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Claire Byrne and Joe Duffy assiduously avoid talking about the salary cap

Byrne seems blindsided by leaked news of Kevin Bakhurst’s ‘strategic vision’

Though not quite as unseemly as Ryan Tubridy crowing about his new London gig on Virgin Radio UK while his former RTÉ colleagues are engulfed by the mess he left behind, convention holds it impolite to talk about how much you earn. So it’s perhaps understandable that Tubridy’s erstwhile Radio 1 peers Claire Byrne and Joe Duffy shy away from discussing their hefty salaries on the airwaves. Unfortunately for them, however, their new boss is less hidebound by convention, as the broadcaster’s director general, Kevin Bakhurst, explains – on the RTÉ rival Newstalk, no less – that under radical new plans none of the network’s highest-paid personalities will earn more than the €250,000 he is paid himself, which puts them in line for pay cuts.

“I don’t like putting them in the spotlight,” Bakhurst tells Ciara Kelly on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays), firmly fixing a powerful searchlight beam on Byrne, Duffy and their fellow top earner Miriam O’Callaghan. High salaries, he says, are a corrosive issue for the beleaguered organisation, and although he wants to retain big names “I just don’t think we need to be paying what we have been paying in the past to bring through that talent”. But, Bakhurst notes, “I think they know the reality of where we are.”

Maybe so, though you wouldn’t think it listening to Duffy on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). The host assiduously avoids mentioning either the network’s cost-cutting strategy or the resultant Government bailout to keep the studios open. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: one couldn’t blame Duffy, so often a canny reader of the public mood, for deciding his audience hasn’t the appetite for yet another round of RTÉ navel-gazing.

It’s what Duffy actually talks about that’s the problem. At a time when RTÉ’s plan is meant to herald a new direction, with Bakhurst’s introduction referring to “evolving audience needs”, much of Liveline is so focused on older listeners that it makes Ireland’s Own look like a TikTok video.


It’s hard to shake the notion that Joe Duffy is going through the motions as he purrs appreciatively or sighs disapprovingly during such items. Liveline’s phone-in format is sounding a little shop-worn

Tuesday’s programme features a lengthy confab on the high price of cinema tickets for senior citizens, while on Wednesday there’s an over-egged conversation on baldness being underrated, with Duffy indulging his penchant for saucy humour: “Is it an erogenous zone? Do you like your head getting stroked?” the chuckling host asks a caller. Duffy is also behind the curve with his item on baldness: the same topic is covered in less folksy but more stimulating fashion by Newstalk’s Andrea Gilligan the previous day, on her show Lunchtime Live. Much like his caller’s receding hairline, Duffy’s novel talking points are growing thin.

Either way, it’s hard to shake the notion that he’s going through the motions as he purrs appreciatively or sighs disapprovingly during such items. Liveline’s phone-in format is sounding a little shopworn, too, but there has been more pep to proceedings when Katie Hannon and Colm Ó Mongáin have stood in behind the mic of late. A past master at drawing out voices previously silenced or marginalised by Irish society, Duffy can still tackle difficult subjects in compelling fashion when the occasion arises. But change is overdue at Liveline.

There’s little reference to the salary cap on Today With Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), with the host seeking to examine the wider issues of voluntary redundancies, service closures and the outsourcing of production to the independent sector. After sounding slightly blindsided by the leaking of the plan the previous day, Byrne is in more typically analytical mode on Wednesday as she goes through RTÉ's “strategic vision” with the business journalist Tom Lyons.

Though the proposals entail the organisation being smaller and cheaper, Lyons isn’t totally downbeat in his assessment, but he agrees with Byrne that there’s little detail on how the network might transform itself. The main thing, he thinks, is finding the balance between making necessary cuts and “ensuring RTÉ doesn’t kill itself off in the process”. It’s a stark if probably accurate summary of the situation. But Byrne remains dispassionate throughout, even if she’s effectively a turkey reporting on Christmas. Then again, having devoted herself to radio since stepping back from television work last year, Byrne seems secure in her sinecure, impending wage reductions notwithstanding.

Ryan Tubridy’s old Radio 1 slot, now trading as The Nine O’Clock Show, has seen its numbers shoot up despite having no permanent host yet, which suggests ridiculously remunerated presenters aren’t always required for good ratings

As for the future of RTÉ’s radio offering in general, there are some grounds for optimism, despite the rock-bottom morale in Montrose and the looming service cuts. In the latest Joint National Listenership Survey results, Radio 1 actually increased its overall audience, despite being home to the highest-earning personalities; 2FM saw an even greater growth in listenership.

All this while swathes of people refuse to pay the licence fee: even as trust plummets in RTÉ as an institution, loyalty to its radio stations – including Lyric FM, ignominiously threatened with the axe under the ancien regime – appears surprisingly resilient. Perhaps most notably, Ryan Tubridy’s old Radio 1 slot, now trading as The Nine O’Clock Show, has seen its numbers shoot up despite having no permanent host yet, which suggests that ridiculously remunerated presenters aren’t always required for good ratings.

True, the shuttering of digital stations such as Pulse and 2XM seems chopping the low-hanging fruit, giving up on the online youth market while the golden-oldies channel RTÉ Gold remains in place. In particular, 2XM has carried intriguing documentaries and been home to adventurous DJs such as Peter Curtin. One hopes Bakhurst is serious when, during his Newstalk Breakfast interview, he talks of finding new outlets for presenters displaced by such closures: “We have a lot of talent there.”

With cutbacks imminent, this might sound glib. As Bakhurst also remarks to Kelly: “We are competing with Newstalk and others, and, unfortunately, sometimes people go.” Still, if gifted young presenters are given the chance to make their mark, it could provide a glimmer of brightness amid the prevailing despondency. One suspects there’ll be ample opportunity for imaginative programming changes in the coming months, though people need to put their money where their mouth is.