Pat Kenny: ‘I’m not sensitive to criticism anymore’
As he gets an IFTA lifetime achievement award, Pat Kenny talks about work, fame and being an underdog again
Broadcaster Pat Kenny has received a lifetime achievement award last night from the Irish Film and Television Academy. Photograph: Barry McCall
Pat Kenny is busy. This week he’s both receiving an IFTA lifetime achievement award and debuting a new television show, Pat Kenny Tonight.
The day we meet he is between the official media launch of his programme and a photo shoot he’s doing for the IFTAs. The day after, he’s running from a rehearsal at TV3 to launch a book by Mary O’Rourke, and then back to the studio for the live debut of the TV show.
But he seems relaxed.
He tells me that we have a bit more time than scheduled to talk because the photographer has another job to do. He seems to enjoy chatting.
A one-time chemical engineer, he still seems to think like an engineer, recalling stray facts (the licence plate of his first car was LZH901) and happily analysing the mechanics of broadcasting.
Steered by the Christian Brothers into the sciences (“the brainy subjects”), Kenny never considered a job in media, until – after a scholarship-facilitated stint in University College Dublin (UCD), a year studying in Georgia Tech and a job lecturing in Bolton Street – he saw an ad for continuity announcers at RTÉ.
All the big engineering jobs were in “grimy” urban environments, and he’d been spoiled, he says, by a childhood in a “zoo family” (his father was an elephant keeper in Dublin Zoo) at the edge of the Phoenix Park.
The Bolton Street job “put bread on my mother’s table,” he says, but it was repetitive and, not for the last time, he “got itchy feet”.
Broadcasting had never even occurred to him before that, he says, though when he looks back, there were some clues in his childhood.
He and his brothers made films with an eight millimetre camera and a Philips tape recorder that they bought with the money saved while working in a photographic lab.
“‘You Never Can Tell’ was the name of one of the [films],” he says. “It was about a hit-and-run. And none of the characters in it were old enough to drive so there was a lot of jiggery-pokery to try and fake that one. My younger brother played the victim.”
On life before fame: ‘I used to sing in O’Donoghue’s’
Kenny has a surprisingly artsy pedigree, really. He was also, for a time, a folk singer. “I used to sing in O’Donoghue’s pub,” he says. “The Dubliners would actually be in there. I would see Séamus Ennis from time to time. Ted Furey, the father of the Fureys, would play fiddle in there.”
Why did he stop?
“When I began to get recognition on radio and television, people would say ‘God, he thinks he’s great being up there playing the guitar and he can’t really play’.”
“Which was true! I couldn’t really play. So, it just became a hassle. And I only amused myself after that.”
►Click to listen: Pat Kenny on his folk-singer days
He remembers RTÉ in the early 1970s (it was on Henry Street then) as a strange place with no canteen where everyone had Irish names “because having a name as gaeilge was something that was encouraged and might get you a promotion”.
It was changing, though.
Radio Éireann had become RTÉ, and he was a hip newcomer.
“I kicked against the goad a bit, because I was long-haired, of the moment.”
Later, he would befriend other young broadcasting gunslingers Dave Fanning and Gerry Ryan. Once, the latter turned up with his new bride on Kenny’s doorstep on holiday in Crete. “I got up out of my bed and slept on the couch,” says Kenny.
He cut his television teeth in children’s broadcasting after someone heard him sing at a party.
“If someone made a fluff in those days, they tried to edit but, more often than not, the edit would fail so they’d go back to the beginning and start from the top . . . You learned not to screw up.”
With just children watching?
“Children and mums. Some of the mums became fans and that stood us in good stead later on.”
He was a bit of a heartthrob.
“Oh, God help us,” says Kenny, but he doesn’t deny it. “I was very innocent looking and blue eyed and all the rest. I couldn’t even see it in myself, so there was an innocence as well that probably got me through the early years.”
On light entertainment: ‘I knew TV. I had to learn showbiz’
He also started reading the news, initially as a stand-in. His broadcasting nixers became a bigger deal than his continuity announcing day job, and he went freelance, which was to be his status for the rest of his career.
Did he have a sense of a career path?
“Not at all. It was one thing after another.”
If there’s any masterplan, he says, it’s based on the fact he likes change. His big radio breakthrough was when Donncha Ó Dúlaing went to America, and Kenny took over for three weeks on his radio show.
“And that led to the morning show and everything else flowed from there.”
Kenny was a respected current affairs broadcaster working on Today Tonight when he was asked to present the Eurovision in 1988.
“I said ‘No, it isn’t what I do.’ I was always told whatever you do, make sure that [afterwards] you can interview the Taoiseach with credibility.”
His boss appealed to his patriotism: “This is a one-off. You’re doing it for Ireland. You’re not doing it for yourself.”
