Newstalk needs to cultivate new talent

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, October-November 2013 edition

The ‘Move the Dial’ campaign for Newstalk, fronted by Pat Kenny in the weeks before his on-air debut on commercial radio, was something of a mixed blessing.newstalk

The initial launch, with a poker-faced Kenny solemnly informing youtube viewers that if they experienced difficulty retuning their radios, they could call a special hotline, may have led to some social media mockery, but then again, social media mocks everything, and the internet’s disdain did get the campaign trending.

The poster campaign that followed, costing over €1 million according to some reports, pushed the same message, with Kenny’s face prominently displayed alongside the Move the Dial message.

With RTÉ unable (or unwilling) top match the independent station’s ad spend on the new season, Newstalk executives can congratulate themselves on their coup, poaching one of the national broadcaster’s marquee names, but the campaign held at it’s core a mixed message.

There’s an old rule in politics that you never name your opponent. In urging audiences to ‘move the dial’, Newstalk may not have identified RTÉ explicitly, but the underlying message was clear: Newstalk was the alternative, RTÉ was the default listener’s choice. RTÉ may not have had €1 million to spend on an advertising campaign for Sean O’Rourke, but Newstalk’s efforts (and regular articles in Independent Newspapers boosting the contest between the two) had much the same effect.

Whether Kenny or O’Rourke wins the major battle of the airwaves won’t be clear until at least the and of the year, when the next JNLR research figures are published, and realistically it will be at least a year before clear patterns emerge.

Meanwhile Newstalk’s second major Autumn announcement, the return on Ivan Yates, brings its own problems. His highly publicised bankruptcy bought him some measure of sympathy, but also raised the hackles (or should that be heckles?) of many listeners, who saw in his story echoes of how the political class protects its privileges. Yates may not have been a TD for a decade, but he had the misfortune to re-enter the public spotlight just as the banks showed junior minister John Perry the kind of leniency few ordinary citizens can expect. His interview with Pat Kenny (on Kenny’s first morning at the Newstalk helm) brought with it a backlash of comments about his political pensions.

It was not the only time Yates misjudged the public mood. His on-air gaffe in discussing Majella ODonnell’s public headshave on the Late Late Show (“ghoulish and inappropriate”) stands in contrast with the €550,000 pledged to the Irish Cancer Society in the week following her appearance.

But then, Newstalk has always had a women problem, and not just in the lack of female voices among its presenters. At one point, the station’s listenership was skewed 70% male, and though that is improving, its listener profile remains as blokeish as the daily line-up. And strangely, for a station targeting a younger news audience than RTÉ Radio One, the first team feels like it’s growing older. Yates, at only two years older than Sean Moncrieff, is actually the youngest of the trio made up of himself, Pat Kenny, and George Hook. Moncrieff however sounds as though he comes from another generation.

Newstalk’s coup in attracting Kenny disguises the other main personnel exchange in recent times, when the Off The Ball team walked (or were pushed) at the end of protracted negotiations over how to grow the innovative sports programme.

Reborn as the Second Captains, the crew moved their format online, podcasting twice-weekly from the Irish Times website, and debuting on television on RTÉ. The irreverence and fresh ideas of the Second Captains had already reinvigorated sporting coverage on Newstalk, managing the impossible of attracting an audience that wasn’t actually that interested in ball games and contests, and could do the same on television. Giles and Dunphy are still top dogs, but they look grey and tired compared to the upstarts. Meanwhile, another Newstalk alumni, Clare Byrne, is one of the anchor presenters of Prime Time, a gig Pat Kenny had to vacate when he jumped ship. Newstalk seems unable to grow and retain it’s own brands, instead buying in already established – and ageing – names.