Kenny inches forward against big battalions
When Pat Kenny left RTE some expected a bloodbath, but the latest research instead shows steady progress by the Newstalk star, says Donal Lynch
In the corridors of Montrose they wince if you describe RTE's presenters as 'stars.' 'On-air talent' is preferable to everyone because it reinforces the notion that these highly paid journalists are, in fact, hardworking civil servants who just happen to be very good at their jobs. They are the curators of their programmes, none of them bigger than the slot they occupy and if they happen to be air-kissing, product-endorsing red-carpet-posing divas in their free time, well, that's only by default.
Of course, while they publicly embrace this notion of themselves as workaday journalists, RTE's presenters themselves often fervently believe in their own place in the firmament. However, until last summer nobody ever really tested which of these viewpoints was correct. Are the faces we see and hear on the airwaves media minions, in thrall to the Montrose suits who signed off on them and the slots they inherited, or are they stars with their own personal constituency with the public?
Then Pat Kenny, after 41 years with the national broadcaster, cleaned out his desk, jumped to Newstalk and begged the fascinating (at least to journalists and the proportion of the country that doesn't work through morning radio) question: was he going to take his fans with him?
At the time you got the feeling that in addition to most casual observers, many of the 'on-air talents' left behind may have secretly wished that Kenny was going to kill O'Rourke in the ratings. For one thing, a good number of them might have had reason to feel slightly snubbed by his appointment. For another it seemed like a move from the mandarins to underline the sense that progression was about seniority and proficiency - News At One being the best current affairs programme at the station during O'Rourke's time there - rather than being anyone's idea of a housewife's choice. The Galway man was instead a safe pair of hands, possibly the least starry of all the names at their disposal and would slot into Kenny's old post and pull the levers of daytime radio with much the same competence, so the thinking went.
As it played out, this at first looked like a wise move. The much longed for "bloodbath" that some were predicting did not materialise and to begin with O'Rourke's figures remained healthy, and even increased slightly. However over the course of this year O'Rourke slowly haemorrhaged listeners while Kenny slowly gained them.
O'Rourke remained very much in the lead - earlier this summer his listenership was almost three times that of Kenny - but the figures moved inexorably the wrong way for him ,and a few weeks ago he admitted in an interview that he was feeling the pressure. Perhaps with good reason: the newest figures released on Friday morning showed that this slow bleed has continued and that the million Euro 'move the dial' ad campaign by Newstalk has paid dividends. The Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) demonstrated he has lost another 4,000 listeners over the last quarter while Kenny has gained fives times that number.
So the former Late Late Show host is not exactly breathing down his rival's neck but making steady progress. Newstalk's audience continues to grow, showing a jump of 21,000 compared to the last quarter to reach 365,000 daily. RTE Radio One is still the most popular station in the country, with a weekly reach of 1.3 million people and 849,000 tuning in daily.
Reducing the entire competition between the two stations to comparisons between their star players may seem glib - a radio programme is only as good as its producers - but the ratings battle brought scrutiny on the subtle contrasts between their styles.
Kenny's famous preparedness and wonkish attention to detail put him in his element in the mid-morning radio format, enabling him to scythe through expert jargon with confident poise. O'Rourke's genial chuckle and amiable banter is soothing to be sure, but his lack of experience in MC-ing a show of this magnitude has sometimes shown through, with a tendency to be rather passive in interviews.
Still he has held on to some extent and Kenny's moderate gains are evidence perhaps that when it comes to Irish radio even stars have to serve their time.