Ray D’Arcy: ‘We need a discussion about public service broadcasting’

After 14 years with Today FM, Ray D’Arcy has returned to RTÉ for a radio show and upcoming TV chat show, and he is ‘hyper aware’ of the culture difference between the two stations

Ray D’Arcy on public service broadcasting: ‘I don’t know if giving a small minority a disproportionate amount of airtime in the name of balance is serving the public’

Ray D’Arcy on public service broadcasting: ‘I don’t know if giving a small minority a disproportionate amount of airtime in the name of balance is serving the public’

 

Ray D’Arcy is sitting in the RTÉ canteen looking slightly bemused. Being back is odd, he says. “Odd,” he repeats. “Quite odd,” he adds.

D’Arcy was with Today FM for 14 years, where he developed a reputation as an honestly outspoken, fun-loving, occasionally grumpy iconoclast. He’s been back doing a Radio 1 show – the one vacated by Derek Mooney – for nine months, and tomorrow he’s starting a new Saturday night television chat show, The Ray D’Arcy Show. Being here is still “a culture shock”, he says, “but we’re getting there”.

D’Arcy (51) is witty, self-deprecating and clever. He throws in a funny voice or joke whenever he thinks he’s veering towards self-importance or cliche. He laughs a lot: a slightly melancholy laugh. If it’s not otherwise stated, anywhere he says anything that sounds blunt he is laughing like this.

When talking about his early years, he remembers dates by referencing contemporary albums. He loves music. We talk for about 10 minutes about the sound of vinyl.

“DJing is always something to fall back on,” I joke.

“It is,” he says, in all seriousness.

At 15, D’Arcy started DJing at discos and on WKCR, a caravan-based pirate radio station outside Newbridge, Co Kildare. “[The owner] told everyone the K stood for Kildare. We never quite got out of him what the W and the R were for . . . It turns out he’d taken the jingles from a hospital radio station in London called WKRC.”

What did his family make of this? “I was from a family of nine and they were sort of laissez-faire.” That said, when he told his mother he had borrowed £200 to buy DJing equipment, she cried.

“She was from a working-class family. My dad was an NCO in the Army . . . To borrow 200 quid at 15, she thought this was the end of the world.”

 

Psychology student

He studied psychology at Trinity because he didn’t get into medicine or communications and because a teacher said he had “a great understanding of the human condition”. Ultimately he wanted to be a radio presenter, so he constantly sent demos to RTÉ.

Later he met the producer responsible for those demos. “He said, ‘Jeez, head . . . I’ve 400 on my desk and I’m trying to be fair, so I’m listening to one a week.’ It was going to take eight years to hear my demo.”

When he got the job presenting the RTÉ youth show Jo Maxi, he thought he might get a radio job out of it. He moved to The Den alongside Zig and Zag, and later the teen quiz show 2Phat. He recalls fighting a large teddy bear while nursing a hangover. “I got paid for laughing,” he says.

He also presented Fandango, a Radio 1 lifestyle show he’s “still trying to forget. It was like the worst of the boom before the boom happened. I’d get into the car thinking, I haven’t entertained anybody; I haven’t informed them. I remember interviewing Robert O’Byrne about the perfect dinner party, and him saying, ‘Have a shower and always arrive to the door to greet your guests with a glass of wine in your hand’.”

He looks like he’s in pain remembering this, but at least he learned what to do at a dinner party, right? “I never forgot,” he says.

When he went to Today FM, there was no big fanfare. There was just nothing for him at RTÉ at the time. He recalls 2FM head John Clarke telling him this, “and I must have been gesticulating because I knocked over his Post-its”.

He had a definite notion of what he wanted his Today FM show to be. “My vision – and when I say a vision, I mean a picture in my head, not a vision like Martin Luther King had – was that it would sound like we were sitting around a kitchen table.”

The ratio of talk to music changed over time, and at a certain point he started to voice his opinion more. “The Den sort of stunted my growth,” he says. “Not physically – I don’t know what happened there – but it stunted me as a maturing adult. I didn’t have to give a f*** about what was going on in the world. So bar saying yes to everyone who wanted me to do a charity thing, I didn’t have a social conscience.

“I wouldn’t have listened to Radio 1 or read The Irish Times . . . As I came out of young people’s television, I enjoyed maturing. I was at a stage of my life that when I arrived at an opinion, it was mine. I wasn’t echoing someone else.”

 

Heart on his sleeve

He wears his heart on his sleeve on radio. “[That’s] good and bad,” he says. “Sometimes I’d prefer I didn’t say things, but it is live radio, and if you’re guarded and constantly watching what you say, it’s not going to be good.”

He does an impression of standard radio interview patter: “ ‘Have you? Did you? Were you? Thanks very much.’ I’m not interested in doing that.”

