Monday 19 February 2018

Door still open for 'Off the Ball' presenters despite mass walkout

Fiach Kelly and Louise Hogan

THE presenters of Newstalk radio's award winning 'Off The Ball' sports show, who have resigned en masse, are welcome back to the station "individually" – but it is unlikely they will return as a team.

The five-strong team had sought the moving of their show to an earlier slot at drivetime, but station management said this was impossible for listenership and commercial reasons.

The presenters – Eoin McDevitt, Ken Early, Simon Hick, Ciaran Murphy and Mark Horgan – approached station bosses late last year asking that the start time be moved from 7pm to 6pm.

They wanted a further move to 5pm further down the line.

Station bosses were anxious to keep the crew but not at all costs. After a weekend of reflection on both sides, the sports team resigned yesterday afternoon when management didn't accede to the slot move and the 'Off the Ball' members turned down an extra show and resources on Saturday mornings.

After "a bit of brinkmanship" over the past few days they walked the line, a station insider said. Neither Mr McDevitt nor Mr Early returned requests for comment last night.

The dramatic move came as a shock to the show's cult following, with many listeners leaving messages on social media and also texting the show.

Newstalk sports editor Ger Gilroy – who devised the show in 2002 – took over as presenter last night.

"We have huge respect for the lads, if it is the case that they want to come back and sit down, the door would be open," a source said. "The door would be open to them individually. They resigned as a team and we can't see them coming back as a team.

"The lads are passionate and they felt this (proposed move) would allow them to reshape drivetime."


However, this ran up against commercial and ratings objections from management, who claim the switch could have cost them between €300,000 and €500,000.

'Off The Ball' had 39,000 listeners, compared with 131,000 for George Hook's 'The Right Hook', 95,000 for Sean Moncrieff's programme and 61,000 for the lunchtime show.

An earlier start for 'Off The Ball' would have meant taking time from one of these, which would have hit ratings and advertising revenues.

Primetime radio advertising slots are sold between 7am and 7pm, and moving 'Off The Ball' forward would have truncated primetime and decreased the advertising income.

"It would be commercial madness, and the advertisers would not let us extend primetime to between 7am and 9pm," a senior station insider added.

The station also had brand research carried out recently, which showed "there was a real male perception with the station".

"It was Sky News and Talksport, we were trying to lighten the brand and make it more female friendly." George Hook has 46,000 female listeners, while 'Off The Ball' had only 6,000, and the station claimed the proposed switch would have meant haemorrhaging that female audience.

"From a JNLR point of view, it was not an option," the source added.

Discussions had been ongoing since late last year, and the presenters' proposals had been tested but did not find favour with advertisers.

As an alternative, the team was offered extra resources, more money, a shift to broadcasting four nights a week instead of the current five and an extra show on a Saturday morning where bosses claim one million listeners are available.

Irish Independent

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