Pat Kenny at 75: ‘What keeps him going is his enthusiasm, he has an insatiable curiosity – I don’t think he will ever stop’
Despite being a permanent fixture in Ireland’s media landscape for decades, it’s hard to believe Pat Kenny is about to turn 75 years old.
He sounds exactly the same as ever,” former Prime Time colleague Miriam O’Callaghan says. “His beautiful broadcasting voice has remarkably never changed, or aged.”
While other presenters’ careers slow down, the Newstalk host appears to be as combative and energetic as ever.
“What keeps him going is his enthusiasm for the job,” former TV producer Larry Masterson says. “He absolutely unreservedly loves what he does… he has an insatiable curiosity.”
He is never afraid to ask the difficult questions
Kenny began broadcasting over 50 years ago. He joined RTÉ in 1972 as a part-time continuity announcer while lecturing in Bolton Street.
Throughout the 1970s, he presented a variety of TV and radio programmes from news and technology, to kids’ TV and a magazine summer series.
He stood out. With his feathered hair and nifty sweater vests, he brought a freshness to broadcasting. “He would have been seen as attractive and something of a heartthrob in his early days,” Dr Roderick Flynn of DCU’s School of Communications said.
Kenny was working as a newsreader with the station when the opportunity to co-host current affairs show Today Tonight came up.
Presenting alongside Olivia O’Leary and Brian Farrell, it was this field – politics and current affairs – that he would excel in.
“He is meticulous, and that has been a hallmark of his career,” Dr Flynn says.
Masterson, who worked with Kenny for over 40 years, adds: “He is the source you go to for an authoritative commentary on what’s happened – people trust him.”
From early on in his career, Kenny achieved ‘personality status’ as a broadcaster.
Dr Flynn recalls him appearing in the 1980s motorcycle film Eat the Peach as himself. “He was a recognisable public figure, in a way that a lot of news and current affairs [presenters] don’t achieve,” Dr Flynn says.
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Some of the light-hearted or celebrity segments on the show didn’t always land
In 1988, Kenny sidestepped to lighter entertainment, co-hosting the Eurovision Song Contest with former Miss Ireland Michelle Rocca. It allowed him to show his dexterity as a broadcaster. That same year Kenny Live, his Saturday chat show, was launched.
This made him an obvious candidate to take over from the late and great Gay Byrne when he stepped down from The Late Late Show in 1999.
Kenny’s tenure as host of the Late Late is often talked about disparagingly. In presenting terms, he is a foil rather than a funny man. And it’s undeniable that some of the light-hearted or celebrity segments on the show didn’t always land. During his Kenny Live years, he had told Dawn French he would pay her ten grand to stay in bed, and his stint on the Late Late could strike a bizarre or discomfiting note, such as when he put on Brigitte Nielsen’s thigh-high boot or insisted on quizzing Pete Doherty about his drug use.
“I associate that era of the Late Late with nervous laughter,” Dr Flynn says.
However, Kenny was unafraid to take on controversial subjects. “I like to challenge people,” he previously said. “You might get angry and … complain to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission; that’s great. It means you’re involved in the argument in some way”.
The Late Late Show under his tenure was more of a dual aspect programme – handling both light entertainment and social issues – and arguably resulted in a lot more ‘water cooler’ moments than it has under Ryan Tubridy’s stewardship.
An obvious candidate to take over from the great Gay Byrne when he stepped down
“He is never afraid to ask the difficult questions,” Masterson says. “There was an edge to what he did… he was never afraid of controversy.
“There is no ‘palsy-walsy’ stuff, he has maintained his own independence and created water cooler moments in the papers. He was never afraid to get into it.”
Part of Kenny’s appeal as a broadcaster is that he is both a steady pair of hands and, at times, fairly unpredictable. Who would have guessed that at the tender age of 65, he would essentially tell RTÉ where to stick it and head off to a rival station? What other TV host would tear up tickets to The Toy Show live on air because they were enraged by a competition winner’s indifference, or shout about trophy houses at former Siptu president Jack O’Connor?
When Kenny handed The Late Late Show baton to Ryan Tubridy in 2009, he became the face of RTÉ current affairs show The Frontline, which replaced the long-running Questions & Answers, presented by John Bowman.
In 2012, the programme was embroiled in controversy after the ‘tweetgate’ scandal – during a presidential election debate, Kenny read out a tweet from a bogus account, which derailed front-runner Seán Gallagher’s campaign.
While this was a production error, Kenny still seemed to take the brunt of public criticism. Later that year, The Frontline was subsumed under the Prime Time umbrella. This was to mark the beginning of the end of Kenny’s career with RTÉ.
In 2013, he announced he was leaving the station for Newstalk in a reported €2m deal. At the time, he was RTÉ’s highest paid broadcaster.
Some were doubtful the move would prove successful, but Kenny managed to significantly increase listenership in the slot within the year.
Since then, he has continued to do TV work, such as Pat Kenny in the Round for UTV Ireland and appearing on Virgin Media Television’s political coverage.
Off-air, he prefers to keep his personal life to himself. Indeed, when asked by this newspaper if he would be marking the occasion of his birthday on air, he replied, “I don’t want to make a big deal of it, so I’m keeping it very quiet.”
Past and present colleagues seem to be universal in talking about how supportive he is. Newstalk’s technology correspondent Jess Kelly says he is ‘unbelievably generous with his time’, while Miriam O’Callaghan describes him as “extremely kind, very empathetic, great company, [and a ] hugely supportive colleague.”
The other detail people tend to be unanimous on is that he will never slow down. “He is still on air and people are still talking about him,” Masterson says. “I don’t think he will ever stop; he just loves the gig so much.”
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