Tony Fenton is a larger than life figure. One of Ireland’s most experienced and widely liked DJs, he currently occupies the early afternoon slot on Today FM, where he attracts an impressive audience. Behind the mic, he is full of braggadocio – but off-air he is a different character entirely. So what really makes the Northside Dubliner tick?
Tony Fenton has a larger than life, constantly cheerful and upbeat on-air persona. But off-air the 50-year-old Dublin DJ comes across as a modest character. He arrived exactly at the appointed minute for our interview, shook my hand warmly, ordered a coffee, and – knowing I’d travelled from Galway – immediately started to chat about his beloved Connemara.
Massively popular with radio listeners, Tony’s pretty popular within the industry, too.
“You could count the number of Irish radio DJs who could actually seriously break a new band on one hand,” one record company executive told me. “And Tony Fenton is definitely one of them. The power that guy has is amazing.”
That power doesn’t appear to have gone to his head. Indeed, he still seems wildly enthusiastic about his job.
“I’ve got John Lydon coming into studio today,” he told me, delightedly. “PiL are playing in Tripod tomorrow night, so he’s in town. I’ve been trying to get him for quite a while and a good friend of mine (John Reynolds) just rang this morning and said, ‘I’ve got him for you!’ When you get that kind of news you’re busy thinking, ‘What am I going to ask that guy?’ You know, The Sex Pistols! One of the greatest bands ever, one of the last angry bands! What’ll I ask him? Is he still angry? And what is he angry about these days? He’s 53.”
Which makes him just a few years older than Tony, who turned 50 earlier this year...
OLAF TYARANSEN: What’s your earliest memory?
TONY FENTON: Oh wow! A rocking horse I got as a Christmas present. Do you remember the TV show Champion The Wonder Horse? I was glued to it as a kid, seemingly. My mother and father – well, Santa Claus – got it for me. So up on Champion with six guns blazing and the little cowboy hat on. I was probably about three or four. That’s my earliest memory. It all started from there (laughs).
Did you have a big family?
Yeah, mum and dad, four boys and one girl. I was second eldest. Summer holidays in Wexford, like most families in Ireland – the sunny South East. Glorious times: it took us forever to get there. You could do it in an hour-and-a-half now, but it used to take us the whole day. The excitement of packing up to go on holidays for two weeks was glorious. So, yeah, happy families.
Were your family religious?
Yeah, my Mum was, my Dad not so much. In the ’70s, there was very little money around and everyone was struggling to make a crust. We certainly were. My dad worked every hour of the day, and nixers at the weekend, and a friend of his let him use his taxi for extra hours, just to put us all through school. I remember the mother would have us lined up in front of the couch doing decades of the Rosary. Please bring us something from somewhere, some happiness or wealth, so you can get us through the week. But sitting around the table we never talked about that. We were very happy. I was not aware of money, all I was aware of was having fun with my brothers and sisters. Playing football outside, happy times at school and listening to music.
What were you like at school?
I was okay, actually. I left after the Inter Cert. I was more into it than most kids back in the ’70s.
You grew up in Glasnevin.
Yeah. Ian Dempsey lived across the road, and Bono, Guggi and Gavin (Friday) lived up the road. I never met them, but I used to see them walking down the road to get the 19A bus into town. They were into their music and I was into collecting records. I used to DJ at weekends, and do weddings and parties and all that. I was hanging around with Ian and Barry Lang and you’d see Bono and those guys and there was a little nod or whatever, but you’d never get chatting.
Where did you go to school?
Beneavin College. I couldn’t wait to get out. Once the bell went, I used to go down the park, play soccer and listen to music. My dad was a carpenter with his own small business. But I loved helping him out as a carpenter during the summer holidays. And that’s what I did when I left school, carpentry during the day and collecting records at the weekend.
What was the first record you ever bought?
‘Crocodile Rock’ by Elton John. Sorry about that, Olaf! (laughs)
Where did the interest in music come from?
Radio. As a kid listening to the radio at night, starved of music, of courses. Thursday night Top Of the Pops was the only thing you could watch. So any bit of music, I was fascinated by it, grabbing the magazines, going into record stores. I’d walk in and leaf through the records, watch the great labels, admire the great album covers. Radio was a big part of my life growing up.
