Will Newstalk walk the plank with Pat Kenny?
Broadcaster comes to commercial radio loaded with confidence, but at a station with very little
Chewed up, spat out, Friday after Friday: Pat Kenny in the Late Late Show studio
An irony about Pat Kenny’s move to an independent broadcaster is that if, in a parallel Ireland, he had forged his career in the unforgiving world of a privately owned broadcaster, and if The Late Late Show had been the flagship of an independent RTÉ, his career would most likely be dead by now.
Kenny took the big gig. It chewed him up, spat him out, Friday after Friday, year after year. So did the critics. (I was one of them at the time.) So did the public. So, even, did some of the guests – comedians chiefly – who came to subvert the stilted nature of the interviews. No one, it seemed, believed in Pat Kenny. Except for Pat Kenny.
Even while being cut up, torn apart, he appeared never to waver in his self-belief. Many saw it more as a lack of self-awareness, but, whatever the truth, that confidence – a necessary arrogance – protected him.
It wasn’t all that did. That he was in the protective environs of the slow-moving, forgiving national broadcaster meant he was paid generously and treated mercifully during professionally painful years. He kept the radio show, was given further television work. He returned to the more solid ground of television current affairs.
He endured, but rather than evolve he reverted to what made him a success in the first place. For a broadcaster so often accused of being unable to engage the brake when his mind careens off in the wrong direction, he managed to right his career in a way that even his detractors must admit was impressive.
And if you were to be extra kind, the flailing of his successor on The Late Late Show cast Kenny’s stewardship in a slightly better light. He is now only one of a majority of Late Late presenters unable to live up to the needs of a show – while that show itself is dying horribly.
It was a long and winding (and lucrative) road that led him to Newstalk. Kenny will have no doubt about what he is bringing to it. Denis O’Brien’s station will know what it is getting. But together they must now answer a more fundamental, bigger question: what is Newstalk for?
The station is a decade old, but it is still crawling by the standards of its rivals. Its national audience share is under 5 per cent, and it has repeatedly struggled to establish itself in most of its slots.
This, though, suggests a strategy that shouldn’t be unfamiliar to O’Brien, because it is the one that, before he bought the station, brought Today FM success. In 1998, having tried and, with the exception of Eamon Dunphy’s The Last Word, largely failed to build its own shows, its own brands, its own personalities, it reverted to the wallet and poached from RTÉ.
Ian Dempsey’s switch in 1998 was a crucial moment in Irish radio, enough that his moving his breakfast show to Today FM kick-started that station’s revival while causing years of subsequent angst at 2FM.
Ray D’Arcy followed from RTÉ, and a station that had teetered on the brink in its early years began to lay solid foundations through big names, an enlightened music policy and a solid team of producers who became voices in their own right.
Kenny arrives at a Newstalk that craves momentum. It has had big names before. David McWilliams was an original voice. Dunphy came and (kicking and screaming) went. Ivan Yates had his troubles, although word is that he will be back, thanks to the UK’s bankruptcy process. Its other breakfast presenters seem to run low as regularly as cereal packets.
It has some decent names now, but only George Hook is a threat to his rivals. Although likeable, Tom Dunne’s ratings have been low. Sean Moncrieff is underrated, but he’s in the uncared-for midafternoons. It had an excellent Off the Ball team but ran them over in a game of chicken.
There are a myriad number of ways in which Pat Kenny’s move to Newstalk could be mutually destructive. Fail on this and neither station nor presenter might recover.
There are several examples, in print media in particular, of big names leaving one organisation for another but losing their magic ingredients en route.
Besides, Kenny will be reliant on a production team that knows what it’s doing and that can hang in through the early storms that are sure to buffet them.
But they are locked together now, Kenny and Newstalk, either hauling each other upwards or dragging each other down. Kenny is bringing self-certainty to a station that lacks it. Quite where the centre of gravity settles will be entertaining in itself.