Today FM boss O'Reilly quits for RTE days after Smyth sacking
THE departure of Today FM boss Willie O'Reilly for arch competitor RTE last night sparked further controversy involving the Denis O'Brien-owned radio station.
Mr O'Reilly's switch comes just days after it emerged that he was the prime mover in the shock sacking of Sam Smyth from his Sunday show.
Mr Smyth had presented the show for 14 years.
There had been intense speculation that Mr Smyth's departure was linked to the pivotal role he played in covering the Moriarty Tribunal, which was hugely critical of Mr O'Brien and his alleged links with former minister Michael Lowry.
However, Mr O'Reilly yesterday said that he had been in talks with RTE for six weeks before he made his 'surprise' return to RTE as group commercial director.
He said his departure was "totally unrelated" to the recent dismissal of Mr Smyth from the radio station. Today FM also rejected suggestions of a link.
The 55-year-old gave Today FM no chance to make him a counter offer.
He is set to get a six-figure package at the cash-strapped broadcaster, but will be paid "comfortably" less than director general Noel Curran's €250,000.
Although the newly created position was advertised, Mr O'Reilly confirmed last night that he had been approached by RTE.
"I was approached to see if I was interested in the job by RTE," he said.
"It's a very senior responsible role with a company who I have been in competition with, but I think RTE has a very good director general in Noel Curran, and agree with him on what the station's priorities should be," he added.
"It's not an easy job. RTE, like all broadcasters, is in a tough position.
"The economic winds are against the entire industry, and our team will be expected to show leadership around its commerciality and its programming."
RTE's former director general Cathal Goan didn't favour having a separate commercial director, but newcomer Mr Curran was keen to have a commercial director on board.
Mr O'Reilly was identified as a candidate early on, and was approached by a headhunter appointed by RTE. The job was then advertised, in line with RTE's policies, and Mr O'Reilly applied. Sources said the whole process took "about six weeks".
The Irish Independent understands that Mr O'Reilly applied for RTE's head of radio job two years ago, but was pipped to the post by Claire Duignan.
Mr O'Reilly broke the news to his "surprised" Communicorp bosses on Monday evening, first telephoning chairman John McColgan and then contacting chief executive Paddy Halpenny.
He also spoke to Mr O'Brien, Communicorp owner, by phone.
It is understood that he did not give the radio group a chance to counter-offer.
"It's a great job, and he wanted to take it, simple as that," one source said.
"He came from RTE, he was Gerry Ryan's producer, and now he's going home."
Mr O'Brien got the news in Miami, where he's attending to business for his telecoms company, Digicel. Mr O'Reilly will stay on at Today FM until January. The radio company is considering options for his replacement, but sources stressed that things were at a "very early stage".
He told some of the stars he brought from RTE to Today FM about his move on Monday night.
"Willie rang and said he had been offered this 'superjob' in RTE. All I could do was wish him luck," breakfast presenter Ian Dempsey told the Irish Independent.
Describing his former boss, Dempsey added: You could have the most massive row with Willie and leave thinking he would never talk to you again, then 10 minutes later, he'd be inviting you out to lunch.
"What's great about Willie is that he can separate the personal and the professional," he said.
Speaking last night, Mr O'Reilly said he had found it difficult breaking the news to staff that he was on the move.
"It was heart-wrenching and emotional, a difficult thing to do with friends and colleagues but in the end we shouldn't be too sentimental, none of us are indispensable," he said.