Radio Hell

After a summer when RTÉ Radio 1 retreated from current affairs in favour of light entertainment, Ryan Tubridy finds himself at the centre of accusations that the station is 'dumbing down'. John Byrne interviews Ryan Tubridy. Analysis
by Harry Browne

The critics have not been kind about Ryan Tubridy's new morning show on RTÉ Radio 1. The Sunday Times wrote that "Ryan Tubridy's show is shuffling along with the kind of gait that suggests it should be called Dead Programme Walking. Tubridy's default setting is light and trivial; when a serious story breaks he makes the transition with all the grace of a prairie dog undergoing an impromptu root canal job."

Referring to "inappropriate jokes, nervous energy" and "an I'm-engagingly-whacky-me persona", the review said Tubridy was unable to engage with anything "other than his conceited, mock-humble notions of himself".

That was a week after the programme's launch in late June. According to The Irish Times, Tubridy and his team had done little to rectify the situation by mid-August.

"His return to the grown-up side of [radio] comes across as an embarrassing mistake... He has the sound of a man who wishes that the words he is currently uttering were not his." It went on to mention the "threadbare appeal of his Young Fogey persona", production values that "are so cheap they are embarrassing", and guests of a "shoddy calibre". And these are just a couple of the negative write-ups.

Has he read any of the reviews?

"Yes," says Ryan Tubridy. Then silence, a steely stare.

What does he think of them?

"Well, what do you think of them?" The tone is deliberate and icy.

They seem to be pretty negative.

"Critics are there to criticise. That's their job," he says. The "I'm-engagingly-whacky-me persona" is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a far more unfriendly model.

"The Tubridy Show will take between eight and 12 months to settle. So to be hammering it after a number of weeks seems a little premature. But that's their opinion.

"I know I haven't perfected the Radio 1 style yet. But my philosophy comes from my grandfather, a man called Todd Andrews, who wasn't a fan of responding to the critics. And I think they were wise words. But let me say you develop a thick skin in this country very quickly, and mine isn't getting any thinner."

Has The Tubridy Show got any good reviews?

"I don't know. I don't read them all. I just keep my head down, and concentrate on the show."

Ryan Tubridy moved to Radio 1 after three years on 2fm, where he presented the breakfast show The Full Irish. That started with 196,000 listeners and rose to 244,000 at its height. Fast-paced, big on audience interaction and slightly edgy, it suited Tubridy's skittish manner. And nobody minded if it sounded a bit vacuous, because it was on 2fm.

"I'd spent three years working in 2fm, and then I was moved to – tongue-in-cheek – the senior service," he says in his more usual, jovial style. (The frostiness is reserved for speaking of the jealous gentlemen of the press.)

"The problem to a large extent was the readjustment to Radio 1." (Tubridy previously worked as a reporter and occasional presenter for 5-7 Live, and presented The Sunday Show, both on Radio 1.) "That factor of settling back in to the Radio 1 mode, to 'de-2fm' me.

"I started roughly, and there are rough edges still. But It has been on an upward curve. I think it turned the corner in the last ten days or so – that recently. And any start-up will take between eight months and a year to settle.

"When I worked on 2fm, I got to a point where I knew how far I could go. What I could say, the limits to humour. Listeners respond quickly enough to something they don't like. Now that's coming with the new show – I'm beginning to feel that connection on Radio 1."

When RTÉ asked Ryan Tubridy to join Radio 1, what did they want him to bring to the station?

"I think I was asked to come to Radio 1 with a view to bringing something that was a little bit younger – I'm 32, which makes me younger than any of the predecessors in that slot. They also wanted somebody who wasn't going to be too serious all the time. That was essentially the brief – they wanted something a little bit different.

"RTÉ were hands off. They knew that they had the fella that they wanted for the job. The producer [Paul Russell, who had done ten years on the Gerry Ryan Show and was selected by Tubridy] and I did a lot of pilots, and then handed it to the person next in the chain of command. And that person consulted back, but they were happy with what they heard from the start."

How does The Tubridy Show fit in on the Radio 1 schedule?

"On one side you've got Morning Ireland, the current affairs juggernaut. Then you have Pat Kenny after me, which is another forensic look at the day's news. What we're trying to do is talk about about human stuff, human matter. Things that people are talking about at the supermarket, or the pub, or the taxi rank.

"The bottom line is you have all this seriousness around you. I would like to see my morning show as an oasis of light relief. What I want to do is take ordinary and quite mundane subjects but give them a 21st century twist. Take a news story of the day, but look at it in a way that's going to be a bit more quirky and a little less conservative, but at the same time you're giving information, just in a more entertaining fashion.