Every radio DJ says they wanted to be a DJ from a very young age.
We had these discussions when we were growing up – with Ian (Dempsey) and the boys. Listening to Radio Luxemburg under the pillow, my dad banging on the walls, so under the pillow it went. It was a magical sound. Because the sound would go out in waves then come back in again. That was just magical for me; it was theatre of the mind, radio. You were conjuring up images of what it was like in the studio far away in Luxemburg and what they were getting up to. It really kicked in when I was in Curracloe on a summer holiday. Two weeks down there. I went to my very first disco, when I was about 12 or 13. Literally standing beside the DJ, watching him put the needle on the record. And people dancing, and that reaction. I just went, “Wow!”
Did you always talk a lot?
Ha! There’s probably some kids who’d say I was quiet or whatever, but I had my group of friends. I was very sociable, I got stuck into all the soccer matches. Played football with Home Farm, played with Ronnie Whelan, when I was around 10, 11, 12. You couldn’t play soccer at school unless you played Gaelic so I did. A lot of outdoor activities. We used to head down to Ballygall to meet the girls.
What age were you when you lost your virginity?
I was 16. It was probably late compared with a couple of the guys that I was hanging around with (laughs).
Was the prospect of picking up girls a big part of what attracted you to becoming a DJ?
Not really. We did these gigs in the De La Salle school in Finglas, Barry (Lang) and myself, and it was just astonishing. The front four rows were just girls screaming looking for the next song. At that stage we just hadn’t met girls. You know, socially, we’d probably be a bit shy and not know what to say. So this was great for our egos. Still when you’d meet a girl that you kinda fancied, the shyness would kick back in again. But music was always first. I loved everything from Bowie and T.Rex, the glam rock-era. I loved all the soul stuff that came out of America as well – Marvin Gaye and The Temptations and all that kind of stuff, the Motown-era. Brilliant stuff.
What was the first gig you went to?
Well, Ireland was starved of gigs back then. They used to do lunchtime gigs in that college down on Bolton Street. Myself and Barry (Lang) went to see The Radiators From Space. It was the punk era.
Were you a punk?
No, but Barry was. He stuck a pin in his ear!
Actually, where is he now?
He’s a pilot out in Dubai. He’s flying the big airbuses. Bastard! We’re in touch every week, either by email or text or phone. He’s a great friend.
You’re still in touch with a lot of old friends?
Yeah. I’m very lucky like that. I like to put in a bit of effort with friends because it’s important to keep in touch.
When did you have your first drink?
My first beer, Olaf, was a great occasion. My dad was doing a nixer for my Uncle Paddy over in Walkinstown. Myself and my brother Paul would go out every Saturday to help him build this extension. My uncle Paddy was a gas man. His son, Brian, and ourselves, we’d all muck in to help and then we’d go to the pub. The other two lads would go down to the pub, and we’d be brought along. My cousin Brian was a couple of years older than me so he’d be on pints of Smithwicks. My Dad was getting a round and he ordered a Guinness for himself, a Guinness for Uncle Paddy, a Smithwicks for Brian and – “your first drink, lads!” – a couple of shandies for Paul and myself. So we had those. Then my Uncle Paddy went up and ordered two Guinness and three Smithwicks – because, of course, the shandies looked like Smithwicks. We had those and, you know – the very first sip you knew the difference. We were flying. So when my dad went up to get the next round, he ordered, “Same again, please,” and the barman goes, “Three Smithwicks and two Guinness?” and it was twigged that we had had our first beer. He gave us the hairy eyeball look! And that was my first drink. I remember coming home after that and seeing double. Very happy!
Do you still drink?
Yeah, Guinness. Love it. Just love the taste of it.
Nightclub DJ-ing can be a very heavy drinking environment...
It can be, but I was more interested in the music. I did DJ in all the clubs in Dublin, and went away to live in Tenerife and Denmark and gigged over there. And it’d be very simple to get into that drinking culture where you get up and you live for the party of the night, and you booze up while you’re working. It takes its toll. I was gigging six nights a week. So it was like, go to work, do the job, and then weekends Friday and Saturday, have a few beers. You had to discipline yourself because you’d be broken at the end of it otherwise. And I’d see a lot of guys just go the wrong way. I wasn’t interested in doing that. The bigger picture was radio.
