Sunday 24 September 2017

'I have left suits at RTÉ should I return and have not ruled it out'

Lunch with...Pat Kenny

Taste of things to come: Pat Kenny with Miriam Donohoe at lunch in Ouzos.
Taste of things to come: Pat Kenny with Miriam Donohoe at lunch in Ouzos.
Pat Kenny on his Newstalk show
Miriam Donohoe

Miriam Donohoe

The broadcaster talks to Miriam Donohoe about his reasons for leaving RTÉ , his Newstalk show and possible TV work

Pat Kenny comes bounding into Ouzos restaurant in his home town of Dalkey, Co Dublin, radiating energy and enthusiasm. The 65-year-old perpetually youthful radio presenter is buzzing. He is clearly not missing RTÉ – his home for 41 years – but is loving life after "moving the dial" to join the rival Newstalk station three months ago.

It is Monday and this affluent seaside town, home to many of Ireland's rich and famous, is very quiet. There is some concern that local traders are not busier in the run-up to Christmas. When asked for his preferred venue for our lunch date, he suggested keeping it local "to keep the business in the area".

Moving to Dalkey almost 30 years ago, long before it was trendy and invaded by the likes of Bono, The Edge, Lisa Stansfield, and the Def Leppard boys, was quite a change for this Northside man, who for several years was RTÉ's best paid presenter.

"I always wanted to live by the sea. We were not far from it in Infirmary Road, (where he grew up), but that was the sea of the docklands, very industrial stuff. Within two to three months of being here I was sold. I couldn't believe the quality of life."

There was one period, however, when Pat probably wished he had never heard of Dalkey. In 2008 there was a well publicised, highly acrimonious dispute between Pat and his wife Kathy and their neighbour Gerard Charlton over a valuable piece of land.

How are things with his neighbours now? "It has settled down. It probably should never have gone to court. I would have regrets about maybe not trying harder to have a resolution out of court."

Pat has just finished another morning radio show and says the transition to Newstalk has gone more smoothly than he ever imagined it would. One of his highlights to date was getting the only radio interview with Bill Clinton when he was in Dublin recently. He is highly complementary of his production team. "It took a number of years to create the vehicle that I had in RTÉ so I expected it to take longer to settle down in Newstalk. It is by no means cast in stone, it will evolve, but I have confidence in the machine which is the important thing."

Radio presenters tend to live by the quarterly JNLR listenership figures and all eyes will be on the new kid on the Newstalk block, and the man who took over Pat's slot on RTÉ Radio One, Sean O'Rourke, when the next data is published in February. This will be the first true indication of who is winning the early stages of the mid-morning radio war.

Pat, however, does not see the war as a head-to-head with Sean. Rather the challenge is to get Newstalk to be an option for people across the entire schedule. "But we are optimistic. Three-hundred-and-forty thousand is the audience I passed on to Sean, and I inherited about 65,000 from Tom Dunne. I would prefer to be doing my job than Sean's. He has to hang on to what he has but I am starting from a different base so can only go up!"

Having worked on the RTÉ campus in Donnybrook for 41 years Pat is enjoying being based in town, even though his daily commute is now a little longer. Newstalk has found a home for his motorbike, his normal mode of work transport, in the basement of Marconi House. He is energised by the fact he is working with a young, dynamic team. Unlike RTÉ where he feels there is still the mentality of a job for life, nothing is taken for granted by people who work in Newstalk. "They would no more think about saying 'that's not my job'. They do what has to be done. There is no sense from people that they will be there until they are 65."

We are both hungry and when you are by the sea it has to be fish. When he is eating here Pat always opts for the starter of potted crab and shrimp in a creamy dill mussel, topped with a parmesan crust. Two of those please! As he savours the food the former Late Late Show presenter says a move at this stage of his life had not been in the grand plan.

"RTÉ had very publicly indicated that I was the only person who had not signed a new contract, so it was almost an invitation if anyone was interested. There was no Dutch auction despite what RTÉ have put in the public domain about coming back with their best offer. That actually never happened."

The deal breaker for Pat was the decision of RTÉ to drop his Monday night Frontline programme, and to bring it under the Prime Time banner, something he is clearly still sore about. He did not want a new RTÉ contract that included Prime Time duties.

"I had wanted to rationalise my life. Frontline was on a Monday night, and I had the rest of the week clear. With Prime Time I was potentially doing Monday, Tuesday and Thursday night, either one, two or occasionally all three of them. I also felt that in going back to Prime Time I was going back to the identical programme I had done 25 years before, Today Tonight."

The decision to drop Frontline was done without any consultation. "The bombshell came on a Monday and I was expected to work that night. I did the show with a heavy heart but you are a professional, you gotta do it."

But he says there was no rancour from RTÉ about his leaving. "When I told Noel Curran (the director general) he wished me the best. He said after 40 years I was entitled to do what I wanted."

As we tuck into main courses of Ouzos Fish 'n' Chips for Pat, and pan-fried salmon with a citrus and lemongrass glaze for me, Pat reflects on one of the main areas where he sees RTÉ going wrong. It doesn't "cherish" its talent.

"When I was with RTÉ, I negotiated my contracts with the "talent committee" which consisted of two people, someone from the finance department and a legal person. That was it. There was no one on the creative side on that committee.

"RTÉ needs to ask itself what would happen, say, if someone was to die (as Gerry Ryan did). What is the contingency? Who have they nurtured? Who are the talent they need to keep onside when someone leaves or dies or even goes on holiday or becomes ill."

Warming to his theme, he says a mistake RTÉ makes is sometimes having the same person "on 10 different shows".

"It happens every so often that someone comes along – it is unfair to mention names – and they are on everything and then on nothing. They get dropped like a stone as the public have fatigue. That's bad talent planning."

Having always doubled up with radio and TV throughout his career, Pat is not ruling out a return to television in 2014 – on RTÉ, TV3 or indeed the new entrant to the Irish TV market, UTV.

Despite everything and the suddenness of his departure from Montrose he insists he has not burnt his bridges with his older employer. "I have left shirts and ties and shoes and suits there should I return! It was quite a deliberate thing that Noel Curran and myself did not rule that out."

He did not meet his new paymaster, Denis O'Brien, during the Newstalk negotiations, but met him at the end informally. "We had a 10-minute chat in which he welcomed me on board." And if there is editorial interference, he sees no sign of it. "If it is there, it is certainly not in my vision."

For years Pat has been tagged as RTÉ's highest earner and has endured public comment and criticism about his salary. He says he is not going to talk about his Newstalk salary, reputed to be worth more than €1m over three years, and he defends what presenters were paid during the golden years.

"In RTÉ they were paid in accordance to their ability to draw in revenue and audience at a time when the organisation was taking in money hand over fist. What I noticed is that management salaries were climbing while presenters' salaries were falling, proportionally speaking."

Our lunch date flies by. Pat proves himself to be engaging company. And he seems like a man who, at a stage when most people are contemplating retirement, is delighted with his new place on the dial – and his new life.

Irish Independent

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