"Bits of the show are scripted here and there, and that's standard. But mostly it isn't. Any humour that comes on our show is completely impromptu and unscripted."

Since he left 5-7 Live, Ryan Tubridy has moved away from weighty issues. There was The Full Irish. There was also Tubridy Tonight, the television chat show, more sedate but still not particularly substantial. And of course, there was presenting The Rose of Tralee, the ultimate no-brain gig. And while both of his predecessors on the Radio 1 morning slot, Gay Byrne and Marian Finucane, did the light material well, they were also good in more hard-hitting territory. Is Ryan Tubridy comfortable with current affairs?

"The funny thing is I'm a news junkie, I adore the news. But all the heaviness is sorted out with the other programmes. My role is different to that. But if we do it, it'll be done my way, and in my style."

The Irish Times said he relied too heavily on his "young fogey" persona, that it was too threadbare to carry the show by itself. Is that fair?

"I won't respond to the critic, but to the broader question of the 'young fogey'. What I really resent is people suggesting that it's a bit of a schtick. I have a genuine love of things retro. I don't have a fogey act to prove. Is the young fogey thing threadbare on the radio? I don't know. How do I play it up too much? Back it up. Tell me how. I don't understand the question. I'm just a person who has certain interests, and I won't change them for anyone."

How has the audience reaction been to The Tubridy Show?

"It's been very, very positive."

All the way through?

"I'm just very, very heartened by the letters and emails we get sent in. I've been very, very happy with the audience response. I think that people had a problem to the adjustment phase. They're so used to Gay Byrne and Marian Finucane, and then along comes this creature from another planet."

What specifically do the listeners like?

"One thing that comes back all the time is that they like the polite handling of guests. They like that. People like the music too." (It's mostly big band, lounge and Sixties pop, chosen by Tubridy.) "And they like a bit of humour. That's the kind of things that people are saying."

Not one listener has had anything bad to say?

"You'll have to ask my producer, I don't want to paint this utopian picture, but not that I'm aware of. I'm very pleased with what we're getting back."

(According to one of the producers of The Tubridy Show, "there have been a number of listeners saying that they miss Marian Finucane," but no instances of audience criticism of the show.)

Was there a dispute, as recent media reports claimed, between himself and Pat Kenny over who would have the longer morning slot when Kenny arrived back on Radio 1 in September? (As it turned out, Kenny got two hours and Tubridy was brought down to one.)

"That's totally untrue," he says. "First of all, myself and Pat wouldn't have been having conversations of that nature. How unprofessional would that be? Secondly, I was talking to him last week and we get on very well as it happens. That's just a bit of tattle."

A Sunday Tribune profile was even rougher: "Although his smooth manner has endeared him to many, Tubridy is described as a ruthless operator who doesn't worry about stepping on toes. 'Ryan sees a two-hour morning time-slot available and he is doing everything he can to get it,' said [a] source. 'He's a smart guy and he has been working towards this since he was around 12 years old.'"

"Well, it's not how I would describe myself. I love the job, I want to do it with the right people, I want to get it right. If that's ruthless, that's an interesting definition of ruthless. And without meaning to sound over the top, I've inherited a very important programme from Gay Byrne and Marian Finucane, and I have a duty to the listeners to get it right. I have to come good, I have to do my job. Whether or not that's ruthless, I don't know."

Tubridy says that the one-hour show will be quite different from its summer predecessor. What changes can be expected?

"I can't really say at the moment. What we're going to do is take the best bits of the show. What we've found works very well is the one-on-one interview where somebody tells their story. The interview will be 20 to 25 minutes. There'll be lots more audience interaction, particularly by text message. We'll be doing outside broadcasts too, they've worked well."

And finally, to the critics one last time. Is The Tubridy Show part of an effort to dumb down Radio 1?

"It would be great if people weren't so humorous. What do you want? You have two hours of Morning Ireland, you have two hours of Pat Kenny. You need an hour to just go, 'phew'. I mean, what's so different about what we're doing? On Marian Finucane, you had Diarmuid Gavin on, there was a big long thing with Jane Fonda. Was that heavy? Is there really that big a change?

"And if there is a change, why be afraid of it? Lightness, or levity – don't be so scared. Laugh a little. Enjoy yourself. Don't be worried. And if you are worried, there's more current affairs on the way. There's plenty of gravity there." p