When did you get the first radio gig?
Ian Dempsey was on ARD (Alternative Radio Dublin) in 1978, and the next DJ didn’t turn up. So Ian rang the station manager and said, “Look, there’s a friend of mine here, Tony, and he does a lot of mobile DJ work.” The manager said, “Stick him on.” So that was the first one I did – terrible. It was a completely different experience to the live club work I’d been doing. And I had to get the hang of that pretty quickly. Then there was a ‘DJ for a Day’ competition, looking for new talent, and I applied. And Mike Moloney was the man in charge. My time slot was quarter past two until half two – fifteen minutes. Put the first record, put the needle on. With nerves, my hands were shaking. I broke the stylus. And he goes, “Don’t worry about that, sure there’s another one here.” He pops the spare one in: shaking, I broke that. So we did the fifteen minutes on one, and he said, “Look, you talk in between the songs and I’ll change the records for you.” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. When it was my birthday years down the line, he actually traced back the actual stylus, and bought me a gold version of it, to remind me of how much hair he lost that night. He’s a good friend.
The owner of ARD would often bollock his DJs out during the ad breaks in the middle of their shows...
Yeah. It was a terrible thing to do. Your confidence was shot then for the rest of the show.
When did you move to RTÉ?
2fm started in 1979. I was still in pirate stations and I knew I wasn’t good enough at the time to go for that. I was with Sunshine and Nova, all the way through to ’83. They closed down in ’83. There was no work around. The only stations were Radio 1 and 2fm, so I went away to Denmark and Tenerife to find work, get some dollars in.
Tenerife must have been fun.
Great craic. I was there for about 8 or 9 months. Great place to live, they gave me a car. I was 22 years of age, working as a club DJ. Of course, I got all my friends to come over in the summertime for two weeks holidays and stay with me. It was one giant holiday and I enjoyed the work. Living in the sunshine is hard to beat when you’re 22. I’d recommend it to anybody. So I got a call when I was there from Barry Lang, who said, “Look, 2fm are looking for some on-air talent, you should go for it.” So I came back, applied for that, and they faffed around for a good year-and-a-half, making decisions. Then they decided they didn’t want anyone, and then a year-and-a-half later they did. So I applied again. I knew I was ready. I went in, did a 15-minute demo again, and after introducing the second song they just said, “Look, we’re gonna stop the tape, we’ve heard enough.” Of course, you never know which way that’s gonna go. So I got a call then in summer of ’85 saying, “You’ve got the job.” And my first show was the day Bruce Springsteen played Slane. I went to see Bruce. Then I hopped in the car and back to the radio station. I was on from midnight until ten-to-two. The reason it was ten-to-two was because the engineers wanted 10 minutes cleaning up time. So my show finished at ten to two not two o’clock. Then it closed for the night. Crazy (laughs).
You would have known Gerry Ryan in 2FM. Did you socialise much with him?
Not really. Of course we’d meet in clubs or bars or restaurants and stuff. We’d have the craic and have a few beers together and that was it. I wasn’t part of his gang. He had a different group of friends. We’d meet each other every day in work, very sociable, but it was like this is my show, this is my time slot, and everything else after that I don’t really care about too much. Your name is above the studio door, you have to put in your shift, and you have to take care of it. That’s what he did.
Did you ever get into drugs?
No. Olaf, I don’t even smoke cigarettes. I think the reason is because my dad used to drive us to school in the morning and the car was just full of smoke. I used to go into school smelling of smoke and it really turned me off. My brother and my sister smoke, but the rest of us don’t. It just doesn’t do it for me. And of course when you’re in clubs and around that late night environment, you’re around that scene all the time. But I surround myself with my friends who know that I don’t smoke and know that I don’t do drugs. So they don’t offer them to me.
You’ve never done any coke?
No (shakes head).
Not even when you were in Tenerife?
No, no. I was mad into the beer and having the craic over there.
Are you clean living generally?
I’ve always enjoyed exercising. Can you not tell by my svelte figure? (laughs) I’ve always played football, ever since I was a kid. I play indoor soccer twice a week now, and I play golf. I play with Mario Rosenstock and we’ve great fun. I mean we hit the golf ball and then laugh. We don’t take it seriously.
