DENIS O'BRIEN is nothing if not flexible. This we learned at the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland's (BCI) public hearing on Dublin radio station Newstalk 106's application for a quasi-national licence for its talk radio station.
O'Brien is Newstalk's chairman and, through radio group Communicorp, its largest shareholder. As expected, he was put on the spot by BCI chief Michael O'Keeffe's opening question regarding Newstalk's intentions for its existing Dublin licence should it be awarded the quasi-national franchise.
O'Brien said the station hopes to be able to operate both, providing a dedicated Dublin service on its additional frequency and a separate service to the rest of the licence area, which covers around 70% of the country. But he added: "we have an open mind on this and would be more than happy to enter into discussions [with the BCI]".
Would the two stations have different names? "We're totally flexible, " said O'Brien. Would the shareholders be able to pick up the slack if the station failed to meet its revenue and profit forecasts? Again, they are "flexible".
They will need to be. Going national will require them to pony up an extra 2m a year on top of the 14m committed to date. Should it get the new licence Newstalk expects to post a 1.1m operating loss for 2007, narrowing to 575,000 the following year, with the company hitting break-even in year three. According to finance director Patrick Hand, the station will require 6.2m to get there, taking it past the 20m mark in total equity committed.
Newstalk sees the Irish radio advertising market rising from its current level of 139m to around 177m during that time and is predicting it will capture 5% of that by 2009.
It's an ambitious target.
Newstalk's licence hearing is one of several due to take place in the coming year as the BCI prepares to hand out several new regional radio licences.
The advertising pie may be getting bigger but there are more hungry mouths to feed.
Newstalk's projections are particularly optimistic when you consider that it has taken the station four years to battle to a 7% share of the Dublin market. It is rapidly adding new listeners, has established solid programmes with presenters such as RTE rugby pundit George Hook, Eamon Dunphy and rising star Orla Barry, and looks to have reached tipping point in the capital.
Though Today FM denies there's any connection, the station recently expanded the drive-time slot of Matt Cooper, formerly of this parish, to start at 4.30pm, matching Hook, who recently bested Cooper for listeners. It has been a slow burn, though, and Communicorp's unshakeable faith is not shared by all.
Some shareholders, including Capital Radio . . . the former owner of Dublin's FM104 . . . have declined the invitation to commit additional funds through the rights issues Newstalk has had to make to stay afloat since its launch.
As BCI chairman Conor Maguire pointed out, it is difficult to see investors getting a return on their 20m over the 10-year period of the quasinational licence. Newstalk's response, provided by Hand, was that it hoped to be in a strong position to re-apply for the quasi-national speech franchise and secure a further 10year licence.
O'Brien says there are no plans to float or sell the business and that the station's backers are committed to the station as a long-term investment.
It's difficult to imagine that someone of O'Brien's means and entrepreneurial zeal couldn't find a quicker and easier way to make a buck if he wanted to but, then again, the same could be said of many who have taken an interest media companies.
Whatever happens, many an interested listener will be tuning in to see if the telecoms millionaire's flexibility pays off.
AIB shareholder wishes he was institutionalised
WHAT'S the difference between having shares in a company and having in"uence?
Ask Tom Beesley. He was one of the shareholders who questioned the size of the severance package offered to departing AIB "nance director Gary Kennedy at the bank's annual general meeting in Cork.
Kennedy was given a 2.1m pension top-up, 580,000 compensation for loss of of"ce and 150,000 in "legal fees" relating to his departure . . . even though the bank says it was amicable . . . on top of his 470,000 salary last year.
Beesley's remark that the package represented a "platinum rather than a gold handshake" was widely reported last week.
Unfortunately for him none of the large institutional shareholders, whose voices actually count, spoke up in his support. But the quiescence of top institutional holders Bank of Ireland Asset Management, Fidelity and Vanguard Group is no silence of the lambs.
They're fellow wolves.
And once earnings and the share price are on track, no fund manager is apparently going to quibble about executive compensation.
Chairman Dermot Gleeson's response to the criticism was the usual public company dogma that the bank pays well because good people can be lured elsewhere. Too true.
Good people can also decide to leave, as was the case with Kennedy, when restructuring at their company changes the nature of their job.
Gleeson said the restructuring, one of the results of which was that ex-Citigroup man Steve Meadows took over Kennedy's previous responsibility for operations and technology, would "pay dividends in the years ahead". At least 2.9m worth of dividends, you would hope, to pacify the bank's understandably disgruntled small shareholders.