Newstalk prepares for banter-filled autumn schedule revamp

Ivan Yates may be off, but George Hook is not finished yet, says station CEO Tim Collins

“We have been identifying some new talent and they will be names that you will know,” says Newstalk chief executive Tim Collins. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

“We have been identifying some new talent and they will be names that you will know,” says Newstalk chief executive Tim Collins. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Banter, says Tim Collins, “is one of the things Newstalk does well”. But the station’s new chief executive has a looming supply issue: Ivan Yates, one half of its breakfast double act, is leaving, and drivetime stalwart George Hook is about to retire. Or is he?

Er, probably not. “I would be optimistic that George will be continuing his career with us,” Collins says. In the same slot? “Not necessarily.”

Newstalk is about to tear up its schedule. “We have been identifying some new talent and they will be names that you will know. We have been in the studio with them and we’ve been working with a shortlist of people,” says Collins.

He means names from Newstalk itself or other radio stations, not from RTÉ, he clarifies. Intriguingly, he also mentions that Yates wasn’t a broadcaster before Newstalk and its station editor Garrett Harte shaped him into one.

On Breakfast, it might not simply be a case of getting someone else to sit alongside Chris Donoghue.

“The combination of Ivan and Chris worked in terms of that banter, the never being afraid to call it, to speak out and court controversy,” he says. It has been a successful formula, one that had RTÉ worried, and he wants the replacement to work just as well. “But it doesn’t have to be the same formula.”

From the autumn, Newstalk, owned by Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp, will be “a little bit different”, he says. It is “trialling different programme formats” and they will revolve around four “content pillars” – news, sport, business and technology. The name “Newstalk” is not ideal, Harte said once. How does Collins feel?

“I agree. People don’t come to broadcast media for their news per se,” he says. “I turn on the radio not to hear that there has been a bomb in Madrid or a strike on the Luas, but to hear people talk about it – why something has happened, not what has happened.”

But Newstalk is “the name we have”, he adds. “If you have a couple of million to throw away, you change your name.”

Instead, the money is going into digital and becoming more “cross-platform”, with Collins speaking just ahead of a board meeting to update directors on the “fairly big capital budget” for expanding its digital team and investing in data.

Newstalk currently employs 120 people, not including its share of Communicorp One, the group sales operation.

It has been hard to find media executives this year with enthusiastic words to say about how the advertising market is going, and Collins is no exception.

“The market has been tough this year, but Newstalk is ahead of where we were last year and we would be pretty confident we will hit target this year,” he says, attributing this to an increase in its advertising rates and audience growth.

“It is still extremely challenging, because we are running a talk radio station, and news and current affairs is incredibly expensive. It’s an ongoing challenge to fund the station from the current market, even with the growth we have.”

Newstalk’s audience surge has been the story of the Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) in recent years, but the last couple of surveys have pointed to a tailing off. Collins is not concerned by this, suggesting that it is “a mistake for a station of this size” to focus on quarterly fluctuations.

In any case, the JNLR tends to reinforce the idea that it is the “all adults” listenership that counts, and Newstalk has decided to double down on the commercially important 25-54-year-old audience that is less naturally loyal to RTÉ.

“When I joined Newstalk, I had the perception like everybody else that it was a minnow in the marketplace, that it was trying to be a me-too station to RTÉ,” says Collins. But that is not the case. “Newstalk is not an all-adults station.”

He has a raft of statistics to show how “neck and neck” Newstalk is with Radio 1 across the day for numbers of listeners from the 25-54-year-old urban ABC1 demographic.

The Newstalk line-up is male. Any chance of some women presenters on peak-time weekdays?

“Even though I would describe myself as a feminist – if a man can be allowed to use that word – I’ve always had the view that you take the best person for the job. You can’t take someone for a job because they are a man, or because they are a woman. At the same time, a number of the people we have been working with are women. But I don’t know what the final outcome is going to be.”

It’s a “watch this space” situation. And while Pat Kenny is “definitely part of the future of this station” (and there is no contract renewal due this year, Collins says), he has no immediate plans to poach another presenter from Radio 1.

“I want to stop looking at what RTÉ is doing – I don’t really care what they’re doing – and focus on growing Newstalk as a station.”

In another sense, Newstalk, as part of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) grouping, does have its eye on RTÉ – specifically, its funding.

“They have twice or three times the resources for the same schedule, and they have got licence-fee support,” notes Collins, who was previously chief executive at Ocean FM and is a former political adviser. Of the new Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, he says he has “high hopes”.

He is now four months in situ at Newstalk and has bought a Roberts radio for his office: “It’s the first radio I’ve bought in years. It took me a while to find it in the shop.”

The radio industry is undergoing big changes, and it seems Newstalk must too, with all the big breaks and career setbacks that will entail. Radio can be cut-throat. Collins is there to whip the station into commercial shape. What happens after that is probably up to Denis.