Irish radio legend Tony Fenton still remembers the first time he visited Connemara. It was 25 years ago and he was on a scuba diving trip to Clifden.
He still recalls the experience of that first trip. He surfaced from his scuba dive at Clifden’s Salt Lake, only to find that snowflakes were falling on the lake. It was a magical moment that sparked a love affair with the area that has lasted a quarter of a century, resulting in his being awarded the Freedom of Connemara last weekend.
“It was actually a Saturday afternoon on the October bank holiday weekend, 25 years ago. It’s incredible that [the award has] come around 25 years later,” he remarks.
Clifden has, he says, given him “great weekends, great moments, great days, great years” and it is a great honour to be granted the freedom of the place that has been like a second home to him since.
The Today FM DJ has become one of the most recognisable voices on the Irish airwaves since he first started spinning vinyl as a teenager on pirate station Alternative Radio Dublin in 1979. The industry has changed immeasurably since then.
“Back then, you were hauling records onto buses and getting buses to gigs and it was all about the vinyl. Now we’ve bypassed the CD age and it’s very much digital… I do embrace the technical age, it’s exciting.”
After spells at other radio stations, such as Nova FM, Fenton’s talent was spotted and he ended up at RTÉ Radio Two, now 2FM, where he spent 18 happy years.
The decision to leave the national broadcaster in 2003 was a difficult one, but he feels the departure of his friend Ian Dempsey to present the fledgling Today FM’s breakfast show was a crucial factor.
“I kept an eye on Today FM and, I suppose, if you win breakfast, you win the day and then it wasn’t too long before I made the move across to Today FM,” he recalls.
Today FM in 2012 is similar to what 2FM was like in the early 90s, he says, with a team of top broadcasters across its schedule.
“It is the station that everyone wants to work on now,” he says.
At the time, in 2004, he could not have predicted that Today FM would become such a powerhouse in Irish radio, and his current afternoon show is among the most popular daytime shows in the country.
It has not all been plain sailing for the North Dublin DJ, however, and the past two years have been particularly difficult. In 2010, his mother passed away and then he was diagnosed, first with skin cancer, then, last year, with prostate cancer.
It can’t have been easy to maintain a happy-go-lucky exterior on the airwaves during those times?
“They were dark days, there’s no doubt about that and yet, going on radio every day was the time-out. It took my mind off it, so there’s a lot to be thankful for really,” he says, adding that he is now in “very good” health.
After almost 35 years, he could be forgiven for losing some of the teenage enthusiasm that prompted him to lug bags of records around on Dublin buses, but the excitement in his voice when the subject is broached is palpable.
“Discovering a new band, that’s a great thing and you don’t lose that down through the years.
“I think the next big band to come out of the country will be The Strypes. They’re only 15 or 16, they’re brilliant and playing them or watching them…they are excellent.”
As much as his taste for new music must be applauded, perhaps Fenton’s most recognisable feature is his broad, smooth voice, perhaps the definitive Irish radio voice. He maintains that it is the product of time rather than practise.
“It just matures over the years, I suppose. It is what it is!”