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Una Mullally: RTÉ’s biggest problem is its creative anaemia

Voluntary redundancies will not save the broadcaster if it refuses to take creative risks

Pretty much everyone in the media industry has a bag-full of answers to the RTÉ question. The future of the station is unstable at a time when there is an abundance of television and an increasingly expanding podcasting industry. So how do you solve a problem like RTÉ? It’s very obvious that government heel-dragging on a reimagined media licence has hurt the station greatly. This needs to be solved as soon as possible. Just do it.

But how else to plug the financial holes? Cutting costs won’t do it. Voluntary redundancies won’t do it. Selling land won’t do it. Auctioning off artworks won’t do it. Slashing big-name presenters’ salaries won’t do it. The solution for RTÉ, as for any creative industry, is to invest in creative people and in development.

RTÉ should be attracting the best and the brightest working in television and radio here. But it’s not. That is a problem. There’s also a reason for that. RTÉ does not invest properly in creative people. A job in RTÉ is often not seen as a jumping-off point for someone to make their mark, but as safety and security. That’s not to say RTÉ doesn’t have plenty of creative people, passionate about making great programmes, dedicated to public service broadcasting and extraordinarily talented. It does. But not enough, and they are not being served properly by the processes in the organisation.

Within the television industry, the institutionalisation and cushiness of RTÉ is well-known, resented and widely ridiculed. Some of this is unfair and rooted in a legacy understanding of the broadcaster. But the belief is that the people calling the shots tend to be creatively anaemic, and that’s probably fair. Meanwhile, the independent sector is run ragged, with much fewer resources, less job security and people often pushed to the limit, working from project to project. That’s not right either. There has to be a happy medium. But RTÉ benefits from – and perhaps in turn facilitates – much more demanding work practices and productivity outside its organisation than it does within.


The road away from Montrose is paved with disgruntled presenters and programme-makers, jilted by decisions made on high. If you want to know how to fix your organisation, ask the good people on the ground. Those same people were catcalling and jeering in RTÉ’s meeting last week when management were laying out the situation. Listen to them.

Big money

For the public, they’re aghast at the big money many presenters are paid. It’s clear that Ray D’Arcy would have been a decent hire if he came with a time machine to bring us all back to the glory days of his show on Today FM, which at its peak was brilliant, and as a result had an engaged community of listeners. But a €50,000 raise for a radio programme where he often sounds like he doesn’t even want to be there, and a ropy TV chat show that’s haemorrhaging viewers? Come on. It’s clear also that Marian Finucane earning over €300,000 for two radio shows a week is bonkers. Whatever you think about Ryan Tubridy, on almost half a million a year, he does actually live and breathe broadcasting, even if there’s a sense that his rise has plateaued.

But there has always been far less disgruntlement within RTÉ about the salaries of marquee presenters than there is about management. Could it be that RTÉ’s issues are not just about how it’s run, but who’s running it? Dee Forbes has done the best she can with this hospital pass of an organisation crumbling under the strain of financial inefficiencies, but for how long can RTÉ slash and burn?

What are they going to do? Voluntary redundancies for ever? The unintended consequence of voluntary redundancies is that often the wrong people go. A lot of people take those packages and leave RTÉ to pursue their own passions. The failure to capitalise on people’s creativity is compounded by a civil-service-type practice of shuffling people around departments depending on their “grade” and not necessarily their area of expertise or interest or where they can flourish most creatively.

Management spoofery

There tends to be a sense of spoofery at management and executive levels in RTÉ. There also seems to be a tendency towards generalism, rather than specific expertise. Anyone can formulate strategy, it’s about executing it. Management and executive structures in media organisations reward consensus and reject risk. But creativity is about rejecting consensus and rewarding risk.

In radio RTÉ dropped the ball backing digital as opposed to podcasting, but hindsight is 2020. The fact that RTÉ isn’t creating podcasts that large Irish audiences are listening to is incredible when there are people around the country making popular podcasts with virtually no resources.

You simply have to invest in creative people to make good stuff. You have to bring new talent – of all ages – up through the ranks. Creative people come up with interesting ideas that make exciting programmes, and from there, it’s the audience that’s the judge.