Anton Savage: ‘I’ve never been good at saying no’
As he takes over Ray D’Arcy’s Today FM slot, Savage talks of growing up with Terry Prone and Tom Savage, what drives him, and the Kardashians
Anton Savage: ‘You’re never sure of where the next thing is coming from. I don’t mean the next pay cheque, but the next opportunity.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Anton Savage is beautifully turned out for a man whose new job doesn’t require him to be seen in public. He’s wearing a lovely dark suit and a shirt with proper cufflinks. His tan is striking for January (he was in Florida over Christmas), and although logically he must have the same number of teeth as other adults, the illusion is of many more, because they are so very white, and he smiles so widely.
Savage (37) is in the first weeks of presenting his new radio show, The Anton Savage Show, on Today FM. It airs from 9am to noon and replaces Ray D’Arcy, who has moved back to RTÉ.
Savage has been a stand-in on a number of occasions, and has also previously hosted Savage Sunday, but this is the first big regular weekday show of his own.
“It’s exciting and daunting to some degree,” he says. “One of the things about the 9-12 slot is that you have to have interaction with the listeners, so you can’t stuff the programme like a hamster’s cheek.”
You could describe Savage as genetically savvy. He is the only child of media commentator Terry Prone and chairman of the RTÉ board Tom Savage, who are also respectively the chairwoman and a director of the Communications Clinic, a PR and media coaching company. Anton is the managing director of the Communications Clinic.
Savage might not realise it, but he has an impressive ability to politely answer questions in a way that reveals very little. It’s an ability many in the public eye aim for – and one of the skills taught by the Communications Clinic is how to handle media interviews – but few people manage it so competently.
He has an occasional habit of wrinkling his eyes when he’s asked a question, as if outwardly signalling he’s puzzled by it, but after a while, I get the impression he’s rarely met a question he can’t either answer or expertly deflect.
Did he learn to have opinions early, growing up in a house where one parent is a public commentator? “I would have learned how to make arguments in the literal sense, and how you put across your view. I learned about that early on.”
He also learned early on that he could do pretty much what he wanted if he focused. “At six or seven, what I most wanted to be was a stuntman,” he says. It’s an aspiration many small children have, but Savage was definitely a bit more of a stunt kid than most. He says he started learning to drive a car on Dollymount Strand at the age of six, sitting on his father’s lap, helping to hold the wheel, until he grew old enough that his feet reached the pedals.
My first motorbike
Aged about 11, when he could drive, he decided he wanted a motorbike and figured out a way to get one. “I had never been a very good student, and to try and give me the incentive to improve, my mother said she’d put money into a fund depending on the grades I got.” Whatever money was there at the end would be his.
“At the end of the year there was a small fund, and we went to a garage. I pointed at this absolute wreck of a motorcycle and said that’s what I wanted.” He had already told his mother he wanted a “scrambler”, which she thought was some kind of a BMX bicycle, not a motorbike.
He got his motorcycle, mastered it, and rode it around the fields at the back of the family home (and apparently nobody thought this was in any way remarkable). He hung on to the bike until his early 20s, when he finally scrapped it.
By then he was in Trinity, studying English, so although he says he wasn’t a good student, he was good enough to get the points required for a course that’s in high demand. “I chose it because I thought it was going to be about reading great books, and then I discovered literary criticism and decided stripping gearboxes was more fun.”
He says he spent most of his time in garages, working on cars, and only went to “a couple of lectures”, but he still finished and got his degree, so obviously his work ethic was kicking in even then. You don’t get a degree by not putting some work in, no matter how much time you’re spending in a garage.
“Both my parents are among the hardest-working people I have ever met,” he says. “When you’re an only child, the topic of conversation of the day over dinner was work.”
He says the point as a child when it struck him how hard his parents both worked was when he could “hear one or both of them talking to themselves in another room”, practising presentations.
His first job came when he was still in college, working as a trainee researcher on Daybreak, on Today FM’s precursor Radio Ireland. He then went to work with his parents, who were with Carr Communications at the time, and has worked more or less continuously with them since then, while taking on a series of broadcasting jobs. His mother told an audience at an event in Dublin recently that her son worked so hard last year that he had to take naps in his car to get him through the day.
Is money important to him? “No,” he answers decisively. So why does he work so much? “I’ve never been good at the saying no bit. I’m loath to let opportunities pass by. It [broadcasting] is essentially freelancing, so you’re never sure of where the next thing is coming from. I don’t mean where the next pay cheque is coming from, but the next opportunity. It’s an incremental career. It was more if I didn’t take the next opportunity, there was a sense I was stepping off the stairs.”
Conflicts of interest
Savage, who has been married since 2012, has “stepped back lately” from his work with the Communications Clinic to concentrate on his new radio show. Have there been potential conflicts of interest when a former client of the clinic has appeared on a show he was hosting? “It has arisen very rarely. I make a vested-interest declaration and then do a straight interview.”
Savage says the average age for his new show is 37, with the audience divided almost equally between male and female listeners. “I want the show to be a fun, cheerful place. Once in a while, I’d like to have something that makes someone pause when they’re doing the hoovering; something out of the norm.”
He believes a good radio presenter has “a great capacity to listen, to empathise with their audience, and to give some resistance to interviewees, that what they’re saying gets pulled apart a bit.”
To relax, he walks his dog, Jack. And races cars. That seems to be it. “I haven’t had a whole lot of spare time recently.” He’s had to watch some reality TV lately for work, and he’s not the better of it yet. “Celebrity Big Brother. The E! Fashion Show. Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” he intones, sounding like a stranger in a strange land. “I don’t understand why the Kardashians are so popular. They’re not extreme enough to be shocking, nor likable enough to be charming,” he says, a pretty astute analysis of the show.
Is he ambitious? He thinks about this question for quite a while. “I think I’m ambitious for the thing I’m currently doing,” is the eventual answer. “But I don’t have a particular plan, or no long-term plans. With luck, there will be other things that will happen at some point.”
QUICK QUESTIONS: NEVER TRUST SOMEONE WITH A MOTTO
Favourite meal? Grilled fish sandwich. And chips. With a pickle.
Recurring nightmare? Sleeping in past the point I’m meant to be on air.
Favourite item of clothing? Meindl Army Pro boots.
Coffee, tea or neither in the morning? Coffee. Vast, enormous quantities of coffee. Pints.
Last time you cried? Watching Field of Dreams before Christmas. I weep like a baby at that film.
Do you switch your phone off at night? No. It’s my alarm clock. See “Recurring nightmare”.
Motto? Never had one. I’m suspicious of people who have mottos.
Biggest regret? My early 20s.
Best advice you were ever given? Never trust someone with a motto.
Most romantic thing you’ve done? Put up shelves. Nice shelves, like.
Tell us a joke:
A man is sitting at a bus stop.
A 12-year-old boy sits beside him. The kid reaches into his pocket, takes out a bottle of whiskey, swigs it, puts it away.
The man looks horrified.
There’s a pause. The kid takes out a pack of fags, taps one out, lights it, takes a huge puff, breathes out.
The man says: “Excuse me, you really shouldn’t be smoking and drinking.”
The kid looks at him. “My grandfather lived till he was 96.”
Man: “Did he drink and smoke?”
Kid: “No. He minded his own goddamn business.”