Neil Prendeville: 'I've paid a price for my mistakes'
The controversial DJ admits he had a reckless relationship with alcohol. But the presenter is now tee-total, and he has just moved across the airwaves to Red FM.
Deciding to leave a job you love after 25 years is a brave step, particularly when you're at the top of your game. And leaving a dominant and established radio station to go to its younger, glitzier rival is always going to raise eyebrows. Forget Pat Kenny defecting from RTÉ to Newstalk, it was Neil Prendeville's move from Cork 96FM to its rival station, Cork's RedFM, that sent shockwaves through the Rebel County recently.
As his flagship morning show on 96 was attracting 116,000 daily listeners, it was inevitable that offers would be made to Neil by other broadcasters. Some were contractually impossible, but two of the serious offers that he turned down were joining TV3's Ireland AM when it first aired, and moving to Newstalk when it began. Neither offer justified him uprooting his young family to move to Dublin, plus, by his own admission, he loves Cork.
"I'm so proud of it," he says. "We're very clannish and we mind our own, and there's a huge sense of camaraderie there. We'll also knock our own though, but I have no issue being knocked by Cork people as they're entitled to do it."
Last summer, a tentative approach was made by RedFM, and out of curiosity, and with a few months left on his existing contract, Neil agreed to meet them. "I didn't take it terribly seriously at the beginning, but it was nice to have kind things said to me about my work, especially from the competition," he says. "The initial offer then got better and better, and became something I had to sit up and take notice of, so I informed 96 that there was another offer on the table."
While they negotiated back and forth, the offer 96 made didn't match Red's. When he informed them that he was moving to their rival station, Neil was immediately taken off air and put on "gardening leave," which he says was sad, but inevitable.
"Not being able to say goodbye and thank you to the listeners was the hardest thing, but the offer and package really helps to set me and my family up, and moves me out of precarious financial waters," he says.
While he is just heading into his second week on the new show on Red, and it's too early to tell if the lively blend of breaking news, fun, stirring debate and outspoken comment that he presides over will make the audience switch, the signs are looking very promising.
His stellar production team of Emer O'Hea and Colm Cullen have made the move with him, and he was genuinely humbled by the "lovely compliment" they paid him in leaving their safe and steady jobs at 96 to embark on the new adventure. He is also excited about working with a fresh set of dynamic people, and was enthused from the beginning by the passion exuded by Red's CEO, Diarmuid O'Leary.
When 96 began, its market share was very small, but the team were energetic, passionate, and hungry for success. As the audience and loyalty grew, Neil developed a reputation for being opinionated, forthright, kind, funny, and sometimes abrasive.
He solved problems, investigated scandals, caused controversy and championed lots of causes, which meant that people either adored him or hated him.
"There were some rough patches when we were trying to break the mould and build audiences," he laughs. "Colm O'Connell (former CEO) put up with me with tremendous patience, when I think back to the difficulties and scrapes that the show got into, the people we annoyed and upset, and how close to the wind we sailed."
This Marmite reaction that he engenders is probably what led Red to run a Love/Hate type campaign to launch his new show. And his old employers at 96 recently ran a marketing campaign to launch replacement presenter, PJ Coogan's, new show that was described online by many of its own listeners as "tacky," "tasteless" and "disappointing."
Perhaps stung by the fact that its most popular presenter had jumped ship, and his flagship show had attracted a significant proportion of the station's advertising revenue, "Why play with the knob?' was emblazoned across buses and billboards in Cork.
When questioned, 96's programme director, Kieran McGeary, denied that the gag was aimed at Neil.
Nonetheless, it would appear to be a jibe at the now-infamous incident that occurred in October 2010, when it was reported by a newspaper that Neil had committed a lewd act under a magazine on a flight from London to Cork.
He was heavily under the influence of alcohol and has no recollection of the event, which was wildly exaggerated and distorted in the media. It was a deeply humiliating, frightening and upsetting experience for the presenter, who remained off-air for five months while a formal investigation was conducted.
Although the DPP directed that no charges would be brought, the incident had a devastating effect on Neil. It also made him take a long, hard look at himself and the circumstances that had led to the situation.
"My relationship with alcohol had clearly become reckless," says the now teetotal presenter. "With success and a little bit of money, I had become a bit uppity and had been thinking that maybe the same rules didn't apply to me any more. And that really was the rock that I perished on.
"I had a lot of time on my hands, and got into some scrapes over the years, many of which were drink-related. I didn't see that my relationship with alcohol was becoming more problematic, and I became obnoxious."
"I paid a heavy price for it, and rightly so, but I've learned from my mistakes, and think it has made me a better and stronger person," he continues, adding that he has had counselling since the incident.
