Sunday 8 December 2019

Tony Fenton's last interview: Cancer 'doesn't define me, or stop me from wanting to broadcast'

Tony Fenton at work in Today FM
Tony Fenton at work in Today FM
Deirdre Reynolds has lunch with Tony Fenton
Tony Fenton is inducted into the PPI Radio Awards Hall of Fame
The 2014 Hall of Fame inductees are pictured here, from left, Aine Lawlor, RTE Radio , Walter Love, BBC Radio Ulster, Paul Claffey, Mid West Radio, and Tony Fenton Today FM. Picture credit: Iain White
Tony Fenton

Deirdre Reynolds

After 40 years Tony Fenton has been inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. He tells Deirdre Reynolds of his likes and dislikes and gives his views on Bono bashers.

It's not yet known how many of Apple's 500 million iTunes users visited a web page to remove U2's latest album from their computers and phones, but it's safe to say that Tony Fenton wasn't one of them.

Since Songs of Innocence pinged into music libraries around the world in an unprecedented US$100 million deal between the tech giant and the band, just like the other 26 million fans who downloaded the album for free, the Today FM DJ says he's had it on loop at home.

But he wasn't a bit surprised by the Bono-bashing that led to the company releasing the removal tool in the first place.

Deirdre Reynolds has lunch with Tony Fenton
Deirdre Reynolds has lunch with Tony Fenton

"Unfortunately in Ireland, every time U2 bring out a record, they get a bit of a backlash," reckons the veteran broadcaster.

"When Daft Punk released their last album, there was only one [good] song on it - 'Get Lucky' - and they didn't get a backlash.

"U2 has at least half a dozen great songs on this record, and they're still getting lashed out of it.

"It's so easy to go down that road," he adds, "but I love this record. I think it's very personal, and Bono's voice is getting better with age."

Tony Fenton is inducted into the PPI Radio Awards Hall of Fame
Tony Fenton is inducted into the PPI Radio Awards Hall of Fame

Professionally speaking, improving with age is something that Fenton knows all about. The 53-year-old was recently inducted into the PPI Radio Awards Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Gay Byrne, Marian Finucane and Larry Gogan.

"There's only about a dozen people on the wall, so it's nice to be one of them," says Tony, who grew up in Glasnevin before migrating to the southside, where he now lives in Stillorgan.

"Most of the people up there would be older than me. I'm probably one of the youngest - I'm quite happy with that!"

Ordinarily on weekdays, Tony can be heard holding court on 100-102 FM from 2.30pm to 4.30pm.

Right now, Louise Duffy is keeping his seat warm as he undergoes treatment for the recurrent cancer he's been battling on and off since 2011, so he's in no rush back to Marconi House as we catch up over a two-course lunch at The Dylan Hotel in Ballsbridge.

"Broadcasting was always what I wanted to do," recalls Tony, as the waiter places two steaming bowls of soup in front of us.

"When I was 15 or 16, after I did the Inter [Junior] Cert, I came home, put the bag under the stairs and said to my mother, 'That's it - I'm not going back. I know what I want to do'.

"At that stage, I had started a mobile disco with [former 2fm DJ turned pilot] Barry Lang and [fellow Today FM DJ] Ian Dempsey," he continues.

"During the day, I was working as an apprentice carpenter with my dad. Then, in the evenings and [at] weekends, we packed the lights and everything onto the roof rack of the car, and did 21st and 18th birthday parties around Dublin."

At just 17, Anthony Fagan - as he was known to his parents - got his big break at pirate station Alternative Radio Dublin (ARD).

Quite literally, in fact, jokes Tony: "I went for an audition in ARD in 1978 where you had to bring three records with you, and introduce the records.

"Going in, I was completely confident, but as soon as they said, 'OK, you're on after this song', the nerves kicked in.

"My hands were shaking so badly that I broke the [turntable] needle. Then I broke the spare needle as well! Of course, I never got the job."

Eventually, after knocking on the door of the radio station "every Wednesday, half-day from school", opportunity knocked right back for the young Fenton.

Tony Fenton
Tony Fenton

"Ian Dempsey was working there before I was," says Tony. "He was on air one Saturday evening, and the next presenter didn't turn up.

