisers on Spirit Radio too, according to Clarke.
Stretching the audience
Spirit is the only station broadcasting on medium wave in the Republic of Ireland.
“RTÉ abandoned it about three years ago but we would have a lot of people in rural areas and right across Northern Ireland listening on medium wave.
“The sound quality is not as fresh and clear as on FM, but it is reaching an audience we would otherwise be unable to get to,” Clarke said.
It also has a lot of people tuning in online, and on its Android and iPhone apps. While its priority is Ireland, it has listeners across the world, and even recently received an email from a listener in Arkansas, Wisconsin, who wished to advertise on the station.
Spirit Radio has been using research companies to measure its audience instead of the joint national listenership survey (JNLR). Clarke said he was not going to rule out joining the JNLR, but added that membership was expensive, with a cost of about €20,000 a year.
“If we could see the benefit, we would go down that road, but it is a big piece of income,” he said.
Spirit Radio won the licence in 2007, but it was not up and running until 2011. Its licence will be up for renewal in 2021.
“Then we will be looking to renew our licence if we can,” said Clarke.
“There are no guarantees but our argument is that we have established a constituency, a listenership, and we are meeting a need.”
By Colette Sexton
Colette Sexton joined the Sunday Business Post in 2014. As well as being news correspondent, Sexton covers the media and marketing beat for the Sunday Business Post. A native of Co Clare, she holds a first class honours BA in History, Politics, Sociology and Social Studies from University of Limerick and a first class honours MA in Journalism from the National University of Ireland, Galway.