The end of a media era

Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell muses over the media in Ireland and how it has changed.

I always remember how bizarre I found the national out-pouring of grief following the sudden death of the radio presenter Gerry Ryan. What struck me most was not the touching tributes paid by co-workers and stars alike, but the texts and emails sent by regular listeners. It was as though they had lost a close friend, a daily companion. Having presented the RTÉ 2fm breakfast radio show from 1998 until his passing in 2010, he had built a steady relationship with his listeners. The younger version of me could appreciate that someone could lament the loss of a talented radio host, but to go as far as to grieve their presence seemed a little absurd. As a wise, learned twenty-two year old, I now recognise and rue my naivety.

Since coming to university, I have grown to love listening to the radio, in particular magazine programmes or current-affairs chat shows. It is my favourite form of media; entertaining, unpredictable and conducive to being absorbed while conducting less favourable activities. Like all diligent radio-heads, I have my weekly routine honed, flicking between stations as the presenters changed and my daily appetite for an in-depth-analysis of the news dwindled. However every Saturday and Sunday from 11am until 1pm (without fail) my dial was tuned to RTE Radio 1 - two hours a week dedicated to Marian Finucane. It was my weekend treat. An interesting interview on Saturday was followed by a balanced and intelligent, but always invigorating, panel discussion on a Sunday. Upon her passing, I understand the Gerry Ryan grief. I feel a keen sense of loss that I won’t be greeted with a ‘Hello there, and a very good morning to you’ again. Radio has the power to transport, whether it was bringing you right to the helm of the round-table discussion, or bringing Marian and her guest to your couch with a cuppa.

My personal loss aside, I am struck by an unusual feeling of closure following the deaths of Gay Byrne, Marian Finucane and Larry Gogan in such quick succession. It is rare to be cognisant of things naturally coming to an end while it actually happening. It seems as though I am watching an era becoming extinct in real-time. The media which sometimes fed, sometimes hindered - but always accompanied - the awakening of a new Irish identity is no more. The media put forth by Gay, Marian and Larry was a pillar of Irish society. Rather than having access to only a handful of radio stations, and an even smaller pool of television channels, today we can access a multitude of media, from anywhere in the world. The development of the internet and the accessibility of information has led to a revolution in the way we form opinions on the world we live in.

It is fair to describe the death of Gay Byrne as a national funeral. Few were untouched by his enormous contribution to Irish media. In an era of one, or even two channels, the entire country would have tuned in weekly to his programme. The same can be said of Marian Finucane, or Larry Gogan. Between the three presenters, you have a snapshot of the entirety of Irish broadcasting media; RTÉ 1 on the television, RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ 2fm. These were the people who allowed us to access news, music, life. They enabled the content we acquired. They had a responsibility to seek out and publish content which would otherwise stay hidden. And yes, journalists today still aspire to do the same, however unlike their time, everyone today is a broadcaster. We are not limited to obtaining our media from a singular, national source.

Irish media is a mirror held to Irish life. Being from a small, interconnected island, good Irish media has always strived to reflect and explain who we are to ourselves. Whether that be through hard-hitting journalism, uncovering the nastier side of our society, or some tunes to help us through the tougher days. Regardless of the content, it was unifying. The limited points of access meant that everyone saw or listened to the same content. A singular media source was inclusive, simply due to the fact that everyone partook; as an onlooker, a contributor, or even hearing it being discussed later. The deep national grief which reverberated around the country upon passing of our companions Gay, Marian and Larry, will occur no more. That time has passed. The number of active radio stations in Ireland, as of December 7th 2019, is now 92. Ninety-two different voices, opinions, perspectives. We no longer live in an era where Gay graces everybody’s living room of a Friday evening, or Larry accompanies every weekend. And as a society we are better for it, challenging our opinions and points of view. The greater the number of diverse publications, broadcasts and programmes we have, the greater clarity we can obtain when looking at our world.

After musings and obituaries, what this piece has come to say is simply I acknowledge the end of a time in Irish life, the definitive demarcation of a more liberal era. Nothing more, nothing less.