'My grandkids think it's hilarious when you show them a record' - Larry Gogan reflects on 58 years in radio
Technology may have changed since Larry Gogan first took to the airwaves 58 years ago, but the DJ's passion for pop music and love for his job remain undimmed, as he tells John Meagher
It is an 'R' word that does not seem to have a place in Larry Gogan's vocabulary. Retirement. It's something he doesn't bother to countenance. While others are happy to quit the workforce in their mid-60s - or earlier - the country's most celebrated DJ cannot imagine life away from the airwaves.
Speaking into a microphone in a radio studio is something this cheery octogenarian has done since 1961 when he started working for RTÉ radio, then located in Henry Street in the heart of Dublin. "I've been on air pretty much consistently for 58 years now," he says.
When it was announced that the Dubliner was leaving 2fm after 40 years earlier this year, the retirement word wasn't bandied about. He was merely stepping into another role - that of lunch-time DJ at RTÉ's digital station, Gold. He won't even have to change desks at the open-plan Radio Centre at Montrose. "I'll still be part of the furniture," he says with a laugh.
He can be heard each weekday at 1pm. And he does two Golden Hour programmes - one called Living In The 60s, which features a playlist from that thrilling pop decade, and the other centred on a chart-countdown from a specific week in the 1970s and '80s. "I'm really loving it," he says. "And in the normal programmes, I can play whatever music I like from the 1960s on."
Gogan chuckles good-naturedly when asked for his actual age. He says he never gives it and enjoys how various newspapers speculate about his year of birth. An entry next to photos of him on the RTÉ Archives website offers 1938 as the year. We'll have to take their word for it.
His reluctance to talk about age is perhaps understandable given the pop world has always been so fixated on youth. And virtually everyone else who is taking time out at the Radio Centre's workaday canteen when we meet is at least half his age, if not a third. But Larry Gogan always seemed to transcend age, partly because his love of pop is undimmed and partly because he has managed to connect with multiple generations.
He was the voice of the Irish chart countdown for years and created classic radio slots like the Just A Minute Quiz. The latter is something of an Irish treasure, partly because of the unintentionally hilarious answers given to questions. "Where is the Taj Mahal?" Gogan asked one contestant. "Beside the dental hospital," was her response. There had been an Indian restaurant of that name on Lincoln Place, Dublin, for many years, so she was correct - in a way.
"I think people responded to the quiz so favourably because it was just pure fun," he says. "And if they grow to like something and it lasts long enough, it becomes bigger than it is. People used to sometimes say to me: 'Why don't you say something smart to anyone who gives stupid answers?' But you can't be rude to people. Anyone who ever goes on radio has to realise that the listener is the most important person."
And there are countless Irish people who would instantly recognise his warm and engaging radio voice if they heard it in isolation. It's a voice that makes the listener momentarily forget all that's bad in the world. Famously modest, he is reluctant to sing his own praises. "I suppose people like the way I come across on air," he says. "Maybe when you love what you're doing, that comes across to the listener. It's never felt like a chore. I still get a thrill when the red light [to denote live broadcasting] goes on. And I think about it the same way as I always did: it's not half a million people, or a thousand people, that you imagine you're talking to. It's one person. And the only thing separating you from that person is that bit of steel [the microphone] in front of you."
As one of the few people in RTÉ to play pop music in the 1960s and '70s - "the first song I ever played was by Johnny Tillotson" - there was little surprise when Gogan was among the original cast of presenters at 2fm when it was launched as RTÉ Radio 2 in 1979. It became an immediate success, not least because there was a huge youth market that the national broadcaster hadn't tapped into. And there are many of a certain generation who will recall the station's almost-ubiquitous advertising strap-line, 'Comin' atcha!'.
"The pirate stations had got big really quickly because no-one else was playing pop," he says, "and young people today mightn't realise how huge pirate DJs had become then. When RTÉ launched the station, the majority of presenters came from the pirates - people like Gerry Ryan and Dave Fanning."
In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that RTÉ would wait so long before targeting a young audience although, in truth, 2fm's obsession with attracting millennials over the past decade has led to some poor programming choices.
Gogan was one of the older presenters when the station first aired, and in photoshoots from the time of the launch, he stood out as that bit different from whippersnappers like Fanning and the late Vincent Hanley: his more formal choice of clothing was redolent of the 1960s, rather than the late 1970s. "Even then, people used to say I was too old! But then we'd get letters in saying: 'I don't care if he's 100 as long as he plays music I might like.'"
And it was Gogan who had the honour of playing the first song on the new station. "I thought it really should be an Irish record, so I went with something that was really big at the time - Like Clockwork by the Boomtown Rats.