He worked on the Eurovision every year until 1999. He was wary of the showbiz side of things then.
“Some people have absolute natural skills at showbiz and some people have a little bit,” he says. “I would have a little bit and had to learn a lot . . . ”
His friend Gerry Ryan, he says, was all about showbiz but didn’t know a lot about television, whereas “I knew how to do TV and had a bit of showbiz”.
Soon he was all showbiz.
►Click to listen: Kenny on comedian Dermot Morgan
He got his chatshow start because the cyclist Steven Roche injured himself. Roche was one of a list of notables lined up to host Saturday Live. Kenny found himself filling in for Roche and was soon presenting a weekly chat show, Kenny Live.
He vividly remembers the early days of Kenny Live, items they cut, failed experiments, the times they knocked The Late Late Show “off its pedestal”.
He recalls his friend Dermot Morgan sitting in the audience pretending to be a priest supporting the allegedly militant real-life priest Father Ryan. Morgan said, “What one of us hasn’t been caught with a false passport?” Kenny laughs remembering it now.
He was on another a learning curve. Later, he gets analytical again: “Radio is easy because your body language, you can express it, you can show people your empathy. Television is much more straitjacketed.
“First of all, there’s a gap between you. You and I are sitting very close together here. On television, we would be three times further apart. It’d be much more difficult to create visual emotional bonding because you’re just too far apart . . . It’s easier in a sense if you have someone sitting on the front row and I kneel down beside them.”
On fame and family: ‘Any kid would find it intrusive’
Did he mind being famous and approached by strangers?
“I realise it is part of the territory . . . My late mother loved if I was with her and I was recognised. That gave her an ‘Oh, that’s my boy’ moment.”
What about his daughters?
“No. That’s not good,” he says. “Any kid of a well-known person, they just find it intrusive. They don’t get a thrill out of it, at all.”
What do they think of his career in general?
“They don’t really parse it in that way,” he says. “They know me as me and they know me warts and all . . . falling out of bed on a Saturday morning after a late night. They don’t see [him as a public figure]. I’m glad though that they can still manage to look at their own idols and not presume they have feet of clay . . . They haven’t lost the sense of magic.”
Do they critique what he does?
“In the old days of the Late Late Show they’d be telling me ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have asked that question!’ of some rock star or pop star. ‘Dad why didn’t you know that?!’”
Was it clear he was destined to be Gay Byrne’s successor on the Late Late?
“When Gay was retiring, there was a whole debate about whether the Late Late should die. They made a decision that the brand was strong and, after 37 years, it would be insane to kill the brand.
“I had reservations because I thought ‘the brand is Gay’ and then it became apparent that they were going to keep the brand and I had a choice . . . I would take on the Late Late Show, with all the risk that that entailed, or I could stay where I was and watch someone else do the Late Late Show.
“When I thought about it coldly, I thought I might be really pissed off if I didn’t give this a go. [I had] the same sort of instinct when I got the offer from Newstalk.”
On RTÉ: ‘They didn’t believe in personalities’
There were “shaky moments” in the early days, he says. They didn’t give him a desk initially, which created practical problems (“there was nowhere for you to put a book!”) and they insisted he not use an autocue because Gay Byrne had never used an autocue (Kenny does a very well-observed impression of how, instead, Gay used his cue cards).
He was pleased with his work but he got a lot of criticism. How does he deal with criticism?
“I’m not really sensitive to it anymore. And I can actually be fair about it . . . I can say ‘Yeah, they’re right’ when something is not quite right. I used to be sensitive to criticism. It was kind of like ‘If only they knew the work we put into this!’”
When did you stop being sensitive?
“When you get a lot [of criticism] you just become immune to it . . . the critic’s lot is a tough lot because writing favourable copy is very difficult but knocking copy is much more fun.”
►Click to listen: Kenny on taking over the Late Late Show
Why did he stop doing the Late Late Show?
“I’d done eleven years of Kenny Live, 10 years of Late Late Shows . . . There is a repetitive cycle. You have Sinéad on. You have Westlife on so many times.”
Were management upset?
“I think they wanted change as well. They never wanted to have 37 years of Gay Byrne again. They wanted the brand to be associated with different hosts.”
RTÉ, Kenny says, has always been nervous of personality-driven programming.
“In Newstalk we have the name brand thing . . . [RTÉ] didn’t believe in personality radio . . . Maybe they hated the idea of building someone up so their name recognition was big and then they commanded more money.”
There was a lot of scrutiny of his earnings (he earned €950,956 in 2008 which went down to €630,000 in 2011). What did he feel about that scrutiny? He starts to talk about how management salaries rose in those years.
