Wednesday 22 January 2020

Gerard O'Regan: 'Marian and Gay's excellence was driven by the need to stay ahead of the posse'

Marian Finucane. Photo: Margaret Moore/ Photogenic/Dalkey
Marian Finucane. Photo: Margaret Moore/ Photogenic/Dalkey

Gerard O'Regan

Marian Finucane became ever more cautious in the increasingly rare interviews she granted as the years drifted by.

But there was one throwaway comment which provided the key to her life as a broadcaster. Like many in the media world, she confessed to a kind of low-level terror when the latest listenership figures were about to be released.

"The Leaving Cert was only once in your life - this thing happens four times every year," she said. She knew her audience had the power to make or break her career.

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Many of those who lavished praise on somebody - whose great talent was making the difficult seem easy - missed out on the primary focus of her professional life. She just wanted to stay ahead of the posse.

Suggestions she was on some kind of all-consuming mission to change attitudes on issues such as women's rights, contraception, divorce and abortion are mistaken.

Just like Gay Byrne, her main motivation as a freelance operator on a renewable contract was hanging on to her job.

Like him, she was top of the pile for a long, long time.

They kept their competitors within RTÉ - ever anxious to replace them in the prime-time slots - at bay.

In more recent years, a new challenge emerged as private sector radio and television became more competitive. But Gaybo and Marian saw them all off.

Ever audience-fixated, they remained focused on the most contentious issues of the day. This made for high-octane and relevant programmes.

There was a time when well-orchestrated, emotionally-charged rows and debates about issues such as contraception or divorce were certain to secure high ratings. The country at large was as divided as the protagonists in the studio.

The reality is that in the area of social behaviour and sexual morality, Ireland was in a kind of ferment for a few decades.

Behavioural change would have come about regardless of the centrality it received in the media.

Along the way, radio and television inevitably became prime outlets for all sides clamouring to have their voices heard.

This was all the more so when RTÉ was the monopoly broadcaster.

Programmes like Gay Byrne's 'Late Late' and Marian Finucane's 'Women Today' became all-powerful. They reflected the attitudes and angst of their audience. No more, no less.

The passing of these two stalwarts of the airwaves is a reminder of an era when things were so much different for those who plied their trade on radio or television.

It was much easier back then. For one thing, RTÉ had no direct competition. Now independent stations, both national and local, are viciously fighting for audience share. But the biggest challenge of all comes from the internet and the online world in all its guises.

It is to the credit of Marian Finucane that she rode the winds of change, holding her place on the front line as her seventieth birthday hovered. But the pressure was unrelenting.

While still queen of the weekend airwaves, listenership figures were under attack on various fronts. Newstalk recently launched a Sunday morning offering, with her show clearly in its sights.

It may be that RTÉ will now look at a revamp of the programme. One problem is the choice of guests who all too often come across as self-regarding and priggish.

However, the search for those with something really new to say is not an easy one.

The passing of Larry Gogan added to the feeling that an era has ended. There was a time when Gaybo, Marian and Larry were a kind of heartbeat for much of what was new, young and possible.

Marian Finucane was blessed with a voice ideally suited to confessional radio - the genre where she made her mark.

Back in the day when she was supposed to be changing the world, she was simply enjoying the buzz.

"We were nearly permanently on a high," she recalled.

"The more trouble we got into, the more fun we had."

That's the way it was. That's the way it should have been.

Irish Independent

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