Did you hone your voice for radio?
You work it a little bit.
It just strikes me that you sound a little less excitable on air now than you used to.
You’re probably talking about the Hotline days. It’s like a chart show, they want excitement, and you’re playing to a teenage audience. So you’ve gotta be up, full of energy, and you’ve got to remember that was a successful show. Because there was no audience at 7 o’clock in the evening. Ian Dempsey was the first to do that show, 7 to 8, Hotline, one hour of hits. Barry Lang took it over, and then I took it over. You really have to make it your own. It’s like doing a cover version, you have to put your own stamp on it. It was up to me to make that show a different show. We had jingles, and an hour of hits, and it was a bit mad, a bit crazy, shouting, “YOU’RE THE WINNER!” down the phone to kids. Look, it worked, I had a huge audience, I enjoyed it for what it was for the short time that I was on it. But I always wanted to move on to the next stage.
What was that?
I did the Drivetime show, five to seven. In radio they have what they call strip programmes, from seven in the morning until seven in the evening. They’re the big shows. That’s the first eleven when you’re togging out. After that you’re on the subs bench, really. So I was on the other side of 7 o’clock, and I wanted to get the proper side of seven o’clock. So when I was offered the Drivetime show, it was a big thrill for me. And I wanted to do more with it. We took the audience to 207,000 and they’d never had that before so it was hugely successful. We were up against Eamon Dunphy, who was doing The Last Word at the time. We had 60,000 listeners more than him, but RTE weren’t shouting about that. You’d see Eamon on the side of buses, Eamon on the TV shows, Eamon in the newspaper. Today FM were doing their marketing right, and RTE weren’t shouting about the fact that we had 60,000 more listeners. I’d tell people and they wouldn’t believe me.
Why was that?
It’s one of the reasons why Ian left, because it was never a case of money or anything like that. It was they’re not doing enough to keep him and make him happy while he’s there. RTE can be a bit like that, they don’t take care of their talent.
You left RTE in 2003. Were you forced out?
I was offered two weekend shows and I thought it was wrong. I just thought, “We’ve delivered 207,000 listeners to your Drivetime show,” and all of a sudden they want to make changes. I thought about it long and hard, got some advice, and they were like, “Hang on a second, you’re still young enough, you’ve earned the badge, take a break and come back.” The thing is when Ian left to go to Today FM, I always kept my eye on that station. Willie O’Reilly was there as well, he’s the CEO of Today FM, used to be Gerry Ryan’s senior producer. Willie was great, he said to take a year out, and that’s what I did: “Enjoy your year out and give me a call when you come back.”
And what did you do for that year?
I went to the States and I did these documentaries on people behind the people who make hits. I called it Hitmakers, and I interviewed people like David Foster – multiple Grammy Award-winner, worked on Jackson’s Thriller album and stuff like that. They ended up using them on all the airlines. But I’ve always kind of wanted to do that. So I went and interviewed him and people like Albert Hammond, Billy Steinberg, who wrote ‘Like A Prayer’ for Madonna, and got the stories behind all the songs. I also, did a program director’s course in L.A..
Who’s the first person you interviewed on air?
Christy Moore’s brother, Barry Moore. In ‘79. Back before he changed his name to Luka Bloom. Oh God, I was so nervous. You need a special skill for interviews, and you also need to listen. It’s one of the things that I was not good at. So for days upon days before it I was just a bag of nerves. Interviewing him, I was sweating profusely and when we finished the interview it was like, “Thank God you’re gone – I don’t ever want to do one of those again.” Because I was crap at it. But I knew somewhere deep in there that I needed to learn how to do that and thank God I’ve gotten a little bit better at it now. I’ve had a good run recently with Kings Of Leon, Arcade Fire, Al Green, Elbow…
Do you still drive a Harley?
No. Sold it a couple of years ago. Wasn’t using it. The weather in Ireland. You come into work and it’s a glorious day, and when you’re leaving work, it’s raining. Your bike is just a mess, you’re a mess. Then you get home and have to spend an hour drying it off because it’ll rust. So I just thought if you’re not using it enough, get rid of it. I loved it, though. The freedom. If you’re driving around Connemara, it’s fantastic.
