TO HIS listeners, it was just like any other day — his show featuring the usual mix of breaking news, lively debate and outspoken comment.
But for Cork’s 96FM’s biggest star it was a different story.
Neil Prendeville went live with the country’s most-listened to local radio show at 9am yesterday knowing that it would be his last for the station he has worked for, for almost 25 years.
As he was signing off, his solicitor was making contact with his employers to inform them that he wouldn’t be accepting a renewed offer they had put on the table.
“For me, that was hardest thing — not being able to say goodbye to the listeners,” Mr Prendeville said.
“I tried to tell them that I love them, and how much I love them, and how loyal they have been for me.
“But I couldn’t say what I was really feeling because of the contractual obligations.
“Not being able to reach out and say thank you for all of that was really hard.
“It was hard too not being able to say something to the people I work with, knowing that 96FM were going to find out that our love affair was at an end.”
Within hours, his on-air life with 96FM was over — his employers telling him he is off-air indefinitely. Off air, but still on the books until his contract expires on March 28, preventing him from discussing his future.
But it didn’t stop rival radio station, RedFM, from confirming that they have signed contracts with him to begin broadcasting a morning talk show from their Bishopstown studios from March 31.
The coup comes just weeks after the announcement that Today FM DJ, KC, is rejoining RedFM from the end of March as a radio presenter and to take up a management role.
“We are absolutely thrilled with our latest signing,” RedFM boss, Diarmuid O’Leary said.
After ignoring enticing offers from other radio stations over the years, including one some years ago from a then fledgling Newstalk, Mr Prendeville said the decision to leave 96FM after a quarter of a century was relatively easy in the end, and accepted that money was a factor.
“Over the last seven or eight months the negotiations and the talks have been going on and getting better and better,” he said.
“Offers were made by 96FM. I was very much up-front with them that I had other offers. They put their best foot forward, but unfortunately it didn’t work out but that’s the way it is with contracts. This was an offer I just couldn’t say no to.
“I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass and say money doesn’t count — it does.
“I had long conversations with 96FM — open, honest and forthright but we didn’t kid each other.
“We knew that in the end of the day, a hard call would have to be made.
“Even for a group as big as UTV, they haven’t got a bottomless pit of money.
“But you have to look at it from my point of view, and for my family.
“For me, what I’m planning on doing in the future, the offer and package really helps me, it sets me up and it moves me out of precarious financial waters.”
Mr Prendeville has always courted controversy for his outspoken comments on air.
Last September, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland partially upheld a complaint made against 96FM for remarks he made on air about non-Irish nationals.
And he was at the centre of a storm of controversy in November 2010 for committing a lewd act on an Aer Lingus flight from London to Cork. The DPP subsequently directed that no prosecution be brought. His contract was terminated and he was off air for five months, later describing that time as his “darkest days”.
He admitted he had a problem with alcohol and had sought help, that he had considered suicide, and was in financial difficulty after several property and business investments.
96FM stuck by him, and he returned to air, albeit on changed terms, and went on to maintain and increase his listenership figures.
“I have been so lucky, in spite of everything in my life,” he said.
“There is somebody looking over me, and I keep on managing to plod along.
“There are day when I’ve been very up, and days when I’ve been very down.
“My wife has been a tower of strength, always has been, and has been my confidante, the one I rely on most.
“If she’s happy, I’m happy, if I’m happy she’s happy, so we bounce off each other.”
He praised his employers for their loyalty and support over the years.
“They put food on my table, a roof over my head, put my children through school,” he said.
“And in turn, I provided the radio station with what I hope was a successful programme. It was a terrific marriage.
“But contracts aren’t for life and some relationships aren’t for life. And in that regard it’s sad, but it’s a chapter.”
The best part of his radio career was being able to make a difference to peoples’ lives, of building the station up from scratch, of working with great people, and building his unique relationship with Cork listeners, he said.
“I hope to continue making a difference to peoples’ lives, in a better way, hopefully,” he said.
“The loyalty of Corkonians is incredible — they take possession of you, love you, criticise you, but they won’t let anybody else criticise you.
“They’ll back you to the hilt when you fall, as I did, and they’ll embrace you with love.”
But he said life for him, and for 96FM, will move on.
“We had a good run together — there is no animosity on my part, and I hope none on the other side either,” he said.
“But when you go, you must go in a dignified manner, respectful, kind and understanding manner to your colleagues and those that were kind to you.
“And I hope, no, I know I have done that.
“I hope that people don’t think I’ve let anyone down. But life will go on and 96FM will go on.
“They will fill my shoes and I wish whoever that will be the very best of luck.
“I am giving them a 117,000 audience share to work with. It’s a pretty good gift to pass on.
“I’m not leaving anything broken, I’m leaving something in A1 condition and hopefully the radio station will acknowledge that.”
He declined to discuss whether his experienced production team of Emer O’Hea-Martin and Colm Moore will feature in his future plans.
“But I will acknowledge their brilliance and the brilliance of all the research teams that went before them.
“I’m only one part of a team. You’re only as good as those around you.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved