Louise Duffy: ‘I wanted my daughters to see their mother doing something she loves’

The RTÉ Radio 1 presenter on taking over the slot previously presented by Ronan Collins, parenting with Paul Galvin and the music she can’t play

In January 2023, when former Today FM DJ Louise Duffy replaced Ronan Collins as host of RTÉ Radio 1′s afternoon music show, she received an eight-page letter from one listener. It contained lists of songs she should play and suggestions about exactly what point in the hour-long show she might play them. “It was clear from the beginning that listeners were deeply invested, but then it’s such a long-established show, you’d expect that,” says Duffy, smiling, more sanguine than others might be at receiving such a prescriptive missive as she started a new job.

If the musicsplaining letter writer – a man, fact fans – was concerned Duffy might bulldoze or even mildly tweak a musical institution helmed by Collins for just over four decades, he need not have worried. Duffy knew the show she was taking over was not broken, and she was not in the business of trying to fix it. It has always been something of an anomaly in the RTÉ schedule, operating as a sort of safe space where the tunes and requests keep coming but hard news rarely intrudes. Ronan Collins happily spent the two years of the pandemic barely referencing that there was a plague raging across the world – his proud boast was that he never mentioned the word “Covid” during that time. The Louise Duffy show is a similarly rare slot on the Radio 1 schedule where listeners are guaranteed a breather from regular dispatches about the horrors of Gaza or the navel-gazing discussions so many of her broadcasting colleagues have been forced to indulge in regarding rolling RTÉ scandals.

“When I first took over the show, I thought, Okay, well, music is very important; you know, there has to be a little portion for it in the Radio 1 schedule. But it’s more than that,” she says, sipping coffee in a hotel near her home in Ranelagh, Dublin. Glamorous, dark-haired and brown-eyed, she’s wearing a fashionably boxy lemon-coloured jacket with layers of eye-catching jewellery around her neck. “There is a very talk-heavy schedule [on RTÉ Radio 1]. The news cycle is relentless. As the months went on I came to realise the show was like a reprieve, an oasis. It’s a place where you can take a beat before the News at One kicks off. I get that much more now.” Last year, while presenting the show, she had a news channel on mute on the television in the studio, but she deliberately keeps the telly turned off these days.

There’s a responsibility as RTÉ radio’s biggest music show. You want to make sure you are bringing a diverse range of Irish acts

—  Louise Duffy

She describes the programme as a “collaboration” between her and the listeners, even with people who write eight-page “How you should do your job” letters. The texts arrive in their hundreds every day, all those requests for songs that mean something special to the sender, the “roundy birthday” wishes, the warm-hearted welcomes for new babies, the wedding congratulations and the get-well-soon messages. But the listeners are a feisty lot, too, as she’s been discovering. Duffy introduced a “one-word review” slot where listeners can judge certain songs she plays with just one well chosen word. They don’t hold back. The day before we meet she had played All in Good Time, a Fiona Apple duet with Iron & Wine. “Monotonous,” moaned one listener. “Rubbish,” reckoned another.


“I enjoyed that; I thought it was really cool,” she says. “It’s just a conversation. We don’t have to agree about the music. If you don’t like a song we can talk about it.” She admits she was “anxious” taking on “such a long-established show. Irish people have an intimate relationship with radio anyway. It’s a part of their day. They’re in the kitchen, they’re in the car with you.”

If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that loyal RTÉ listeners don’t tend to move the dial in huge numbers no matter who is on the wireless. Ryan Tubridy’s departure did not, as some predicted, herald an exodus of ears from the 9am slot. So while there was some anxiety – would listeners like Duffy’s voice? Her choice of tunes? – it soon abated and she quickly found her groove. Last year, JNLR figures showed she had held her own in maintaining and increasing the audience, which at last count stood at 214,000.

Duffy has a mellifluous radio voice, those Mayo tones now shot through with a soupcon of south Co Dublin. She has relaxed into the role. When she started, she says she would often plan a couple of weeks of songs in advance but she is far more fluid now. She puts together in a highly curated playlist, often jettisoning the songs she has lined up that day to follow a new theme. Recently she was inspired by the topic of happiness, which had been raised on the preceding Claire Byrne show, asking listeners to send in their favourite uplifting songs. It meant throwing out a lot of the tunes she had prepared – but “that’s the beauty of live radio”. The day after Cillian Murphy won the Oscar, she played a few of his favourite tunes as mentioned by him on BBC Radio 4′s Desert Island Discs.

A lot of thought goes into how songs will go down with the audience, says Duffy. She’s conscious of delivering music across the generations. “I got one text from someone who said there were three generations of listeners in their house.” Her own happy music resting place is with The Yardbirds, or The Beatles, David Bowie or Talking Heads. “But I’m getting more interested in country now. It’s such a phenomenal time for Irish folk music ... It’s so exciting. Artists like Lankum, they take your breath away. There is an amazing music scene in Ireland at the moment.”

