The top 10 waiting in the wings
As an RTé boss talks tough on salaries, Kim Bielenberg picks the replacements if any stars do defect
More than any other group in the public service, they enjoyed the benefits of the bubble economy, but RTé's best-paid presenters are having to adjust to more modest lifestyles.
RTé's director general Noel Curran this week more or less said that the cosseted stars would have to take pay cuts, or try their luck elsewhere.
"We may, during this process of renegotiation, lose some of our most talented and loved presenters to our competitors,'' said Curran, with perhaps a hint of tongue in cheek.
"That would be very regrettable, but if some choose to leave, we will adjust, find new voices and new ways to deliver services and programmes."
In other words, RTé's stars are being welcomed back to planet Earth.
At their peak, the salaries paid to "top talent'' were one of the wonders of the broadcasting world.
Derek Mooney, for example, hardly the biggest star in firmament, earned €286,000 a year. Marian Finucane cost the taxpayer €570,00 for a programme that goes out twice a week, and Pat Kenny topped the pile at €950,000.
RTé has long justified paying its top performers what were perceived to be exorbitant salaries on the basis that it had to pay its talent competitive rates in order to keep them.
In the past, criticism of this taxpayer-funded largesse was dismissed as populist begrudgery. Defenders of RTé's star system warned that stars could simply jump ship to TV3, Newstalk, Today FM or British stations.
It is highly questionable whether broadcasters were ever knocking on the doors of the agents of the stars in great numbers, offering even more inflated salaries.
Deep down, the RTé boss Noel Curran must know that they are certainly not queuing up with cheque books now.
If Curran had any doubt about that, Andrew Hanlon, a senior executive at the rival station TV3, made it clear that RTé's only domestic TV rival would not be offering lavish pay packets. Hanlon, director of news at TV3, told me that presenters at his station were paid a fraction of what was paid to the top stars in RTé.
Andrew Hanlon said: "Never in a month of Sundays could we pay the same lavish pay packets as those in RTé. We have to run a business.''
Hanlon did not want to reveal the salary levels of his senior presenters.
But Vincent Browne, surely TV3's most prized asset, seemed to let the cat out of the bag a few months ago on his show when he revealed that he received €54,000 into his bank account after deductions.
It is ironic that the salaries some of the big RTé names were inflated like prized Dublin 4 mansions during the boom, while TV3 was able to sign up their star presenter Browne for a relative pittance.
The pay cuts of 30pc affecting the top stars may seem substantial, but they are not happening over a short period of time. The cuts are being made from the peak of 2008 and will take place over a five-year period until 2013 as the stars' contracts come up for renewal.
Even after pay cuts of 30pc, our leading public broadcasters still receive exceptional salaries and generous holidays.
In the Netherlands, a prosperous country with four times the population of Ireland, there was uproar among taxpayers after it was found that the pay of top broadcasters had edged over €180,000, the salary of the Dutch prime minister.
Andrew Hanlon of TV3 said very few RTé presenters were irreplaceable, and could command huge fees if they went elsewhere.
"When Eamon Dunphy left his drivetime programme on Today FM, there were fears that the audience would be lost. Matt Cooper took over and for a time there was a dip, but the audience came back.
"Of course there are exceptional cases. A few years ago, Gay Byrne would have been sought after by rival stations. Gerry Ryan would be another who was difficult to replace.''
RTé's pampered elite have not just been hit by the recession. With the death of Ryan, they not only lost a friend, they also lost their unofficial shop steward and champion.
In his new autobiography, Joe Duffy tells how Ryan urged his colleagues to stick up for themselves when it came to salary negotiations.
A former senior RTé broadcaster told me: "Gerry was not afraid to stand up to management. He was seen as dangerous by those at the top, because they were afraid that he was the one who might go elsewhere.''
As a young presenter who worked as a stand-in for the BBC over the summer, Ryan Tubridy probably has the greatest potential to move, but this week even he said that he intended to stay put.
In the unlikely event of an exodus of top presenters, there would be no shortage of broadcasters from within RTé and from elsewhere who would be eager to replace them. Most would probably be happy to sign up for salaries that are half of those of the present stars.
At the very least, RTé should be required to publish up-to-date figures on the salaries of presenters who are paid for by the taxpayer.
In an age of accountability, the claim that they cannot be revealed because of "commercial sensitivity'' looks like little more than a fig leaf, aimed at covering up the station's extravagance.
