Ronan Collins on 40 years with RTÉ: 'It's all about the music, I listen to the listeners, not radio doctors'
Ronan Collins marks 40 years with RTE -and a whole lifetime in showbusiness, writes Liam Collins
'My dad was a retired army officer and he never got it," says Ronan Collins somewhat wistfully. "But that never stopped me."
What his father didn't get was his son, who this week celebrates 40 years with RTE, never having a steady job and staying out late in clubs playing records.
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"I wasn't a scholar, I wasn't diligent and I never had any intention of going to college," he says, over a chicken sandwich in the Punch Bowl pub near Montrose. "I was never in anything other than showbusiness, that's all I ever wanted to be. For me it was never about the big time, I just enjoyed doing what I did."
His brothers and sisters went to work in the bank but he never had any intention of doing that. Just out of school, he was a DJ in nightclubs like Sloopy's and Zhivago's and afterwards going to late-night haunts like The Gigs Place in South Richmond Street or The Manhattan around the corner, to talk to other musicians and performers.
"Really I was innocent enough, I enjoyed being a DJ and drumming and singing. I remember making £45 or £50 a night, which was a lot of money at the time and the worst thing I ever did was I smoked cigarettes."
At a private party one night, a southside band called The Others asked him to sit in on drums because their regular guy was sick. "I stayed with them for the next four and a half years. It was magic - not only was I in a band but they were good and I was working with Michael Carwood, who became a great friend and brought me into golf."
Collins had one great advantage: he didn't drink. "I just never bothered, that's the end of it." So he never minded driving across town from his home on the northside to play with the southside-based band.
"I knew Dickie Rock from being around and he once said to me, if you ever need a job 'give me a shout'. I was fascinated by the showband life and I wanted to get it out of my system, so I joined him.
"We travelled five or six nights a week, up and down the country. Dickie is a great performer, but the travelling, getting to bed at 8am and going off again at 4pm, was tough going. I was lucky, it wasn't a drinking band, but Dickie worked very hard and he was a very demanding guy to have out front," he says.
By now he was married to Woody and chance intervened again when he was in RTE, filming a three-part series with Dickie Rock, and saw an advertisement for presenters for Radio 2, which was launched on May 31, 1979, to counter the flood of young listeners tuning in to Radio Caroline and the pirates like Alternative Radio Dublin (ARD), where Collins worked part-time as a DJ when he wasn't on the road.
"I strolled over to the radio centre during a break and asked if I could do an audition. I was told to write or phone and, as I was walking out, this guy who was at reception asked if I could do one the following afternoon - it turned out to be Louis Hogan, who was in charge of planning the new station with Bill O'Donovan and Billy Wall."
After three interviews he was told, as there was a postal strike, he would get a phone call the following Saturday morning as to whether he got the job or not.
"At the time it took about three years to get a phone, so I gave my mother's number. We waited there all morning and about 12.30pm we were just about to leave thinking it wasn't happening when the phone rang and I was offered the job. Billy Wall asked me what name I wanted to use, I said 'Ronan Collins, that's my name'."
He says station bosses had no idea what they wanted Radio 2 to be.
"I kept the head down and played hits and requests," he says. "The great plus for me was that I had spent four years travelling around Ireland, there wasn't a village or town I hadn't played or passed through. A lot of the others were from Dublin and had never been past the Red Cow, so even then I nurtured that 'outside' Dublin thing."
In 1985, out of the blue, he was asked to move to Radio 1. He later heard that Gay Byrne was threatening to go to the US and Mike Murphy "had turned arty", so the station needed someone with a light touch.
He eventually moved to his present gig, The Ronan Collins Show, from 12-1pm five days a week. "It's very cost-effective, I'm the DJ, the researcher and the producer - what's wrong with being popular and cheap?" he asks.
"I was asked about my playlist, but I told them I just played what listeners suggested, I don't play everything, but I send them in a direction, it is always about the music. The main thing is that it is good and somebody out there likes it," he says. "I listen to the listeners, not radio doctors.
"I have come up against opposition because of that, but I stood my ground, my name is over the shop and it continues to work. They used to go ballistic about the age things, requests for someone who is 89 or a couple who are 65 years' married, but I tell them 'who do you think sends in the requests, it's their sons and daughters and grandchildren. So there are younger people listening."
He drives a 100-miles-a-day round-trip from his home "beyond Navan" to Montrose for his daily slot and he also does the Showband Show and a Joe Dolan show, playing everywhere from the National Concert Hall and the Cork Opera House to community centres.
He is fully fit again after a having a cyst on his spine that landed him in hospital. He featured in the RTE documentary Trauma which co-incidentally was being made in Beaumont Hospital at the time. "I genuinely didn't think I was going to walk again and I didn't want to do the programme, I wanted it all kept quiet," he says, "but I was persuaded by the surgeon and I had total control of it and now I'm glad I did it."
In July, when Miriam O'Callaghan replaces Sean O'Rourke for eight weeks in the RTE morning schedule, Collins is taking over her slot on Sunday mornings with the Collins Collection, in which he interviews musicians and singers such as Johnny Logan, Chris de Burgh, Elaine Page, Colm Wilkinson, Paul Brady and others.
"I know them and I know about them, so it will be chat and music and we'll be talking about everything," he says. "I love music performers and songwriters. Some of them happen to be famous, but they are great people underneath that."
Born in 1952, he now has the bus pass, but has yet to use it. How does he feel staying on in RTE as others are reluctantly being shown the door at retirement age of 65?
"I do feel sorry for them," he says choosing his words carefully, "but I took that chance as a freelancer. I was never offered a staff job and if I was, I probably wouldn't have taken it. I am in showbusiness."
So what happens when his own time comes? "I would like to think that with 40 years of experience and 40 years doing the job, whatever changes they make in what I do will be done in consultation with me, not somebody telling me 'this is what we are doing, or not doing'," he says frankly.
Ronan Collins is as uncomplicated as he sounds on the radio but somewhere in the back of his mind you feel he still wishes his dad "got" what became a very successful career - even if it was in showbusiness.