Wednesday 13 December 2017

No North-South divide in this successful multi-media double act

Duo upbeat despite fury at disbanding of INN services

Laura Noonan

INTERVIEWS are usually a one man job, but UTV chief executive John McCann and his Radio Ireland boss Ronan McManamy make such a double act it seems a shame to split them up.

More Ant and Dec than pinstriped plc folk, the duo jostle spiritedly in the foyer of Trinity's Naughton Institute as the photos are taken, with the somewhat diminutive McCann posing a few steps above the more statuesque McManamy.

"They'll only want me in the picture, I'm much better looking," the ceo quips, to guffaws and protests from his ROI lieutenant.

The banter keeps up when the interview proper starts, even as the thorny issue of local news provider INN is broached.

The disbanding of INN, which counted UTV as a 40pc shareholder, has been the biggest controversy of Irish radio this year, provoking fury from politicians and trade unions that revolted at the toppling of a national institution.

Less than 24 hours after the INN closure was announced, McManamy sent an e-mail touting for business for a UTV news services operation, showing an indecent haste that prompted outrage at journalists' union the NUJ and unease in local radio land.

"At times I'd like to have him lynched myself," laughs McCann, responding to the NUJ's stance on the slightly uncomfortable looking man sitting just inches away.

"To me it was very straight- forward," McCann adds. "INN found itself a victim of the recession, it couldn't sell sufficient airtime in these straitened times to pay its way, it was losing money hand over fist.

"The answer was closure."

Once that decision was made, McCann says, "people like Ronan" had to "move very fast" to put an alternative together in time for INN's closure four weeks later. The suggestion of "indecent haste" is one he absolutely refuses to countenance.

"We had people ringing us to see what we were doing," McManamy adds, brushing aside claims that his swift response was partly to blame for UTV securing just one local station for its news services while 17 opted to go with Newstalk.

The idea that UTV "took INN out", brings out another spirited defence from McManamy, as he insists the decision to close was made unanimously by all shareholders "on legal advice" and was not directed by UTV at either head office or local level.

One elephant in the room dealt with, the spectre of UTV's purchase of FM104 for an eye-watering €52m still looms large, as does the Ulster broadcaster's role in a wave of Irish radio consolidation that's drawn criticism from some quarters.

"You make your investments at the time and they seem sensible, then a recession comes along and it blows these things out of the water," McCann says of the December 2007 FM104 deal. "Everything (that was bought in the boom) looks expensive now."

He adds that the Dublin station makes a unique contribution to UTV by giving the group coverage across Ireland's urban centres, enabling the launch of an Urban Access ad package that now draws in 30pc of Radio Ireland's revenue.

"If you looked at the price we paid relative to FM104's operating profit, you wouldn't do it as a standalone deal, but it works for us," he says. "We actually walked away from more deals than we did (in the boom)."

Finances aside, the FM104 deal gave UTV a 16.66pc share of the Irish radio market, well below the Broadcasting Authority's 25pc threshold but enough to exercise those in favour of more diverse media ownership.

For the UTV boys though, the perils of consolidation are a non-event. McManamy points out that his six stations are "performing better" and employing more people than they did when they were owned as standalone, "clearly benefiting the listener".

"We never try to impose a set of UTV principles on any of the stations," McCann stresses, while McManamy says UTV doesn't even want listeners to know its six stations form one group. "A lot of the reason Dublin stations do badly in Cork is because they're from Dublin," he stresses. "Local stations have to be local."

UTV's love of the local means that while sales are co-ordinated nationally, the stations are operationally independent on pretty much every other level, going against the grain of trends favouring centralisation.

"We could do all sort of things cheaper by centralising everything," McCann says. "That's not what it's about -- the business is about driving the audience and selling the audience you deliver."

The media group is doing some things cheaper though, having completed a €6m cost-cutting spree earlier in the year. "You'll always be able to do stuff (more cuts) at the margins but there isn't another €6m," McCann admits flatly.

Lucky then, that the advertising cycle seems to be turning, at least across the water where UTV referenced an "improving trend" in radio at its August trading update. "GB (Great Britain) Radio has softened quite considerably," says McCann. "In the Irish market people are making more optimistic noises but it's not translating into positive revenue numbers."

The update also included a 30pc fall in first half profits, to £7.7m. "If we'd been purely reliant on TV we wouldn't be in nearly as good a position," says McCann, ranking diversifying into radio and online as one of his best decisions in ten years as ceo, second only to hiring "the charming Ronan McManamy".

Irish Independent

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