“Management were earning more than most of the talent,” he says. Though, to be fair, no one in management earned more than he did.
Does he understand the interest in his pay?
“Yeah, and when they came calling and looking for reductions [I said] ‘absolutely.’ It’s not appropriate that people should say ‘I’m hanging on to what I have, when everyone else is being asked to take a hit.’ That was fair enough.”
He also left the Late Late Show, he says, because he wanted do The Frontline. It had an audience participation format that fitted the recessionary times and which he suggested.
Kenny even came up with the name. It harkened back to a previous show called Frontline, but with an added definite article because, he says, “On The Frontline tonight . . . ” sounded better on his tongue than “On Frontline tonight.”
On Newstalk: 'It’s a lean machine. I loved it'
He loved The Frontline, but then current affairs at RTE underwent upheaval after the Mission to Prey scandal. The Frontline had its own, less serious, problems when a dubiously sourced Tweet accusing Independent candidate Seán Gallagher of Fianna Fáil links, was put to him during a 2011 presidential debate. Kenny is defiant.
“If there was an issue there, it was how the candidate handled it.”
Soon The Frontline was lumped under the Prime Time label in a restructuring of the current affairs output and Kenny was put across all the Prime Time shows.
“The key to my leaving – I didn’t want to do Prime Time three times a week . . . I thought [changing The Frontline to Prime Time] was a mistake at the time and I told them so, and now it’s Claire Byrne Live on a Monday night. But there’s no joy in knowing you’re right after the fact, and I think Claire is great.”
So the Newstalk offer came at a perfect time.
►Click to listen: Kenny on RTÉ's power
“I was in the middle of negotiating contracts with RTÉ and I really wanted to separate the radio and TV, because I didn’t want to do that TV schedule anymore. I don’t know at what level the communications broke down because I think Jim Jennings [managing director of radio] would have been happy to separate the radio contract and have me working for him on radio, but I never got that offer from RTÉ. I got an offer from Newstalk [reportedly a €2 million deal spread over five years] and it began to intrigue me.”
RTÉ’s then director general Noel Curran warned him that Newstalk would be poorer in resources than RTÉ, but he also ultimately wished him luck, hugged him and said, “You owe us nothing after all the service you’ve given.”
And was it different in resource terms?
“Resources are tight. Even meeting rooms are tight. There are only so many places for meetings. It is a very lean machine. I loved it.”
So, he’s gone from overdog to underdog?
“But that’s the fun of it. Fighting to hold market share is not a happy place to be. Trying to build market share is a very happy place to be. Obviously we would find it difficult to ever get to the levels I enjoyed in RTÉ because there is the inertia [his show had, at last count, 131,000 listeners compared with Seán O’Rourke’s 326,000].
“I always talk about the radio in the cow bar, the milking parlour. It’s up on the top shelf and it’s covered in a fine layer of congealed cowshit vapour. And it’s switched on at the mains. No one ever climbs up to that shelf and when it comes on, on comes Radio 1.”
Does he ever listen to Seán O’Rourke?
“We’re on at the same time so I never get to hear him. We decided at a very early stage not to be looking over our shoulder to see what he’s up to today.”
The TV3 gig is not his first post-RTÉ television show. His light UTV Ireland chat-show, In the Round, had poor ratings – something he puts down to scheduling and lack of time (it was cancelled after one series). He describes Pat Kenny Tonight as “current affairs but with a wider canvas [than] Prime Time.”
Why is it named after Kenny when it’s clearly co-hosted by Colette Fitzpatrick?
“That’s marketing,” he says. “That’s ‘Kenny’s back on telly, let’s have a look at that’. That’s all that’s about.”
It didn’t come from him?
“No. I had other suggestions that I would have liked but I’m not going to even volunteer them because then people start thinking about the wrong thing.”
On adrenalin: ‘I call radio a programme. I call TV a show’
Kenny talks about the changing media landscape, the speed at which news travels, the “fudging of opinion and fact” and his lack of interest in social media.
“People don’t care what I think about Donald Trump’s hairstyle.”
What does he think of Donald Trump’s hairstyle? “It’s wonderfully ludicrous.”
He’s not averse to silliness. Two weeks ago on radio, he and a female guest spent a giggly ten minutes discussing the Indian food ghee.
“One of the most hilarious things I’ve ever done on radio,” he says. “You know in advance the ways of putting things that are going to make people crash the car.”
Does he get nervous before doing television?
“My ritual is not to put on the suit until the very last minute,” he says. “Because that’s when you get nervous, when you’re wearing your match clothes. And then you try to channel that nervousness into adrenalin and alertness.
- Pat Kenny received a lifetime achievement award last night from the Irish Film and Television Academy. Pat Kenny Tonight is on TV3 on Wednesday