She considers newer Irish music such as CMAT to be a crucial element of the show’s remit. “There’s a responsibility as RTÉ radio’s biggest music show. You want to make sure you are bringing a diverse range of Irish acts, it comes naturally across the music department. We have a recommended list that we all contribute to and support, and across that you can see everything from John Francis Flynn to Kneecap.”

What does she think of Belfast-based hip-hop artists Kneecap? “I think they’re brilliant.” Would she play them on her show? “Maybe. There are certain artists that I’m graduating towards. I can appreciate artists in my own time that I won’t be able to play on the radio.” Why not? “Because they might be too divisive,” she says, and I can’t help but admire her honesty in tackling that question. She mentions Bambi Thug, the nonbinary singer of Ireland’s genre-defying and also arguably divisive Eurovision entry Doomsday Blue. “I can appreciate what they’re doing and how special that is in its own area but I wouldn’t be able to play it on my show because I feel it’s too jarring for maybe an older listener. I don’t want to rattle them with something louder and more unusual than they’ve heard ... Maybe I’ll get there the closer we come to the Eurovision.”

Duffy is married to Kerry GAA star turned fashion designer and author Paul Galvin, and the couple have two small daughters, Esmé and Elin. She grew up in Crossmolina, Co Mayo, in a music-mad home with three brothers. She has memories of her dad’s record player, the two huge speakers on either side of the fireplace. There were always music lessons – she never took to piano – but while her brother Kevin went on to play music professionally, Duffy says she was always more of “an appreciator”. She fondly recalls a beloved Rod Stewart album – “he was wearing this pink satin shirt on the cover” – and another of Dolly Parton’s greatest hits. “It was lovely to grow up with all those records, and my dad still has all the vinyl and accumulates more all the time.” There were also early signs of a future in broadcasting. “I always had a tendency to yap too much.”

Louise Duffy, husband Paul Galvin and their two daughters, Ésme and Elin

When she was a teenager, the family moved to Castlebar, where her dad’s stainless steel manufacturing business was based. There was always a tussle in Duffy’s mind between pursuing more creative or corporate career aspirations. She first left home for Dublin to study film and broadcasting in what was then known as DIT on Aungier Street – actor Domhnall Gleeson was a student there – and then thought she might go into law, completing the first round of the FE-1 entrance exams to the Law Society of Ireland. Eventually, after sending in a demo to AA Roadwatch, she became a regular voice giving traffic reports on Ian Dempsey’s Today FM show. Dempsey was one of the people who encouraged her to try out for the early morning show on that station when the slot became available, and to her delight she was chosen as presenter. “I used to imagine my name there on the schedule with the other presenters D’Arcy, Dempsey, Duffy ... I suppose I was manifesting before it became a thing,” she says.

For much of the eight years she spent presenting shows at the station, hers was a lone female presenting voice at Today FM. “There was a lot of talk about women on air at that time,” she says. “There was always a really strong contingent of strong female producers behind the scenes, and now that has shifted to them being on air. But back 13 years ago on Today FM, I was the only woman and I was happy to be there. I didn’t reflect on it enough at the time but looking back, it was mad really.”

Why does she think she didn’t reflect on it? “You don’t want to rattle the cage when you’re trying to make an impact and forge your own way. But it was kind of striking.”

We need to normalise the fact that there will be something different coming maybe every decade, if we can be hopeful about it. And maybe because the decades are adding up, I’m a lot more content with that

—  Louise Duffy

The week we meet, it’s exactly nine years since the death of Tony Fenton. Duffy moved into his afternoon slot at that time. “It was desperately sad,” she says. “I learned so much from him. I remember when I got my first job at Today FM, Willie O’Reilly, who was CEO at the time, his advice to me was ‘Be yourself’, because if you pretend to be anything other than who you are, you can’t keep that facade up, it’s too exhausting. And Tony [Fenton] was like that. Same on air. Same when the red light went off.”

She talks about how, at the height of her time at Today FM, she had difficulty separating herself from her shows, knowing where “the job ended and I began”. She was always keenly aware of the precariousness of radio, and, when her time at Today FM ended after a stint on maternity leave and a change of management, she was stoic. She had started off with Today FM in the early morning show; then was moved to the lunchtime slot; then, as she puts it, “it was afternoon, evening and out the door. All these moves rattle you. It was hard to find myself back on my feet. And I’m mindful of it now because I’ve learned that work is work, and home is a separate thing. It’s much healthier to have that balance. Because there will be turns in the road again, and you have to be able for them.”

Around the time she moved to the evening show, her final slot with the station before leaving, she began spending the earlier part of her working day with the Communications Clinic, where she was a part-time consultant, training people who were hoping to make big career moves. She enjoyed the work and by the time she was called to that fateful meeting to discuss her “relationship” with Today FM, it meant she had a backup job. “I remember going into that meeting. It was off site, which is always interesting, isn’t it? As I went into the meeting I took a call from somebody very close to me, who had just had an operation, to tell me she was okay. So what else matters, you know? What matters? I was fine with it.”

