Kevin Bakhurst interview: ‘The RTÉ Player needs to be top of the class’

Director general on plans for its Dublin and Cork bases, whether Fair City should be outsourced and his relationship with Government

The personal keepsakes have changed but the upholstery in the RTÉ director general’s corner office at Montrose remains the vibrant chartreuse selected by its previous occupant, Dee Forbes, in her €16,000 renovation.

Amid both the ongoing post-scandal freeze on discretionary spending at RTÉ and knowledge that the broadcaster is being “scrutinised heavily all the time”, Kevin Bakhurst has no plans for a revamp of his own.

What seems more likely over the course of his seven-year term is that he will move out of the office entirely. Although there are no firm plans in place, if RTÉ opts to raise revenue by further shrinking its footprint at its Donnybrook campus, it is the 1960s administration building, along with the canteen from the same decade and the 1970s radio centre, that will be put on the market.

All three have protected status, however, denting the prospect of an easy sale.


“We have spoken to a lot of property companies and there’s not much interest in the listed buildings, because they are expensive and you can’t do much to them,” says Bakhurst.

The entire site has been newly valued at €100 million – nowhere near the €500 million Oireachtas committee members plucked out of the air in the summer – and it would cost RTÉ a net €100 million to €200 million to set up shop elsewhere. As a result, it makes “no sense” to leave Dublin 4.

Its property market focus is instead trained on Cork, where its existing premises – home of RTÉ programmes such as Today and Nationwide – has been valued at just €2 million.

“It’s not fit for purpose and it keeps flooding,” says Bakhurst. So it will be sold, if possible, while the search is on for a “central, flexible and modern” studio facility where it can ramp up production.

If there is a programme that RTÉ currently makes in Dublin but could relocate to Cork, he isn’t giving it away. Nor did he wish to identify which shows will be subject to the imminent axe: as part of a requirement to make savings of €10 million in 2024 to close a funding gap left open by the Government, cuts to content are now unavoidable.

The measures will be announced “in the coming weeks”, with Bakhurst declining to hint at what might be on the chopping block.

Earlier on Tuesday, Bakhurst had lamented at his “town hall” meeting with employees how leaks of his strategic plan had suggested RTÉ planned to source 50 per cent of its content from the independent production sector. Its more modest intention is actually to increase its total independent commissioning spend by 50 per cent. Even this shift, worth about €20 million to the sector, “won’t happen overnight”.

So, should Fair City be made by an independent production company?

“I don’t want to start singling out anything, it is not fair on the programme teams. But I think overall we will have to look at all our main programming and decide whether it is better off made in-house or whether there are opportunities to make it in the independent production sector.”

The fate of the soap opera is one to watch, if only because an independently produced Fair City could qualify for Section 481 tax relief, whereas its current status as an in-house programme means it does not. In the context of RTÉ, it also has a relatively hefty budget, with Bakhurst placing its annual cost at €12 million. This is more than is spent on 2FM, for instance.

“It is a big chunk of money, yeah, but it delivers great audiences and it is performing well. It performs well on the Player, which is important, and on RTÉ One.”

Speaking of the RTÉ Player, how much will be invested in it?

“That’s going to be ongoing. It’s not a one-off investment, but it’s an important priority for us. It needs to be top of the class, it is the key destination for audiences, so over years it will undoubtedly be millions, but we just need to see year by year what we need to invest in it.”

Although the complex task of splitting RTÉ into separate editorial and commercial functions – an idea occasionally proposed by RTÉ-watchers – went unmentioned in the current plan, it has not been ruled out.

“We have talked about it a lot. It is not something we are pursuing right now but I wouldn’t say it is totally off the table.”

A sale of 2FM is off the agenda, while there is a “real value” in Lyric FM and it will not be targeted the way it was in 2019 when Forbes announced a backlash-sparking closure of its Limerick studio. Radio is where all the cuts specified in Bakhurst’s 29-page plan are concentrated, however, with digital stations Radio 1 Extra, 2XM, Pulse and RTÉjr Radio all set to be shut down.

At the staff gathering in Montrose’s Studio 4, employees expressed regret that the axe was falling on services aimed at young people, especially as those same services function as “a creative sandbox” for new recruits to the public service broadcaster.

There will always be some objections, says Bakhurst.

“It’s easier to open services than it is to close them. We considered the services that we are cutting very carefully and looked at how those audiences prefer to consume their content, and the answer is not on linear services, not anymore.”

The announcement that one in five jobs will go by 2028, reducing its 1,900-plus headcount by 400, has created the most dramatic headlines this week, though the initial aim is to launch a “limited” exit scheme with the hope of achieving 40 voluntary redundancies. This scheme will open as soon as RTÉ receives Government permission to use part of the proceeds of its 2017 land sale to fund it.

There is “no preset idea” of who it would like to leave, but nor will the exercise be “just about getting people out the door”, he says.

RTÉ is yet to receive the first €16 million tranche of interim funding from the Government but Bakhurst expects that it will do so “quite soon”, drily adding that he hasn’t “checked the bank account”.

The money, alongside the additional €40 million in public funding due next year and the measures it is implementing to help itself, means the broadcaster will be in “a safe place” in 2024, he says, despite the ongoing haemorrhaging of funds from licence fee sales and renewals.

His verdict marks a distinct upgrade on the “dangerous place” that RTÉ chair Siún Ní Raghallaigh said the organisation was languishing in back in the crisis days of late June.

The fallout from the hidden payments scandal likely “accelerated” an outcome that would have happened anyway, Bakhurst believes.

“There was always going to be a crisis point. Evasion rates were very high here anyway in Ireland and the number of no-TV households was obviously rising significantly, so I think it was inevitable that this was going to happen.”

The Government’s €56 million funding commitment, though less than the sum RTÉ sought, is “really important” and he is “extremely grateful” for it, while a reassertion of the timetable for licence fee reform in 2025 was also “great to hear”, he says.

“I would say we have good and constructive relationships with the Government and the Opposition parties. We have a very good relationship with the officials in the Department. We are not always in agreement but it is always proper, and challenging where appropriate.”

Still, despite earlier attempting to reassure staff that RTÉ's financial position from 2025 onwards will be secure, he is not without caution as far as political promises are concerned.

“You can never count on anything. All I can do is listen to what I am being told and look at what people are saying publicly and listen to what they are saying privately.”

The weeks ahead remain frenetic: a new commercial strategy is “almost ready”, various independent reports on corporate governance that may make “difficult reading” for RTÉ are due to be published and an updated list of the 10 highest-paid presenters and what they earn will also be released.

Back when Bakhurst was appointed in April, three months before his term officially began, he could scarcely have imagined that he would wind up personally filling so much airtime on RTÉ. On Tuesday evening, his interviews with journalists from outside the broadcaster bridged a gap between appearances on Six-One and Prime Time.

Ideally, his reign at RTÉ will not be defined by job losses and other downbeat retrenchment, he says.

“If I can leave here with trust re-established in the organisation, with it becoming a better and happier place for people to work, and with it delivering great content to audiences on platforms that are relevant, I’ll be happy enough.”