Today FM chief executive Peter McPartlin likes the letter R. The man who started his agency career with Arks, running Ireland’s first dedicated media unit, Scope, with Tim Healy, has three R words as his business mantra: the path along which he intends to follow as he strives to grow Today FM: reputation must come first, followed by reach and then revenue.McPartlin’s first major interest in radio began with Radio Ireland. Century had come and gone, along with Minister Ray Burke’s highly questionable motives to “level the playing field”. John McColgan and Moya Doherty headed a consortium to launch a new national talk station, with the aim of creating something different and taking on RTE Radio 1 head-on.

He was a fan of Radio Ireland’s original schedule – but it didn’t work, even with “the dream line-up” they had. It soon became clear how tricky it was to shake out the audience from RTE, particularly Radio 1 as Radio Ireland fell between Radio 1 and 2fm. McPartlin first began working with Today FM while he was in charge of media at Irish International.

He first worked on Today FM sponsorship, alongside Eamon Fitzpatrick and the station’s perennial axis, Ray McKeon. “They had a fresh approach to the commercial side of radio,” he remarks with his trademark, easy-going candour. McPartlin was au fait with how a radio station operated, having previously embarked on a little moonlighting of his own.

“I had worked on consultancy projects for radio stations,” he said. “Originally, on 98FM, when it was started by Denis O’Brien. I was with Des O’Meara at the time. But I was looking for something that was different from my normal job, still working in the agency during the day but adding another string to what my expertise in media could offer clients after hours.”

After helping launch 98FM, McPartlin was kept involved by O’Brien to review JNLR, construct rate cards and push the Classic Hits 98FM message at agencies. It surpassed Capital (which became FM104), the first Dublin music station out of the blocks. As O’Brien looked overseas for station start-ups in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, McPartlin got another call.

Again, he was asked for commercial input. Doing pitches to Swedish agencies was part of the job. “I remember going to the Czech Republic, as it is now, along with Pat Mannion (now JCDecaux) and Dick Orkin from The Radio Ranch in California, to present a mini radio conference in Prague for Swedish agencies. That was interesting!” he says with a wry grin.

Lucy Gaffney then came on board having run her own Ideas Company and after her time in the Irish Press and Bell Advertising. O’Brien was in ‘expansion mode’ and with any licence they pitched for at the time they involved McPartlin or Des O’Meara’s agency by extension.

A move to Dimension and new clients constrained him on working on O’Brien’s business.

But it wasn’t long before he was tuned into new radio projects. After 96FM in Cork was bought by UTV, he was signed up to do consultancy work on a range of assignments. As a consequence, he was approached by Today FM boss at the time, Willie O’Reilly.

O’Reilly wanted someone from outside of radio to help them reapply for the national licence. McPartlin duly obliged, but not before squaring it off first with UTV. “I remember saying at the time to my wife, Audrey, if ever there was a job I’d love, it would be Willie O’Reilly’s – and then completely forgot about it. What really got me, was the terrific buzz at the station.”

Fast forward three years. McPartlin was heading up strategy at Aegis. He gets a call from Claire Cronin, recruitment consultant and scion of agency legend, Brian Cronin. He had been in college with her but the two had not seen or heard from one another in ages. Cronin asked him if he could think of any possible candidates for O’Reilly’s job at Today FM.

O’Reilly was re-joining RTE to take up the new role of commercial boss. McPartlin assured Cronin he would rack his brains and get back to her with some names the next day. He did so but Cronin had obviously been doing her own homework and posed the question: “Would you be interested?” As he was more than happy at Aegis, he politely declined Cronin’s offer.

He says, like most opportunities, they never come up when you are unhappy in your job. It transpired O’Reilly had recommended him as his replacement. Suggestions in at the time linking McPartlin with the IAPI chief executive vacancy, which was later filled by arts activist Tania Banotti, were entirely untrue. At no time was his name even in the frame.

Communicorp had Aegis in its sights as Vizeum boss Gavan Byrne was headhunted as group commercial director. McPartlin had a chat with O’Brien and Gaffney and told them, while it is never a good time to leave a job, the opportunity before him was too good to ignore.