"There had been so much excitement in the weeks leading up to the launch. It really had been so long overdue, but we wanted to get it right from the start. And I think we did."
On the afternoon we meet, he is rocking an outfit far more in keeping with his colleagues of today - cool indigo jeans and a patterned shirt. He looks well, even if his health has been causing him problems of late. He has arthritis. And kidney trouble means he has to undergo dialysis treatment in Sandyford a number of times a week. "It's boring to have to do it," he says. "But it's got to be done." His mobility has been impaired somewhat. It's easier for him to negotiate the RTÉ corridors with a wheelie-walker nowadays. He has had to stop driving too, but one senses it will take a lot more than those impediments to keep him off air.
"I've always loved pop music," he says. "I've never got jaded by it. As I got older, people used to say to me, 'Would you ever do more serious stuff and interview the Taoiseach,' say, but that had no interest for me at all. I know a lot of the other fellas wanted to move on into current affairs" - Pat Kenny would soon trade pop for politics - "but I didn't. It was pop or nothing for me."
Gogan says he has adored pop for as long as he can remember. "I used to listen to AFN - American Forces Network. They used to put out pop and I think a lot of people back then would have got their first taste of what was happening in the US and Britain from stations like that."
His early years in broadcasting coincided with the rise of the showbands. "They became really huge as the 1960s wore on," he says. "You forget now just how big Brendan Bowyer and Joe Dolan were. They were all over the radio. People wanted to see them play the dance halls and they wanted to hear them on radio. And they were all mad to get to No.1. And getting to the top of the charts was a far bigger deal then, than it is today. And don't forget that while the showbands were happening, there was an Irish rock and pop scene underneath that. You'd a lot of beat groups, for instance, but they didn't get the same sort of coverage."
Irish rock really took off in the 1970s and Gogan suggests that decade might well have been Ireland's 'Swinging '60s'. "Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy really blazed a trail and the Boomtown Rats were having hit after hit at the end of the decade," he says. "So while an RTÉ pop station took a long time to happen, it coincided nicely with how rock from this country was really happening."
Radio 2 - chiefly through Dave Fanning - were supporters of the embryonic U2, and today Gogan says The Joshua Tree is among his favourite ever albums. "It's such a towering piece of work," he says. "It holds up so well today."
For many, the station - rebranded 2FM (as distinct from the more recent, lower-case 2fm) in 1988 - enjoyed its heyday in the 1980s. The music industry was in its pomp, people were buying vinyl and then CDs in their droves, and having seen off the pirates, 2FM had the game to itself until commercial radio licences started to be doled out as the 1990s was dawning.
"The audiences we had were huge and it was just a really exciting time for radio because you had people like Gerry [Ryan] doing great things and shaking it up," he says. "The 'Beat on the Street' events were colossal. DJs became stars then. You could do as much extra work as you wanted, too, playing discos all over the country."
If DJs like Gogan could command huge audiences 30 years ago and more, it's all changed today. Not only are there far more radio stations to tempt listeners to switch the dial, but the proliferation of podcasts, audiobooks and streaming means there are far more ways for people to keep themselves occupied, even if they are on a long commute. "Back then, it was the radio or nothing if you were in the car, but I still think radio can resonate with an audience in a very special way," he says. "Podcasts can be great, but there's something special about live broadcasting, where it's you, the broadcaster, and your audience. And the crucial aspect is the fact that it's live - it's in real time.
"In some ways, radio's connection with people hasn't changed since I first started doing this in 1961, but in other ways, it's so much better because, thanks to digital radio, you can be heard by people all over the world."
While he makes sure to be kept up to date with contemporary pop, he has little time for streaming. Selecting an album from his vinyl and CD collection is the way he chooses to listen to music at home. Spotify isn't part of the picture at all. "I still think a vinyl record is the best way to listen to music and to engage with it," he says.
"The sound really is always 'warmer' and holding something like that in your hands gives you a connection with the music that you just don't get with any other format. And yet, my grandkids think it's hilarious when you show them a record, but they're really fascinated when the needle goes down and the sound comes out. In a way, it's a shame that vinyl isn't as big as it was - even though it is coming back, to an extent - but then every generation has their particular thing that connects with them and means something to them."
There were opportunities to leave RTÉ and work elsewhere, but he always resisted. There was a chance to go to Radio Luxembourg in the 1960s, but his late wife Florrie didn't like the idea of relocating to continental Europe. "I said to her we'd have to go to that little country at the corner of France and she said, 'I'm not going there'. And that was the end of that."
Radio Luxembourg's loss was RTÉ's - and our - gain. "I don't really have regrets," he says. "I think I've been extremely lucky. I'm still here and people still want to listen to me. I can't ask for much more than that."