Golden oldie

Tim Smyth had a few words with one of the most enduring voices in Irish broadcasting – the inimitable Larry Gogan

Tim Smyth had a few words with one of the most enduring voices in Irish broadcasting – the inimitable Larry Gogan

Ah, Larry Gogan. National treasure, cultural institution, all-round decent bloke; his is a voice that even your granny has childhood memories about. For my part, whenever I hear those bouncy tones I’m transported back to a world of Weetabix and Lego models built on the carpet, where my Mammy still makes me lunch and – There’s a sound of static, a muffled tut and then: “Hello?” More static. “Oh for…Hold on; this bloody mobile…Here, ring us back on the landline, would you?” And so I come back to earth, saddened by the knowledge that he, too, is human. Ah well. Funny what you’ll find out about radio presenters, as you’ll discover… “Ah, I don’t like the word presenter – I always say I’m a DJ; it keeps up the illusion that there’s some kind of work involved.”

Yessir. “And how is work going?” “Yeah, fine. I’m just back home in Templeogue – was out in RTÉ doing the recording for the digital streaming of The Golden Hour. It’s grand. That’s probably the biggest technical change of the last few years. Actually, now that I think of it all the changes have actually been technical. I mean it’s a far cry from the days where you’d have four people manning the record machine just so you could play the songs. That was more fun and I suppose more natural, but it was also bloody chaotic! Now you don’t have a live audience to worry about, you’re in the room on your own spouting away and the only one outside’s the phone-manager.

“Nothing new really discommodes me – I’ve been here ages, so I’ve seen loads of changes come and go. We were always taught just pretend you’re talking to someone in the room with you, and when you hold onto that you can get past the idea that there’s not the live audience listening to you. The only thing I really miss is that now the whole thing’s gone digital. You used to have the 45 rpm LPs and you got to drop the needle on and then watch it come back around to the dot. There was something sacred about them you don’t even get with CDs or tapes – they used to put so much effort into the sleeves and everything. I suppose I miss that hands-on quality about the work, but not much else.” It has really been a life in radio for the Fairview man, who started into Radio 1 straight after school in 1961. Since then, he’s been a staple of the Irish radio.

“The scary thing is how quickly the time’s gone by. I’ve been doing this for forty-seven years. Luckily enough I’ve never had to do anything else, and also that I’ve never been anything other than freelance; RTÉ just put me on contracts. The job’s a bit like being an actor in some respects because you’re always worried about being out of work. That was especially the case back then when you had only one station and the majority of programmes were sponsored. There were about 60 of those, and Bird’s Custard or their likes would have you on for a while. Then, if your ratings dropped, so were you.

“You’d do advertising voiceovers as well, which were grand, but there again you had the problem of competition. I mean there was so much talent going for so few places. It’s that kind of thing I don’t really miss. They used to have us on such short-term contracts – they’d be weekly to begin with, which was just so much trouble. You’d have pounds of paper coming through the post every week, and it was just so inconvenient. After that they saw sense…I’m on a three-year job now.

“Really I’ve been lucky all the way, even when you look at how I got into this job in the first place. I was a boy actor – which is how the showbiz bug worked its way into me – but the family also had a newsagent’s in Fairview. There was a woman used to come in called Maura Fox, who was a producer for RTÉ, and I used to pester her unmercifully for an audition. Eventually I got one and it just went from there. Again, there’s a lot of luck comes into it. I know people who’ve gone in as post-boys on work experience from school and have grafted their way up. Others have to jam their foot in the door. But I just happened to meet a producer.”

The first DJ to play a record on 2fm, you could also call him something of a folklorist given some of the slip-ups people have made on the infamous “Just a Minute Quiz”.

“Yeah, they’re always hilarious…People saying the Great Wall of China’s in Crumlin because it’s a takeaway out there or whatever.

The best one was when someone got eighteen questions wrong in a row. Sometimes you don’t really know how to deal with them, but that’s part of the fun.”

He’s about as much an institution as the station itself, who have even named a studio after him (“This worries me a little, because usually they leave it until after you’re dead.”). By the sounds of it, he’ll be there as long as the building will. “Oh, I’ve definitely no plans to retire. I mean I’m not mad into sport or anything – even my pastimes centre around music to be honest. Now that I’m on my own, apart from meals and pints with the lads, I tend to just wallow in music. So I’ll keep going as long as I’m allowed! The first DJ Christopher Stone (the dinner-jacket wearing BBC pundit) didn’t stop until he was 82, and John Peel went out with his boots on. “Funnily enough I actually met John Peel once,” He clears his throat, “At the Eurovision, actually, now that I think of it…”

Right. So. As well as hardcore Belgian trance and the sort of guitar-noises that would frighten even Sonic Youth, John Peel was a closet fan of the Eurovision?

“Ah, he made no secret about it. I was there in Copenhagen the year I met him, doing the radio coverage for RTÉ. Terry Wogan was in the box next to me – that was always great; he’d shout across “Just slag them off, Larry!” by way of advice – and afterwards he introduced me to John Peel himself. I was as surprised as you are; I straight out asked him what he was doing there. He just took a sip of his pint and said: ‘Well, I quite like the Eurovision actually’.”

Well, fair enough. At last! The justification I need for downloading that Israeli transsexual’s back catalogue – Ah – sorry. Gogan’s own music tastes are decidedly less suspect.

“To be honest you don’t get a great idea of what I’m into from the stuff you hear on the show. Most of the time you’re on playlists, so you end up playing a lot of music you don’t actually like. That’s probably the worst aspect of the job – well; the only bad bit of it anyway.

“I mean, I can’t stand country, but I end up playing a lot of it because that’s what people want to hear. A fair amount of that middle-of-the-road stuff bores me as well I have to say.

“If I had to admit to a cultural blindspot, though, it’d definitely be Tom Waits. I mean everyone in RTÉ pretty much thinks he’s the greatest, but apart from some of the ballads and that I just don’t get it really.

“Luckily I get to hear a lot of new music as well; I still do the Chart Show. Kings of Leon are a particular favourite I have to say. Even though a fair bit of that hip-hop stuff is just throwing shapes, you do have the likes of Kanye West who are doing something genuinely inventive. It’s great to see AC/DC back in the fold as well – that new album of theirs is such a return to form. Shame we had to wait so long for it though…They’re banging along the way they used to and it’s great to hear. I’ve always thought they were marvellous. When I was doing DJ gigs down the country theirs were requests I didn’t really mind playing… sadly I haven’t been to a great gig in ages though. I missed Leonard Cohen because I was doing a show – hopefully he’ll make it back.’ Presumably, though, he’ll be down the front for their O2 gig in April, right? “Well, hopefully! As I said music’s not just my job – it’s my life. The job just pays me for it, and I’ll keep doing it for as long as I’m able to.”

Larry’s new five-disc compilation Pickin’ the Pops: 101 Hits of the 80s and 90s is in stores now