A gift for radio

FOR YEARS now Ian Dempsey has been described as the “nicest man” on radio, but it is a description that he visibly abhors.

Instead, Dempsey seems determined to show he has many different sides to his character — including his addictive personality.

Maybe it’s the early morning starts — 5am every weekday for over 20 years, first for 2FM and now for Today FM — or that he reached a milestone birthday, 50, this year — but Dempsey freely confides that he had needed something to give him a “hit”. To be precise, six Solpadeine tablets a day on a regular basis.

“Yeah, I know,” he says, pausing to gauge my reaction and then mimics my shocked expression. I am almost scared to interrupt in case he clams up.

“I was taking quite a lot of Solpadeine, I think a lot of people take them to get a bit of a hit, to get a lift. They did the trick, but I have managed to stop taking them in the last few months. I would probably have taken about six a day.

“I’d get up and take two of them. You body starts craving them, but I never went beyond the recommended amount. It would just give you a lift, some energy.”

Dempsey was forced to confront his habit when the ‘bullying, Nanny State’ stepped in last August and banned Codeine products from being available to buy off-the- shelf. “Chemists would start asking everything about you, right down to your Granny,” he complains.

Instead, Dempsey has now discovered a new “hit” that works, and gets the right spot. Another drug company has apparently produced a product that looks the same, with a similar box, so he has gone for the placebo effect.

“Also Nigella Lawson has come up with a ‘Brian’ which is iron and Berocca — it is purely herbal and it works. Now all I do, is take my ‘Brian’ and my Panadol placebo. Maybe it is because I get up so early in the morning, or maybe it is just a habit. I don’t know what it is. But I have had the opportunity to get Solpadeine recently and I wouldn’t do it now,” he admits.

We meet in one of the conference rooms at Marconi House, the home of Today FM and Newstalk. It’s a simple box room with no distractions. Dempsey is just as you would expect — warm, unpretentious and self-deprecating. Exactly like his radio persona.

Perhaps surprisingly, Dempsey also openly admits that he has never been offered drugs. The whole scene seems, to have by-passed him. A fact he attributes to not going to university and marrying young.

“I do think I have an addictive personality, in a way, and if I do get into something and enjoy that sensation I would probably be in big trouble. I would be afraid to touch them, just in case.

“I think I’ll just stick to my Panadol placebo. I am now thinking somebody is going to come up to me and say ‘Come here, I have a little package for you’,” he says, laughing loudly.

He says his former RTE colleague, Gerry Ryan, never approached Dempsey.

“That night-time 2FM thing was a bit of a clique, those guys were all a bit older than me. Maybe they just said ‘not in front of my little brother’, that kind of thing. Of course, I was a lot younger then,” he jokes.

However Dempsey confides that he was not at all surprised by Gerry Ryan’s inquest results. Although not close friends, they would often meet at football matches with their sons and Dempsey readily admits he was concerned by Ryan’s “bloated” appearance.

“He just didn’t look well towards the end. He was overweight, but not from eating, he was bloated, it was glandular, something like that.

“You know the way you worry about somebody but you don’t say it because you don’t want to insult them. And then when they said there were going to be toxicology reports, I thought well I can imagine what might be in them,” he says.

Now, following Ryan’s sudden death, Dempsey says he often reflects on his own mortality.

“It was a wake-up call, big time. I do kind of think about if I wasn’t here anymore. I find I am making the most of things, when I see people I am more appreciative of them and of the moment,” he explains.

Despite his name being banded about in the media and internet forums as a possible successor to Gerry Ryan, RTE never even approached Dempsey. “It did cross my mind, as I was mentioned in a few polls and blogs, but nobody officially asked me; if they had offered it to me, then yes I would have thought about it,” he admits.

So what does he think of Ryan Tubridy’s show? Ever the diplomat Dempsey laughs, and says that he is ‘obviously’ listening to Ray D’Arcy’s show on Today FM, which is on at the same time, because “I am addicted to it, and it is in my contract,” he jokes.

