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Gavin Duffy: All eyes on Joe as RTE battles to keep Pat's listeners


Pat Kenny who has left RTE radio for Newstalk

Pat Kenny who has left RTE radio for Newstalk

Pat Kenny who has left RTE radio for Newstalk

In the controversial final television Presidential debate, on October 24, 2011, Pat Kenny asked each candidate, if elected, would they appoint Denis O'Brien to the Council of State? He probed each candidate's association with the telecoms tycoon.

Isn't it ironic that by his quitting RTE, after 41 years, to join Newstalk, it is Pat himself who is now the one very much associated with Denis O'Brien. It confirms the old line, "money doesn't talk, it swears!" Pat swears he didn't make the move for the money. He stated he "likes new challenges".

So will this be the making of Newstalk or the breaking of RTE Radio 1? No doubt it is a huge boost for Newstalk, but will it seriously damage Radio 1?

Four people emerge positively from the big move –Garrett Harte the Newstalk editor, the hardest working executive in Irish radio; Pat Kenny, who still has the confidence and energy to back himself; Denis O'Brien for being ever the risk taker; and the biggest winner of all, RTE's most undervalued broadcaster, Joe Duffy.

First, to Joe Duffy, as he now becomes the critical factor in this battle of the airwaves. In the next 12 to 18 months, his Liveline could become Ireland's most listened to radio show. It is currently number two. Duffy's phenomenal achievement of attracting up to 415,000 listeners in the graveyard slot of afternoon radio is unparalleled in Irish broadcasting.

Morning Ireland, the country's most listened-to show, has 450,000 listeners but that is at a time when the whole country is available to listen. Also as Newstalk's morning offering improves, it is likely that Morning Ireland will shed possibly as many as 15,000 listeners. A three per cent drop could happen in 2014, especially if Ivan Yates ever returns to Newstalk Breakfast.

The early morning news show followed by Pat Kenny is a very attractive package and should do exceptionally well. Kenny will give much-needed gravitas and kudos to the pioneering commercial talk station. This should cause a boost in ratings. But, whilst we flick from radio station to station in the car, not even the great Pat Kenny can cause the kitchen radio to be switched over entirely to Newstalk. So Radio 1's market share will hold up primarily because of Joe Duffy's afternoon army of loyal listeners.

But Pat Kenny, not Joe Duffy, is the real star here. He has shown yet again he backs himself. Pat is, put simply, the nation's most broadly experienced broadcaster. But he faces a big challenge because he leaves behind him on the Today with Pat Kenny show one of the best teams of producers in Ireland and the UK. Producers like Kay Sheehy, Conor Kavanagh et al have a depth of knowledge, experience and nous that no amount of enthusiasm from a young, energetic team mustered by Newstalk can match.

Also Pat and his Today with Pat Kenny team at RTE always played hard but fair. There is no agenda with Pat Kenny. There is no ranting, no monologues, or no speeches like those favoured by commercial radio talk show hosts. My only wish is for Pat Kenny on Newstalk to be the same Pat Kenny we could trust on Radio 1.

Garrett Harte, a key player in coaxing Pat to Newstalk, must ensure that Kenny has the resources to produce the same high standard of radio he did whilst in Montrose. Yes, there has been speculation about how much cash Denis O'Brien threw at Pat but in the final talks, it was Harte who got Pat to jump. Communicorp CEO Gervaise Slowey led the negotiations but Pat has told friends he was impressed by Harte's vision for Newstalk and its potential to really compete with Radio 1.

For Noel Curran, RTE's director general, it may be the case that the wrong person jumped. If RTE lost a 'star', it may not necessarily be a bad thing. A defection would show that RTE was playing hardball with its top earners and also proves that nothing is sacred in Montrose when it comes to cutbacks.

Curran was trapped like Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal football club manager who adheres to a strict wage cap for players. When RTE faced down Ryan Tubridy earlier this year and got him at well below their €500,000 wage cap, they could not breach that figure for Kenny. Pat's asking price was €585,000 which included him doing a new TV show and not Prime Time.

So Noel Curran played hard, Pat Kenny walked and the orchestra plays on, costing RTE over €15m this year. The upside for RTE is the politicians who complain about the 'silly money' Montrose stars are paid now have to accept there is a market for premier talent. In fact, Pat Kenny is great value for Newstalk. Talks have already commenced with an insurance company that may contribute more than half of Pat's salary as title sponsor and that's before an advert slot is sold.

Communicorp executives claim that Kenny grew more and more excited by the buzz of making a big move to Newstalk in inverse proportion to how unwanted he was made to feel by RTE. They claim it wasn't the money but rather RTE appeared not to woo Kenny enough. Not sure this is exactly true as none of us knows the exact amount of Digicel share options that might have been waved before Kenny as a final sweetener.

Finally, Denis O'Brien. There was a lot of mention last week about Radio 1 being a public service broadcaster. But Newstalk also provides a great service to the public – for free. I estimate Denis O'Brien has pumped €11m into the station to keep it afloat.

Pat Kenny joining his station is a major coup for him. That presidential debate seems so long ago now. Today Pat works for Denis. Pat becomes "the Lion King" at Newstalk and poor old George Hook comes to terms with his new role as "Scar".

Sunday Independent