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Pat Kenny’s ‘last great spin on the roundabout’ is a slow-burn success story for Irish radio

It takes time to build an audience for a radio show – and time to understand exactly how a new one is faring

It was “maybe the last great spin on the roundabout”, Pat Kenny said of his move to Newstalk when he announced his shock departure from RTÉ for airwaves that were, at the time, owned by Denis O’Brien. Kenny was 65, the second highest-paid presenter at RTÉ after Ryan Tubridy and he had worked at Montrose for 41 years.

I don’t think anyone expected him to still be on that same roundabout almost 11 years later while toasting the kind of record listener numbers – a record for Newstalk – that indicate he is not going anywhere any time soon.

Indeed, having signed a new contract with the now Bauer-owned Newstalk, Kenny has told the Sunday Independent exactly that: “I am not going anywhere any time soon.”

Forget any headlines you may have read about Oliver Callan shedding listeners. The clearest and most notable finding in last week’s Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) figures is that Kenny’s audience is going gangbusters.

His 229,000 listeners, as measured in an Ipsos-conducted survey that took place between April 2023 and the end of March 2024, is up 13,000 on the survey for the calendar year 2023. But, more importantly, it has climbed a whopping 55,000 compared to the same period a year earlier. That’s an increase of almost a third.

Two other Newstalk shows – Newstalk Breakfast and Lunchtime Live – have also reached new all-time highs, but it is Kenny’s midmorning performance that has improved the most convincingly, prompting Bauer to dub him “king of the airwaves” and note that his is now the biggest show on commercial radio.

Bauer sounded triumphant there, though to claim the latter title Kenny leapfrogged two Bauer colleagues presiding over very different shows on Today FM: Dave Moore, who has 228,000 listeners in the same three-hour time slot, which he has presented solo since last autumn, and breakfast stalwart Ian Dempsey, who has 216,000 listeners.

These three programmes are the only ones in the current top 20 that are not broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1, and they are in 14th, 15th and 18th place respectively.

When Kenny exited RTÉ, he correctly forecast that it would be a “mammoth task” to achieve the same figures with Newstalk as he had enjoyed at Radio 1, where at the time of his defection Today with Pat Kenny had 328,000 listeners from 10am-12pm. (Today with Claire Byrne, incidentally, now has 341,000.)

At Newstalk, where Kenny began broadcasting in September 2013, the initial target was a more modest 150,000 listeners for a slot that was then 10am-12.30pm. It was still a tough ask. He had yet to crack that level when Sean O’Rourke took Radio 1′s Today show to 354,000, its highest audience in 15 years, in the April 2016-March 2017 survey.

But Kenny did cross the 150,000 threshold in the next survey, and though there was some treading water either side of this for a few years, 2021 brought a fresh boost. A Covid-era JNLR covering the period October 2020-October 2021 revealed that the first half of Newstalk’s weekday schedule was gaining new traction, with Kenny’s listenership jumping to 183,000.

This upward trajectory is not merely a question of patience or pandemics. The first breakthrough was achieved after his slot was adjusted to 9am-12pm from September 2016, meaning he benefited from a half-hour extension and an earlier start time.

The second push coincided with off-air change. While it is impossible to prove how the stations would have fared under the continued auspices of O’Brien’s Communicorp, the switch in ownership seems highly relevant to the subsequent glow-up of both Newstalk and Today FM.

The latest JNLR covers the last few months of Tubridy’s reign, followed by lots of chopping and changing until Callan officially inherited the slot

Bauer Media Audio, the UK-based radio subsidiary of German-owned media empire Bauer, has had the marketing firepower to promote its Irish interests, which have expanded since its 2021 deal to buy Communicorp and are now run by chief executive Chris Doyle.

In the interest of simple narratives, Newstalk reaching its highest ever share of listening, at 8.2 per cent, must mean that Radio 1 is on the slide, right? Well, no. Radio 1 is holding up just fine so far, with its share of weekday peak-time listening coming in at 20.7 per cent. This is the same share that it achieved in the previous survey and is actually higher than where it stood a year ago.

Even if it comes under pressure in future, it will be unfair to pin the blame on Callan. Yes, the audience for the station’s 9am slot – which at just one hour long can’t be directly compared to Newstalk’s – has fallen 13,000 since the last survey, bringing it down to 330,000. My guess is that it will dip again and eventually settle somewhere below that commanded by Tubridy, Callan’s predecessor.

But it seems fair to point out that there is scant evidence of any substantial or even significant drop-off so far. The latest JNLR covers the last few months of Tubridy’s reign, followed by lots of chopping and changing until Callan officially inherited the slot in late January, just two months before the end of the year-long survey period.

That audience of 330,000 is down just 5,000 year-on-year, which isn’t a lot, and is only 4,000 lower than the last full year of Tubridy’s incumbency. Not exactly a cause for panic just yet, is it?

The data produced by the JNLR is a slow burn – a bit like the growth in Kenny’s numbers on Newstalk. It takes time to fully assess how a programme is faring, and though this leads to much misunderstanding and some misreporting, perhaps it isn’t all bad. For the lesson offered by Kenny’s Newstalk show is that even when it comes to the best-known and most experienced of names, instant results are hard to come by.

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