Is Ryan Tubridy cueing up for a big UK break?
RTÉ’s star broadcaster is heading off to the Beeb, to stand in for Graham Norton on Radio 2. Will it lead to greater things – and should the ‘Late Late’ host be paying more attention to his programmes back in Ireland?
It’s a big show on a strong day for the station, so it’s important it works . . . We normally go for someone well known in the UK
CONSPIRACY THEORISTS at RTÉ worried about Ryan Tubridy’s plans should look away now. The producer assigned to the Dublin-born presenter for his upcoming stint on BBC Radio 2 is Alan Boyd, a seasoned veteran who was for years responsible for producing Terry Wogan’s hugely popular breakfast show. Such news is unlikely to allay nagging suspicions that by taking over Graham Norton’s Saturday-morning slot for eight weeks, Tubridy is positioning himself to do a Wogan and leave RTÉ for Britain’s biggest radio station.
“I know it could be seen that way, but it’s not the case at all,” says Lewis Carnie, head of programmes at BBC Radio 2. “I wanted to put Ryan with someone who was very experienced and knows what our listeners like.”
Such calming reassurances abound when interested parties discuss the new gig, which starts next Saturday. “He’s always tried different things, so I’m perfectly happy for him to try things that don’t impact on his work at RTÉ,” says Tubridy’s boss on Irish radio, John McMahon, the head of 2FM. “I can’t control him doing that and I don’t want to.”
Tubridy, currently on holiday in Co Galway, professes surprise at the attention his latest move has attracted. “I’m not being disingenuous when I say that I think the interest in it is excessive,” he says. “Even here in Connemara people are coming up to me and saying, ‘Ah, you’re going to England,’ as if I’m leaving on a coffin ship to Boston. I’m only flying over on a Saturday for a few weeks.”
At face value, the 38-year-old presenter’s new venture is indeed innocuous. It won’t make too many demands on his time, with The Late Late Showin hiatus for most of its duration. Far from bristling at the move, RTÉ is simulcasting the BBC show on its digital radio station 2XM.
But it is a significant step in Tubridy’s career. The show he takes over from Norton has an average audience of 2.5 million, dwarfing anything Tubridy hosts in Ireland. He has never hidden his ambition, and the new job is an opportunity to test new waters without having to leap overboard minus a lifebuoy.
It was his television skills that earned him the BBC invitation, when Carnie saw him hosting his previous TV chat show, Tubridy Tonight.He was initially approached to host a summer slot last year, but had to turn it down as he was completing his book, JFK in Ireland. When the corporation renewed the invitation this year, “there was no way it was not going to happen”, according to Tubridy. “It’s all down to curiosity. I’m someone who gorges on media, so when somewhere like the BBC offers such an interesting invitation I won’t turn it down. But it’s not part of some big plan.”
Carnie also plays down the stint. “It’s not an audition,” he says. “There’s no long-term plan, no agenda; it’s just a bit of fun.”
Tubridy’s new slot is not a throwaway shift, however. “It’s very important, which is why Graham Norton presents it, and of course Jonathan Ross before that,” says Carnie. “It’s a big show on a strong day for the station, so it’s important to us that it works.”
This is why it is surprising that the BBC is handing over the reins to someone as unknown in the UK as Tubridy. “It is an unlikely move for us, because we normally go for someone well known,” Carnie says. It may not be an audition, but it seems fanciful that the BBC will not be taking notes for future reference.
Much will rest on how Tubridy fits into his new environment. The Norton format is not too different from that of the 2FM programme Tubridy has presented since Gerry Ryan’s death, last year, with music punctuated by celebrity interviews and frothy items, though one suspects that Tubridy’s patriotism and tear-jerking human-interest tales will be put on hold. “We’re not going to try and mould him,” says Carnie. “We have things we want to do, but there’ll be a lot of freedom for him to be himself.”
Should all go well, Tubridy seems a good fit for BBC Radio 2. With an average listener age of 51, it has specialist music shows at night but focuses on what Carnie calls “mainstream music entertainment” during peak hours.
On paper, this profile is right for Tubridy. He played up his young-fogey tendencies even as a twentysomething presenter, arguably reaching his peak with his 2FM breakfast show, The Full Irish,which ran from 2002 to 2005. Whether a man with Tubridy’s urbane tendencies can emulate the saucy populism of Norton or chime with an audience used to the mass-market appeal of Radio 2 stars such as Chris Evans and Steve Wright is another matter.
At the moment, anyway, Tubridy is committed to RTÉ. “People seem to think I’m sitting in there plotting to leave, but I’m not,” he says. But he has not had an easy time there of late. Since he took over Ryan’s show (or two hours of it), audience numbers have dropped. The most recent figures for the slot show an average quarter-hour listenership of 133,000, down from a 2010 figure of 180,000 for Ryan.
“It obviously takes time for an audience to get used to a change,” says McMahon, but, even if this is true, a pop-focused station such as 2FM does not seem a natural home for Tubridy in the long term.
He has also endured flak for his tenure on television hosting The Late Late Show, especially his soft-focus interview with Ronan Keating this year. Mockery of the show on Twitter reached such a peak last November that the presenter, an inveterate tweeter, threatened to quit the site. (He hasn’t.)
Tubridy works hard, and last year, as he juggled his JFK book and TV documentary with his other duties, there were concerns that he was spreading himself too thin. He says, however, that he “adores working” and feels he has got the balance right. He compares his current holiday to being handed a bottle of water at the crucial point of a marathon. But even before the BBC announcement there was nervousness at RTÉ about one person being so important to its fortunes. As it seeks cuts of €34 million over the next two years, Tubridy, believed to be RTÉ’s highest-paid star, may face a substantial salary reduction. With his contract up for renewal next year, he may feel that the network is no longer such a lucrative home.
In this context, turning a successful sideline in Britain into something bigger might be tempting. But it is a big if. The likes of Wogan and Norton followed a different trajectory from that of Tubridy. Wogan’s RTÉ career was in decline when he went to the BBC, and Norton never broadcast in Ireland. Both men started at the bottom in Britain and worked their way up.
A more instructive, and cautionary, example comes in the form of Tubridy’s predecessor on The Late Late Show. In the mid-1980s Gay Byrne made a brief stab at hosting a daytime summer talk show on US TV, but it did not lead to a stateside breakthrough. Success in Ireland is not necessarily preparation for success elsewhere.
Wisely, Tubridy plays down expectations about his new venture. Asked what he would do if the BBC offered him a contract, he says: “I think we should leave ifs to the poets.” Instead, he characterises his latest move as “a bizarre blind date”. Whether it is a holiday fling or the start of a beautiful relationship remains to be seen.