Are you still friendly with Jim Corr?
I am, yeah.
Do you subscribe to any of his conspiracy theories?
I’ll tell you what. He’s not just a friend, he’s a good friend. He’s on his own path at the moment. And I respect that, and I’ll support him. He might have his own ideas about certain things that mightn’t be my ideas. But fair play to him.
Jim maintains that the Americans themselves were behind the 9/11 attacks. Do you talk about that?
Not really. We do every now and again but he kinda tends to go off on one, it can be interesting and you might not agree with a lot of the stuff he’s saying, which can cause another argument or whatever. If you wanna get into another hour of that... you choose to or you choose not to. Look, I wish he’d get back into music. I think he’s far too much time on his hands. He’s telling me he’s going to get back into music soon and I hope he does.
The Corrs definitely won’t be playing the White House again.
For sure (smiles).
Are you interested in politics at all?
Nowadays perception plays a big part in politics – it’s how you look, what you have to say, what you do at the weekends. That plays a big part. I just don’t trust the Church, I don’t trust the politicians, I don’t trust the bankers. I think that’s probably spot-on for most people in Ireland these days.
Who do you trust?
I trust the doctors. I’ve got some good friends who’ve been very good to me over the last couple of years, health-wise. I do trust them. I trust the nurses and I trust the doctors. They don’t have an agenda.
What was wrong with you?
I had a malignant melanoma on my leg.
From your time in Tenerife, perhaps?
It could have started there. I had a small mole. My mother passed away of breast cancer in November, so when she passed away I noticed the mole a bit more. Maybe it was her looking down saying, “Get that sorted!” And it was maybe darker again so I went in and got it taken out. Sure enough, they found it was malignant. They went in and took a bit more out and gave me the all-clear there about two months ago. It was a very good surgeon in Vincent’s who has become a good friend of mine.
Are you scared of death?
What do you think happens after we die?
I don’t know. I have this recurring nightmare ever since I was a teenager, around 12 or 13 years of age, of dying. And all the things you wanted to do, you couldn’t. Couldn’t play football anymore, couldn’t be with your family or friends anymore, couldn’t be on the radio anymore. All those things scare the bejaysus out of me. I can’t get my head around them. I need to find some peace there somewhere.
Do you believe in God?
I believe in something, something after life. I have to work on that a bit better. I don’t believe in the Church. After what’s happened in the last five years, how can you walk into a church and put your trust in these guys? After all the bad things that they’ve done. And yet Rome won’t do anything about it, which is terrible. But I have to have a spiritual belief. I’m working on that at the moment. I have to believe we go somewhere after we die, I have to. I can’t take that – that is just it. I’d like to find out how it works.
What do you mean you’re working on it at the moment?
Talk to friends, really. There’s a very good friend of mine, actually, who’s training to be a priest. I’m trying to talk him out of it at the moment. He’s a great guy and mad as a brush. But he talks sense. More sense than any other priest (pauses) I think when you lose your parents....they’re both dead now, my father went first. But losing your mother is different completely, that whole other connection. You know, they gave birth to you, that whole bonding connection. That goes. When that goes... that still hits every so often. So coming to terms with that, I feel like that’s bringing me closer to something, I don’t know what that is. Closer to finding out what happens afterwards.
You never got married.
No. Haven’t found the right person. Although I was close on a couple of occasions. I was engaged once. I dated lots of great girls, but haven’t found the one yet that’s on the same wavelength as me.
Do you want a family?
Yeah, definitely want some little godforbids! Little Tonys. That would be a great thing. I definitely want that, and I know it’s gonna happen soon. I’ll just have to find the right woman.
So you’re not in a relationship right now?
No. Hope to find the right one soon. Needs to happen soon, Olaf, I’m getting a little bit old. But I love women. Absolutely. And when I find the right one, we’re gonna have a lot of fun. I love sharing. When I go out to Clifden and Connemara and take the boat out to Inishbofin, I wanna be with the one. I love to share like that. When you do it with your mates it’s great fun, but there has to be more to it.
Have you been affected by the recession?
Yeah, like everybody else. I don’t think anyone’s immune to that.
