It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever faced: should I spend the next few years at RTE or at Newstalk? It's been characterised in some quarters as a choice between the comfort and security of the semi-state sector and the uncertainty of the independent commercial world. But that wasn't it at all.
Since I left the staff payroll of RTE more than 30 years ago and launched myself into a freelance career, I have existed in the commercial world. Quite simply it means that you're only as good as your last show or series. Instead of guaranteed continuity of employment, every contract has to be hard won. It's easy when you're top of the ratings, tough when you're mid-table. When you're not on air, you don't get paid. If you fall ill, you don't have sick leave. And freelance women who are pregnant, like my Prime Time colleague Claire Byrne at the moment, they have their babies on their own time. There's no statutory maternity leave for them. If you want a pension, you fund it yourself. The freelance life keeps you on your toes!
Admittedly, the rewards can be great, but so too are the risks. You are always at the mercy of a new Controller of Programmes or a scheduler who can ensure you get lousy ratings by putting your show in a graveyard slot. And poor ratings can mean no contract renewal. In all my time working at RTE, I have never met any of the top freelance talent, be they Gay Byrne or Gerry Ryan, who felt secure in their positions. So Newstalk or Radio One, RTE One television or TV3, for a freelance broadcaster, the same sort of terms and conditions apply. Freelance broadcasters simply move their insecurities around the marketplace.
So why trade the devil you know for the devil you don't? Why agonise, why torment myself, why not jump without hesitation at the new job? Had RTE become part of my own DNA?
My association with RTE goes back to my childhood. My uncle – Jimmy Mahon – was one of the earliest sound technicians with 2RN, Radio Eireann, which ultimately became part of the semi-state company known as RTE. I remember as a boy, on the way home from school, stopping off in Henry Street for a conducted tour of the radio studios just below the rooftop of the GPO. For me it was like a visit to Oz, green bulbs glowing, red lights flashing, earnest people behind glass screens soundlessly addressing microphones. Occasionally a lead-lined door would swing open and the sound of a grand piano would leak out, or the voice of a sturdy baritone.
Down the corridors we went, peering into studios for speech, for music, for drama. There was a special "dead room" to simulate the sound of outdoors, complete with gravel on the floor for footsteps and a stand alone car door, which was regularly slammed as a sound effect. My uncle Jimmy led me to "the gramophone library" – rows and rows of shelves laden down with 78rpm discs with dusty brown paper labels, and the archives with endless boxes of 12-inch reel-to-reel tapes. To me it was pure magic. In truth, as I discovered when I joined RTE and served briefly in the GPO myself, it was a musty, dusty place, struggling to remain in the Fifties while the rest of the world had moved on to the Seventies.
The infatuation with radio, born in boyhood, blossomed into a full blown love affair when I became an RTE continuity announcer. My duties were limited, but I spent my time getting to know the nuts and bolts of the radio service. There were some conundrums: where did the actors go between rehearsals and transmission? The answer to that one was simple: the Tower Bar in Henry Street. Why did so many of the radio producers have names "as Gaeilge" when their close friends addressed them in the English version? The answer to that was rooted in a Civil Service culture that favoured those with a fluency in the First Official Language, without which little advancement was possible. Why was there so little pop music on the station? Because it was not liked or enjoyed by those in charge.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed all of its oddities, and cherished the friendships I made, particularly among an anarchic band of brothers like Brendan Balfe and Mike Murphy, who cut their teeth making the 15-minute commercial programmes that often were mini masterpieces.
But outside the walls of the GPO, a revolution was under way, a revolution in popular radio that would produce Gerry Ryan, Dave Fanning, Bryan Dobson and many more who went on to become household names. Inspired by the legendary offshore pirate radio ship Radio Caroline, illegal radio stations popped up all over the place, and forced the government's hand to allow the birth of 2fm, and to license independent commercial radio stations to satisfy the public demand for real choice.
It's taken a while, but the independent sector has grown and matured into rude good health, and Newstalk is a child of that process. Undoubtedly, compared with RTE, it is an infant child in broadcasting, so why leap into the unknown? Well, first of all, I find changes of direction invigorating and rejuvenating, that's my default attitude to life. Moving from TV current affairs to the Eurovision Song Contest, Kenny Live and The Late Late Show, back to current affairs on The Frontline, was challenging and fun. But being moved to Prime Time was the nub of it: I had presented the same programme under a different banner, Today Tonight, in the Eighties, so Prime Time for me was not a career progression, and it made it easier to walk away. The dilemma was, as it is always, the friends, the colleagues you must leave behind.
I believe that we now have a real marketplace for talent, for journalists, producers, researchers, reporters, presenters. I am hoping that my move to Newstalk is seen as a vindication of that belief. The people at Newstalk have taken a leap of faith with me, and I with them. It's an exciting project to build audiences, and enhance an already vibrant radio station. And I'm going to give it my best shot.