Tuesday 20 March 2018

Owner of leading local station 'never earned a penny from it' - EAT hears

Highland Radio group boss Gerry Rabbitte. (North West Newspix)
Highland Radio group boss Gerry Rabbitte. (North West Newspix)

Greg Harkin

THE owner of Ireland’s most popular local radio station has ‘never earned a penny’ from it and blamed former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for its financial crisis, an employment appeals tribunal has heard.

Galway man Gerry Rabbitte, (70), was giving evidence at a hearing in Letterkenny in which his Highland Radio station is being sued for constructive dismissal by a former DJ.

Steven Lynch, (38), from Carndonagh, Co Donegal, is seeking €78,879 in lost earnings after leaving the station where he was the second most popular presenter in the summer of 2013.

The tribunal has already heard that Lynch was paid a basic €390 per week for presenting his afternoon radio show and was expected to then sell advertising in his spare time to make up a larger salary.

However in early 2013, due to falling advertising sales, his clients were taken off him.

He also had access to a pool car removed and he later refused an offer of €450 per week to continue his radio show plus a €50-per-week fuel allowance.

Stephen Lynch who has taken a case of unfair dismisal against former employers Highland Radio. (North West Newspix)
Stephen Lynch who has taken a case of unfair dismisal against former employers Highland Radio. (North West Newspix)

Giving evidence on the last day of the tribunal hearing, Mr Rabbitte rejected suggestions from Mr Lynch’s solicitor Ciaran MacLochlainn that his family had taken large amounts of money out of Highland during the financial crisis whilst enforcing pay cuts on staff members.

“We paid a fortune for Highland in 2008. I remember sitting in Mr O’Brien’s office (businessman Denis O’Brien) and buying the station,” said Mr Rabbitte.

“It was just after our Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said there was going to be a soft landing for the economy.

“We paid a lot of money (for the station) and we borrowed a lot of money and we gave a full commitment to pay back the bank which we have done.”

He rejected claims by former station manager Charlie Collins, who later launched a failed bid to win the radio license franchise for north Donegal, that his family had profited from Highland Radio.

“I want to categorically deny this. This was planted out there by Mr Collins that we were taking money (€700,000 a year) out of Highland to pay off another company; we were paying nothing other than the loan we took to buy Highland Radio.

“We are there seven years now and we’ve never taken a cent out of the station. In fact we have put hundreds of thousands of euro into the station otherwise it would have gone.”

Mr Rabbitte said he had trusted Charlie Collins to negotiate with Mr Lynch over a deal which would keep the DJ on air.

“In hindsight we were very gullible at the time. He (Collins) later tried to take our business off us,” said the Galway businessman.

Asked why Mr Lynch had his advertising clients taken off him, denying him a chance to earn extra money, Mr Rabbitte said: “He hadn’t even gone near them (clients); they hadn’t done business with us for six months or a year.

“They are called a sales person because they are supposed to do sales.”

He said he was told by Mr Collins that Mr Lynch wanted a much higher weekly pay in order make ends meet.

However he didn’t receive any further notice of a ‘reasonable’ request for a higher salary.

“I was told that if he (Lynch) wasn’t getting the car, he wanted €700 a week, he wanted the whole shebang. He wasn’t for moving,” said Mr Rabbitte.

The tribunal has already heard claims from Mr Lynch that he could not survive on his DJ-only salary.

Mr Lynch also claimed his car was taken off him on the day his father died.

This was rejected by Mr Rabbitte.

“My own brother was terminally ill at the time and we were deeply respectful of Steven’s position at the time,” he said.

The tribunal panel is expected to issue its ruling in December.

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