Pat Kenny’s departure a ‘real opportunity’ for RTÉ to do something ‘exciting, new and fresh’, says radio MD

Jennings says station unlikely to recruit from outside to replace departing director

Jim Jennings, acting MD of RTÉ Radio.    Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Jim Jennings, acting MD of RTÉ Radio. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

“Ah listen, interesting times,” says RTÉ Radio’s acting managing director Jim Jennings, alluding to the Pat Kenny-shaped elephant in the room before the interview has even begun in earnest.

He pauses to think about the question as to whether he was shocked by Kenny’s departure from the broadcaster with whom he had plied his trade for more than four decades.

“Not really,” he replies. “This has been going on for a long time – the negotiations and the discussions. I think maybe there was a bit of surprise among the staff but I wasn’t shocked. I was disappointed – I thought Pat would stay.

“As he said himself, we made him a generous offer. I thought he might stay given his years of experience with us, his history with us. But look, that’s the decision he made and I wish him the best with it.”

In terms of where the public service broadcaster goes from here, Jennings is predictably upbeat and optimistic. He says it is “a real opportunity” for the station to do something “exciting, new and fresh”.

The latest Joint National Listenership Research radio ratings show RTÉ has largely arrested recent declines in listenership figures, but the challenge now will be to resist being dragged back down by Kenny’s departure.

Jennings will not disclose what measures he is planning in order to prevent this because of the broadcaster’s autumn launch at the end of the month – but he says the public “trusts” RTÉ. “That won’t change,” he adds.

Regarding what the station will do with Kenny’s slot on Radio One, Jennings says he has a plan but is again reluctant to go into details before they announce it officially, which will be “soon enough”.

“These negotiations went on a long time with Pat so it would have been remiss of us not to think about ‘what if’, so we have been thinking about this for a while. People are already working on what that might be.

“It will be on the money in terms of news, current affairs, features, and there will be a good presenter.”

There has been some speculation linking RTÉ to some poaching of their own with Today FM’s Matt Cooper among those mentioned as possible replacements. Jennings rejects this.

“I think when you look around RTÉ, we have enough presenting talent working here to cope with any changes. We’ve proven it in the past and we’ll prove it again. I don’t think we will be looking outside, to be honest with you.”

The six-figure salaries of presenters such as Kenny were defended in the past on the basis that they attracted such huge audiences that commercial revenue mitigated the cost of their contracts. So what does Kenny’s departure mean for RTÉ in this context?

“I don’t think it means anything,” says Jennings. “We’ve been talking to agencies yesterday and this morning and none of them have indicated that any of them are moving any of their money away from RTÉ.”

He rejects the notion that audiences tune in to listen to specific “presenter talent” such as Kenny or Marian Finucane.

“It’s not the case, actually – the presenter is only one part of the production team,” he says. “Look at Morning Ireland – it’s the biggest programme in the country and there are four presenters on the roster.

“If anybody thinks RTÉ isn’t going to deliver a quality programme at 10am on RTÉ Radio One, they are fooling themselves. We will deliver something that will generate the audience in that slot.”

He said he was “not underestimating” the impact of Kenny’s exit – but said there were “a number of programmes” that generate audiences with their content rather than presenters.

“I don’t know [if RTÉ will suffer commercially] is the honest answer. We’ll all find out.

“I’m sure the reason Denis [O’Brien] has done this is because he believes there is a commercial upside for him in it, but it’s a punt. We’ll find out.

“I’m not trying to minimise the impact. There is bound to be an impact, I’ll be amazed if there isn’t, but my firm belief is we will be able to deliver audiences in that slot – and I’ve no doubt Pat will deliver an audience into his slot.”

Concerning the “efficiencies” the Government has told the broadcaster to find in order to arrest its spiral into debt, Jennings says they are “at the tail end” of this process.

“We’ve taken €104 million out of the organisation since 2008. We have let 500 staff go. That has an impact in terms of what we can deliver – and I think the audiences already see and hear that on air in certain parts of the schedule.

“We’ve tried not to damage our schedule as much as we can but there have been casualties along the way in terms of the programming. Our hope is that we’re at the end of that process, that we have done enough.

“Staff have taken between a 2½ and a 12½ per cent pay cut – it’s not only the top earners. There have been no bonuses, increments have been frozen, we’ve done wage agreements, we’ve changed people’s working arrangements.

“It would be great if the economy turned around and all the boats rose – but we can’t just sit around and wait for that to happen. RTÉ is a hugely changed organisation even in the past three years.

“We’ve given a commitment to break even this year and we’re on target to do that. We can’t operate a loss. We don’t have deep pockets like Sky or Denis O’Brien. ”

He says the deficit in the company’s annual report published yesterday is “directly linked” to the redundancy packages for staff they have let go.

“The savings we will realise through that over the next five to 10 years will stand us in good stead. These have been painful decisions but we can’t just stand idly by and let the company be consumed by debt – we’re not prepared to do that.”

* This article was amended on August 2nd, 2013 to correct a factual error.