The First Agricultural Broadcasts on 2RN

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Volume 7

The First Agricultural Broadcasts on 2RN 1

The Dublin Broadcasting Station (2RN) began operating in January 1926. The Cork Broadcasting Station 2CK started up the following year. Both were operated by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Studios and transmitters were based in urban centres and were low-powered. The director of 2RN, Seamus Clandillon, a countryman himself, was keenly aware of the benefits that broadcasting could bring to isolated rural areas. When he made his first programme schedules he was anxious to ensure that, despite the low power and restricted range of the stations, scattered listeners outside the towns would be properly catered for, not just by providing entertainment but also by instruction and news about farming matters. In keeping with the developing policies of the new state broadcasts of an educational nature would contribute to agricultural development generally. This view of broadcasting as ‘improving’ may in part have derived from the ideas of John Reith, director of the recently formed BBC. The Dáil committee set up in 1924 to consider wireless had expressed similar views and they suggested that government departments would have a contribution to make to broadcasting. The Irish Times had some positive views about the potential for broadcasting in the countryside:

The value of the services given to the country by a government department will be estimated by the variety, usefulness and effectiveness of the broadcasting service by many of those whose interest in party politics has waned, and who have always thought, perhaps not unwisely, that there is sounder work a-doing for the nation in cultivating one’s garden (and a priori one’s farm) than in the act of voting.

The newspaper advised the Department of Agriculture to translate their information from a literary form to ordinary speech ‘for unfortunately farmers are not a reading class and are more likely to respond to an appeal through the ear than through the printed page’.

Opposition and resistance

However Clandillon met with a surprising amount of resistance when he tried to introduce agricultural broadcasts. There was opposition from some newspaper interests fearful of the effects of any rival news medium on their advertising revenues but the Department of Agriculture itself was initially resistant. While the Department eventually provided Clandillon with a number of fine broadcasters it was much more difficult in getting them to agree on what should be broadcast, by whom, and when. On 7 December 1925, three weeks before the station was due to open P.S. O’Hegarty, Secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, wrote to his opposite number in Agriculture, ‘I am to say that the station will be at the disposal of your department for any reasonable broadcasting of matter of national importance’. The response was lukewarm: ‘…for a proper consideration of the matter I think we should have some idea of the audience to be catered for’.
Agriculture officials called on Clandillon on 5 January 1926. He told them that gardening and poultry-keeping would be the most suitable subjects to begin with: these would be acceptable to rural listeners and at least tolerable to urban ones. While Clandillon was anxious that the wireless service should also carry livestock and other market information he was still awaiting sanction for the costs involved. At one stage he even considered quoting prices from British trade journals but was worried that the journals might object. The Creamery Managers Association had offered to co-operate in supplying butter prices but their overall approach was very cautious.

Seamus Clandillon, first Director of 2RN. (RTí‰ Library Collection)

Seamus Clandillon, first Director of 2RN. (RTí‰ Library Collection)

Department of Agriculture officials were anxious that any market prices broadcast should be reliable and argued that it would be dangerous to attempt to forecast prices. One official at the meeting wanted three minute ‘snappy’ items, not stodgy agricultural propaganda and instruction which would be wearisome to urban listeners. The advantage of a short talk, he maintained was that the listener would hardly think it worthwhile to switch off to another station for the short space of three minutes. If the listener were told by the announcer that they were about to get fifteen minutes on the manuring of bogland, the crystal set owner might be ‘disposed to switch off for a smoke and a refreshment’. The Forestry Division could supply ‘some truly rural helpfulness and set out the poetry of nature with practical advice of tree planting thrown in’.
The timing and format of the talks were discussed at the meeting. Clandillon wanted to separate the subjects so that gardening and poultry-keeping talks were put out on different days. The Agriculture officials were not so sure. One wrote afterwards, ‘it might be rather trying at the commencement to ask an inexperienced person to speak for the full fifteen minutes even though Mr Clandillon indicated that he would be prepared to arrange for one or two trial talks’. Clandillon wanted the service for rural listeners up and running, as quickly as possible. He had even suggested the following Monday 11 January 1926 as the starting date, but the officials did not think that would be feasible. In the meantime Mr Sherrard of Albert College and one of the poultry supervisors, Miss Hennerty, were instructed to start preparing the talks.
In addition to instruction Clandillon wanted to broadcast agricultural news and assured the officials that it was his policy to supply such information even though the number of farmers with receiving instruments was very small. He reasoned that this kind of information would stimulate the demand for sets. He told the officials about plans to open relay stations in Cork, Limerick and Galway to give countrywide coverage. In fact the Limerick and Galway stations never materialised. Countrywide coverage was to be many years ahead.

