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

Sat, Aug 31, 2013, 01:00

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.

“All the prophets of doom who said there wouldn’t be the backup here, there wouldn’t be the staff . . . that’s not true at all. I’m very impressed with the quality of the people I’ve been working with so far.”

He seems to have no time for, or perhaps chooses not to be aware of, the received wisdom that his real talents lie in current affairs and straight interviewing rather than the fluffier entertainment stuff. Some of the most popular online coverage when the story of his move broke involved YouTube compilations of his “most embarrassing” moments.

“I have had my moments; relatively few though,” he says. “The only consolation I ever gave myself over those embarrassments was nobody’s switching off. They’ve become water-cooler moments.”

Four years on from his Late Late departure, what does he think of the show now? “It’s still up there in the ratings. To comment on it would be . . . Gay’s never commented on me, and I don’t want to comment on Ryan. That’s the fairest thing to say.”

It is getting harder, he says, to get big international stars to come to Dublin to do a TV show. “Then someone does Graham Norton and within minutes it’s on YouTube for anyone to watch. It’s harder to create those special moments, so the Late Late will be more and more dependent on domestically generated guests.”

Hence all those jibes about the guest list being based on whoever happens to be in the queue at the RTÉ canteen?

“Yes, there’s an element of that. The challenges are enormous for the Late Late, so maybe my timing was fortuitous.”

He seems most proud of The Frontline, which he launched after leaving the Late Late. RTÉ wanted someone to take over the Questions & Answers format from the departing John Bowman but, Kenny says, he wanted to do something different.

“I said, give me a chance to develop my own idea of what would make an exciting format. On Q&A the audience were there to ask a question and then the panel held forth for an hour. I thought it would be interesting to turn the format on its head.”

You can see why The Frontline approach appealed: 20 years of live studio experience in front of an audience combined with a strong current-affairs agenda meant the format played directly to his skills.

“I couldn’t have done The Frontline without having done the Late Late and learning how to engage and energise an audience.”

The show also benefited from timing: as the economy went into cardiac arrest, The Frontline became a little amphitheatre of the crash. Every Monday, politicians and public figures found themselves on the receiving end of dog’s abuse from angry audiences. It must have become difficult after a while to persuade them to come on the show?

“You can’t tailor your programme on the basis that you have to be nice to people so that they’ll come on,” he says, citing James Reilly, Leo Varadkar and the late Brian Lenihan as examples of those who were “fearless” in defending their policies on the programme.

He didn’t hide his disappointment when The Frontline was subsumed into Prime Time and moved to Tuesdays in the wake of the crises which struck RTÉ’s newsroom following the calamitous Mission to Prey programme and the controversial “Tweetgate” episode during The Frontline presidential debate. He agrees he was deeply disappointed by those changes, “and I made no secret about that”.

So does he think the downgrading was because of what happened during the presidential debate? “Well, I can never read the minds of managers. Look, I keep on asking myself was it to do with Fr Reynolds, was it to do with Tweetgate? The rationale was never given to me in that way and I don’t believe that was the rationale or that there was any hangover from Tweetgate.”

He must surely have been bruised though, by the fallout, when his question live on air to Seán Gallagher about his fundraising activities for Fianna Fáil, supposedly based on a Sinn Féin statement, turned out to have been from a Twitter account unconnected to Sinn Féin?

“Whether it was a proxy for Sinn Féin, whether it was a complete hoax, I’ll never know.

“I was told in my ear that Sinn Féin had said they’re going to produce this guy. I wasn’t told the exact provenance. I put the question to Seán Gallagher: do you want to retract anything you said in part one or do you think this is dirty tricks by Sinn Féin? I asked the absolutely proper question. If Seán had said: ‘I won’t take lessons in fundraising from Sinn Féin’, it could have been President Gallagher: perhaps, who knows? I’d never try to second-guess the views of the electorate. I have to be careful because Seán Gallagher is taking legal action against RTÉ and I don’t want to prejudice anything that might be said. But I believe that if you look back on that programme, the damage to Seán had been done before the tweet became an issue.”

And yet, Kenny was adamant after the initial RTÉ investigation, that his production team had been vindicated. Does he still believe that to be the case, given that the origin of the tweet should clearly have been checked before putting it to Gallagher?

