Brendan Balfe has been a regular presence on Irish radio since 1964. Along with the likes of Gay Byrne, Mike Murphy, Larry Gogan, Morgan O'Sullivan, Tommy O'Brien, Ken Stewart, Jim Norton, Micháel O'Hehir and Phillip Greene, his delivery is one I can clearly recall from my youth.
Many readers may not be familiar with some of the names mentioned above, but they were to the forefront of broadcasting on RTÉ Radio during the 1970s and early 1980s. Obviously Gaybo (jazz programme on Lyric FM) Larry Gogan and Brendan Balfe are still doing their thing, and the latter has now published his memoirs – a chronicle of events that bear testament to a love affair with the 'wireless'.
In describing Balfe's broadcasting style, 'laconic, mid-Atlantic and somewhat studied', readily come to mind about the man who made his debut on the airwaves at the age of 18.
No doubt influenced by what he was hearing on Radio Eireann, BBC Light programmes and Radio Luxembourg, together with his stint as a DJ in the 'Barn', a popular meeting place for the youth of south Dublin in the early 1960s, young Balfe wrote a letter to the then Head of Music in Radio Eireann demanding a place amongst the then broadcasting elite in Ireland.
Call it cheekiness, brass neck, or supreme confidence, the tactic worked and the Kilmacud native was to be the youngest ever announcer on Irish radio.
And so began a career that took Balfe from the GPO to Montrose with stops along the way at the BBC, not to mention other sidelines in writing comedy revue, stand up shows and teaching what he has learned in the business to the next generation of broadcasters.
'Radio Man' is, at times, a witty and informative account of this journey – a part history lesson of Irish broadcasting, recalling those who sailed the broadcasting ship with Balfe in the 1960s - while also giving expression to the endless creative possibilities that evolve from radio and the author's eagerness to explore this magical world of sound.
It all began in the GPO, where radio in Ireland had its home before the move to the underground bunker in Donnybrook. The move was finally completed in November 1976. Balfe clearly recalls his training to be an announcer, those whom he trained with and his supervisor – one Terry Wogan.
On Balfe's first day as a station announcer, while broadcasting to the nation, Mr Wogan saw fit to pour a glass of water over his unsuspecting pupil. Apparently such high jinx was the initiation into the Henry Street family of Radio Eireann broadcasters. Balfe was later to become a full time member of staff and so left his other 'career' in insurance. Both Gay Byrne and Eamonn Andrews also worked in insurance before going 'full-time'.
Colleagues of Balfe in Henry Street included Mike Murphy, Maurice O'Doherty, Jimmy Magee, John Skehan, Lorna Madigan and Una Sheehy. Indeed Mike Murphy and Balfe struck up a friendship straight away. As two up-and-coming broadcasters, they would regularly gatecrash a number of receptions around the city – inflating their own importance while tasting the various alcoholic beverages on offer.
The memoir is full of many funny incidents and interesting titbits of information. Did you know that Jimmy Magee presented the pop chart countdown on Irish radio?
Balfe recalls one evening in 1968, when as station announcer, he was ready to introduce the Céilí House programme. The show was coming live from the O'Connell Hall (opposite the Gresham Hotel). A rather distressed call came through from the Céilí House producer just before they were about to go to air. They had no presenter. So the young announcer decided that he would do it himself. All he wanted was the name of each piece of music the band was due to play and the entire programme could be presented from Henry Street. However, no running order was compiled. What happened, you may ask?
Well, Balfe introduced the programme from the GPO and the Céilí band started to play. He then legged it out of the studio, down the long corridor, into the lift and out of the building onto Henry Street. He then turned left up O'Connell Street and headed straight for the O'Connell Hall to where the programme was being broadcast. He got the attention of the conductor and whispered in his air: "What's the name of the next piece of music?". The information was readily forthcoming and so Balfe could inform the listening public what musical treats were being played.
This process continued until the introduction of the final piece at which point Balfe darted out of the O'Connell Hall, up O'Connell Street, turned right at Henry Street, into the lift, down the long corridor and back in the studio to where he announced "That was Céilí House. The time is now 11.00 o'clock and over to the newsroom." Talk about cutting it fine!
Other incidents involved a presenter who regularly would fall asleep during broadcasts. The poor man suffered from narcolepsy. Then there was the time a mouse ran across the control desk before a terrified Lorna Madigan, while Balfe himself goes into some detail about the 12 hours he spent on air on the day of Robert Kennedy's funeral.
Maurice O'Doherty, who would later go on to become a newsreader on television, had a very distinctive voice. It was ripe for mimicry. On one occasion, it was decided to have a Maurice O'Doherty Impression competition. Balfe and others took part. Eventually O'Doherty was forced up on stage. At the end of the night, O'Doherty himself finished third.
The memoir goes into some detail about the many sponsored programmes on Radio Eireann (it changed to RTÉ Radio in 1966), of which Balfe presented his fair share, to the various pop music programmes he also held court over.
1979 saw the birth of Radio 2, now 2FM. Along with Larry Gogan and Pat Kenny, Balfe represented the case of those young presenters (Dave Fanning, Gerry Ryan, Ronan Collins etc) who were about to make their debut on the new station.
It was felt by others within RTÉ that existing staff should have first call over these DJ positions. A stand-off of sorts resulted of which the memoir gives an account of both sides of the argument. Incidentally, Balfe was the first voice to be heard on Radio 2 and not Larry Gogan, as many people believe it was.
The author also recalls the many radio interviews he has conducted over the years with the likes of Ted Kennedy, Tipp O'Neill, Peggy Lee and Bob Newhart. His work as a comedy scriptwriter and collaborating with the likes of Frank Kelly, Rosaleen Linehan, Des Keogh, Twink, Jonathon Ryan and John McColgan also comes under the microscope. A good time seemed to be had by all!
Indeed, you get the impression from reading this recollection that Balfe has had a good time broadcasting to the nation, while also coming up with interesting and clever ways to celebrate important historical milestones like the dawning of the new millennium.
For details of Brendan Balfe's podcasts click here.