Pat Kenny versus Seán O’Rourke: from ‘tanks on the lawn’ to laid-back rivalry

Ahead of the publication tomorrow of the first clear listenership figures since Newstalk’s ‘declaration of war’ on RTÉ, the two presenters are relaxed and frank about their stations in life

Red corner, blue corner: Pat Kenny of Newstalk, and Seán O’Rourke of RTÉ

Red corner, blue corner: Pat Kenny of Newstalk, and Seán O’Rourke of RTÉ


‘This time last year I thought my best days were behind me. Now I think they are in front of me.” These words are spoken not by Pat Kenny, but by the man who replaced him when he left RTÉ in a blaze of media attention: Seán O’Rourke.

Meanwhile, in another part of the media forest, and in another radio building, Kenny is saying, “It’s fun”. His voice has become noticeably lighter and brighter since he moved to Newstalk last September. Strangely enough, this story of seismic upheaval in the prime-time radio of a tiny country, which involves two very different people, turns out also to be the story of two very happy men.

Today is Kenny’s 66th birthday. Tomorrow sees the publication of the JNLR listenership figures for the first clear quarter of the new radio regime. The JNLR holds no fears for Kenny, and never did. “I can be quite chilled about it,” he says. When he was at RTÉ, he says, he was very fortunate in that the numbers for his programme “never went up or down by more than the margin of error”.

Kenny is the sort of person who understands what the margin of error is – “about 10,000” he says, in the case of the JNLR – and isn’t afraid to show that he understands what it is. Kenny is essentially American in outlook: unashamed of success, delighted when things go well.

Out in the RTÉ radio building it is as if Kenny never left. His picture still hangs in the hall outside the studio from which O’Rourke, who will be 59 in May, now broadcasts Today with Seán O’Rourke. “Putting things in perspective, Today with Pat Kenny,” reads the blurb. It appears in the same picture frame as ads for Marian Finucane’s weekday show, and Joe Duffy’s Liveline. It could be 20 years old.

On the JNLR figures, O’Rourke says in his mild way: “Well, you know, I’d be fairly hopeful we’d go close enough to holding our own.” He doesn’t see the JNLR as a judgment on him. “That was programme 104,” he says, as he sits down to be interviewed. “The honeymoon is over, so now we have to decide what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives.”

Mutual regard

The big surprise about visiting Kenny and O’Rourke at their new jobs is not that they like each other: they last met as they were finding their seats in the stalls at a performance of The Colleen Bawn at the Gaiety Theatre. (“Pat said, ‘No photographers this time’,” says O’Rourke approvingly.)

Nor is it a surprise that their routines are so similar, which is only to be expected. “I’d generally do my homework after dinner,” says Kenny. “You do have to do a lot of obair bhaile,” says O’Rourke. “I was complaining to my daughter about it. I said some of these briefs are 15 or 20 pages long. Maeve said you should try legal briefs: some of them are 500 pages long.” (Maeve O’Rourke is an award-winning young lawyer, currently in Nigeria gathering evidence for a case against Shell.)

No, the surprising thing is how open both Kenny and O’Rourke are to being interviewed. Kenny, unprompted, invites The Irish Times to attend the production meeting for his programme – something other workers on the show were not wild about, but gamely agree to. When asked what prevents him getting bored with Irish current affairs, Kenny says “it’s my professional curiosity. It’s my personal curiosity as well. I mean, I can’t control it. I can’t turn it off.” As if it were a buzzing in his ear.

‘Declaration of war’

O’Rourke’s programme didn’t allow access to its production team, but he is pretty frank, talking about how RTÉ director general Noel Curran was sending him reassuring texts after his appointment, and how these texts have been vindicated over time.

“The terror is forgotten. The excitement just expands and increases,” he says. “When I came in, it was a cross between a circus and a war zone. It did amount to a declaration of war. They genuinely had put their tanks on our lawn.”

O’Rourke reminds me that “Paddy Power had me at 40 to 1,” for the Kenny job. He has said elsewhere that he was so busy taking umbrage at being quoted at that price that he forgot to bet on himself. O’Rourke is a golfer. “I play off a very unfair 14,” he says. “I should be about 19.” Anyway, he has a house at Rosapenna in Co Donegal, and he was on the fifth tee of the golf course there when he got a call from Curran to say “I was on a reduced shortlist and I should go and see [managing director of RTÉ radio] Jim Jennings. I figured then it was a shortlist of one.”

Kenny’s authority

In the winter darkness, the Newstalk production meeting consists of five young women wearing black, and Kenny, and John Byrne, a young man who is the newly appointed editor of the programme. Both he and Kenny are wearing blue. There is talk of having bids in – that is, requests for guests.