Did she feel rejected when Today FM let her go? “Well, you know, that’s a funny one. Because people always say, well, it’s radio, it’s not personal. But like, it is the most personal thing. My personality didn’t suit ... but I was fine with it. You can’t walk into a room and expect everyone to love you and be delighted to see you.”

She turns 40 in a couple of months. “I’m a lot more philosophical about my career now. I mean, I’ll be working for another 25 years, there’ll be ups and downs. There’s no linear path any more. We need to normalise the fact that there will be something different coming maybe every decade, if we can be hopeful about it. And maybe because the decades are adding up, I’m a lot more content with that.”

“The only thing that bothered me during the three years I wasn’t on radio, was that I didn’t want to be harking back to the glory days of my 30s. It shouldn’t be like that. It was important to me that my daughters could see their mother doing something she loves ... It was also important to me that I was doing something satisfying.”

This feeling was behind her decision a couple of years ago to email head of RTÉ Radio 1 Peter Woods, explaining that she was keen to get back on air. “I would not like to see those emails now, and yes it was emails plural,” she says. “No, there’s no shame ... there’s nothing wrong in deciding where you want to go and knocking on the door. It was a very basic introduction. I was like, ‘If you ever need somebody, this is what I love to do.” It worked.

She was offered fill-in slots on Rising Time and Late Date and The Ronan Collins Show. Eventually, with Collin’s retirement imminent, she was offered the gig to replace the veteran broadcaster. She was thrilled. As Woods put it at the time: “Louise is the first woman to present the lunchtime music programme on RTÉ Radio 1 ... She will bring to it integrity, both as a presenter and with her musical choices.”

Duffy was only a few months in the new job when the RTÉ payment scandals erupted. How did that feel? “It was tough,” she says of being an observer of that situation over the past nine months. “I almost felt like I was in this liminal space, I wasn’t someone who hadn’t had a pay rise in 50 years, or someone who had experienced cutbacks ... I was watching people around me who were very upset and hurt. I was also seeing incredible output and productivity and efficiency comparative to what I had experienced before in radio. I see all the hard work that goes on and I see how frustrating it has all been for my colleagues.”

On an unrelated note, just weeks after he left his show, Ronan Collins was given a gig on RTÉ Gold, a three-hour show called Daytime Gold, the final hour of which competes directly with Duffy’s noon-1pm RTÉ Radio 1 slot. “I was more perplexed than anything else by that decision but it’s a very different format,” she says diplomatically. “You can’t worry too much.”

Back at home and away from radio, she feels she is achieving the kind of work-life balance that eluded her in the past. During the pandemic, she and Galvin seriously considered moving back to Mayo to be closer to family but decided, ultimately, that Dublin was where they wanted to be. Her daughters are now aged two and five. She is no longer in the often disorienting baby phase of parenting, and feels “civilisation has somewhat been restored”. I mention all the talk of women’s “duties in the home” during the recent referendums. How are things divided in her house? “Paul is incredible as a father,” she says. “He’s very focused on their feelings, on giving them strength and resilience. He reads with them and does the homework.” When it comes to “emotional labour or the mental load”, she says she shoulders more of that. “You know the kind of thing, birthday parties, play dates, so it’s very well divided up.”

She says Galvin is also “really protective” of the couple’s quality time. Recently, when he asked Duffy when she wanted to do for Mother’s Day, she had envisaged “putting the girls in pretty dresses” and going out for brunch, the four of them as a family. “But Paul was like, ‘Cool. I booked the babysitter’. They went out as a couple, without the children, to mark the day. “I felt so bad but it was great,” she says, laughing. “You have to have that time together.”

The broadcaster is clearly enjoying life as she heads towards 40. Back when she was training people for jobs, she says she used to play it down when people stressed the importance of luck in their careers, it seemed dismissive of their hard work and talent. “But I do feel really lucky to have the show. Having said that, you’re always open to the hustle and there’s always this feeling that you could be doing more.” It will be interesting to see what “more” means for Duffy. She mentions television as one option after a successful stint last year presenting The Ballycotton Sessions, an eight-part RTÉ music series, from Cork.

For now she’s all about The Louise Duffy Show. She’s at her desk in RTE’s music department at 9am every weekday morning, curating a list of songs she hopes will give listeners everything they want and perhaps didn’t know they needed music-wise in that escapist hour between Claire Byrne’s current affairs and Dobbo’s News at One. It’s all carefully thought out by a Mayo woman who is resolutely herself, on and off air. “I tend to pick up the pace of the music at the end of the show,” she says. “Somebody once said to me: ‘Send them home sweatin’.”

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times columnist, feature writer and coproducer of the Irish Times Women's Podcast