'When I see the pensions I wish I was still on staff'
Pat Kenny doesn't miss the 'Late Late', but does admit to a few regrets in his long career, he tells Daniel McConnell
It's lunchtime on Friday and Pat Kenny is walking me through the set of The Late Late Show in RTE, a set he vacated a year previously, to an interview room deep within the bowels of Montrose. Ahead of the return of his pet project, The Frontline, Kenny -- Ireland's highest-paid broadcaster -- has a few things to say.
As we settle into the small room, I begin by asking him if he misses hosting the big one a year on.
"I don't miss the old gig at all. Ten years at the Late Late was perfect. I would have gone on for another year because there was symmetry -- 11 years of Kenny Live, then 11 years of the Late Late. But when the opportunity came to take over the slot vacated by Questions and Answers and the way it was put to me was that 'Listen, it's there for you if you want to do something with it, but it mightn't be there next year' . . . I went."
He admits he has not watched much of Ryan Tubridy's Late Late at all because it would be "too much like work", and he is not in a position to judge how successful it is.
"You don't give up the Late Late after 10 years to sit in on a Friday night to watch it. So all I would look at is the numbers and they seem very good. It's different, but so be it. It's not the same show, obviously."
Kenny denies he put the boot into Tubridy in a newspaper article two weeks ago in the wake of critical comments by Today FM DJ Ian Dempsey.
He explains: "I texted Ryan to say don't read the headline, read the text. My view of Ryan, and a lot of people were saying, was that nobody really knows how good The Tubridy Show on radio was because it was sandwiched between Morning Ireland, which is a big rater and the PK Show, which is a big rater with listeners. So you don't know."
He added: "And he's now given an opportunity to step into Gerry Ryan's shoes -- a big opportunity but it is a very exposed position for Ryan. I don't hear it so I can't pass judgement on it. It may take some years for it to work. The Gerry Ryan Show did not evolve overnight into the massive juggernaut it became. It took a while."
He says he rates Tubridy as a broadcaster, but the word 'young' and references to his age keep coming up.
He also says for him to take over The Late Late Show from Gay Byrne was the "poisoned chalice of all time" and that Byrne had stayed too long. He feels that his "transition" decade as host of the Late Late has made life easier for Tubridy.
"I mean, the option was to continue doing Kenny Live and watch someone else do the Late Late or I could have done the Late Late and bury Kenny Live. But I felt very much the massive persona of Gay and for the first while I was getting 'Ah he's not Gay and we'll never watch the Late Late again'. But Gay himself said he shouldn't have stayed as long as he did. He stayed too long."
He continues: "I remember meeting him one summer, and I was dying to get back to do the [radio] show and Kenny Live and I asked him 'Are you looking forward to getting back', and he said no he was dreading it.
"I asked why and he said, 'I've interviewed everybody and, if I haven't, I've interviewed somebody like them.' I recognised the circular nature of the beast was coming home to roost. There is only a small number of people you can interview. You know, it's like, well, I've interviewed Westlife five times now, or U2 have done their thing. And you want to bring freshness to everything you do.
"I made sure that the Late Late survived. The big thing I'm very proud of is keeping the Late Late alive after Gay. Ryan is the third main presenter and it is easier for the third man, and it will be easier for the fourth. The big challenge for him is that it survives him. It has to be The Late Late Show presented by Ryan Tubridy and not become the Ryan Tubridy show."
Recently, Clare Duignan -- the current head of radio in RTE and a "front runner" to be successor to Cathal Goan as director general, according to Kenny -- said that stars like him would have to accept that the salary boom years were over.
Kenny, who was paid €950,956 in 2008 but whose compensation was reduced to €630,000 last year, rejects the notion that his and other stars' salaries were the result of Celtic Tiger excess.
"Well, I always smile to myself about the salaries issue. Back in the 1980s Gaybo was earning in real terms more than everyone is earning in RTE now. So the idea that these are Celtic Tiger rates of pay is not really true. You also have to incentivise people too. I often wonder why there isn't the same fuss over the salaries paid to footballers like John O'Shea, earning more in three weeks than Marian Finucane earns in a year. There is a double standard there."
He says RTE broadcasters "put themselves on the line, they entertain the nation week in week out, and yet they are paid a trivial amount compared to footballers. Is it a big deal? Of course it is a big deal. When people are losing their jobs it is an obscenity.
