Clare Duignan

They remember massacres gone by, and they are wary. Yet the personnel in RTÉ Radio are not quaking in their boots at the prospect of regime change, despite the tough times that prevail for all media.

Clare Duignan takes over as the new managing director of radio in RTÉ next month, transferring from her current position as director of programming in television. Change is expected, simply because it is inevitable in any new regime. However, few expect anything on the scale of the upheaval that followed the appointment of Helen Shaw to the same position 11 years ago.

"There's bound to be changes," one staffer says. "Somebody isn't going to come in and not make some changes, but having said that, there have already been a lot of changes to the schedules over the last few years."

Shaw's successor, Adrian Moynes, has presided over radio for the past six years. Now Duignan comes in at a time when advertising revenue is plunging and the age profile of listeners to the flagship station continues to rise.

She also faces the perennial problem of what to do with 2FM. Last week, Ken Sweeney reported in the Sunday Tribune that all non-music items on the afternoon programmes are to be dropped. The function of DJs will be merely to introduce music and play it. Some reports say the move is linked to the establishment of a new 2FM website this year, where music will be sold online. Either way, the challenge of marrying public service broadcasting to commercial viability will be greater as the country faces into a deep recession.

Other issues may arise over on
Radio 1. Last week, in an interview with the Irish Times, Ryan Tubridy decried the limitations placed on his morning programme's allotted time of one hour. Some saw this as the presenter getting his pitch in to the new boss. Whether Duignan would be ultimately responsible for that level of rescheduling, or whether it falls
within the brief of the head of Radio 1, Ana Leddy, remains to be seen.

Duignan's background suggests that she will be a hands-on director at the station. Despite working in management positions over the past decade or more in television, she has remained close to the coalface in the production of programmes.

This was best illustrated last March when the station found itself immersed in controversy over Fairytale of Kathmandu, the film on Irish language poet Cathal ó Searcaigh's involvement with youths in Nepal.

Huge pressure was brought to bear on the station, from ó Searcaigh and his allies in the arts and Irish language spheres, not to broadcast the film. The poet claimed it depicted him as exploiting the young men for sexual favours – it did – and that this was a dishonest and outrageous interpretation of his work in the developing country. Duignan held firm.

She did insist that the filmmakers return to Nepal for a third time in the company of a reputable aid agency in order to corroborate testimony from the young men. Satisfied that the film was accurate and in the public interest, she then resisted the pressure to suppress the broadcast.

All industry enquiries about Duignan come back with two recurring themes – her deep commitment to public service broadcasting, and her fierce loyalty to RTÉ as an institution.

"She understands what public service broadcasting means," says Michael Foley, head of journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology. "But there will be pressure to become more commercial, to increase the advertising revenue, and therefore to compromise on the public service ethic. That would then raise the other question as to whether RTÉ is competing unfairly.

"Public service radio doesn't have to mean boring radio," Foley says. "It can, for instance, include a music element. Lyric is one of the success stories of recent times. It has a very high listenership for a niche station."

The appointment marks Duignan's rise through the ranks in RTÉ towards what many predict will be her ultimate destination, director general. Having started out in radio over 30 years ago, she moved across to television where she garnered a broad range of experience. A spell – possibly brief – as head of radio would give her the perfect launch pad for the top job.

In 1979, when she was barely a wet week in RTÉ Radio, she devised the Women Today programme, which was designed to redress the inadequate representation of women in both presenting and programme-making at the station. The programme, presented by Marian Finucane, broke new ground in broadcasting and marked Duignan out as somebody to watch.

A native of Dublin, she studied history and politics in UCD and did a brief stint in the civil service before joining the station. She has been there ever since, moving up through the ranks of programme makers into management.

During her time in television, she worked as a producer and director across the spectrum of programming – from current affairs to children's programmes and entertainment. Prior to her promotion to director of programming, she was head of independent productions, where she was responsible for the commissioning of programmes such as You're A Star. Larry Bass, head of Screentime, which made the talent show, remembers Duignan as somebody who gets results.

"She is very formidable and a strong defender of public service broadcasting," Bass says. "I would come from a bums-on-seats, high value, large audience position. We often clashed on editorial issues but I always respected her point of view. She has been around the business so long that she has a very good feel for what the Irish psyche wants."

Few expect her to arrive at the radio centre like a hurricane. She is consistently referred to as "a safe pair of hands." But, as industry sources point out, her biggest challenge will be generating revenue in the current climate. This will require some serious innovation – or a dilution of the public service ethic of which Duignan is regarded as a flag carrier.

How she manages to carry it off might make for interesting radio listening. It will also be closely watched by those who will ultimately decide whether Duignan is destined to finish her career at the very top of RTÉ.


Name: Clare Duignan

Family Married with three grown-up children

Why in the News Is due next month to assume her new role as managing director of RTÉ Radio