Tuesday 21 January 2020

'It was pop or nothing for me': Remembering Larry Gogan

John Meagher bids farewell to the velvety-voiced DJ whose kindly manner reflected his belief that the most important person on radio was the listener

Larry Gogan in 2010. Photo by Mark Condren
Larry Gogan in 2010. Photo by Mark Condren
"Your band became 'flesh' when Larry mentioned you. Prior to that you were just a rumour. Your aunts and uncles looked at you anew: 'So this, this band thing - it's a real thing, then'."
From left to right, RTE broadcasters Brendan Balfe, Larry Gogan and Mike Murphy during the recording of the radio quiz show 'Beat the Band' in March 1974.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The first time I met Larry Gogan, one of his attributes stood tall. Curiosity. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, especially when it came to music. He was as keenly excited about new releases as he was about old favourites.

I met him at his home in Templeogue, south Dublin in the mid-2000s. He had agreed to sit down for a long interview for this newspaper, and the conversation flowed as effortlessly as one might expect from a veteran broadcaster famed for his genial demeanour.

When the interview had concluded, he brought me out to his garden shed to take a look at his music collection. CDs and vinyl covered every available space. Streaming music had hardly been thought of then, let alone invented. He joked about being like a kid in a toy shop, having so many aural treasures so close to hand. He sounded as enthused as a music-obsessed 19-year-old, not somebody half a century older.

I met him again in March of last year. This time the interview took place in the modest canteen at RTÉ's Radio Centre. He noted, with a grin, that he was part of the furniture there. He had just retired from 2fm, after almost 40 years at that station - which began life as Radio 2 in 1979 - and he was looking forward to a new role: presenting music shows on one of RTÉ's digital stations, Gold.

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"Your band became 'flesh' when Larry mentioned you. Prior to that you were just a rumour. Your aunts and uncles looked at you anew: 'So this, this band thing - it's a real thing, then'."

He was the other side of 80 - although he joked that he never liked to reveal his age. He said he enjoyed the newspapers' guessing games. He had suffered quite a lot of ill health, and although it had severely limited his movements, it was clear he wanted to keep broadcasting for as long as all his mental faculties were intact. And those faculties were still razor-sharp, especially when it came to his powers of recall.

So too was that sense of curiosity. He quizzed me on the new music I was listening to and the best gigs I'd seen in the preceding few months. He was fascinated by changes in the media and music industries, and confidently predicted that people would always be engaged by live radio.

'Curiosity' was a word that was used time and again this week in many of the tributes to the legendary broadcaster, who died in the early hours of Tuesday morning. By never allowing himself or his tastes to go stale, he remained forever young.

It was fascinating to note that his speaking voice sounded much the same towards the end of his life as it did at the beginning of a broadcasting career that spanned six decades. It remained lively and warm-hearted, the sound of someone who loved the business of sitting in front of a microphone and helping to make the listener's day that bit lighter.

And yet it never seemed to be about him. In a business where egos are in constant competition, Gogan had a rare sense of humility. He may have been regarded as a star by his listeners and colleagues, but he didn't see himself that way. Instead, he saw himself as someone with the great fortune to be able to do a job he loved, and to survive all the changes wrought by technology and personnel.

Revered by radio DJs

He was one of a tiny band of broadcasters whose popularity transcended generations. Tom Dunne, frontman of the band Something Happens, and a Newstalk presenter, spoke for many when he tweeted: "Your band became 'flesh' when Larry mentioned you. Prior to that you were just a rumour. Your aunts and uncles looked at you anew: 'So this, this band thing - it's a real thing, then'."

From left to right, RTE broadcasters Brendan Balfe, Larry Gogan and Mike Murphy during the recording of the radio quiz show 'Beat the Band' in March 1974.
From left to right, RTE broadcasters Brendan Balfe, Larry Gogan and Mike Murphy during the recording of the radio quiz show 'Beat the Band' in March 1974.

Gogan was revered by radio DJs who came after, including the most recent band who are not that much older now than he was when he made his RTÉ radio debut in 1961, aged 23. Many took to social media to lament his passing and to praise him for the path he paved. The word 'legend' was repeated over and over and, for once, it was entirely justified.

He spent most of the 1960s broadcasting from a studio in Henry Street in Dublin city centre. The move to Montrose would not come until the tail-end of that decade.

From the off, he was comfortable in a variety of light entertainment roles. But music was first and centre to everything he did. "The first song I ever played was by Johnny Tillotson," he told me last year. Like Gogan, Tillotson was born in 1938. He's still alive.

For much of the 1960s and 70s, Gogan had ploughed something of a lone furrow when it came to playing pop music on RTÉ. In hindsight, it seems extraordinary that the national broadcaster would neglect pop as much as it did in those decades.

As a result of RTÉ's apathy, pirate stations playing a diet of the hits of the day blossomed. And music-loving teens and twentysomethings migrated to the likes of Radio Caroline and the Dublin-based Big D in their droves. It was a haemorrhage of listeners that RTÉ spent years trying to recoup.