“The protocols weren’t there for dealing with social media. Everyone looking back with the wisdom of hindsight can see that. But how many live programmes on BBC or Channel 4 had protocols that actually would have ended with a different result on a live show?

“The following morning, Seán Gallagher came into the [radio] studio and never once mentioned the tweet. It wasn’t an issue for him the following morning. It wasn’t an issue at six o’clock on the Six One News. So the tweet only became an issue later on.”

Despite the controversy, he says, he was very disappointed that when the Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA) had a competition for the television moments of the year, it wasn’t on the list. “Which was stupid, because whatever you believe were the rights and wrongs of it, as a television moment it was certainly one of the most spectacular of the year.”

With other questions about the proportion of airtime allocated to each candidate and the way the questions from the audience were selected, what does he think of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s view that the debate “fell significantly short of the standard expected by the public of Irish broadcasters”?

He sighs and raises his eyes to heaven. “Who am I to criticise the BAI? Although on one occasion they found against me for having a right go at a guy who was selling astrology and training students to read the future. Anyway, that’s another story.

“Live TV is like an aircraft that’s scheduled to take off at a certain time, except in our case it’s never late. It’s 9.30 and off we go. So you have to ad lib, improvise, do whatever you can. That’s what happened that night. No conspiracy.

“Mission to Prey was different because that was an edited programme, there to be viewed and legally analysed and examined. With a live programme you can attempt to do the best you can but inevitably there will be cock-ups.”

Moving The Frontline to a Tuesday Prime Time slot was an unhappy experience. “It turned out that Tuesday was a day when stories broke. The Cabinet meets on Tuesday morning. Inevitably there’s going to be some leak or some announcement. You’d have planned a programme on the Irish language and maybe two other stories would have to go in front of that. So instead of having an hour to talk about the Irish language with people who’d come from Galway and Donegal and West Cork, you ended up with 25 minutes.

“So it just wasn’t sitting very comfortably. I fully anticipated, rightly or wrongly, that it would probably go back to Monday nights in the autumn. As it happens it’s not my problem now.”

Gay Byrne has written that he was “well aware of an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, if not downright unhappiness” in Kenny’s dealings with Montrose management in recent years. Is that accurate?

“No, I parted on very good terms with Noel Curran. Noel was producer with me on Kenny Live and initially on the Late Late Show. I haven’t ruled out doing television with RTÉ. I will do some television if someone wants me. People have said to me; you’ll be working with TV3. Not necessarily. It could be RTÉ. They spent a lot of time and energy building my television brand.”

He won’t be returning to current affairs television though. “The reason I didn’t want to do what I was doing was it was full circle, back to Prime Time. Two nights a week, in addition to the radio programme. I thought that was too much of a ball and chain.

“The Frontline was so adrenalin-producing for me. It had the best of the Late Late Show debates and the best of current affairs. Whereas doing Prime Time with no audience in an empty studio block with no other shows being made at night . . . it was like visiting the Marie Celeste sometimes. But that’s what they wanted and it was issues like that which were at the nub of things.”

Not money? “Not an issue. I won’t go into all our correspondence with RTÉ because it’s confidential and it wouldn’t be fair, but that was not the crunch issue at all.”

He texted his congratulations to Seán O’Rourke when the news came through that they’d be going head-to-head in the mornings. “Seán is going from a very high-rated show to the top mid-morning show. I was surprised he did that. But he sees it as a chance to spread his wings a bit and I wish him well. Obviously I’ll be trying to steal as much of his audience as I possibly can.”

And RTÉ in turn will be training their firepower on him. “Absolutely, that’s the job of those producers. And the job for Newstalk will be to get people who’ve never experienced Newstalk, who don’t listen to George, or to John and Chris in the mornings, to suck it and see.

“That kitchen radio up on the shelf that no one ever touches. They switch it on at the mains every morning and it’s tuned to RTÉ Radio 1. That’s the big challenge; to try to persuade people to climb up on the kitchen chair and change it.

“It’s very exciting. People ask me: what’s it going to be like working with new people? I’ve had a certain amount of stability with my radio team over the last decade or so but people come and go. It’s the same on television, on Frontline, Prime Time, the Late Late.

“You’re constantly working with new people and finding out their talents and abilities. So this is more of the same.”