But then, Dempsey stresses that it would be unfair to judge Tubridy just yet. “The worst thing anyone could do is to try and be Gerry Ryan, and I don’t think Ryan is trying to do that. He has his own style of show and that’s good. I think you can only judge in 12 months time whether he is doing as good a job as Gerry,” he explains.

Dempsey also knew exactly when it was the right time to leave the security of RTE — after 18 good years — and to challenge himself by joining Today FM in 1998. It was “a big risk” — the commercial station was still finding its feet, working out exactly who their target audience was.

“I have absolutely no regrets leaving RTE, 100%,” he states, emphatically. “Where would I be if I had stayed at RTE? That’s a good question, I might have been institutionalised by this stage or I might have just been sacked,” he adds, before bursting out laughing.

“I’d say I wouldn’t have had such a dynamic show or approach to it, if I hadn’t made the move. Commercial radio keeps you on your toes. They say out in RTE if a show has been going for 20 years, ‘Let’s celebrate,’ but then the board of management suddenly says ‘What, is that thing still on?’ So you just don’t draw attention to yourself there, you keep a low profile and just get on with it.’

Twelve years on Dempsey still appears to love his breakfast show at Today FM and thrives on the audience’s reaction. He is particularly proud of the satirical ‘Gift Grub’ sketches which can seemingly make or break a politician’s career.

Some media pundits believe the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern’s image was helped by being depicted as ‘cuddly and cartoony’ on the show. Dempsey agrees to a certain extent, but says Ahern is now being depicted as an ‘evil menace’ that comes back from time to time.

The Gift Grub phenomenon has produced many CDs, a DVD and a sell-out stage show, which Dempsey co-wrote with his friend and the man behind the voices, Mario Rosenstock.

“Mario and I work extremely well together. You know when you can sit in a room and bounce off each other, think something is funny. There is nothing as satisfying as actually standing in the Royal Theatre at Castlebar or the Events Centre in Killarney, and there are 2,000 plus people laughing at something you discussed in a room,” he explains.

This year Dempsey will celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary. He met Ger through school friends when he was just 19, and plucked up the courage to ask her out on a date with the help of a friend.

“It was a bit like the Good Friday Agreement,” he recalls, laughing. “My friend negotiated, and I remember him coming back saying: ‘You have the green light’.

“I was working at the Abbey Theatre, so got free tickets,. It was a cheap date. We went to The Plough Bar first and her aunt came to check me out, make sure I wasn’t going to do anything odd. And we have been together ever since.’

To celebrate his milestone birthday, the whole family — the DJ has three children, Shane, 21, Evan 17, and Aislinn, 14 — turned up with a large cake and surprised him live on air. Then he had a low-key do at home and dinner with friends at one of his favourite restaurants.

“To be honest with you it was nothing major. When I had my 40th, that was right in the middle of the whole Celtic Tiger, we were all throwing everything around and we had a huge big night, so this was a good bit smaller than that,” he laughs loudly.

The mere mention of the Celtic Tiger years and excesses makes Dempsey shudder. He believes Ireland was living in a ‘haze’ worrying about the importance of getting the ‘in’ coffee, or bread, and going to the right place on holiday.

And as Dempsey recalls his own biggest extravagance, he begins to groan, and looks like he has a bad taste in his mouth.

“This is disgusting and I am embarrassed by it,” he says, grimacing.

“I bought an Audio Q7, which was about €100,000. You couldn’t park it anywhere because it was too big, and then if you did manage to park it someone would knock off it because it was so big. It was really hard to turn, it was embarrassing to look at. You just felt like a slob driving it so I just had to get rid of it.”

So how does he like being described as ‘the nicest man on radio’? Dempsey groans, and pulls a pained expression. He looks at me for a moment, struggling to put into words exactly how he feels, and then simply shrugs his shoulders.

“You have to say what does that word ‘nice’ mean? Does it mean bland, does it mean dull or does it mean grand? I would hate it if I wrote a song and someone said ‘Oh that’s nice.’ Rather than that’s ‘brilliant’ or that’s ‘complete crap’,” he says, emphatically.

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