Man at the mic
YOU may not recognise his face, but if you listen to Mid West Radio, you almost definitely know his voice. As well as presenting The Late Late Lunchbox, a popular afternoon show, Padraic Walsh also narrates many of the advertisements you hear on 96.1FM.
Since its debut 18 years ago, Mid West Radio has given us its fair share of iconic moments. From Liam Horan’s celebrated commentary on the 1989 Connacht Final in the station’s very first week, to the original ‘Beat on the Peat’; from its humanitarian efforts during the Pullathomas landslide in 2003 to Michael Commins’ interview with the late and much-lamented Willie ‘The Shoe’ McNeely. Radio, by its nature, is often first to bring stories to the public, and it’s not just the prerogative of the news department. Last Tuesday afternoon, Padraic Walsh himself announced that St Nathy’s College had won an All-Ireland girls’ basketball title. He regularly has a ringside seat at local history in the making.
“Everything now is so immediate,” he comments. “We’re right there in people’s homes, we’re in their cars, we’re in shops. People feel that they’re part of the radio station. If you hear a request for somebody, you probably know them or their relations or where they’re from. People feel a close bond with their local station, certainly with Mid West Radio, and that has been the success of all the programmes on the station. It’s close-knit, yet you hear all the national news as well. If something happens, we get a call or a text within seconds of it happening. And for a lot of people, that’s the first time they will have heard about it.”
Walsh begins planning the playlist, competitions and running order for his show around 11.30am, then leaves his home in Castlebar to arrive in Ballyhaunis at lunchtime. The programme runs for three hours (2-5pm), and then he spends a further three hours in the production department, arranging ads and voiceovers for broadcast the following day.
The Late Late Lunchbox is a music-based show, and many of the tunes featured are listener-driven. Requests pile up to mark birthdays, anniversaries and romance, or pass on good wishes to hard-working colleagues. All human life is here. On Tuesday, one man got in touch to warn that sheep were straying in Thomastown, near Hollymount – “and while you’re at, give us a bit of Thin Lizzy”, he added. There was an email from someone in Reading saying hello to a woman in Kiltimagh. Competitions ask listeners to identify famous people through clues, or answer three general knowledge questions. The one that caught most people out on Tuesday was a multiple-choice query about how much farmers spent on tractors last year … the answer is €210 million, but you already knew that!
“You get a great feel for what songs people want to hear, because of text messaging and the instant requests,” says Walsh, who ‘went to Castlebar for one weekend’ and then set up home there. “When people want to hear a song, they’ll phone you up. Generally people want up-tempo, happy-go-lucky songs when they’re working. Most of my playlists would be based on the songs that people are requesting all the time. I think it’s the most important thing in local radio, that you give people what they want to hear, not what you think they want to hear.
“Some great characters come along to say hello when we’re doing outside broadcasts. You’re saying hello to them a lot of the time on the show, but you’ve no idea what they look like! Radio has that intimacy. You can get almost quite friendly with people without ever meeting them, which is hard to believe, but it’s true. Because people show a lot of their personality through how they text you, or what they say when they phone in with a particular request. If they’re having a bad day, that can come across very quickly in their texts, or if they’ve good news to share with you, they’ll obviously look for a happy song.”
Walsh particularly enjoys shows with a difference, and singles out a recent in-studio gig by the band Whitewater for special mention. Westlife and Status Quo are among the big names who have dropped in to say hello. Last year he ran a special competition called ‘The Big Gamble’. The winner, Milltown woman Michelle Hyland, had to choose between taking €5,000 or travelling to Las Vegas with a chance to win €20,000 on one gamble. Walsh was among the team who travelled out to Vegas for two live programmes (broadcast at 6am local time!). “Unfortunately,” he recalls, “she didn’t win the gamble, but she had an absolute ball.”
Sometimes, best-laid plans come unstuck. The station organised a treasure hunt and clues directed people to an envelope which held details of a holiday. Only three people knew its location – it was on the top of a departures monitor in Knock Airport, having been placed there in the middle of the night for maximum secrecy. One woman who had taken time off work to follow the clues closely became convinced it was the airport. She searched high up and low down, borrowed a chair from a staff member, and came up trumps. And so a competition that might have run for months was finished within three days!
Walsh has a lifelong passion for the wireless. The first thing he remembers asking for as a child is a transistor radio. He would tape songs off Radio 2 and make up his own compilation cassettes, ‘do all sorts of messing about with it until I broke it, then got another one and broke that!’ At school, he and a group of friends wired up radios across the building for a charity day, creating an in-house radio station. Larry Gogan was his big hero (‘he just had a fantastic voice’), but he also admired Ronan Collins, Gareth O’Callaghan, Maxi, Terry Wogan and Jim O’Neill. He did a radio production course in Ballyfermot and approached Mid West chief executive Paul Claffey for weekend work. Within a few hours of his first visit, he was in making ads!
He started behind the scenes on a late shift (starting at 6pm, finishing at midnight or 1am), working painstakingly with reel-to-reel machines. “If you made a mistake with your ad, you had to go back to the start again!” he recalls ruefully. Then he was given the chance to present a Saturday programme before graduating to weekdays. As he is also a club DJ, a music show suited him. Gone are the days when the studio was littered with pieces of paper; nowadays everything (requests, albums, jingles) are computerised.
Radio still has its pitfalls, of course. A local station in Leinster once carried a report on a match which never happened. BBC legend Katie Adie got drunk before reading announcements on a local radio station and sang the weather forecast. Has Padraic Walsh ever suffered on-air embarrassment?
“There have been a few songs that have come out with naughty words on album versions!” he laughs. “The record company probably forgot to put a notice on the front cover to say ‘Warning to DJ’! Before the actual single release would arrive, I have been known to play an album version, obviously not knowing what I was about to hear, so I have been caught once or twice! Do not play the album version of The Beautiful South’s ‘Don’t Marry Her’ to your children!
”Radio has come on so much. If you look back at the old pirate radio days, it’s become so much more professional. Okay, some people might say the fun is gone; the fun, wacky element that used to be in pirate, where you could get away with saying literally anything. But people expect a professional service nowadays. And that’s why we’ve had to move with the times, everything from the technology we’re using to the building here has been transformed. It’s moved for the best, I think, and it still hasn’t lost any of its flair or its appeal.”