His style is looser. If he has a weakness, he says, it is his inability to stick to a brief. Sometimes, he says, he can see his wife and producer Jenny Kelly D’Arcy in the studio “doing this”. He mimes someone moving their hands up and down in a “calm down” gesture.

Is there anything specific he regrets saying? “They’re just small things. I don’t regret what I said about the Catholic Church . . . I don’t regret that at all.”

In 2012 he said that the Catholic Church had “in many ways f***ed up this country”. The church demanded an apology, which he refused to give. “It was only a controversy because they reacted to it,” he says.

Does he regret saying he would leave the country if Enda Kenny became Taoiseach? He laughs again. “We all say things we shouldn’t say.” He pauses. “It was odd, though. You should go back and read Róisín Ingle’sarticle with him and remember he’s the leader of the country. He should be above certain things.”

(In that piece D’Arcy submitted a question about the Government’s suicide prevention policies. Kenny’s response begins: “Well, I thought Ray D’Arcy was going to emigrate if I become taoiseach.”)

Despite being so outspoken, D’Arcy is uncomfortable with celebrity and does few interviews. “There isn’t a contradiction,” he says. “[Journalists] want a reaction to things I’ve said, and I say, ‘I’ve said what I have to say on air’. I love the work. The other stuff, it’s a pain in the arse, to be honest.”

He received overtures from RTÉ before now. After Gerry Ryan’s death, he turned down “a very definite, but vague offer [not for Ryan’s show].”

Why move now? Because now, he says, there are specific slots for him on both radio and television. It wasn’t about money, he says (some report his salary to be €500,000). “I am getting the exact same now as I would have had I stayed at Today FM, and I’m doing TV as well. I’m not motivated by money. Over the years, market forces have dictated what I’m paid.”

 

Different audience

The new job brings new challenges. It’s a different time (sometimes he misses 9am “when everything is fresh”) and a different audience. The average age of listeners on his Today FM Show was 37, while traditionally in this RTÉ slot it was 58. He was brought in partly to change this.

“You have to try and bring some of the Today FM in without scaring off the other people.”

So back to the shock of returning to RTÉ after 14 years in what he calls “the real world, the other world”. He and his team (he brought Jenny and producer Will Hanafin with him) are aware of a big culture difference?

“Very, very, hyper aware,” he says. “We’re all very aware of it and we have to work around it. There are compromises. Life’s about compromises.”

Are there more constraints? “Yeah, of course there are. On Today FM I could, and did, say to listeners, ‘I’d prefer if you weren’t listening. Switch off your radio. Go elsewhere.’ I can’t say that here because people are paying their licence fee. It’s public service broadcasting.”

Could he say some of the things he said on Today FM on RTÉ? About the church, for example? “There are different ways of doing it. It’s all part of us getting to know our audience and them getting to know us. You have to tread carefully.”

He found arriving into RTÉ during the same-sex marriage referendum challenging. “It was particularly difficult landing in that environment because they were obsessed about balance,” he says. “As they should be. It’s a public service broadcaster. I wasn’t used to that.”

He pauses. “In a way it’s farcical, I think. I really do think that we have to have a discussion about public service broadcasting, because I don’t know if giving a small minority a disproportionate amount of airtime in the name of balance is serving the public.”

Does he think he could have developed into the broadcaster he is if he’d been at RTÉ?

He laughs. “No.”

Why not? “Because we were given great freedom and we were an independent republic. As long as the figures were going up or staying steady, they didn’t really interfere.”

 

Chat show plan

What’s the plan for the TV show? “Well, it’s a chat show,” he says. “I’ll come out say ‘hello’, invite people to sit beside me and I’ll chat to them.”

How does it differ from other chat shows? “The main difference is me. I am very different from Brendan O’Connor or Ryan Tubridy. There is a small pool of people to draw from when doing a chat show in this country. The hope is we’ll be doing things that no one else has thought of.”

They will possibly be drawing from guests that turn up on the radio show. He’ll be wearing a suit (he shows me a picture). He doesn’t feel particularly competitive with The Late Late Show (“It’s older than me”) and, for the record, has no particular desire to host it.

He hopes to make the chat show experience as comfortable and natural as being in his sitting room. But he’s “a worrier . . . I do worry. I used to get sick before Christmas because I was fearful that Santa wouldn’t come.”

He knows things can go wrong. Once, when presenting You’re a Star, his producer devised a convoluted entrance sequence in which he walked the length of the hall, went up on stage and said, “Welcome to . . . ” at which point “I forgot the name of the show”.

That’s live TV, he says. “And that’s why the new show is called The Ray D’Arcy Show. I probably won’t forget my own name.”

  • Ray D’Arcy’s radio show is on RTÉ Radio 1, Monday-Friday, 3pm-4.30pm. The Ray D’Arcy Show begins on RTÉ1 at 9.45pm on September 26th
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