Sizing up the competition
Previously known only for her television work, Claire Byrne has emerged in the last few months as a formidable radio presenter. Emma Browne speaks to her about leaving TV3, the pressures of live radio and going head-to-head with Morning Ireland. Portrait by Eoghan Moylan
RTÉ Radio One and Morning Ireland ought to be worried. In the last few years, the national broadcaster's most popular show has lost over 60,000 listeners. Notably, in the period from January to December 2005, it had 476,000 listeners: recent figures, just two years later, show that it has dropped to just 422,000.
Although it still remains Ireland's most popular radio show, Morning Ireland now has some real competition in the form of NewsTalk's Breakfast Show, which goes out head-to-head with it each morning.
The Breakfast Show offers a persuasive alternative. Morning Ireland is staid, formal and predictable. Its format has remained the same for donkey's years, but it obviously works. The NewsTalk alternative is more modern, more lighthearted. It has quizzes, vox pops and banter between its two presenters, Claire Byrne and Ger Gilroy.
So far the big success of the show has been Claire Byrne. Ger Gilroy had already proved his worth fronting the successful NewsTalk sports programme Off The Ball before he got the Breakfast Show gig. Byrne, however, was known primarily as a television presenter, and had no experience of current-affairs programming with a national radio station. But since she started in November 2006, she has emerged as one of the country's top broadcasters. On radio she is clever, articulate, quick-witted and relaxed.
Although well-known through her television work for TV3, she actually began her career in radio, which she calls her “home”. After studying journalism in what is now DIT Rathmines, Claire went to work for East Coast Radio. Then for BBC Radio in the Channel Islands for four years, before returning to join TV3 as a news reporter and anchor in 1999. She left a year later to return to England to work as a news anchor for Channel 5 while Kirsty Young was on maternity leave. In 2001, TV3 asked her to be the female anchor on Ireland AM. She took up the challenge.
“I had always done news so it was a chance to do lighter-edge stuff... Maybe I was too pigeon-holed in my abilities in terms of current affairs. And for me the challenge was, could I do fashion, makeup, weight loss? I never felt entirely comfortable doing the lighter pieces.”
In 2004, Grainne Seoige left the TV3 evening news for Sky News Ireland and the logical step was that Claire would take over her spot. She anchored TV3 News until late last year. By then, she says, the time was right for a return to radio.
“I sort of fell into doing the television thing – a year accident if you like. I prefer it [radio] as a medium. It is more relaxed and you have more control over it. In television, there are a lot more people involved and it is a lot more polished. You need an element of that rawness.”
A native of Mountrath in County Laois, Claire realised she wanted to be a journalist in her teens. She started debating in school, wrote numerous letters to newspapers and worked for her local paper.
Byrne says she didn't realise the significance of going head-to-head with Morning Ireland. when she took the job on the Breakfast Show.
“To be honest, I didn't really think about it. It was probably naïve of me because I actually believe really firmly that there is a market for the Breakfast Show on NewsTalk. It didn't really occur to me that we can't break this monster. I think there is a place for both of us in the market.”
They are aiming the Breakfast Show at a new generation of Irish people.
“We strive to have a mindset where we are part of a new generation of Irish people who are not subservient to people in authority and we question without apology. We are not afraid to rib people when we feel they need to be ribbed. Our politicians talk an awful lot of rubbish a lot of the time and it's good for us to be able to flag this up. We also want to address issues that actually affect people. There may be very good stories which might be seen as being top of the news agenda, but we only pay lip-service to them if we feel they are directly affecting people's lives.
“In comparison to us, we feel Morning Ireland's agenda is back a number of years. For instance the Breakfast Show uses new media like clips from [website] YouTube, as well as lots of listener interaction with emails and texts.”
Byrne was recruited to the show after she filled in for Orla Barry in the 9am NewsTalk slot and proved popular with listeners.
Claire and her co-presenter Ger Gilroy work well together. Even though they have very different styles, they compliment each other. She says they have a “natural compatibility”.
The most recent JNLR figures released showed that the Breakfast Show has a listenership of 41,000 in the Dublin area for the first three months of NewsTalk going nationwide. Countrywide figures will come out in May and August.
“There is a lot of pressure with that [the next set of figures] especially when you are the face of the programme. There is pressure in radio more than television – it is the presenters that get the flak.”
But she is confident that the programme is attracting listeners.
Her transition to Newstalk was not smooth. A few days after Claire began presenting the Breakfast Show, TV3 brought an injunction against her and tried to hold her to a three-month non-compete clause.
“We had a dispute over the amount of time that I had to keep my non-compete clause. It read on paper that I wasn't able to work for another broadcaster for three months after I had finished my contract with TV3. I said ‘I am not happy about this' and that I would like it removed from my contract. And I was told there was no need to have it removed, that it would only be used if you go and work in RTÉ television. So, as I was going to work for NewsTalk on radio, I was given an assurance that this wouldn't apply. But the rules were changed at the very last minute. I was sitting in the High Court with my employers during the day and then going in to to read the news that evening on TV3. It was bizarre. A very strange time.”
The case was settled after a few days in the High Court, but Claire was front-page news for several days in a row.
“You kind of treat it as part of the gig. For a while it was an absolute nightmare. I felt it certainly wasn't something I had signed up to. Once you shake hands with the devil and put yourself forward you have to expect it. I would rather be known as setting the news agenda as a journalist rather than setting the news agenda as somebody whose life is for some reason interesting.”π