Subscriber OnlyOpinion

What is it about RTÉ that it can’t seem to hold on to the talent?

RTÉ effectively gave presenters a choice: you can work for us or you can work for yourself, but you can’t do both. When you look at the numbers, it’s no surprise which option is proving popular

It has been almost a year since the revelations – and this story may just ring the tiniest of bells, so bear with me – that RTÉ had been significantly under-declaring the income of its best-paid star, Ryan Tubridy. Given that the whole affair has barely been mentioned in the media since, you’d be forgiven for having missed it entirely. But never fear: RTÉ is back in the headlines for another round of the saga that makes the eight seasons of Game of Thrones look mercifully concise.

In the space of a couple of weeks, Doireann Garrihy, the 2 Johnnies, Johnny Smacks (who real name ­is Jonathon McMahon) and Johnny B (real name John O’Brien) and Jennifer Zamparelli have all announced their departures from the shows they present, leaving 2FM with a crater in its schedule.

What is it about ageing legacy broadcaster RTÉ – with its editorial standards, soon-to-be-published register of external activities and on-again, off-again relationship with various Oireachtas committees – that it can’t seem to hold on to the talent in a dazzlingly lucrative world of brand #collabs, podcasts and sponsored cars?

As part of its laudable efforts to re-establish a line between commercial and public interest, RTÉ has effectively given presenters a choice: you can either work for us, or you can work for yourself, but you can’t do both. There’s nothing terribly revolutionary about this – few big organisations would tolerate their top staff running a business on the side. Yet for RTÉ's stable of broadcasters-turned-influencers and influencers-turned-broadcasters, who have been living the dream at the nexus of commercial and public interests, it has prompted some big life decisions.


RTÉ insisted there was “no link” between Garrihy and the Johnnies leaving, but the fact the four departures come as RTÉ clamps down on presenters’ extracurricular activities – and shortly before the publication of a register of external activities, a register of interests in which they would declare any conflicts of interest and plans for gift register that would force them to declare any gifts more than €50 – doesn’t seem entirely coincidental.

The new generation of RTÉ talent aren’t so much presenters with lucrative side hustles as influencers or podcasters, as influencers and podcasters with side hustles at RTÉ. This isn’t necessarily by choice: many are hired as contractors rather than staff. Equally, you can see why that arrangement might have suited them.

Since the death of Gerry Ryan in 2010, RTÉ seems to have little idea, beyond the notion that it serves some vaguely amorphous blob it calls ‘the youth’

Garrihy has made no bones about leaving “to pursue the projects I’ve been dreaming about”. Abridged accounts for her company, Doireann Enterprises, show profits carried forward of €541,643 at the end of the 2023 financial year. Her podcast Doireann and Friends returned this week with “a brand new sponsor (she named a bank) which I’ll tell you more about in episode one”.

McMahon and O’Brien have built up a successful live events business and are shortly off on tour to Australia and North America. Their latest set of abridged accounts reveals the pair shared directors’ pay in the year up to April 2023 of €404,183, up from €166,204 on 2022. Profits for 2023 were €269,533, up from €134,090 a year earlier.

Zamparelli said she was leaving to spend more time with her family, but she remains co-owner of a hair salon and in 2023, she co-hosted a podcast with Lottie Ryan, Jen and Lottie Do Parenting. Her company, Stormbound Ltd, has made accumulated profits of €802,000 to date, according to its abridged accounts, including a profit of €66,161 in the 12 months to January 2023.

Now weigh these figures up against the fact that no 2FM presenter is in the top 10 earners at RTÉ, meaning none is paid more than €180,000.

To be clear, none of them have been doing anything wrong – which may even be one of the things that most sticks in the craw. Kevin Bakhurst sounded a bit churlish when he said at a meeting with staff that before they landed their RTÉ gigs, the Johnnies were “nowhere near as big as they are now ...[while] Doireann was not nearly as well known as she is now. It’s been a great platform for them.” But this is exactly what infuriates the licence-fee paying public – their €160 being used to part-fund a “great platform” for presenters to build up a side career as a podcaster or influencer, or flogging #sponsored goods on Instagram.

For years, RTÉ has been turning a blind eye to commercial nixers and overpaying its biggest stars on the basis that they might walk. And for just as many years, the response was a deservedly incredulous “to where?” Now, thanks to the money to be made as an influencer-slash-podcaster-slash-whatever, that’s no longer an empty threat. The short-term logistical nightmare this creates for 2FM is dwarfed by a bigger existential question. What exactly is the station for? Since the death of Gerry Ryan in 2010, RTÉ seems to have little idea, beyond the notion that it serves some vaguely amorphous blob it calls “the youth”. But if that youth audience can get all the Doireann Garrihy or 2 Johnnies they want on podcasts or on social media, what is 2FM really offering?

Out of this crisis there is an opportunity for 2FM to entirely reinvent itself, focus on new music and develop new voices who actually want to work in radio as opposed to work for themselves. If there is any solace in this run of dismal news, it is that young audiences do still listen to radio, a fact reinforced by recent JNLR figures.

In the best-case scenario, 2FM could emerge not as a hollow imitation of a Spotify podcast playlist, but something entirely unique and distinctly Irish, a station that puts audiences rather than what it obsequiously calls “the talent” first.