Brendan Balfe is an Irish radio personality, who has been on-air consistently for more than 40 years on RTÉ. Comedy has been a feature of many of Balfe’s programmes. He has won three International Awards for radio comedy and his “Pathetic News” feature on Balfe Street, was the only original satire on Irish radio for many years. He also set an international Radio record for a 12-hour broadcast as the story of the assassination of Robert Kennedy was unfolding. Balfe retired from RTÉ in September 2010, following the final episode of his 11-part radio documentary series, The Irish Voice.
We caught up with him in advance of his performance at The Civic on Sunday 6th December!
Could you tell us a little about your journey into broadcasting, and how it all happened for you?
I was always a radio fan during my teenage years, particularly of Radio Luxembourg. I listened to DJs like Pete Murray, Barry Aldiss, and David Gell and wondered how they got a job like that. So, I wrote a cheeky letter to Kevin Roche, Head of Light Music in Radio Éireann, and told him I did record hops in The Barn, our local youth club in Mount Merrion, and that if he played his cards right, I’d be willing to audition for him. His assistant, Róisín Lorigan, replied and arranged a voice test. I passed and they offered me a series called ‘Then and Now’, contrasting early and records by the same singer. It went out in July 1964. I was eighteen. Thereafter, I became a staff announcer, while also producing sponsored programmes with Gay Byrne, and eventually went freelance, presenting and producing music programmes, comedy shows, documentaries, TV programmes and occasionally theatrical productions.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Funnily enough, it was all pretty much as I had imagined it. All appeared normal, if sitting in a small room apparently talking to yourself could be viewed as a noble way to earn a living. Radio Éireann in the Sixties was starting to loosen up after the rigours and greyness of the Fifties, but nobody told me of the range of characters I’d encounter in the GPO studios – poets, actors, musicians, performers, civil servants- a motley collection of eccentric individuals, many of whom should have been in community care. Radio was interesting and challenging, sometimes serious, but nobody told me it would also be great fun.
If you hadn’t worked in the media, what would you have done?
I would have been a spy. My two children, Ellie and John, are convinced I would have been a secret agent. That’s why I’m so easy to buy books for – I like reading about real-life espionage and secret agents, as well as politics, biographies and history.
What do you love about working in radio?
The key to being a broadcaster is to realise that, even though you are probably talking to tens of thousands of listeners at a time, they are listening in ones. Therefore, you try to avoid talking in plurals, like ‘all of you’, many of you’, or even ‘listeners’. Listening to the radio is not a group exercise. The other important element is to treat the listener as intelligent. My mantra in assembling programmes is Assume they are Bright. So, when someone spots a subtle point, or makes a connection that you wove into the programme, it’s very satisfying.
What do you think about the growing popularity of podcasts? Do you subscribe to any?
I listen occasionally to All Things Considered on NPR and This American Life. Otherwise, none.
Not every programme or item survives outside its time. I always thought compilations of radio programmes, like The Best of the GB Show were pointless. The world had moved on and they were out of date. That’s why live programmes are better; they can reflect the mood of the day.
What can audiences expect from your show at The Civic?
The show, Sorry, we’re off the Air came about from occasional talks I’d done about my time in broadcasting, particularly after the publication of my memoir, Radio Man a few years ago.
The favourable reaction to some of the stories and anecdotes prompted me to put it on a more professional level. So, I tell stories about friends and colleagues like Terry Wogan, Larry Gogan, Mike Murphy and the escapades that never got on the air. I’m also bringing along some treasures from my collection of audio ‘bloopers’, the mistakes and off-cuts that everyone thought were safely buried. Not so, I’m afraid. It’s designed to be a fun evening.
And finally, what was the last TV show you binge-watched? How many episodes did you see in a sitting?
Houses Of Cards. I watched the first series with my son, almost non-stop, one Christmas. The next year, with my wife Eileen, I watched it again. Superb writing and acting.
Brendan Balfe comes to at The Civic on Sunday 6th December 2016. Tickets are €20 & €18 conc and are on sale from our box office – 01 4627477 or online here.