(An Muircheartach, RTí‰ Library Collection)

(An Muircheartach, RTí‰ Library Collection)

G.O. Sherrard: a ‘natural’ broadcaster

After the meeting Agriculture officials circulated their department with advice to co-operate with the broadcasting station. Mr Sherrard was briefed to have the first gardening talk ready for the 18 January. Sherrard was delighted with this opportunity, and made out a plan of programmes for a complete year, he also arranged with Clandillon to do his studio test. He wrote to his superior ‘before my first address it would be well for me to see Mr Clandillon or some member of the station staff as to how best to speak into the microphone’. He need not have worried. G.O. Sherrard turned out to be a ‘natural’ broadcaster, with great expertise and ability to communicate well. The first gardening talks were well received by both rural and urban listeners. Clandillon himself enjoyed the broadcasts. After some weeks he wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, ‘Mr Sherrard’s lectures are very much appreciated and very practical. I follow them with great interest myself and should be glad to have others on equally interesting subjects such as poultry-keeping and simple cooking if you could manage to provide lecturers from your Department’.
Clandillon’s comments were passed on to Sherrard by his superior who was astute in spotting a bit of reflected glory and could not resist the opportunity to put in a few broadcasting tips himself:

The director adds that your lectures are much appreciated…one or two people have told me, however, that they have experienced some difficulty in taking a note of varieties and even of a prescription for manure. I would therefore venture to suggest to you to go particularly slowly when giving a technical or even an ordinary name.

Clandillon, still anxious to expand the service for his tiny rural audience reminded the Agriculture official about the request for poultry-keeping talks and cookery. He was told that Miss Hennerty was busy and would not be available for some months and that and ‘simple cooking was a matter for Education’. Broadcasting of livestock market reports concerned another government department, Industry and Commerce. Officials there first thought it advisable to contact the British ministry of agriculture to get sample copies of the sort of reports that they supplied to the BBC. Their view was that in general where prices were reported they should be second-hand: announcements should be prefaced such as ‘today Messrs Gavin-Low report…’ and so on. Reporting on Monday markets was ‘unwise’; it would be better to report an outline of the previous week’s prices.

2RN transmitter mast, Athlone.

2RN transmitter mast, Athlone.

Conscious of the considerable criticism of other parts of the station’s programming it was considered inadvisable to get involved too soon until ‘the Free State broadcasting station has been in existence for some time and the storm of criticism which it has evoked has worn itself out’.