So, who could replace our top stars if they walked?
1 Matt Cooper
Pat Kenny, who is entering the autumn of his career, is unlikely to leave RTé any time soon, but Cooper could make a worthy replacement.
In his Today FM drivetime show, the former Irish Independent business editor has shown a nimble versatility and grasp of detail that matches Kenny. He has a knack of getting to the important point quickly in interviews.
As well current affairs and business, Cooper is highly knowledgeable about sport. Entertainment may be a weak point, perhaps disbarring him from a chat show. He is never going to be the next Graham Norton.
The collapse in audience figures for Gerry Ryan's programme shows that he is one of the few presenters who is almost irreplaceable. At some point, RTé executives will have to look to a younger generation to give its schedules a lift, and some station insiders are tipping 28-year-old Eoghan McDermott as the man with the edgy, bad-boy charisma to do the job.
The Dubliner cut his teeth as a Pop4 presenter on TG4 and left Ireland recently to become the drivetime presenter on the London station XFM. He has also been chosen as the co-presenter on RTé's new talent show The Voice.
3 philip boucher hayes
The current head of RTé Radio's investigative unit is an accomplished all-rounder. As well as working as a reporter-at-large and presenter on radio, he has a track record in television. There is an occasional tone of smugness to the Kildare man's delivery, but he brings an inventive flair to the station, particular on consumer and environmental issues.
4 claire byrne
The former Newstalk breakfast show presenter would be in the running if any top presenter upped sticks and left. Her range extends from current affairs on The Late Debate on RTé Radio 1 to the softer focus of the afternoon programme, The Daily Show, on TV.
RTé bosses perhaps showed a sign of things to come when the 36-year-old from Laois was asked to fill in for Marian Finucane during her lengthy summer break. Her next big test could be a prime-time chat show, where she can show whether she has what it takes to become RTé's top star.
5 shaun doherty
The Staffordshire-born morning presenter on Highland Radio in Donegal is an institution in the north-west. In terms of market share in his area, the 47-year-old is believed by radio analysts to be the most popular presenter in the country.
His three-hour daily phone-in programme is similar in many ways to Liveline, but he also brings a touch of humour to the mix. There have been murmurings before about a move to a national station. If Joe Duffy hangs up his mic in the next few years, he would be a natural replacement.
6 richard sadlier
RTé's football punditocracy has been around since the year dot, but if Eamon Dunphy ever calls it a day, another ex-Millwall man is waiting patiently on the bench.
Like other pundits -- including Mark Lawrenson and Jim Beglin -- Sadlier had his career cut short by injury. He is now a forthright panellist on RTé's Premier Soccer Saturday, and manages to steer clear of clichés and gaffes.
7 audrey carville
Miriam O'Callaghan has shown no inclination to leave, but if she called it a day, RTé could turn to another former BBC broadcaster.
Audrey Carville has popped up recently as a reporter and fill-in presenter on Drivetime and The Late Debate. The woman from Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, is well used to grilling top politicians.
For five years up until 2009, she was the host of Europe Today on BBC World Service.
Audrey said: "My favourite interviewees are the ordinary people who have a great story to tell. For me, they're much more interesting than politicians or celebrities.''
8 henry mckean
The plummy-voiced Newstalk presenter moved here as a child from Scotland and now reigns supreme as the king of the vox pop. With an apparently bumbling charm that masks a keen intelligence, he has a talent for getting members of the public to talk.
Nobody else is better at interviewing children.
In recent years, he has also carved out a career in television, presenting a controversial documentary series, The Truth About Travellers, on TV3.
9 darragh maloney
RTé's top football commentator and Irish Independent music columnist George Hamilton will make a welcome return soon after an illness.
His able deputy, Darragh Maloney, has proved to be a worthy replacement behind the mic during George's absence. He is currently the polished presenter of RTé's highlights show Premier Soccer Saturday.
10 rachael english
Since she started in RTé in 1991, the woman from Adare, Co Limerick, has been one of RTé's most authoritative voices on politics, particularly during election time.
Current affairs junkies were gutted when her show Saturday View was axed in the summer to make way for Charlie Bird.
Before that, she won big audiences as presenter of RTé's Drivetime programme, and would be a natural replacement for Seán O'Rourke if he ever moved on.