Jim Carroll

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It’s on: Sean vs Pat

Who will win the Radio Ireland battle for morning audiences this autumn?

Pat Kenny prepares to make himself at home on Newstalk

Mon, Aug 12, 2013, 09:12

   

Before we begin, the caveat emptor bit. There is a school of opinion which holds that media omphaloskepsis is one of the most boring, narcissistic and self-serving things of all. You see this opinion expressed at great length online and in various social media forums when stories like this or the Amazon dude purchasing the Washington Post newspaper are discussed. This, as you may gather, is not that school. We’re all for having the crack running the rule over what happens in the media. There is always the “next” button above for those disbelievers. Now, on with the show.

It’s 10.01am on Monday September 2 and the battle has begun. On one side of the dial, there’s Pat Kenny, the man who has said see-ya to the national broadcaster which has served him and his bank balance very well over the years to run into the arms of Denis O’Brien’s Newstalk. On the other side of the dial, there’s Sean O’Rourke, the RTE broadcaster best known for turning the News At One into a daily must-hear radio show and helming The Week In Politics TV show who now finds himself fronting the Today show. It’s going to be quite a battle.

But, on the other hand, is it? When Kenny announced his move, it was seen as a shock, as one of the most experienced broadcasters of his generation leaving the mothership to try his hand at commercial radio. Many commentators talked about how many thousands of listeners would switch to Newstalk as a result of his move, how potential guests would also jump with Kenny and how the move would allow the commercial station to grow its profile.

Newstalk may have been on the national airwaves for quite some time, yet it hasn’t quite hit the jackpot when it comes to audience figures and news-making sway. Hence, the audacious move to poach Kenny, pay him handsomely for his troubles and give him a parking space in the Marconi House basement. The Communicorp chiefs probably exchanged high fives at the move, though they seemed to overlook the fact that Kenny is probably better known for his clangers over the years than key, insightful, hard-hitting interviews.

RTE’s response, though, is a masterstroke. While there was a lot of chatter – and bets – on names like Miriam O’Callaghan, Claire Byrne or Ryan Tubridy being put into battle against Kenny, the bosses went with O’Rourke. Given what he’s done with the News at One over the years, a show which is probably the best current affairs show on the station, the appointment shouldn’t come as a surprise.

O’Rourke may be best known for his robust grilling of politicians and other interviewees – he has been particularly good at this task when it comes to RTE executives over the years – but he’s also decent at handling the “soft” stories too. You don’t get as many soft stories on the News At One as you will on a daily magazine show, though, so you can understand why this issue was raised. Then again, was Kenny ever the master of the soft story?

It was interesting and illustrative to hear O’Rourke talking up the producers, researchers and other backroom staff at RTE when he was interviewed by Aine Lawlor (herself moving to the News at One with Richard Crowley) on Saturday morning. A radio show is really only as good as the team behind it. A station or show’s production staff are the ones with the contact books, the ability to coax guests onto shows and the nous to establish long-term relationships with key experts. It’s not the presenter who rings up to get people on the show.

No doubt Kenny also realises this and will surely have clauses in his contract about the skills and experience of the production team he can call on at Newstalk (you assume he will, at least) and there are some brilliant people walking the corriders in Marconi House with production experience galore. But RTE have long had the winning hand in this regard and also, for now at least, holds the audience numbers to attract key guests. Tnen, there’s also force of habit: many radio listeners already have their favourites and are often quite reluctant to switch stations.

Kenny’s main task in the first couple of months will be to go out and make serious headlines with the stories he covers rather than sit on his well-paid laurels. Stories not reputations are what will attract listeners and persuade those who tune into Newstalk for the mid-morning to hang around for the excellent Sean Moncrieff in the afternoon. They will probably have skedaddled by the time the boorish, over-rated and dull as dishwater George Hook comes on.

It will be fascinating to see how this battle proceeds. While we’re used to serious radio competition when it comes to the drivetime shows, the mid-morning slot is another matter entirely. Add in Ray D’Arcy on Today FM, the many excellent local radio shows in this slot and the few people still regularly listening to Tubridy on 2fm and you’ve a fairly lively ding-dong in store. Irish people have long shown their fondness for talk radio and all bases are certainly covered with this new line-up across the dial.