Tuesday 16 July 2019

The legacy of the late Gerry Ryan: 'A titan of broadcasting who remains irreplaceable'

Electric Personality: RTE radio broadcaster, the late Gerry Ryan, was hugely popular with listeners. Photo: Mark Condren
Electric Personality: RTE radio broadcaster, the late Gerry Ryan, was hugely popular with listeners. Photo: Mark Condren
Gerry at the launch of an RTE charity event with Gay Byrne and Ryan Tubridy. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Gerry Ryan, TV presenter and radio DJ
RTÉ broadcaster Gerry Ryan in 1979. Photo courtesy of RTÉ stills library.
Gerry presented the popular School Around the Corner on RTE for many years.
2fm DJs DJs, including Larry Gogan, Marty Whelan (centre) and Gerry Ryan (overcoat) pose with cars, in a shot taken for the RTE Guide in 1982
Gerry Ryan and Marco Pierre White on the set of Ryan Confidential 2008
Gerry Ryan chatting with Tommy Tiernan when he presented The Late Late Show the year before he died.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Gerry Ryan died on this day five years ago, and the memory of hearing that news is still vivid. I was sub-editing in a newsroom at the time and the most common reaction was one of shock and incredulity: people honestly couldn’t believe that this titan of broadcasting was dead, and at such a young age (53).

Straight away, there was the sense that something momentous had just taken place in Irish radio; that something hugely significant was now gone. Ryan was, and remains, more-or-less irreplaceable.

His JNLR figures at the time of his death were scarcely credible: regularly tipping north of 300,000, which in a country of some four million people is truly amazing. His was the hottest ticket on Irish radio, drawing the highest advertising revenue and very often setting the nation’s agenda in a way that couldn’t be matched by more “serious” shows.

Since Ryan died, 2FM has suffered pretty badly. Starting with a very basic observation, listenership numbers for that mid-morning slot have hemorrhaged under his replacement, Ryan Tubridy, dwindling to almost half their peak (although January’s JNLR showed a slight rise once more).

More broadly, Gerry Ryan’s absence means 2FM has even less reason to exist than it already did. There’s no good argument for a public/state funded pop music station, particularly when the schedules are groaning with other, commercial pop stations.

Ryan’s show, at least, offered something you genuinely couldn’t get anywhere else: himself. That larger-than-life personality, the seemingly effortless mixture of sensitivity and laddishness, the iconic status of both man and programme, and especially, the fact that he had grown this enormous audience, essentially bringing them with him from the early 2FM gig as a late-night DJ.

Huge numbers of people liked Gerry Ryan, and those who didn’t would often tune in anyway, because he was compelling and authentic and annoying and clever and you never knew what was coming next. People cared about that show and felt engaged with him, as they had been since the 1980s. Everything airing on 2FM in the interim has been but an anaemic ghost of the real thing.

In fact the entire radio landscape is a poorer place now: more colourless, dreary, safe and boring. There are many fine broadcasters in Ireland but none quite like Ryan. Whether you loved or hated his show, you couldn’t ignore it; it’s hard to say that about anything going out in 2015.

2FM, clearly, haven’t stumbled upon the new Gerry Ryan over the last five years, but neither has anyone else. I suppose that’s the point, and that was the genius of the man: he wasn’t something you could concoct in a lab or assemble by committee. Indeed if Ryan was applying for a gig with any Irish station today, as a young unknown, he’d probably be turned down.

You can just imagine the mandarins’ report: “Too mouthy, too cocksure, too complex…and that Dublin drawl, ugh. He should choose whether he wants to be smart-assed or serious – can’t do both, sorry – and cultivate one of those mid-Atlantic ‘media’ accents everyone has to use nowadays.”

It’s a shame that popular, and populist, Irish radio has languished like this, become so pale and washed-out. But not as much of a shame as Gerry Ryan’s premature passing in the first place.

'It's sad, there's no two ways about it' - Ryan Tubridy remembers friend Gerry Ryan on 5th anniversary of his death 

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