For one day I was like, ‘Seriously, what did I just do?’ – says Ian Dempsey of Today FM

When Ian Dempsey told RTÉ he was stepping down after 19 years for breakfast radio from rival Today FM, he knew there was no turning back.

That was 23 years ago, but the memory is still vivid. He had become a familiar face on RTÉ TV, but “TV work dries up completely once you get out of it, especially when you do it in the shocking way I did.”

What he hasn’t revealed before is how the deal almost fell through. He was busy saying goodbye to his RTÉ colleagues in Montrose when he saw the name of John Steele, then CEO of Today FM, come on his phone. He came out to take the call: “There was a board meeting, they just voted against,” Steele told him.

“Terrified,” Dempsey called his wife Ger. His next call was to John McColgan, the president of Today FM, who was on vacation in Boston.

“He got ballistic,” Dempsey recalls. “To be fair, he got on a plane that day, came home and called an EGM. But there was a 24 hour period where I was like, “Seriously… what have I done? “

Looking back, he sees it as the best decision of his career. At 60, he has just signed a new three-year contract: “Very good for an oul guy.”

After having to pay a 15% agent fee in his early years, he decided to close the deal on his own with the help of a tip from his former boss.

“The best advice I ever had on radio was from John McColgan and it was about negotiation. He said, ‘When you ask for what you think you deserve, don’t be a complete asshole, but you can be a little bit a ***.’ ” He’s laughing. McColgan’s advice must have served him well again.

In the years that followed his departure, RTÉ “groped in” to ask him to come back, but to no avail. “I still go out to Montrose every now and then and every time I do I see the same people that I saw when I was working there in 1998 and they always walk a bit on the same track. I say to myself: ‘It could have been me, I could have done the same thing’. “

He describes RTÉ’s revenue from the license fee and its ability to generate additional revenue from advertising as “a strange arrangement”.

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Does he support the pressure from the national broadcaster for a tax on Netflix and the like to fund Irish content?

“Not really. I think we should join the gang and try to find our own version. If you want to bill people per month, then do that. But it seems strange that you have a situation where you pay TV fees and that there is also ad revenue in addition.

“I think everyone has to look at where their businesses are based and how many people work for them. So this is one of those root and branch situations where you have to look at the whole thing and ask, “What’s the modern way to do this?” Because times have changed.

Over the years, he has lost a number of close friends in the business, including Larry Gogan and Gerry Ryan. The latter, he says, “changed the landscape” of radio and has never been replaced. “It was more fluid and shocking, and you wondered what he was going to say next. And I don’t have that feeling for any other show on any station since. “

Simon Young, another friend and former colleague – “a lovely, warm, very funny and very caring guy” – passed away last week. They had kept in touch for 40 years and Young had told him about his health issues.

“He suffered from an illness that left him swollen with the medications he was taking. The poor guy was having a hard time getting around and he had one of those mobility scooters. He didn’t really hang out with the same people anymore, but he called me very regularly and we talked for about an hour and a half at a time.

Some media coverage since his friend’s death has frustrated him: “They said he was 70 but he was only 61 or 62. They also said he lived in Washington, DC. He lived in Clondalkin.

For his part, Dempsey’s health has never been better, having lost three stones on doctor’s orders. I told him that I read that he was taking six pain relievers once a day.

“I’ll tell you what was behind it,” he said. “I had two wisdom teeth taken out when I was 17 and the dentist said, ‘If you’re in pain, take these things called Solpadeine.’ So I said ‘Big’, I went home to sleep and when I woke up I had to bang my head against the wall with pain. I was still living with my parents and I asked them to [the Solpadeine].

“I started taking them and they worked, then I took more that day, then I got slightly addicted and started to like them. I mentioned it, almost as a remark. disposable, when I was asked about drugs in the music industry in an interview. And the next thing I know is picked up by another newspaper and it’s “my shame Solpadeine”. was ridiculous. “

Dempsey is grateful that he was “sent to a boarding school many years ago” and to have “something in place”. However, he made a “crazy decision” during the Celtic Tiger years.

“We bought a villa in Portugal and it had four bedrooms, a swimming pool, a separate garage, a place that I could turn into a studio in the back and everything was fantastic – until winter and we started to receive phone calls to say there was a leak in the roof or a broken washing machine and we had to keep sending money.

It got to the stage where “the grass was growing high in our own garden in Dublin and at the same time we were paying gardeners there because we had to hire it. It was costing us a fortune ”.

He grew up watching his father come home from a job with the IRS – “he hated every second. He would have done better to write plays ”. Dempsey has “the chance to do what I’ve always dreamed of. I am not looking for the sun, the moon and the stars. I have a great team and the station is a success ”.

These days he leads a quiet life in Sutton, north County Dublin, with his wife and two of their three children. “The third one went south, like Bono,” he jokes.

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