Wednesday 17 October 2018

RTE Radio 1 mops up blood on the floor after biggest shake-up in years

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

WHEN RTE's union reps first scheduled a meeting with Ana Leddy soon after she started as head of Radio 1, it was intended as an informal "getting-to-know-you" chat. Leddy came from her previous job as manager of BBC Radio Foyle in Derry with a brief to shake up the radio station and a reputation for fearless feather-ruffling. From the unions' point of view, said one source, ge

WHEN RTE's union reps first scheduled a meeting with Ana Leddy soon after she started as head of Radio 1, it was intended as an informal "getting-to-know-you" chat. Leddy came from her previous job as manager of BBC Radio Foyle in Derry with a brief to shake up the radio station and a reputation for fearless feather-ruffling. From the unions' point of view, said one source, getting their relationship with this potential firebrand off to an good start was no bad idea.

Dates were set only to be cancelled again because of the usual difficulties in assembling any group of people in a room. By the time the union reps finally caught up with her in the RTE radio centre at 11am last Wednesday, any hopes of a social chinwag with the new boss were out the window. Instead, Seamus Dooley, of the National Union of Journalists, Jimmy Jordan, of Siptu and Mary Curtin, RTE's trade union group secretary, found themselves surveying the industrial relations fallout of Leddy's first four months in the job.

Leddy had lived up to her fabled steeliness and effected the greatest shake-up of RTE Radio 1 in years. Low-audience shows like Rattlebag , the afternoon arts show hosted by Myles Dugnan, and John Kelly's Mystery Train , were for the chop. Others, like The Creedon Show, were kicked into the graveyard slot, ousting the long-serving Val Joyce in the process. Joe Duffy got an extra 15 minutes for Liveline , while Derek Mooney was elevated from his weekend wildlife show to a two-hour daily slot.

It didn't help the case of disgruntled presenters that RTE released the pay of their top 10 earners, with Pat Kenny on top of the list with ?899,000 for a year's work. Twice as much as the next highest-paid, Gerry Ryan, at ?487,492, and Marian Finucane at ?439,265. What galled staff, though, was that Leddy had presented her schedule as a fait accompli , breaking the bad news in one-on-ones with presenters as the printers whirred off the new schedule for the news desks.

Indignation at the lack of consultation rebounded at the tense meeting of staff and radio bosses the following day. To compound it all last weekend, less than a month later, she unleashed another storm of protest when she dictated that production teams were also to be part of the reshuffle. One by one on Thursday and Friday, about 20 producers and researchers were called in and told they were being reassigned. Others heard the news from their line managers.

Pat Kenny's show was to lose four production staff to other programmes. And four of Ryan Tubridy's five-person team of researchers were being transferred, including Catriona McFadden, the effervescent reporter who was assigned to Dave Fanning's slot on the new Drivetime show that will replace Five Seven Live .

In a private company, it wouldn't seem that big a deal. But in the heavily-unionised public service institution that is RTE, the effect was shocking enough to prompt headlines of rebellion in the ranks.

"It came out of the blue. We were just settling down after the schedule revamp when this came at us without warning," said one source.

Even worse for those affected, according to several radio staff, was the manner in which the news was delivered.

According to one management source, several people said they had heard the news from a producer in charge and not from Ana Leddy. "You could argue that she is new in here and does not know many people," he said.

But the reality was that consulting staff on where they wanted to go would have been too messy.

"When introducing fairly radical change, once you start consultation you start leaks. The difficulty is that RTE is a leaky place," said a source. "Also the problems with consultation is that at some point it has to stop being consultation and become an order."

Others in RTE say this is no different to a Cabinet reshuffle. Welcome to the real world of falling listenership figures and increased competition. The changes to the RTE radio schedule have been plotted by Adrian Moynes, the managing director of radio since 2002 and, some say, the true architect of the new schedule.

RTE Radio 1 has been losing listeners in recent years, as a result of competition from the personality-driven shows on Today FM and NewsTalk106 - which goes national in September. There was also the threat from 28 local radio stations to consider. Morning Ireland was flagging and it seemed nothing could shift the afternoon slump when listeners turned away in their droves. According to sources, attempts to inject newlife into a jaded schedule were never easy.

"It is easier to change television that radio. Radio is more fixed than TV. Pat Kenny is on every day. Gerry Ryan is on every day," said a source. "Most radio is driven by personalities. If a team is happy together, they want to stay together. Producers are less likely to move - the hours might be anti-social, for example."

Beneath his polite and gentle exterior Moynes, according to those who know him, is a canny and shrewd operator. The thinking quickly turned to bringing in a gun-slinger rather than forcing a long-serving RTE radio-staffer to turn on former colleagues. The opportunity came when Leddy's predecessor as head of Radio 1, Eithne Hand, decided to take a year's leave of absence. Her reasons were entirely personal but her departure provided radio bosses with an opportunity to "bring in an outside set of eyes".

When Leddy walked into RTE in February after an 18-year stint in the BBC, she was just what RTE management was looking for.

Ana Leddy didn't shy from the task. She started in RTE in February, declared her door always open and then holed herself up for several months listening to hours and hours of radio output.

Derek Davis, the veteran broadcaster who is filling for Joe Duffy on Liveline , said the changes were not quite the heartless cull that some newspaper headlines would have led us to believe.

"There is no doubt that people were surprised, some shocked, some disappointed and some were pleased. It's the first reshuffle we've had in a long time," he said. "But what she was charged with and head of radio was charged with is holding onto market share. Part of that is trying to get the most suitable people [for programmes].

"On Liveline - as far as I know there was nobody complaining, nobody is complaining about their present or future disposition," he said, going on to praise the show's solid production team.

"This will settle down," he concludes. And so it is. By this weekend, the blood on the floor at RTE's radio centre was being mopped up. The trade unions have got a commitment to consultation on future changes at their meeting with Leddy.

According to sources, most of the most disgruntled production staff have been mollified. The official line, given by Mary Curtin, the secretary of the RTE unions group, is that "there is a commitment on the part of radio management to consult in the future on such issues.

"Most of the 10 or so people who protested about being moved to other shows have had their cases reviewed by the management.

"There were several cases where people had very valid reasons for not wanting to move. There has been a lot moving halfway on this. The real problem was one of consultation," said one source.

To further calm the waters on Friday, Ana Leddy circulated her justification for change to staff, which was also released to the Sunday Independent in response to questions we submitted to her. It included the need for change to boost listeners and went on to give her account of the turmoil.

"As part of a normal process of creative management, our editorial team looked across the entire body of staff and built new production teams with the combination of skills needed to deliver the new schedule. As a result, some people will focus on new challenges while others will continue in their current roles. Nobody is being asked to do anything outside the terms and conditions of their contract. This is a time for renewal which means challenge and change but also real opportunity," the note said. "This represents more change than has been experienced in RTE Radio 1 for some time now and its scale has inevitably impacted on staff. But that should be kept in perspective and not blown out of proportion. For many the prospect of change is welcome. It is understandable that some staff have been upset and in those cases we are listening to their concerns."

Leddy's coup de grace was yet to come. Later on Friday, RTE announced that Eamon Dunphy will join Radio 1 to do a one-hour weekly show, just weeks after he walked from NewsTalk106 in a row over his working hours. Dunphy - once the bete noir of RTE and a guaranteed audience-puller - said he was delighted to be joining. The timing couldn't be better from Leddy's point of view. Dunphy is heavy artillery in her mission to give her rivals a good kicking in the listenership wars. It has also helped silence her detractors - at least for now.

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