Did you have many investments?
I did yeah, and they’re all gone. Mostly anyway. Now I’m very careful about how I spend, and I’m very careful where I save. The most important thing is to stay working. Anyone who’s bought property in the last five years, it’s halved now so you’d be struggling the rest of your life trying to pay off that. I’m 50, so thank God it’s not TV, Olaf, at least it’s radio. You can work a little bit longer on radio. TV careers can be short. Radio is a little bit longer, but I love what I do, I’ve a passion about radio. Hopefully I’ll be working for a good few years yet.
How do you think Ryan Tubridy is performing in Gerry Ryan’s old slot?
I remember when you interviewed Ian (Dempsey), he made a very true point. Which was that when Tubridy was on Radio 1, he was sandwiched between two strong shows so he didn’t really have to put too much work in to keep that audience up. As well as that, his show was an hour long. There’s not a lot of work to put in for that length show. I know because I’ve done them. But I think he’s up against it now. I think 2fm is up against it. You gotta remember, from about ‘91 until 2001, nothing could touch 2fm. What a line up they had. Ian Dempsey on the Breakfast Show, handing Gerry Ryan a quarter of a million listeners. If you win breakfast, you win the day. Gerry’s delighted he’s getting a quarter of a million listeners at 9 o’clock in the morning. Gerry handing that on to Larry Gogan, followed by Gareth O’Callaghan, Barry Lang at 5pm, I was on the Hotline, Dave Fanning, Mark Cagney, Mike Moloney. What a line-up. I don’t think you’ll ever see that line-up again.
Are you friendly with Gareth O’Callaghan?
No. I’d know him from the pirate days.
I wasn’t very impressed by his talk after it was implied that Gerry Ryan’s death was coke related.
Yeah. Neither was I. There was no need for that. I thought, look, the guy is only dead. I was disappointed with him because Gerry’s family were going to be reading things like that. Was it a publicity stunt to get more people listening to his show, his station? It just kind of stuck out, didn’t it? Like, where did that come from? Little curve-ball from the left hand side of the field that you wouldn’t be expecting. So I don’t know...
What was the shift from 2fm to Today FM like?
I know I’m working there, but I think we’ve got a great line up during the day in Today FM. When you turn it on, I think it’s a cooler station. A lot more fun. You can feel it. Miriam O’Callaghan was in yesterday on Ray D’Arcy’s show, and I met her walking through the office and she goes, “The atmosphere in here is fantastic!” There was a huge difference for me in moving from 2fm to Today FM. Massive difference. I remember Bob Geldof said one time back in the early ‘80s that it was like a priest running a disco. It was very much like that in RTE before I started working there. As for 2FM, they were a great station back then, but I think it will take a few people to go in now and shake that station up a bit. Look, it’s not brain surgery. It’s really easy to run a radio station if you have great talent. Great music, have your news right, your marketing right. They’re not doing that at the moment. We are.
What do you think of shows like The X-Factor?
Those bloody TV shows, what’s going on with them? You kinda feel for those people who put themselves up there on TV and then they get whacked back down again. You can’t even remember who won the first one, who won the second one. You can’t even sing the single, or remember it. The tragedy of it all is that they get their moment of fame. The family, neighbours, the town, are all on a buzz. Then it all goes away. It must be a real head mess. It’s cruel the way they treat them.
How would you assess Louis Walsh’s influence on Irish music?
I know him. I like his madness, his energy, and his passion for it. He’s doing what he’s doing and he’s made a good living out of it. He knows his niche and he exploits it, and fair play to him. But I think we’re not developing enough real bands, real talent. There’s a lot of great and original talent out there that’s under the radar, and will probably never be discovered.
Who do you like at the moment?
I just love Villagers. I love what Conor’s doing. Saw him live. He’s real, I believe him. I saw him play in the Workman’s Club, just himself and a guitar. You could hear a pin drop. Incredible. He’s a great talent, like a young Van Morrison. I also like The Kapitols, a young Dublin band. And The Fallen Drakes.
What’s been the proudest moment of your own life?
Hmmm (blows lips)... Just still being on the radio. It’s an ongoing thing.
Tony Fenton broadcasts from 2.30pm to 4.30pm weekdays on Today FM
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