2023 in radio: Tubridy fallout lingers over RTÉ as rival stations look like safer options

Radio 1 and 2FM are shaken but still standing after the Montrose payments scandal as Pat Kenny’s strong Newstalk performance symbolises changed landscape

Events, dear boy, events. After a tumultuous year in which the Ryan Tubridy payments controversy sent RTÉ into a catastrophic tailspin, the laconic (if possibly apocryphal) warning from the late UK prime minister Harold Macmillan about the unforeseen perils of public service seems all too apposite. It’s difficult to imagine now, but just six months ago RTÉ Radio 1 seemed like a settled environment – possibly complacent and hardly serene, but still cruising along – while Tubridy, newly retired from The Late Late Show, exuded contentment as he relaxed into the sinecure of his hour-long morning show, the chirpy launchpad for the station’s weekday schedule.

Then came the revelations about undisclosed top-up payments to Tubridy’s already handsome salary via that murky entity the barter account, and everything fell apart. Most obviously, Tubridy – who until then had had a successful year, including a memorable valedictory interview with the late singer Christy Dignam – was first suspended and then defenestrated from his longtime 9am slot, all the while maintaining a public stance of wounded innocence.

In his place, a rotating roster of presenters took the reins of the blandly rechristened Nine O’Clock Show, to varying degrees of accomplishment. So far, Oliver Callan has sounded most comfortable in the role, though the impressionist hasn’t shown any great inclination to commit full time. (Perhaps he’s having too much fun lampooning Tubridy on his weekly satirical show, Callan’s Kicks.)

More generally, the scandal has loomed large across the rest of Radio 1′s output. For most of the summer, the station’s news and current affairs juggernauts, such as Morning Ireland, Today with Claire Byrne and Liveline, grappled with ongoing revelations of profligate executive spending in the cash-strapped network. At the same time, star presenters such as Byrne and Joe Duffy awkwardly acknowledged they were represented by Noel Kelly, the agent who negotiated Tubridy’s problematic pay package.


It’s a tribute to the professionalism of RTÉ personnel that the likes of Byrne and the Drivetime hosts, Sarah McInerney and Cormac Ó hEadhra, reported on the affair with masochistic rigour, to the point that the world beyond Montrose could fade from view.

Audiences stayed loyal to Radio 1. The Nine O’Clock Show also boosted its listenership: Tubridy wasn’t necessarily the gold-plated asset his salary suggested

Elsewhere, Brendan O’Connor bolstered his ratings by interviewing A-list guests such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, while hardy perennials such as The Business and Playback added to the resilient weekend schedule.

All this may explain why audiences stayed loyal to Radio 1, even as licence-fee receipts dropped by millions of euro in response to the payments controversy. Not only were there ratings increases for the likes of Byrne and, in her first year at the station, Louise Duffy, but The Nine O’Clock Show also boosted its listenership: Tubridy wasn’t necessarily the gold-plated asset his salary suggested. The only disappointment is that management hasn’t used the opportunity of an RTÉ in flux to shake up, or at least refresh, Radio 1’s schedule, maybe by reimagining the midmorning roster or giving arts shows such as Arena more prominence.

But while Tubridy has exited the network that nurtured his entire career to sail off into a new morning show on Virgin Radio UK – a programme to be simulcast on Rupert Murdoch-controlled Irish stations such as Dublin’s Q102 and Cork’s 96FM from January – his erstwhile colleagues continue bailing water frantically to prevent RTÉ’s stations from listing.

It’s working so far: 2FM and Lyric FM have also grown their numbers in difficult circumstances, even though online stations such as Radio 1 Extra, 2XM and Pulse are be scrapped. But as a long-term strategy, scrambling below deck to patch up possibly irreparable damage is hardly feasible.

Still, at 2FM in particular, the station’s big names performed well, with the rural cowboy arrivistes the 2 Johnnies turning the corner – or doing a screeching handbrake turn – to become the station’s most popular presenters, vindicating last year’s initially bumpy decision to recruit the podcasters. Along with a similarly strong showing from the 2FM Breakfast crew, such figures may consolidate the channel’s position in the face of periodic calls to sell it off.

It was a landmark year for 2FM in other ways, too, with the station stalwart Dave Fanning finally saying goodbye to his radio home of 44 years (though he can still be regularly heard elsewhere), leaving the likes of Jenny Greene and Dan Hegarty as the main musical torchbearers.

Even so, the year’s strongest-performing music-oriented station was Today FM. Dave Moore made the transition from half of the Dermot & Dave double act (following Dermot Whelan’s retirement from radio) to successful solo presenter, overtaking the ever-upbeat Ian Dempsey as the station’s top draw. Excepting Matt Cooper’s durable magazine show The Last Word, Today FM’s diet of lifestyle chats and buzzy pop is deeply conventional: it’s a formula successfully replicated on regional channels such as Spin 1038 in Dublin and Red FM in Cork, plus nationally on Ireland’s Classic Hits Radio. But as long as it works for the Bauer Media-owned station, there’s no reason to change course, particularly when its State-owned rival 2FM faces uncertainty.

Even in an era of change, with upheavals in domestic media and patterns of audio consumption inexorably shifting into the online realm, a seasoned veteran with a steady hand on the tiller can still flourish. More than half a century since he started out on the wireless, and a decade since he jumped ship from RTÉ to Newstalk, Pat Kenny underlined his enduring nous as a broadcaster with the highest ratings of his commercial-radio career. It’s a tribute to Kenny’s signature style, blending forensic news analysis, endless displays of esoteric knowledge and idiosyncratic bugbears, which of late have included widespread cocaine consumption in Ireland and the rise of artificial intelligence.

His success is repeated across Newstalk (also owned by Bauer Media), with Andrea Gilligan’s listener-led Lunchtime Live benefiting from her candour – she spoke openly about online harassment – while Seán Moncrieff’s entertaining afternoon show looks in danger of shedding cult status in favour of mainstream success.

But Kenny’s performance remains perhaps the most telling bellwether. When he sensationally joined Newstalk in 2013, commercial-radio waters appeared choppy beside the apparent security of RTÉ, then still awash with gilt-edged pay packets, even in the postcrash period. Ten years on, what seemed like a counterintuitive gambit now looks like a smart move, as RTÉ tussles with an existential crisis. That the now permagrinning Tubridy is taking a similar career path, albeit in vastly more contentious circumstances, must be a particularly galling twist for his onetime peers left stranded at RTÉ. Events, eh?