"But I think when the contracts are renegotiated they will take a different turn, but that it is life," he adds.
He admits to being annoyed by all the kerfuffle about his salary. "Well, yes, it's an annual story and it doesn't change from year to year. We all took a hit, I am back to 2002 pay levels. I'm not sure if anyone else is down to 2002. The big news last year was that we all took a hit and that continues. There is no doubt the negotiating discussions next time round will be very different. They will be very interesting. Do you play poker with RTE management or will RTE be playing poker with you?"
Kenny, like many of the top stars, is not in fact RTE staff, but rather an outside contractor. He admits he does not do his contract negotiations himself. "I have someone come in and do the negotiations for me. People don't realise I have to have an accountant to do my accounts, I have to provide for my own pension. If I get sick tomorrow, that's it. If I take a day off to go to Gerry Ryan's funeral, that's out of my holidays. It's all counted up. It was the same with Joe Duffy when he had his leg trouble. I have always accepted that."
He adds: "I remember being told by a senior management person that the only way I could do all these things like TV and radio would be if I left the staff. Now there are some people who have stayed on staff -- like Sean O'Rourke -- they are paid an on-air additional fee but they are still staff. And when I see the size of the pensions I wish I could have stayed on staff but it wasn't possible."
Asked if he is sensitive to criticism he replies: "I certainly was in the beginning. In fact, up until fairly recently I used to read stuff. But I don't anymore because it's a bit like I wouldn't be here if I couldn't do the job. I wouldn't get the ratings if I couldn't do it. So if people have a go at me, I now go, 'Okay that's fine'. Earlier on, you expect to be liked. And then it becomes a real shock when you find there is a cohort of people who don't like you, who say this, that and the other about you. But I have got over that, I have actually gotten over that. If something grossly unfair is said about me, I bridle, but I tend not to say anything."
Kenny, now aged 62, said he has had to become philosophical about media criticism.
"The big change in me came about during the run-up to the Eamon Dunphy chat show. And at that time there was a lot of stuff written about me, betting on Eamon to win. But it was a test of me, a test by fire.
"Here you had one of the great iconoclasts taking me on. He is being very upfront and aggressive about what he is going to do. There was a lot of personal criticism of me at the time and I had to get over it, I just had to get over it. And the way the thing panned out, it was a vindication of what I was doing on the Late Late. It was after that I stopped being as sensitive."
However, he says his attitude doesn't prevent his loved ones from getting hurt by stories in the newspapers. "You can't stop your family getting upset about certain things. I mean Kathy will read certain things and I say don't bother about that.
"But you also have to think, well, if they stop writing about you altogether, well then God help you."
What about the Kenny ego? "I think you have to have a certain ego to do this job. You have to believe that people want to listen to you. I'm not sure, though, in the classic sense. I'm probably the least star-like person here in RTE.
"Gerry was the uber-star and he certainly had a certain sense of himself, and full marks to him. I am probably more self-effacing. When you have lived with the whole 'everyone knows you' lark -- I've lived with it for 30 years -- it is something you know, it is a price you pay."
But despite his status, Kenny admits he does not get it all his own way.
"I have made no secret I would have liked to have gone back to 9 o'clock in the morning (the slot given to John Murray), but even though I wanted it I didn't get it. And I have made no secret that I would like The Frontline to start at 9.30pm because I'm back in at half eight the following morning.
"I'd prefer not to be going home at 1 o'clock in the morning. . . I'd prefer to be going home at 12. The fact that I want this and that, others like the DG think it's better that the schedulers make the call. Just because you want something, no matter how much you want it, doesn't mean you get it."
Before we finish up, I ask him about the 2008 High Court case between him and his next-door neighbour Gerard Charlton. He was incredibly reluctant to talk about what he said was a very difficult chapter in his life, which he said he was glad was over.
"We reached a settlement and my neighbour and I live side by side. It's a chapter in my life I'm glad to have settled, and it's behind me and I now want to live on in harmony with the neighbours. But it was tough, really tough, at the time."
He concludes by saying his big regret to this day was not exploring offers to work in Britain at the end of the Eighties.
"After the Eurovision I presented with Michelle Rocca in 1988, there were offers in Britain that I didn't explore. It's a 'what might have been'. I've done what I have done here in Ireland, with the Late Late and now The Frontline, which I'm very proud of. I always wonder why didn't I take those opportunities at the time, and probably I didn't think about them enough."