The Savage eye: Anton Savage steps out of his comfort zone
'There are some people eager to share with anybody. And there are those who are more circumspect. I'm in the latter category '
The radio and TV host is well used to asking the big questions, but when the tables are turned, Anton Savage remains skilfully tight-lipped.
The interview is going as smoothly as one of Anton Savage's well-oiled Today FM shows. And then we hit an obstacle.
I've veered the conversation into personal territory, and Anton is having none of it. He remains unfailingly polite, but the underlying message is clear: move on. But like a child who won't stop picking at a scab, I persist.
It is halfway through our conversation in the very studio where he presents The Anton Savage Show every weekday morning that he starts putting up the barriers after I ask: Would you describe yourself as a Christian?
"I would regard religion as a fairly personal thing," he says. Silence, and a look that says, "Next question."
I ask him if he still goes to church and he draws a circle in the air with his hand. "That's in the big bucket of religious stuff."
Why won't he talk about it? "That in itself is talking about it," he says. "It's just one of those things that I regard as private. I would have a fairly clear set of Christian-derived values. I would be a big fan of the Beatitudes and the like, and I think there are a lot of people, whether they be Christian or non-Christian, in Ireland who have the same set of values."
For a broadcaster who is long established on both radio and television, it's remarkable how little we know of him beyond the fact that the 38-year old lives on Dublin's northside, enjoys rally driving and walking his golden retriever, Jack. One of the few personal details that is widely known about Savage is that his father Tom, former chair of the RTÉ Authority, was once a priest - hence the questions about religion.
He's unmoved. "I don't think if you met people fresh in the pub who you'd never talked to before that you would immediately say, 'Come here and let me tell you about my private life.' It's the same thing."
But what about broadcasters like Ivan Yates, who talk about their spouses on a virtual daily basis, or Ray D'Arcy, whose time-slot at Today FM he now fills, and whose wife, Jenny Kelly, was a fundamental part of his team?
He answers in a roundabout way. "There are some people," he says, evenly, "who are eager to share with anybody at any instance. There is the type of person who you end up in the lift with and before you hit the ground floor you know every single thing about them. And there are those who are slightly more circumspect. I'm just in the latter category." Why? "It's not something to which I give great thought. It's in there with the 'Why do I drink vast quantities of coffee rather than vast quantities of tea' question. It's just sort of the way I am."
His parents Tom Savage and Terry Prone were, for many years, Ireland's pre-eminent media couple, celebrated for, among other things, training politicians to handle media demands and, their detractors would say, the art of deflecting awkward questions. I ask him if it was a case of his mother and father saying 'Don't go there' when it comes to enquiries of a personal matter. "There wasn't an underlying strategy," he says, with a hint of weariness in his voice. "It's that lift analogy." I apologise for what is beginning to feel like an interrogation and say to him there are just a few more questions I have to ask for box-ticking purposes.
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You are married, right?
What's your wife's first name?
"I'll give you a yes to the 'are you married?' but, genuinely, I don't talk about this kind of stuff."
Never at all?
"Yeah." (True to his word, a thorough search after our interview doesn't unearth a single instance where Anton has let slip his wife's name.)
Is that for her sake or for your sake?
"As I said, I just happen to be circumspect about private life."
Just one last one: do you have children? A simple yes or no…
"Genuinely, it's an area I don't go into. Even for your box-ticking purposes, it's something I won't talk about."
I'm taken aback and, momentarily, fumble around for a non-personal question. Anton speaks up: "I remember years ago hearing Bunny Carr [the founder of the PR agency his parents eventually took over] being the subject of an interview and the interviewer was trying to tip-toe up to a very difficult area and was becoming more and more uncomfortable in the process and, at a certain point, Bunny said to him, 'Look, there are no unaskable questions but there is a long series of unanswerable questions'.
"Okay," he concedes, "I sit at the other end of the table and feel I must ask the question, but it's the other person's right to say no." Of course, Anton doesn't always say no and on we go to matters more affable. The Anton Savage Show has been on air for a little over four months and the week before last he sat down with his team for "a third of a year" appraisal. He believes the show has really found its groove over the past "six or seven weeks" and on the morning I sit in on it, I'm struck by how engaging the various items are.
There's a really good interview with a young woman who was duped out of money by a man she had loved and an intriguing discussion with a doctor who recently did pioneering eye surgery. There are lively quizzes and interactions with listeners, and Savage seems as comfortable doing these as he is with the more weighty subjects. The show nears its end with an interview with the genial RTÉ broadcaster, John Creedon, who is in Marconi House to talk about his TV series on the Wild Atlantic Way. The final item is a striking live performance from the young Wexford rapper and singer Maverick Sabre.
