Kenny will miss sheltered RTE lifestyle

Pat Kenny will find the challenge of presenting his new show on Newstalk a tougher one than he may have imagined.Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 7.15.29 pm

Kenny’s move from RTE after a 41-year career in public service broadcasting sent shockwaves through the media world in Dublin this afternoon. There is no doubt that it is a game changer for Newstalk, which has never really ignited since it was launched nationally in 2006.

The 65-year-old, who is hands down the best current affairs broadcaster in the country by some distance, will begin a new (though almost identical) show on Monday September 2 on Newstalk 106fm, the Denis O’Brien owned commercial rival to the State-owned RTE. The show will run Monday to Friday from 10am to 12:30pm, a slightly longer time slot than Kenny had up until now, putting him in direct competition with his replacement on Radio One.

But as anyone who has ever been to RTE’s Radio Centre will know, the various RTE radio shows are staffed with extensive production teams, and Pat’s was probably the most competent. He will find that life in the commercial sector – when it comes to backroom staff – is a lot less generous.

Kenny has said he envisages doing a largely similar type of show to the one he currently does at RTE, however he will now have to do that with a production team that is a lot smaller, and a lot less experienced, than he has left behind at RTE. His production team at Montrose will not be moving with him.

The pressure will also now be on Pat to deliver commercial success to the station. It is almost certain he will be able to bring some of his 328,000 listeners with him, but RTE are not going to role over and hand Pat two and a half hours of dead air. Expect a fierce battle to ensue in the coming year between Kenny and whoever replaces him for the title of ‘King’ of the airwaves.

Something Pat has never had to worry about up until now is the commercial reality that Newstalk is in business to make a profit, not to provide a public service. How Pat will cope with reading out regular plugs for sponsors, and significantly more on-air advertising and advertorial, will be interesting. While no doubt Newstalk will invest heavily in promoting and resourcing the show initially, it will be up to Kenny to prove his worth, and pretty quickly. He will find the commercial work a lot less forgiving than the well-cushioned existence at RTE he has known throughout his career.

Pay rates at Newstalk are also a lot lower than at RTE, so attracting strong production talent will be difficult. Kenny himself will not have to worry about money however. Although he dismissed that money was a motivating factor, it was almost certainly the case that RTE’s offer to Kenny was less generous than he might have liked, otherwise he would have stayed. He most assuredly did not move to Newstalk for less than what RTE was offering. The Irish Independent is reporting that he agreed a €2m, five-year deal to take him to retirement at 70.

RTE has recently cut fees paid to its top presenters by 30 per cent, and DG Noel Curran is on record as saying he wanted to cut salaries by up to 40 per cent.

Curran did as good a job as he could of making the news sound less unpleasant for RTE than it is. It’s a given that this is not good news for the State broadcaster. However in a time of almost permanent cutbacks, Curran has laid down a marker that RTE will no longer continue to pay what many members of the public regard as exorbitant fees to top talent. Kenny’s 2011 salary was more than €600,000. In 2008, when he presented the Late Late Show, it was 950,000.

Curran also made it clear that Pat would not be a presenter of Primetime in September. It would be impossible for Kenny to credibly work for one of RTE’s rivals in the mornings, and then turn up in the afternoons to prepare for a role on the public service broadcaster’s main current affairs television show.

And it’s not as if RTE doesn’t have an abundance of talent that can replace (though perhaps not do as well a job as) Kenny. The obvious choices include Miriam O’Callaghan, who has been filling in for John Murray all summer, and who has experience in light entertainment as well as being a competent current affairs broadcaster. There will likely be much speculation about what the future holds for Ryan Tubridy, particularly now. RTE has invested heavily in Tubridy, who fronts the Late Late Show as well as a Monday to Friday mid-morning show on 2fm since the death of Gerry Ryan. The 2fm move has been a disaster for Tubridy and for RTE, and there has been continual speculation that he may return to Radio One, where his slightly eccentric personality and obvious intelligence may find a more receptive audience. While Tubridy previously worked as a reporter on the old Five Seven Live (now Drivetime) his experience in current affairs is limited, and it is extremely unlikely he would slot comfortably into a mainly (though not exclusively) news-y job. Other names mentioned include Claire Byrne and Aine Lawlor, though O’Callaghan must be the favourite. RTE may want to re-jig its shows between 9am and 1pm, but it is certain it will want to have a current affairs offering. We will know more when the Autumn schedules are announced in late August.

For today, at least, this is hands down a tremendous coup for Newstalk. But it is also a much-needed boost to the station, whose JNLR listenership figures have been poor – apart from George Hook – since it first launched. It has failed to attract significant audiences to most of its shows, and does not make the top 10 for any of them.

With one high profile name in the mid-morning slot, Newstalk will hope it can significantly grow audience share. Execs at Marconi House will be hoping to prove true the old adage that if listeners get used to switching the dial, they may well stay. Kenny had 328,000 listeners for his RTE show, with Tom Dunne (who is to be moved to late nights) attracting just 55,000 listeners. How many of Kenny’s regulars will follow him remains to be seen.

Newstalk needs to make further gains, but challenging RTE in news – such as going up against Morning Ireland, or News at One – might be foolish. The Communicorp owned station is still significantly behind RTE Radio One when it comes to their breakfast offering (Morning Ireland has 450,000 listeners compared to 121,000 for Newstalk Breakfast according to the latest JNLRs), with similar percentage share gaps for most other timeslots, apart from Hook. But news and current affairs shows at RTE are staffed with teams of full-time reporters and producers and can draw on the entire newsroom of journalists and correspondents. Without significant investment in editorial resources, Newstalk could never compete. In fact, it is probably a testament to the professionalism of the staff at the station that it manages to do so much with so few resources presently.

A softer – and the most obvious – choice for Newstalk is the early afternoon slot. Joe Duffy and his ‘Liveline’ programme must surely be a likely target now for Newstalk, as well as high profile weekend presenters including Marian Finucane. Off The Ball was a big loss to the station, and the replacement team have not been able to replicate the edgy style of the team that walked out earlier in the year. However listenership for post-7pm radio is tiny in any event (and consequently advertising revenue is small) so it’s not as big a loss to the station as some may have you believe.

As for how Kenny will deal with reporting issues related to Denis O’Brien – well that’s what everyone is wondering. It is certainly going to be an interesting couple of months in radio.

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