Gogan was already an industry veteran and household name when he helped launch RTÉ Radio 2 in 1979. The 'Comin'atcha' tagline has been indelibly etched in the minds of a certain generation. (It wouldn't be renamed 2FM until 1988 - the lower-case 2fm would come years later.)

The promotional photos from the time depict a smiling middle-aged man in a suit, surrounded by a selection of young turks - all men - sporting leather jackets and hairstyles that were all the rage in the late 70s. Most of his new colleagues had cut their teeth on the pirates, and some of them - notably Dave Fanning - had a gloriously rough-and-ready style of broadcasting that seemed a polar opposite to Gogan's polished delivery.

Despite the influx of bright young talent, it was Gogan who had the distinction of hosting the first show on the fledgling station. He would be ever-present for the next 40 years - a key member during 2FM's 1980s heyday when its galaxy of stars included Fanning, Tony Fenton and Gerry Ryan.

It was a wonderful time to be a broadcaster at RTÉ: the pirates were dying out, and the newly formed local radio stations needed years to bed in and build audiences.

Gogan was a champion of Irish music from the start. The first song he played on Radio 2 was the Boomtown Rats' 'Like Clockwork' and, four decades later, he signed off with U2's 'Where the Streets Have No Name'. The latter band's Joshua Tree was one of his favourite albums, and he was close to Larry Mullen. The drummer penned a sweet tribute to their friendship on learning of his death.

As the music promoter Leagues O'Toole noted, "Larry used to play cassette demos by underground Irish bands on daytime radio in the 90s when the so-called 'cool' DJs wouldn't touch them."

Unlike the carefully curated playlists that are so common in radio today, Gogan's only criterion was whether he like the song or not - a rule of thumb still shared by his close friend, Ronan Collins. The former Showband drummer presented an emotional show on Radio 1 on the day of Gogan's death, opening with 'Like Clockwork'.

An intriguing aspect of Gogan's taste in music was his lack of snobbishness. A Larry Gogan show might feature songs from Brendan Bowyer, Beyoncé and The Beatles. Weezer and Westlife might find themselves on the same playlist.

He never lost his love of pop music. And unlike many, his tastes weren't stuck in his sounds he loved in his youth. He moved with the times, while not forgetting the great songs of yesteryear.

"I've always loved pop music," he told me last year. "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" - his colleague Pat Kenny would soon trade pop for politics - "but I didn't. It was pop or nothing for me."

That love was fostered as a boy growing up on the northside of Dublin. He used to listen to American Forces Network (AFN) - many of his generation were first exposed to pop music thanks to it.

For many years, Gogan was the voice of the chart countdown, his upbeat style of presentation perfectly suited to the business of relaying what songs were 'hot' - and what had begun to wane. Today, the singles chart doesn't resonate with the public in the way it did then - but in the 80s the business of getting to number one was still a big deal.

Just a Minute Quiz

His name, too, will forever be synonymous with the 'Just a Minute Quiz', which has become something of an Irish treasure thanks to the unintentionally hilarious answers contestants gave. "Where is the Taj Mahal?" "Beside the Dental Hospital" (in deference to an Indian restaurant of that name). "Name a bird with a long neck?" "Naomi Campbell".

"I think people responded to the quiz so favourably because it was just pure fun," he told me. "And if they grow to like something and it lasts long enough, it becomes bigger than it is."

He became celebrated for the kind way he would engage with his callers. "The questions didn't suit you," was a typical refrain.

"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."

Perhaps it was that realisation that made Gogan such a brilliant broadcaster. He didn't see his role as a DJ as an opportunity to 'show-boat', but rather as a conduit to share music, chat and entertainment with the listener.

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 wife Florrie - who died in 2002 - was against the notion of upping sticks 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."

He said he had no regrets about staying with RTÉ - despite the bigger salary he might have commanded elsewhere. His passion for broadcasting comfortably eclipsed any passion for monetising his brand.

That's not to say he didn't make money outside of RTÉ - during the 'Beat on the Street' years of the late 80s, the likes of Gogan, Fenton and Ian Dempsey were in demand for everything from nightclub openings to voiceovers for commercials.

Ultimately, though, Gogan had the good fortune to realise that he was lucky to be getting paid to do something he loved. Even after 58 years speaking to the nation, he had no thoughts for retirement.

After last March's interview ended, I walked him back to the busy open-plan office in Radio Centre. He moved slowly, pushing a wheelie-walker. He was delighted that even though he had officially left 2fm, he still could use his old desk. All of his colleagues were under half his age, many of them young enough to be his grandchildren.

Later, one of them - who had seen me with Gogan - texted me to say that one of the great pleasures of his job was to have him as a colleague.

"I still have to pinch myself that Larry sits a few feet away from me every day," he wrote. "He's just one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, but one of the most extraordinary broadcasters this country has ever produced. And, do you know what? He's still really brilliant at it."

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