Monday 15 October 2018

The day a cheque for £1m was left on Gay's table

By TOM BRADY

In the week that the Century Radio saga began to unfold at the Flood tribunal, Sam Smyth reveals the extraordinary lengths the fledgling station went to in their bid to poach RTE's most bankable asset...

If Gay Byrne signed on it would immediately bring investment and credibility to Century and instantly undermine the dominant position of RTE.



It was a shrewd, if crudely obvious, business plan designed to simultaneously give a huge boost to the new independent national radio station and put the State-owned broadcasting company on the defensive.



For months Oliver Barry had been trying to lure the nation's number one broadcaster to Ireland's first independent national radio station.



Gay Byrne attended meetings in the Shelbourne hotel with Oliver Barry where the elaborate plan for Century was spelled out.



It was like taking him to the top of a transmitter and saying: ``Gaybo, you can have anything you want and everything your see if you pledge your radio persona to Century.''



No specific deal regarding money or a share of the equity was firmly offered to him at that stage, but he was spoken to as the flagship broadcaster on the country's first non-pirate radio station.



Millions of pounds would be available to the new station but they had just one programme idea for a successful radio station if they won the licence to broadcast.



Nobody seems to have given much thought to what would be available for their listeners through the other 22 hours when Gay Byrne wasn't on the air.



All of their energy had been spent on the deal, the promoters of Century were consumed with the sort of business intrigue that rewards men with seven-figure bonuses for their talent for trading goods or services.



The money wasn't a problem: according to contemporary wisdom, breaking RTE's monopoly promised massive rewards for those lucky enough to be join the other investors.



The then Minister for Communications, Ray Burke, told anyone who would listen that he intended humbling RTE.



Fine Gael were just as keen but less vocal about their enthusiasm for putting manners on RTE, although the Labour Party wanted the State to have a majority 51pc share in any new stations.



The politicians, and Fianna Fail in particular, were creating an environment for the business community to get rich proving RTE with competition.



Radio seemed THE sexy investment of the late '80s, the dot com share of the time.



The Gordon Gekkos were shouting `Greed is Good' in Wall Street and it was echoed by the brokers in red braces whooping it up in the Horseshoe Bar.



In the same room upstairs in the Shelbourne hotel where Oliver Barry regularly met with Laurence Crowley and John Mulhern, Gay Byrne told Barry he was less convinced that a radio franchise was a licence to print money.



After his experience with accountant Russell Murphy, who had effectively stolen everything Gay Byrne had ever made in his career, the canny broadcaster was reticent.



Cautious by nature, Byrne's view was that Barry and his friend should set their sights lower and aim for one of the two Dublin licenses.



Still, Gay Byrne owed Oliver Barry, and he is famously loyal to his friends and he didn't rule out the idea of becoming involved with the national independent station.



After the embarrassment that followed his betrayal by Russell Murphy, Oliver Barry had organised a successful tour of the country where Byrne headlined a variety show that provided hard cash when Gaybo most needed it.



They became close friends, each offering the other sound advice from experience expensively bought through the 20 something years since they first met.



When they didn't meet in the anonymous upstairs room in the Shelbourne, Barry and Byrne discovered the only place they could meet regularly without arousing suspicions was beside Gay's parking space in RTE's car park.



As Barry's enthusiasm for the project grew, Gay Byrne was non-committal, blowing hot and cold on the proposal.



Then RTE played their trump card: If Gay Byrne became the flagship presenter for century radio, he would be dropped as presenter and producer of the Late Late Show.



Byrne continued to waver as Barry pressed him to commit. RTE adopted the carrot and stick approach: No Late Late Show if he switched to Century and a substantial increase in his fees for both his daily radio programme and the weekly TV slot of he stayed.



Oliver Barry, who had just promoted Michael Jackson's concerts in Cork and Frank Sinatra's sell-out shows in Dublin that May, had a lot of cash.



In the summer of 1998, Oliver Barry decided to use his treasure chest to play on Gay Byrne's insecurity following the Russell Murphy debacle.



It was a typical Oliver Barry gambit: the big showdown.



He rang Gay Byrne, said he would call out to see the great broadcaster at his home in Howth and then drew out his NIB chequebook and wrote out a personal cheque for £1m, payable to Gay Byrne.



Like any good salesman, and he is among the best, Oliver Barry brings stagecraft to his pitch.



He left his briefcase in the Mercedes outside and brought his raincoat with him when he called at Gay Byrne's door. Gay welcomed Barry into his home and they went into a room to talk.



Gay's wife, Kathleen Watkins, a talented broadcaster herself, joined them in the room.



Ms Watkins was offered an opportunity to join the Century broadcasting team with her own programme, at an annual salary of £50,000.



And then Oliver Barry took the NIB cheque for £1m from his pocket and placed it on the table.



Gay Byrne and his Kathleen Watkins looked at the cheque, then looked at Oliver Barry and then looked back at the cheque.



To put the £1m cheque in perspective, at that time Terry Wogan, later to be a director of Century and then the highest paid broadcaster in the BBC in London, was earning some £350,000 a year for his three nights a week TV chat show.



It was the moment of truth for the salesman: Oliver Barry said he had forgotten his brief case and asked to be excused while he went to fetch it from the car outside.



Leaving Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins alone and looking at the £1m cheque is an old psychological ruse used by the kind of salesmen who earn a bonus of a Cadillac rather than a set of steak knives.



When he returned, Barry asked Gay Byrne again if he would take the £1m as proof of Century's seriousness of purpose and assured his prospective flagship broadcaster that he would have a substantial slice of the equity.



Gay Byrne had made up his mind and let his old friend down as gently as Oliver Barry deserved.



But no matter who diplomatically it is delivered, a refusal always disappoints and Oliver Barry, a season poker player and negotiator, picked up his cheque and left.



He didn't take his raincoat which had been hung up in Gay Byrne's house: a superstitious man, Barry believes in leaving something behind in a deal -- whichever way it works out.



With no Gay Byrne, Century had an state-of-the-art business plan but no ideas for a product to bring home revenues.



John Mulhern, the son-in-law of the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, and a very successful businessman in his own right, was the first person Barry had approached.



Mulhern had brought in Laurence Crowley and then James Stafford and Barry matched their £275,000 investment.



James Stafford took on the responsibility for bring in institutional investors and negotiating the transmission system with RTE.



Davy's stockbrokers brought £2m to Century from institutional investors as they pressed ahead after Gay Byrne had finally said he was sticking with RTE.



It all got very, very hairy with RTE who fought tooth and nail to maintain their dominant position. And eventually their flagship morning programme saw an unfortunate Emer Woodfall go head-to-head with Gay Byrne.



It went all downhill from that: Century claimed that RTE's technical staff assured them their signal reached 60pc of potential listeners while RTE's advertising staff claimed they had only 30pc of the country covered.



It lost some £8m over the next 26 months, taking in only £2 for every £3 spent by the station.



In October 1996, the directors of century were ``honourably discharged'' from their duties to the station by the High Court by Miss Justice Mella Carroll.



Then last Monday they faced another inquest into the same fiasco when James Stafford was the first of the former directors to appear at the Flood tribunal.



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