“There’s a bid in for Lucinda Creighton, ” says Eimear Bradley who is the new series producer of the programme.

Everyone in Newstalk is pretty newly appointed, it seems. Aisling Moore, researcher and reporter, has done a report already and is also volunteering to go out and vox pop early-morning commuters about whether their attitudes to charity donations have changed in the wake of the Central Remedial Clinic and Rehab controversies.

“They’re young, they work, they’re ambitious, they want to win,” says Garrett Harte, who is Newstalk’s overall editor.

At the production meeting, the ESB’s new broadband service is mentioned. Kenny says, “Hang on, this is technically interesting,” but mostly the meeting is conducted in the sort of seamless shorthand people use when they’ve worked with each other for a long time – not just since last September.

Once he’s in studio, Kenny says he won’t use a certain clip if it has already been used on the 10am news. His authority is unforced, and total. Eithne Kelly is his producer today and Anne Marie Kane is the broadcast assistant. Kane makes Kenny five cups of coffee during the show, “but he doesn’t drink them all”.

‘Top of his game’

This morning Kenny’s show contains a long pre-recorded interview with Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly, as well as a regular slot with professor of history at UCD, Diarmaid Ferriter, who is here to talk about WB Yeats. Ferriter says of Kenny, “He’s at the top of his game. He’s really enthused by the switchover. You can see it in him.”

The show ends with Tommy Fleming singing live – sitting down, like a sean nós singer – in studio with Kenny. “You know Pat’s enjoying it when he’s nodding along,” says Eithne Kelly. He is watched like a hawk.

The long open-plan Newstalk office reveals that all its staff is young, and sharply dressed. I am sorry I didn’t put my high heels on. Kenny likes the open plan: you can see who is in. In RTÉ both Morning Ireland and News at One emanate from the newsroom in the television building. Here in Newstalk, Kenny’s chair backs on to that of Chris Donoghue, who presents Breakfast. If Kenny wants to talk to him, “I just swing my chair around.” He loves working in town (Newstalk operates from Marconi House in Dublin 2). If Ministers are coming in to Newstalk, he says, they walk over. Even Christmas shopping was easier.

But studio conditions are tight. Two young people, a male and a female, emerge from a cupboard. I thought they were lovers but it turns out that they had just been reading the news and sport. There is only one big studio at Newstalk.

Kenny and I do our interview in a pre-record studio, but this is strictly a back-up. The handovers between presenters when shows come to an end are extraordinarily fast – they are hot-seating it.

He is wearing a blue suit jacket, white shirt with coloured button detail, blue trousers and tan boots with a square heel. He looks like a disc jockey, which of course he once was.

Team O’Rourke

O’Rourke looks like a woodwork teacher; his father was a teacher. His pre-recorded interview is with the TD Clare Daly. He has, as I have always suspected, an anarchic attitude to hitting the news on time. “Will we crash it by a minute?” he says of the 11am news. In the studio behind him, Justin Bieber’s arrest for drunk driving is rolling out all morning on Sky News, but it is not mentioned on O’Rourke’s programme.

Valerie Cox does a vivid report from the Family Law Courts. The team at the sound desk goes “whoa” collectively as Cox tells O’Rourke how a mother’s unflattering texts about her son’s girlfriend were read out in court.

Of the changeover, a member of O’Rourke’s team says “it was difficult, but now it’s fine”.

“Are there any aul’ texts out there at all?” says O’Rourke. He loves his new team. He used to curse them when he worked on News at One, he says, because they would hoover up all the good stories of the day. “Now I see why I got cleaned out so often.”

His most recent triumph was getting John Tierney of Irish Water to disclose how much the new company was spending on consultants. “I would think that was a triumph for the old dog for the hard road,” he says. “And in fairness, John Tierney didn’t put his foot in it. He just gave the information that had been withheld, not by him, but by officials in the Department of the Environment. You make those moments of luck.”

He shows me his folder – which looks decidedly home-made – where he numbers all the stories for a programme from one to 10. “I’m much more organised on this programme,” he says. “Partly because I can be, partly because I have to be.” He claims, “although Caroline [Murphy, his wife] would dispute this”, that he makes dinner half the time. He is bubbling.

“Gay Byrne said the first 38 years are the worst,” says O’Rourke. “Gay Byrne was very good. I resisted the temptation to phone him up. He has enough people being a pain in the arse. But I still want to.”

Kenny is kinder than the stereotype of him allows – “the best person I’ve ever worked with,” says one experienced radio hand.

O’Rourke has always been the stiletto in a sweater, sharp while looking woolly. “Oh two grey men competing, eight years between them,” he says, quoting something I said on television the day the two new programmes started in September last year. I don’t apologise, nor does he expect me to.

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