"I deeply regret that it hurt my family, which has had serious issues for me around my self-esteem and my ability to be comfortable in my own head, although maybe that's a good thing because it keeps me sharp."
While there is no fear of him ever becoming a bleeding heart, Neil has evolved into a kinder and more reflective presenter, less quick to judge, and slower to put the boot in. He gets stopped on the street all of the time by Corkonians wanting pressing issues addressed, and is always willing to lend consolation and a listening ear.
While he never shies away from tackling difficult issues on air, the presenter feels that the new approach has actually worked in his favour.
"It's okay to be opinionated, but there are ways of getting your point across," he says. "A senior journalist in Cork once told me that I lacked compassion and it would only come with age, and he was absolutely right. Now I bite my lip and think things through, because I don't want to hurt anyone any more.
"I've become a lot more balanced as a broadcaster, and the weird thing is that my listenership went up after this change, or reincarnation, which was the greatest feeling and really humbling. Maybe Cork people like what I do because they know that I'm flawed."
Given the confident persona he projects on air, it comes as a surprise to learn that Neil was a quiet youngster, who was passionate about music and literature. The oldest of five, he comes from Madden's Buildings in Blackpool on Cork's northside, although his family would later move to Blackrock on the posher southside.
His dad, Tim, will turn 80 next month, and it was a terrible blow to them all when his much-loved mother, Eileen, died aged 70 from cervical cancer.
"If she ever thought I was getting above myself, my mum would remind him that I am a 'norrie' and should cop myself on," he laughs. "I wouldn't be a great mixer. I'm good with close friends, but hopeless in groups or with people I don't know, and even back then, I would have been quite shy."
Despite his shyness, Neil's passion for music led to his involvement in pirate radio, and he regularly mitched from school to take to the airwaves.
As there were no real opportunities for a broadcasting career at that stage, he embarked on an accounting career after his Leaving Cert. "I was absolutely abysmal at it, and I'd say that if I hadn't left first, I would certainly have been sacked," he admits. "I left to try to pursue a radio career, as it struck me that it would be terrible to spend the rest of my days clock-watching."
Neil had a show on pirate station, ERI, and it was here that he first encountered his wife, Paula Lenihan, in 1986, when she was producing his show.
Wanting to hone his skills as a broadcaster, he then went off to Canada for three years, where he broke into the radio scene and learned the ropes of talk radio.
He returned when commercial radio was licensed in Ireland, initially to Capital Radio in Dublin, and then to Radio South in Cork in 1989, which ultimately evolved into Cork 96FM.
He also married Paula, now editor and publisher of the popular RSVP magazine, and they have two children, Luke, 20, a first-year student at UCC, and Kathy, 18, who is doing her Leaving Cert.
Neil says that Paula is very strong and has always been an amazing support to him, and watching his son and daughter develop into "wonderful, well rounded adults" has been one of his greatest pleasures.
"Paula came from a big family and always had a very easy relationship with children, and she is a wonderful mother," he says. "If I had my time over again, I probably wouldn't have worried and stressed as much as I did as a father.
"There were so many things that I wouldn't have taken so seriously and I would have gone with my gut a lot more, but children don't come with a manual!"
Neil looks fantastic these days, having dropped from 90 to 71kg in recent years, and says that going to the gym at an ungodly 5.45 am keeps him focused and disciplined.
Walking and cycling also helps to keep his head clear, which is vital when you have three hours of live radio to put out every day. He also laughs easily, and is well able to poke fun with himself, and although he is not a huge fan of the social circuit, he adores his family and loves spending time in their holiday home in Kerry.
Neil's other big passion is food, and he's a creative chef. Not wanting to undo his achievement in getting to his target weight, he strives to eat healthily during the week though and takes his foot off the pedal at weekends.
While he says that beginning a new show has given him a new lease of life, the format is very similar to what it was, with some added refinements. After all, if something isn't broken, why fix it?
As it's a younger station, there are better production facilities and the equipment is more modern, and Neil is already enjoying suiting up side-by-side with presenter KC, who left Today FM to take over the breakfast show on Red.
"KC is a superb broadcaster and a great family man, and most importantly, like me, he loves Cork," he says. "I remember the energy I had when 96 was tiny and I was part of building and growing the station. I've left a huge audience behind, and while I wouldn't be as rude or saucy as to presume they will all migrate, I hope that a percentage of them will. And at 52, I am relishing the new challenge."
THE NEIL PRENDEVILLE SHOW, CORK'S REDFM 104 -106, WEEKDAYS, 9 AM-12 NOON.