‘Ireland is a great country, but we can’t help ourselves being nasty to people sometimes’

Businessman Denis O’Brien sold his radio company Communicorp because he couldn’t “put his hand on his heart” and say teenagers would continue to listen to his music radio stations in the near future.

“I just don’t know whether a 12-year-old today who is going to be 15 in three years’ time is going to be listening to Spin,” Mr O’Brien said.

“Everybody’s on Spotify because people can afford Spotify. People are listening to podcasts. So half of me is saying ‘oh I think the radio business is going to be great’, because we did diversify into podcasts and digital offerings, but I just can’t put my hand on my heart and say it’s going to be great in five years’ time.”

Mr O’Brien was speaking to a webinar organised by the Trinity Student Managed Fund and Trinity’s Dublin University Business & Economics Society (DUBES) on a day when he sold the radio group behind Today FM, Newstalk, Spin 1038, Spin Southwest and 98FM.

The sale to Bauer Media Audio comes 32 years after he first invested in what was then known as Classic Hits 98FM, one of the first independent radio stations to be granted a licence in the Irish market. Mr O’Brien said the station “started making money after three months”.

Communicorp received a “very big offer” for the business, which is understood by The Irish Times to be more than €100 million. He said he was “delighted with the offer” and would miss the people he worked with at the company.

Asked about media coverage of his business affairs, Mr O’Brien said: “If you’re in media, all the other media people savage you. It’s just the way of the world. It’s just nasty, you know. Ireland is a great country, but we can’t help ourselves being nasty to people sometimes.”

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Facebook impact

Social media has “been a very negative thing” on Irish culture and other cultures around the world, he suggested, with the State “complicit” in media companies in African countries being “crushed” by Facebook in particular.

“It has kind of undone the work of the tens of thousands of missionaries that we have sent into Africa in the last two centuries,” he said. “Poor countries need taxation and we have got to stop big multinationals and tech companies basically robbing the poor.”

Facebook should be “reined in”, Mr O’Brien later added. “Everybody hears [Mark] Zuckerberg every week apologising, but it’s all shite.”

While he didn’t think Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were “any great shakes”, Mr O’Brien told the webinar he had a “major concern” about the possibility that Sinn Féin might come into power in the Republic, citing its “alarming” history.

The billionaire Digicel founder, who also spoke about the workplace culture and philanthropic projects in Haiti, Papua New Guinea and other countries in which the telecoms company operates, said he didn’t ever see himself fully retiring.

“No. I’ll always have an interest in some business. I may not be in as many things as I am now and probably not working as hard as I do now… I think less is more. Larger investments are better than a whole pile of smaller investments. Smaller things take so much of your time.”

Mr O’Brien said he got most of his investment ideas from reading both books and the financial press. “I read the FT every day, cover to cover. I even read the letters, just to see what people are whinging about.”

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