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‘For a day I was like seriously, what the hell have I just done?’ – Today FM’s Ian Dempsey

The king of breakfast radio reveals how his dream move to Today FM almost went up in smoke


Ian Dempsey is living his dream life on Today FM since leaving RTÉ 23 years ago

Ian Dempsey is living his dream life on Today FM since leaving RTÉ 23 years ago

Ian Dempsey is living his dream life on Today FM since leaving RTÉ 23 years ago

When Ian Dempsey told RTÉ he was quitting after 19 years for rival Today FM’s breakfast radio slot, he knew there was no turning back.

It was 23 years ago but the memory is sharp still. He had become a familiar face on RTÉ television, but “TV work completely dries up once you walk out of there, particularly when you do it in the kind of shocking way that I did”.

What he has not revealed before is how the deal almost did not go through. He was busy saying his goodbyes to colleagues at RTÉ in Montrose when he saw the name of John Steele, then CEO of Today FM, come up on his phone. He stepped outside to take the call: ‘There was a board meeting — they just voted against it,” Steele told him.

“Terrified”, Dempsey rang his wife Ger. His next call was to John McColgan, the chair of Today FM, who was on holiday in Boston.

“He went ballistic,” Dempsey recalls. “To be fair, he got on a plane that day, came home and called an EGM. But there was a 24-hour period where I was like, ‘Seriously… what the hell have I done?”

Looking back now, he sees it as the best decision of his career. Aged 60, he has just signed another three-year deal: “Pretty good for an oul fella.”

After having to pay a 15pc agent’s fee in his early years, he decided to hammer out the deal alone with the help of a tip from his former boss.

“The best advice anyone ever gave me in radio was from John McColgan and it was on negotiation. He said, ‘When you are asking for what you feel you deserve, don’t be a complete c*** but you can be a bit of a c***.’” He laughs. McColgan’s advice must have served him well again.

In the years since he left, RTÉ “threw out the feelers” to ask him back, but to no avail. “I still go out to Montrose from time to time and every time I do I see the same people that I saw when I was working there back in 1998 and they are still kinda walking the same track. I say to myself, ‘That could’ve been me — I could’ve just been doing the same thing’.”

He describes RTÉ’s income from the licence fee and its ability to earn further revenue from advertising as “a strange arrangement”.

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Does he support the national broadcaster’s push for a tax on Netflix and the like to fund Irish content?

“Not really. I think we should join the gang and try and come up with our own version of it. If you want to charge people per month, do. But it seems odd that you have a situation where you have a television fee and then there is also advertising revenue on top of it.

“I think everyone has to look at where their companies are based and how many people work for them. So it’s one of those root-and-branch situations where you need to look at the whole thing and ask, ‘What’s the modern way of doing this?’ Because times have changed.”

Over the years he has lost a number of close friends in the business, including Larry Gogan and Gerry Ryan. The latter, he says, “changed the landscape” of radio and has never been replaced. “It was more fluid and shocking, and you wondered what the hell was he going to say next. And I don’t have that feeling about any other show in any station since.”

Simon Young, another friend and former colleague — “a lovely, warm, very funny and very caring guy” — died last week. They had stayed in touch for 40 years and Young had spoken to him about his health struggles.

“He was suffering from an illness that left him bloated from the medication he was taking. The poor fella was finding it very hard to move around and he had one of those mobility scooters. He didn’t really socialise any more with the same people but he would ring me very regularly and we would chat for about an hour-and-a-half at a time.”

Some media coverage since his friend’s death frustrated him: “They said he was in his 70s but he was only 61 or 62. They also said he was living in Washington, DC. He was living in Clondalkin.”

For his own part, Dempsey’s health has never been better, having lost three stone on doctor’s orders. I tell him I’ve read he once took six painkillers a day.

“I’ll tell you what was behind that,” he says. “I got two wisdom teeth taken out when I was 17 and the dentist said to me, ‘If you feel pain take these things called Solpadeine’. So I said, ‘Grand’, went home to sleep and when I woke up I had to bang my head against the wall with the pain. I was still living with my parents and asked them to get [the Solpadeine].

"I started taking them and they worked and then I took more that day and then I became slightly addicted and I started liking them. I mentioned it, nearly as a throwaway remark, when I was asked about drugs in the music industry during an interview. And the next thing I know its picked up by another paper and it’s ‘my Solpadeine shame’. It was ridiculous.”

Dempsey is grateful he was “talked into a pension many years ago” and has “something set up”. He did, though, make one “mad decision” during the Celtic Tiger years.

“We bought a villa in Portugal and it had four bedrooms, a swimming pool, a separate garage, a place I could turn into a studio out the back and it was all fantastic — until it came to winter and we started getting phone calls to say there was a leak in the roof or a broken washing machine and we had to keep sending money over.”

It got to the stage where “the grass was growing high in our own garden in Dublin and at the same time we were paying gardeners over there because we had to rent it out. It was costing us a fortune”.

He grew up watching his father come home from a job with the Revenue — “he hated every second. He would have been better writing plays”. Dempsey is “lucky to do what I’ve always dreamed of. I’m not looking for the sun, moon and stars. I’ve a great team and the station is a success”.

These days he’s living the quiet life in Sutton, north Co Dublin, with his wife and two of their three children. “The third has gone to the southside, like Bono,” he quips.

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