Pat Kenny: ‘I don’t believe in retiring’
As Pat Kenny begins his new radio show on Newstalk, he talks about what 41 years at RTÉ have taught him and says even his mistakes are the stuff of water-cooler moments rather than embarrassments
Pat Kenny with Ian and Eileen Paisley on the Late Late Show. Photograph: Frank Miller
Pat Kenny with Ryan Tubridy. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Pat Kenny, Gay Byrne and Mike Murphy before going on Late Late Show. Photograph: Julian Behal/Maxwells Dublin
Pat Kenny and his wife Kathy. Photograph: Garrett White
The week he announced his departure from RTÉ, Pat Kenny paid a quiet first visit to his new place of work, Marconi House in Dublin’s city centre, where Newstalk is based. No nasty shocks awaited him.
“I went in on a Sunday night, when they have recorded programmes on. I wanted to look at their technology, the studio and all that. But also how they ran their operations. And, if I was to compare it to the Radio Centre in Donnybrook, it’s organised in a very similar way. It will be similar but different.”
This must have been something of a relief for a man who’d worked in the same place for the last 41 years. And a relief for Newstalk, who have pulled off the biggest transfer in Irish radio history.
Kenny’s move is the most significant defection from RTÉ since independent broadcasting began in Ireland in the late 1980s, but he seems more than sanguine about the decision.
At 65, he’s a surprisingly imposing presence in person, larger than you’d expect and with an easy, affable manner.
As he points out himself, the wall-to-wall coverage was free of nastiness, “Most of it was very positive, which is sort of obituary-style coverage.”
He hasn’t fallen out with anyone in RTÉ, he insists, but he was still surprised to find he was actually able to say goodbye.
“I didn’t anticipate this offer coming from Newstalk. The reason it came was because RTÉ put out the price that might be there on any of our heads. They also indicated that there was one person’s contract which was being negotiated – me – and they opened the door for somebody to come in and make an offer, which I never expected at this stage in my life.”
So he didn’t make the initial approach to Newstalk, as has been reported elsewhere?
“No, I was approached. I’ve never played that card of ‘I’m going to the BBC if you don’t give me a contract’. When I indicated to RTÉ that there was an offer on the table I was tempted by, maybe they thought I was bluffing, I don’t know.”
Now he’s safely in the private sector, he doesn’t have to worry any more about his earnings being the subject of annual debate and public scrutiny. RTÉ director general Noel Curran has said that presenters’ fees at RTÉ got out of control during the last decade. Kenny disagrees.
“If you go back, someone like Gay Byrne was earning half a million punts per year in 1988. That was the rate for the top man. If you correct that now for inflation, [that’s] a couple of mill, and would have generated corresponding revenues on the Late Late Show.
“On the other hand, if you look at management salaries in RTÉ back in 1988, you’ll find they’ve gone up dramatically while talent fees have gone down. It’s important to say ‘fees’, not salaries because they’re not pensionable: they have to pay their agents and accountants and all the rest of it. Whereas for management it’s all found for them: car allowances and pensions and credits and all the rest of it; the usual things that big managers have in companies. So I look at all that with a slightly jaundiced eye.”
He doesn’t agree that some of the fees were excessive for a public service broadcaster in a small country?
“Some people who had very good representatives were able to negotiate very good fees. It may seem obscene, but the reality is there is a market and that market determines. You can dump somebody but you then have to hope the next person can do the same for you.”
So what should we expect at 10am next Monday: a brand new show or Today with Pat Kenny Mark II? He’s been through enough launches to know that this new programme will evolve and change over the months, but steady-as-she-goes seems to be the starting point.
“When Newstalk approached me they obviously liked what I did. There’d be no point in moving over and becoming somebody else, so that’s not going to happen. The same voices will not necessarily be there because there are lots of contributors who are affiliated with the Today show. So some of the voices you hear will be new, but I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. Radio is about companionship, it’s about what people feel comfortable with, the person they feel comfortable with.”
He returns again and again to the apocryphal listener in the milking shed, the “wireless” permanently tuned to Radio 1, who he’ll be hoping to persuade to make the switch.
On one level, it seems a peculiarly archaic picture of the audience in an age of internet radio, mobile apps and catch-up services, but it does go to the heart of the challenge faced by Newstalk since the channel launched more than a decade ago. Try as it might, it has rarely managed to dent RTÉ Radio 1’s national talk-radio dominance.
George Hook’s show has a strong niche in the three-way drivetime battle with RTÉ and Today FM. And Seán Moncrieff has a loyal following for his afternoon show. But mornings remain tough. The hope is that Kenny’s star power, broadcasting skills and familiarity will cause stick-in-the-mud Radio 1 listeners to finally check out the rival station.
While the public focus is always on the presenters, a strong production team is a vital part of any successful programme. RTÉ has reportedly beefed up the team for Seán O’Rourke’s programme, bringing in former 2FM head John McMahon as an extra producer and adding more researchers. Does he worry that his new show may be outgunned? Not at all, he says.