“Whether it’s age or stupidity – or the two – but you get to a point in life where you ask ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’” he says. “You know the commercial side of an agency and you have a reasonable take on the commercial end of radio from working on a range of projects. There aren’t too many 50-year olds hanging around agencies outside of CEO level.”

Working hands-on with clients and new business as he did at Carat and elsewhere remains a must for McPartlin. Not for him an elder statesman role, ushering clients into the agency.

His move to Today FM provided him with new vim. Within weeks of his joining he had to deal with the fallout created by Ray D’Arcy’s comment about how the Catholic Church has “fucked up this country”. Typical of the man, he saluted D’Arcy’s stand in apologising for his choice of language while fully endorsing his decision not to back down on the sentiment.

“Ray doesn’t say these things lightly,” McPartlin said in an interview with the Sunday Business Post. “He’s very informed on a whole variety of different issues, he’s very passionate about them. But he wasn’t going to apologise for his views.”

At a Marketing Institute (MII) breakfast in Fire Restaurant, McPartlin was asked to talk about Today FM’s recent reinvention of Phantom as TXFM. While his ‘Plugging the Music Gap’ talk fell way short of giving away any secrets, his passion for TXFM and what it can bring to lovers of alternative music – a far cry from the tried and trusted 98FM hits – was palpable.

As with most media, Today FM has had its work cut out since the economy nosedived in 2008. The radio market is down from €195 million to €121m over the last five years. In a JNLR analysis, OMD’s Susan Daly says radio listenership has dropped by a rate of one per cent since 2010, which means 75,000 fewer people are tuning into stations these days.

Daly says that what’s interesting is how radio stations like Today FM react to declining listenership. Instead of pushing people to tune back in on radio, they are identifying ways of growing their audience through other channels. As was said at the European gathering of TV & Radio Sales Houses (EGTA), radio has evolved from a model with one audience touch point to a model with three or four touch points: on-air, online, social and on the ground.

While radio listenership in its most recognised form has shrunk, stations are finding new ways to engage with audiences. Daly says spot buying has been the basis of radio revenue for many years, as stations continue to diversify, cross platform sponsorships and promotions will grow. McPartlin disagrees and says spot advertising is likely to still hold sway.

Declan Dockery of Mediaworks says Today FM may be happy to still be the main station for the 25-44 year olds but a reduction in weekday primetime average quarter hour listenership of six per cent for both all adults and 25-44 year olds is a worry. Ian Dempsey’s breakfast show increased its average quarter hour (AQH) to 93,750 and 64,750 for all adults and 25-44s.

But McPartlin makes the point that people still listen to radio for four hours a day on average. That despite the expanding mediascape and the proliferation of new digital and internet stations and the likes of Spotify and Deezer. “You have to try stuff and if it fails, move on,” he told the MII breakfast. “If we do anything wrong, listeners let us know.”

Today FM’s Shave or Dye, has become one of the country’s most high profile charity fundraisers. Station presenters either shave their heads or dye their hair – or both. This year, a record total of €504,000 was raised for the Irish Cancer Society, with the station’s ad agencies, Mindshare and Chemistry, accounting for €6,649 and €1,660 respectively.

Affable and hardworking, it is no exaggeration to describe McPartlin as one of the most popular and highly-respected people in adland. It would be a task commensurate with the power of Hercules to find someone who would have a bad word to say about him. But only a clown would take his integrity, gentlemanly way and empathy as a sign he’s a pushover.

What sets McPartlin apart from most others in media? As an agency exec being fed a pitch by a media owner he listens, contemplates and deliberates. He sees the value of media brands and what they offer advertisers in the widest sense and dispenses with the crude but more widely accepted number-crunching valuation. For him, media is not a commodity.

Adlanders, please take note.

Sound man with a mic


When not toiling away on the three Rs at Today FM, McPartlin enjoys music and sport.He does a mean version of Luke Kelly’s Dirty Old Town. At media conferences, he joined the likes of Sunday World boss Gerry Lennon in singalongs well into the early hours of the morning. He is a fan of Dublin County GAA, Everton FC and his local Bohemians FC.

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