Audience reaction

How did the broadcasts go down with listeners in the countryside? Shortly after the farming programmes began P. Brennan TD write to Clandillon expressing his Limerick constituents’ views. They wanted cattle market prices on Thursday night, talks on tillage, butter production and fruit-growing. Wishing to press the matter, P.S. O’Hegarty forwarded the letter to the Department of Agriculture with a repeated request for assistance. At the end of January 1926 D.U. Walsh, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, told the Dáil that ‘in the immediate future the broadcasting station would give Irish market reports, including cattle prices’.
However, Mr Hooper, the civil servant in charge of statistics, was unwilling to accept responsibility for broadcasting prices ‘which are almost certain to be misinterpreted by sections of the very large public receiving the announcements…the fair reports, one or two which are received daily are sent to the editors of the newspapers’. He was not sure that they were accurate or represented the true average prices at the fair. He wanted to confine this sort of broadcast to ‘one announcement weekly, as in London where they have already had the experience of a year or two’. He was inclined to report tendencies rather than actual prices. While they were willing to help in analysing the figures they were not willing to be held responsible for them.
As the months passed there were complaints from farmers to the broadcasting station and to the newspapers. One Kildare listener wrote to the Irish Independent, ‘2RN would bestow a great favour on the farming community if it broadcasted every Thursday night the market prices of the day’. Conscious that the matter might be raised on the estimates debate, O’Hegarty wrote again to press the matter with the Department of Agriculture in May 1926. The officials there again kicked to touch replying that ‘it would be inadvisable to initiate this form of broadcasting while market prices are at present disturbed by the exceptional conditions resulting from the strike in Great Britain’. When the General Strike ended in May 1926 the Department allowed prices to be broadcast. It took another six months to get agreement to broadcast British prices, involving as it did a lot of negotiation with newspaper interests who were very uncooperative.
How effective were the broadcasts? The number of set owners, or at least licence-holders was very small. In 1930 only one in thirty households in County Waterford had a wireless set; the figure was even lower in County Tipperary, and these were two major farming counties. The ratio was somewhat better in Dublin but even there only one household in seventeen had a set. When broadcasting commenced the legislation to facilitate the collection of a flat rate licence fee was not yet in place.

(An Muircheartach, RTí‰ Library Collection)

(An Muircheartach, RTí‰ Library Collection)

Instead an import duty of one third was placed on sets and parts. But because of the weakness of the station’s signal in rural areas it was generally necessary to use a much more expensive valve set, costing from £10 to £20 as against the £3 to £4 for a crystal set. In addition, in the days before rural electrification, storage batteries were necessary to run sets. These need frequent re-charging which was time-consuming and inconvenient. Thus the expansion of broadcasting in rural areas was severely checked, the very areas where Clandillon wanted the station to reach listeners. After the opening a of a high-power station at Athlone in 1932 wireless ownership increased. Nevertheless, by mid-1945 it was estimated that only 13 per cent of rural households had wireless sets as against 45 per cent in urban areas.
Initially, it had been Clandillon’s policy at 2RN to use Department of Agriculture officials to broadcast, but as the novelty of radio wore off it was felt that good broadcasting style and expertise were as important as content. This caused friction at times about the suitability of individuals as broadcasters. The Department of Agriculture claimed that farmers were concerned only with the content of the broadcasts and not with the style of delivery, provided the speaker was an expert. This dilemma was resolved many years later in the 1950s with the transfer of a senior Radio Éireann official to the Department of Agriculture, ensuring a first-hand knowledge of broadcasting needs within the Department.
In the 1920s the persistence of Seamus Clandillon and P.S. O’Hegarty ensured that the ‘poetry of nature’ was heard and given its due share of national airtime on the new broadcasting station. Both farming and broadcasting have ‘grown up’ a lot since the 1920s. Since the 1970s there has been a daily agricultural news bulletin. Farmers are now well organised into strong associations and co-operatives. Business stretches into the money markets. But they still talk to each other over the airwaves. Nowadays there is lively studio discussion of agribusiness, the ‘green pound’ and headage payments, replacing the quieter messages of another era given be G.O. Sherrard and Miss Hennerty. Over seventy years since that unsteady start, farming talks, discussions and reports still enrich the public service mix of Irish radio broadcasting.

Brian Lynch is RTÉ archivist for written materials.

Further reading:

M. Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting (Dublin 1967).

A. Kealy, Irish Radio Data (Dublin 1981).

M. Kelly and B. Rolston, ‘Broadcasting in Ireland’ in Irish Society: Sociological Perspectives (Dublin 1995).

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