Not just a voice, Gerry was daily friend to loyal listeners

by John Boland

It was his unforced empathy with the marginalised, the deprived and the dispossessed that ensured a more general and deeper esteem

Gerry Ryan was the brash face of RTE. When Radio 2 was launched in 1979, the marketing catchphrase devised for the new station was “Cominatcha”, and although Ryan didn’t start his long-running morning show there until 1988 — when it had been rebranded as 2FM — he was the embodiment of “Cominatcha”.

Not so much in-your-face as chin-to-chin and eyeballing you (not a bad trick on radio), he divided audiences like no other RTE presenter.

There were those who adored Gay Byrne and those who thought him too smug, just as many people have always thought Pat Kenny superb as a serious broadcaster, but cringed at his attempts to schmooze with celebrities on ‘The Late Late Show’.

But Ryan brought polarisation of opinion to an unprecedented degree. Quite simply, you either loved him or hated him, and there seemed to be as many in the one camp as in the other — although RTE, in awarding him one of the station’s highest salaries, clearly felt that the love far exceeded the hatred.

And certainly, whether his persona appealed or not, there was no denying the mastery he brought to his morning radio show — a mastery that survived an early spoof item about killing a sheep that outraged a lot of listeners at the time.

And over the years the mastery increased. As the 1990s progressed, social issues loomed ever larger in the show, the presenter almost invariably siding with the underdog while excoriating the powerful — in HL Mencken’s words, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

Indeed, although his blunt, irreverent manner and his disdain for political correctness had won him a loyal audience anyway, it was this unforced empathy with the marginalised, the deprived and the dispossessed that ensured a more general and deeper esteem.

But there was always more than one Gerry Ryan, and for many, the less endearing side of his complex persona manifested itself on television.

Perhaps it was just that he had a face for radio, or perhaps it’s simply that, as most broadcasters will confirm, radio is a more relaxing and intimate medium in which to perform — no cameras, no lights, no false starts, just you and the microphone.

Whatever the reason, television brought out the more aggressive aspects of his personality, manifested in a swaggering arrogance, an overbearing presence and an ever-present aura of self-satisfaction.

It was easy to feel that unease with the medium was partly responsible for this, but that didn’t make it any more bearable to those who resisted the persona on display.

RTE, though, obviously thought otherwise and spent the past two decades attempting to devise television formats in which its star radio presenter could shine. There was ‘Secrets’, there was ‘Ryantown’, there was ‘Gerry Ryan Tonight’ and there were other similarly unpersuasive incarnations that have faded from memory.

More recently, there was a one-off stint as ‘The Late Late Show’ host, there was the fitness series ‘Operation Transformation’ and also the current series of ‘Ryan Confidential’, and perhaps there are viewers more kindly disposed to them than this reviewer has been.

But there’s no doubt that it’s his radio listeners who will most mourn his untimely passing. And he knew his value there.

Indeed, he was at his most cheekily contrary last year when resisting the 10pc pay cut that RTE was demanding of him and of his lucratively remunerated broadcasting colleagues.

“Bullshit,” he described it as and he ranted on his show about the unfairness of it all before finally, and grudgingly, capitulating. Outrageous behaviour, some thought, while others chuckled: good old Gerry, sticking it to the Man.

And those who knew him were unstinting in their praise of him yesterday.

“Larger than life,” one colleague told Mary Wilson in an extended edition of Radio One’s ‘Drivetime’. “Irreplaceable,” said someone else. “The biggest guy in the place,” said another, celebrating the private individual as “exactly like you hear every day — only worse”.

“Brave and bold,” Joe Duffy said. “He lived his life to the full.”

Wilson wanted to know if he was likely to lead one astray. You bet, Joe said. The man sounded like a lot of fun.

But such memories belong to those who knew him — his family, colleagues and friends.

The rest of us have to gauge him on the persona he chose to present to us, and probably the best tribute to him will come from his loyal radio listeners, to whom he was not just a daily voice for more than two decades but also a daily friend.

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