Entertainment Radio

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Lambo Days: remembering the original shock jock

Graphic narrative: Gerry Ryan. Photo: Mark Condren
Graphic narrative: Gerry Ryan. Photo: Mark Condren

Damian Corless

'If there's any blood coming out of that lamb I'd advise you to drink it." With those words, 30 years ago, an obscure nightshift DJ became Public Enemy Number One and set out on a path that would change the landscape of Irish broadcasting. His name was Gerry Ryan.

It was the early summer of 1987, and Ryan's ability to spin a yarn had landed him the lead role in a real-life radio soap. The makers of Gay Byrne's flagship show had decided it would be a neat idea to abandon a bunch of city slickers in a remote Connemara valley with just an SAS survival manual for guidance. The nation listened in rapt attention as a sorry tale of deprivation and bickering unravelled in daily episodes.

The SAS manual presented them with visions of trout and rabbit crackling over open fires, but the wildlife proved infuriatingly stand-offish. The fishing tackle snagged terminally on Day One, and the only things biting were midges. Day by day the listeners heard tales of growing woes, of fern stew gulped down with minnows and breakfasts of black slugs.

And then midway through the ordeal came news, finally, of a square meal. As told by Gerry Ryan, the group had separated a lamb from its mother, clubbed it by swinging a rock in a sock, and slit its throat. Ryan's graphic narrative stirred up public outrage, and the group's one good meal of the week would keep repeating on them.

There were furious exchanges in the Dáil. Dublin Deputy Tony Gregory demanded answers from the Department of Justice. Following inquiries, the Minister was able to assure the public that reports of the late lamb's death had been greatly exaggerated by Ryan. In fact, the famished group had asked a farming woman if they could have one of her lambs. Her husband had dispatched it and she'd butchered it into a convenience meal. Rather than calming the situation, the Minister's revelation provoked further fury. Montrose rushed out a bland statement regretting the "confusion" that had arisen due to the conflicting versions of the slaughter.

But no sooner was that statement issued than RTÉ's news arm sought to nail their colleagues without fear or favour. A news crew interviewed the farmer who confirmed the Minister's version of events. One unnamed member of the survivalists bizarrely argued that while the farmer's account was true, Ryan's story that shocked the nation wasn't necessarily untrue.

Unlike the unfortunate lamb, the "Lambo" crisis now had a life force of its own. A filmed attempt by the Newsnight current affairs show to corner Ryan was axed from the finished programme. Lambo fever swept through the letters pages of the national newspapers, becoming a rallying point for all-comers.

For some, the fuss proved that Tony Gregory was a malcontent, "wasting Dáil time and the time of the gardaí".

For others, it underlined the need for the Department of Health "to publicise the proven fact that meat eaters die younger than vegetarians". Meanwhile the Kilkenny branch of the Irish Council Against Bloodsports claimed Ryan's account was an incitement to crime.

But the sacrificial lamb died for a greater good. Gerry Ryan's bloodthirsty piece of theatre was the making of him. Now a national figure, he was transplanted to the morning slot on a desperately ailing 2FM and he was the salvation of the station. Launched in 1979, the station was a disaster for most of the 1980s, languishing in the doldrums with a dire shortage of listeners and advertising revenue. Ryan was transplanted to a morning slot with the simple brief to banter with the listeners. His knockabout show was fresh and new and it worked the miracle the station desperately needed, bringing legions of new listeners, especially in Dublin, to a station which had been widely ignored since its inception.

As his listener base grew, so did his ambition to push the boundaries of acceptable subject matter, and smut became a growing part of his repertoire. Irish broadcasting for decades had been tame and polite, and not everyone was pleased with where Ryan was taking it. One critic called him "a naughty schoolboy giggling at prurient jokes behind the school bicycle shed". An RTÉ insider dismayed by 2FM's makeover complained bitterly: "The lunatics have taken over the asylum."

The listening public disagreed in vast numbers, but while Gerry Ryan changed Irish broadcasting in many ways for the better, he also paved the way for the shock-jockery that coarsened Irish radio in his wake. I speak from experience. The low point of a long media career that's not short of low points, was taking a job on a late night phone-in show in London.

My title was 'producer', but the shock-jock wanted a dogsbody. My very first task was: "Go to the newsagent, buy a bundle of teen mags like Seventeen and Patches, and cut out the problem pages." An hour before the show went on air, a sidekick with a clipboard would start ringing around 'callers' feeding them the magazine problems to present as their own. On my fourth day I quit.

That was 25 years ago in Swinging London. And sadly, Ireland wasn't long catching up in dumbing down.

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