"I went on and did a three-hour show and I got the job. That was 1978, and I've been on air ever since."

"When we started, we weren't in it for any money," he adds. "In fact, in ARD, I think we got 10 quid a show.

"You got it in a cheque on a Friday. If you were first round the pub, you got your cheque cashed, if you were seventh or eighth, there was no way you got it cashed - so Ian and I were always the first around at lunchtime!"

As he rose through the ranks of Irish radio, stints at "super pirates" Sunshine Radio and Radio Nova followed.

But it was his tenure at RTÉ 2fm, where he became known for The Hotline, that turned Fenton into a household name.

So when he defected to commercial station Today FM after almost two decades at the state broadcaster, it caused shock across the airwaves.

"All the fun had gone out of it," explains Tony simply. "Towards my latter years there, I didn't listen to a lot of the programmes - I just didn't think they were good enough.

"Letting Ian (Dempsey) go to Today FM was a big indicator for me that they were letting the best guys go.

"It's like a great football team," he synopsises. "When you start selling your best football players, you know the game is up. One of the things that really stuck out when I joined Today FM was that everybody was working. There's a great bunch of people there all working hard. Nobody's hiding - a lot of people are hiding in 2fm."

Suffice to say, he's ruled out a return to Montrose, or 2fm at least, and pulls no punches when he says: "I think it's dead - that station is gone. Ryan Tubridy needs to go back to RTÉ Radio 1 to save his career.

"It's not on my radar anymore. I could tell you that Ryan Tubridy is on, but I couldn't name anybody else, and that's bad."

Tony Fenton at work in Today FM
Tony Fenton at work in Today FM

Neither has he any plans to hang up his headphones for good, despite undergoing gruelling chemotherapy for the third time in as many years.

"You never relax on it," admits Tony, who was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011 before the disease later spread to other parts of his body.

"When the treatment stops and they go, 'It's all very good', you go, 'OK, I don't have to go in for a while'. But it's always in the back of your mind that it could come back.

"It's five or six months now with this (diagnosis)," he tells. "When I come out (from treatment) I'm wrecked, just going from the bed to the couch, constantly sleeping.

"I didn't want to go back on [air] and then be on for three weeks and then off for a week, so I decided to take four or five months off and just get better.

"I've been in and out to the station a couple of times and they're great in there. When it's over, I just go back on."

Although he doesn't want to become better known as "the DJ with cancer", Tony - who also lost his mother to the disease in 2011 - agrees it's good to talk: "My mother didn't tell us that she had breast cancer. Instead she did the ostrich on it, and buried her head in the sand.

"I can't really blame her because it's easy to do that. But if she had just said, 'OK, I've got a lump on my breast', and dealt with it really quickly, she'd still be alive today."

"When you're told [you've got cancer], it's just a white noise," he adds. "[The doctor] is sitting opposite you and his lips are moving, but you're not taking anything in.

"It's very difficult when you're diagnosed to let somebody know - I don't know if it's a pride thing, or something kicks in and you want to keep it a secret. Once you talk to a friend or family member, it's all lifted from your shoulders.

"Look, these things happen," accepts Tony. "It doesn't define me, or stop me from wanting to broadcast. It's just a challenge that I've got to deal with, and that's what I'm trying to do."

Three years after the DJ went bankrupt when a string of property investments went belly up, Fenton admits it's also helped him appreciate the important things in life: "Your health is your wealth, it really is. You learn to appreciate everything much more.

"As long as I've got a place to live in and a job, I'm happy out," he says, adding: "We won't be dabbling in real estate again because it could happen so easily again."

For now, the radio icon seems happy to just chill out at home with his lifelong collection of vinyl for company: "Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison - that'd be the stuff I listen to. There's a great sound out of those.

"When you put the needle on the record, there's a warmth. I do miss that, but you've got to move on."

Almost four decades after fluffing his first audition however, Tony confesses he's glad there's no needle to snap anymore.

"Two or three minutes before going on air, I still get a little 30 seconds of nerves," he laughs. "If you don't get that, you've lost the love of it."

Irish Independent

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