Tubridy: The Imitation Game

This article first appeared in Village magazine, February/March 2024 edition

After a hectic year of high-profile inquiries, sackings, and Oireachtas hearings, Ryan Tubridy finds himself at the helm of a morning radio programme, beaming down to Dubliners from London. Yet it is not a Tubridy his old audience on RTÉ would recognise. The latest iteration is an algorithmic DJ, limited in how much he can waffle on between station idents, time-checks, and weather and traffic updates between research-mandated music tracks designed to appeal to the target demographic.

But all is not lost. If you missed Tubridy 1.0, then tune in to RTÉ Radio 1 just after 9AM every morning, where you can listen to Oliver Callan ramble on in an apparent stream of consciousness about the morning newspapers and whatever is in the daily zeitgeist, before a soft-focus interview and a couple of middle of the road music tracks.

Radio in Ireland is rarely innovative. And the lack of imagination is summed up in the decision to hire Oliver Callan, who makes his living as an impressionist, to spend an hour every day doing a poor impression of Tubridy-that-was.

Callan is a gifted performer, but he’s being pushed into a Tubridy shaped box by RTÉ programme management. With luck, he will assert himself and reinvent the programme in his own image, and define his own voice. This becomes all the more important as Tubridy never had a voice of his own. His Late Late Show was a reheated 1990s American chat show filled with tired and reheated tropes lifted from 1990s Letterman and Leno, inane and derivative, but new to RTÉ, and his morning show was an empty space, allowing everyone an hour to decompress between Morning Ireland and Today with Clare Byrne.

In his new slot on Q102, running from 10AM-1PM Monday to Fridays, Tubridy is filled with early boomer energy, the embodiment of Ireland’s youngest old man, an uneasy mix of Smashie and Nicey and Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge.

In an echo of earlier glories, Tubridy also hosts a Sunday morning pseudo-national morning radio programme. The weekend almost-nationwide Frankenstein show is bolted together out of parts from Dublin’s Q102, Cork’s 96FM, Limerick’s Live 95, and Drogheda’s LMFM.

His patter is restricted by the need to keep those music tracks coming, but he does his best, gamefully chatting to the microphone about his last century tastes in music and pop culture, and taking the odd phone call from a listener in Kildare or the Channel Islands. Quite what his English listeners make of it all if difficult to assess.

Tubridy had a headstart over Oliver Callan in establishing his new show, as RTÉ dithered dithered over who to put in the morning slot, extending the auditions almost until the end of January.

But while Q102 is nominally interested in the 35+ market, it’s hard to imagine they are chasing the RTÉ audience which settles down to listen to a morning of current affairs coverage at 10AM each day. The listeners Tubridy is reaching aren’t switching over after Callan finishes up, and it’s unlikely they spend much time listening to talk-heavy newsradio. Both stations may be aimed at over-35s, but compared to Q102, RTÉ 1 is older, more serious. RTÉ1 wears a suit, while Q102 still wears a pair of jeans, even if they are sometimes unfashionable bootcuts.

What Virgin Radio are doing is difficult to discern. Perhaps they are testing the waters, and planning a competitor to the Late Late with their new star on their Irish television station. But Tubridy is damaged goods with the Irish public. It’s one thing to host another anodyne morning DJ show, quite another to launch a fresh TV gig going up against Patrick Kielty. And even if he broadcasts from London, Tubridy is unlikely to attract the same quality of guest as Graham Norton.

For a large portion of any potential audience, Tubridy’s vibe is Fianna Fáil Nepo Baby. For most of his career, he was able to downplay those family connections, but stories of complicated accounting procedures to avoid a pay cut while the country went through years of austerity measures undermined the clean cut image of the fun loving adult kid who lived for the Toy Show. Instead, he now carries the memory of every cute stroke from the Bertie era and before.

Maybe Virgin, like many British companies before it, just doesn’t get that The Republic of Ireland isn’t just another regional English market.