Belfast Telegraph

RTE defers long wave closure

Ireland's state broadcaster RTE has deferred plans to pull the plug on a long wave service which airs its flagship radio station to emigrants.

The LW252 signal, which carries programmes to listeners across the UK, including parts of Northern Ireland which cannot access an FM service, was due to stop at the end of the month.

Amid deepening criticism of a lack of viable alternatives for communities outside the Republic, RTE said it had postponed the closure until Monday January 19 next year.

Jim Jennings, managing director of RTE Radio, confirmed the deferral.

"This decision has been taken in order to ensure that listeners, particularly in the UK, have sufficient time to understand and avail themselves of alternatives to listen to," he said.

Bosses at the public service broadcaster appeared before a parliamentary committee to face questioning over the planned LW closure.

The decision was defended by RTE, with Mr Jennings claiming it was in line with a trend in Europe towards ending long wave signals.

It was estimated it would save 250,000 euro.

The LW252 signal had been used by RTE over the last 10 years after it stopped broadcasting on a medium wave signal.

Mr Jennings also claimed that a temporary switch-off of the LW252 service earlier this year for nearly two days prompted just 37 complaints.

RTE also claimed 98% of its listeners used other frequencies and digital services through satellite television and online.

Meanwhile, RTE has announced plans to appoint a new London Correspondent.

The position was axed two years ago as the broadcaster was forced into swingeing cutbacks across its service but the decision to cut in the British capital drew widespread criticism.

The London post, based at ITN headquarters, will be created with the axing of the Europe Correspondent role in Brussels in December. The broadcaster will continue to employ Tony Connolly as its Europe Editor in the city.

Kevin Bakhurst, ma naging director of RTE News and Current Affairs, said: "This will be a smaller operation than we previously had, but with changes in training and technologies we will look to continue to provide the same high quality of coverage expected by the public of RTE News."

On the plans for the LW shutdown, an online campaign has been organised in a bid to force a U-turn.

Noreen Bowden, founder of the globalirish.ie site for diaspora issues, said 514 people have signed a petition to retain the service - although she cautioned that the vast majority of people using it would not be online.

"Older people are to be most affected. Over 400,000 Irish born people in Britain and about one third are over 65," she said.

"There's reason to believe there'd be a high proportion of people who do not have access to the internet and culturally these are the people who feel tied to Ireland."

RTE's FM coverage only covers about 85% of the population in Northern Ireland and the DAB digital service is not available on radios outside of the Republic.

Ms Bowden urged RTE to consider switching the LW transmitter at Clarkstown in Co Meath to a DRM digital system which would require limited finance and could offer broadcasts to listeners as far away as Germany.

"I think we need a longer time than three months. It might be long enough for RTE to grasp the situation and for them to understand the extent of the impact of the switchover, but it's not long enough for the people who listen," she said.

John O'Mahony, head of an Irish parliamentary committee examining the shutdown, said he wanted the decision reversed.

"We are particularly cogniscant of the loyal listenership among the older Irish in Britain," he said.

"We were told that RTE is engaged in an extensive consultation with Irish community groups in Britain, and impressed on the witnesses that it is the sometimes isolated and vulnerable older Irish emigrants that may be most impacted by the closure."

Mr O'Mahony added: "We are also concerned about the impact of the cessation of the long wave service on listeners north of the border. In the meantime, we request that all avenues are explored to ensure this valuable service might be retained into the future."

Ireland's Catholic bishops welcomed the deferral and said it will give people more time for people to plan for alternatives. They had warned earlier this month that RTE's priority should be to serve its audience, especially a marginal audience.

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