Earlier that morning, an hour before going on air, Anton and his all-female team (the sole male member is on holiday) are a study in calm as they go through the items planned for the show. He's friendly and accommodating and makes sure I know where the Nespresso coffee machine is. "Put some of the capsules in your pocket," he says, conspiratorially. "They'll all be gone by mid-morning."
He rejects the idea that he is stepping into Ray D'Arcy's shoes. "There was quite a long duration after Ray left. You had Alison Curtis, who did a fantastic job, and Hector [Ó hEochagáin] too, so it wasn't like he was gone on Friday and I was in on Monday." He says his show is very different to what D'Arcy was doing. "What we said at the outset was, 'Blank sheet of paper'. Now, we have a completely new set of contributors and a completely new set of items. Obviously, in some ways, there's a definite crossover about what the show is doing now and what Ray was doing, but some items are staples of daytime radio and have been since The Gay Byrne Hour."
The latest round of listenership ratings showed gains for the beleaguered 2fm and losses for Today FM. Savage's 9am to 12 noon slot shed 3,000 listeners. He is refusing to read too much into that. "Obviously, there was a chunk of Ray's audience that was loyal to him and were always going to be difficult to hold on to, but we'd really want to keep the core Today FM audience and we're working hard to retain them." Savage is working hard too - trying as he is to combine the business of three hours of live radio a day, plus a weekly topical show on TV3 and the small matter of running The Communications Clinic, the media training and PR agency that grew out of Carr Communications. He says he has taken a back seat on the latter, focusing on the unglamorous business of profit and loss statements and so on, but when I push further, it turns out he's in every day except Friday.
That's the day he hosts The Seven O'Clock Show on TV3 and, he says, something has to give. More often than not, he will drive to Ballymount, west Dublin, after he's finished at Today FM, park at the back of TV3's new HD studio, and nap for a couple of hours in his car.
"It's not that it's a particularly early start," he says. "I'm up around quarter to six in the morning which isn't that desperately early - but you're very 'on' in here, as you would have seen - so it's nice to get a little snooze. Ian [Dempsey] does it too, on occasion."
Twelve-hour days are standard for him, although he pooh-poohs any show of sympathy. "I have a friend who gets up every morning at seven and goes into a freezing cold shed and welds steel every day, and I've another friend who's a panel beater who does the same thing, and I think, 'I'm in a warm room with unlimited access to coffee.' Yes, it's a long stint, but it's not physically labour-intensive. You're mentally tired at the end of it, but in the big scheme of tough jobs, it's grand."
He admits that he gets his thirst for work from his parents. "The pair of them have a work ethic that I've seen in a couple of other people, but not many. I don't think that has faded even slightly."
It was a work ethic he sensed as a child. "I would have known that they worked very hard. There were significant periods of time where you wouldn't see a huge amount of them but I never had a sense that I was missing out. I imagine that there was a huge effort made to ensure the time that was there was used really well, like going to sporting events.
"Early on," he adds, "my assumption was that there was no gender difference. It took until secondary school [he was educated at the private boys school, Belvedere College] for me to realise that, 'God, some people's mothers work in the home rather than doing 12 hours of work outside the home."
He says he never felt spoilt as an only child. "For a long time, my big fear was that I'd get brothers and sisters," he laughs. "I really enjoyed being an only kid. Sometimes you hear only kids talk about loneliness, but I didn't feel that and I liked that in the house you got this great connection and access to your folks."
That close bond, he insists, is still very much intact today and he says both are invaluable sounding boards. He says he didn't realise he wanted to work in media until close to the end of his time at college, in Trinity, where he studied English literature. "I would have had an interest in what my folks did, but I didn't have specific aspirations until my early 20s, and it was the training side [of Carr Communications] that I got myself into." He also did a short stint as a researcher on the embryonic Radio Ireland in the mid-1990s, before it was successfully relaunched as Today FM. Did the Savage-Prone name help open doors? "I don't see it like that," he says, carefully, "and if you consider that I was doing radio work here 20-odd years ago, that's a very slow opening of a door."
He says there isn't one aspect of his career that he's especially proud of, it's more the little things - like interviewing compelling people or "getting to hear a band I love play 12 feet away from where I'm sitting now".
When I ask if there's any aspect of his professional life that caused him worry he deflects the question.
"The darkest periods of my life have not been professional. They were when I was very young: the car accident that came very close to killing my mother, and a few years later, the cancer that came very close to killing my father. In both instances, the statistical likelihood was that they were going to die."
He becomes momentarily lost in thought. "It was easier to deal with the car crash," he says, "because the first you hear of it is when the person is on the road to recovery. The cancer brings with it weeks of waiting, surgery, that five-year period thereafter where there's worry of it coming back. What those events did, I suppose, was give me an appreciation for not wasting the here and now."
And with that, and the warmest of handshakes, he's away.
Photos by Gerry Mooney