It’s six months since Ray Foley joined Red FM. He talks Dublin-Cork commutes with Marjorie Brennan
I am sitting in a radio studio listening to RedFM breakfast show presenter Ray Foley delivering a hilarious riff about the spider that has moved into his apartment — apparently he’s called Seamus and now has his own Xbox. Co-presenter Jason Coughlan is busting a gut laughing but as a guest listening in to the live show, I don’t have that option and struggle to suppress the giggles. The laughs come hard and fast listening to the two stars of Breakfast with Ray & Jay in action, and it’s the same in conversation. They have such an easy and humorous rapport, it’s hard to believe they have been presenting the show together for only six months, having been thrown together in less than auspicious circumstances after the departure of breakfast show host Kieran Cunningham (KC).
“The previous presenter — we’re not going to name him, he’s like Voldemort — left very suddenly,” says Foley [he later assures me he and KC are good friends]. “I was doing Saturdays and I was asked to come in and give it a go because they needed somebody to step in as quickly as possible. Jay was staying and I was saying ‘I don’t even know this guy, we might not even get on’ but we’ll give it a trial run. We were going on air on Monday and we were introduced to each other the previous Thursday in a hotel — it was all top secret.”
“Yeah, I was wearing a mask,” jokes Coughlan. “We had to get our photographs taken together, which was awkward.”
“We had to look like we were best buddies,” says Foley. “He was feeding me corn flakes. It was ridiculous. We were both doing that kind of awkward, embarrassed sweating.”
“I have never had a man in so much of my personal space so suddenly,” says Coughlan. “We were touching faces, holding hands.”
Six months later, they really do look like best buddies, telling me of their plans to join the gym together. “We’re going to be gym buddies — they say that’s the most effective way to do it,” says Foley. “You won’t recognise us in a month. I’ve been here since April 1 and I’ve managed to put on two-and-a-half stone.”
Part of the reason for Foley’s weight gain is the fact that he has been travelling from his home in Dublin to do the show.
“That’s just the lifestyle. Driving up and down and pulling in for a sandwich and a coffee. While I’m in Cork, I’m on holidays from home and when I’m at home, I’m on holidays from Cork. I’m eating and drinking like a fool.”
Foley has recently moved into an apartment across from the Red FM studios in Bishopstown, which, he tells me is “one minute, 16 seconds” from the studio. He stays there from Monday to Friday, when he travels back to Dublin to present the Six O’Clock Show on TV3, with Muireann O’Connell. “I don’t need to be at TV3 on Friday until 4pm. It’s about two hours and 40 minutes up, depending on traffic. If I finish here at 9am, I can get a few hours at home first.”
Foley has two children, aged three and five, with his wife Kate Carolan, who works as a journalist for RTÉ. Foley says she was very supportive of his decision to take up the breakfast show job.
“Yeah, she’s cool. She knows that I love doing radio. There are three of us in this relationship: Me, Jay, and my wife,” he laughs. “I had spent the previous year doing this very hands-on with the lads. I was dreading how they were going to respond to Daddy not being around and we were up the walls wondering how it would work and how Kate would manage. After the first week, she said it was grand, it was like ‘you clearly don’t do that much around here’. She gets the show on wifi and sticks it on in the kitchen every morning; she says from the first day, she could hear how me and Jay clicked.”
The transition was also relatively painless for Coughlan. “I’m pretty easygoing. I worked with KC for three years and we had a good on-air relationship and I was sad to see him go. But I knew from the first week with Ray that we were laughing.”
The show has also received a nomination for best breakfast show in the Imro awards.
“We are only on a few months and we have gotten record numbers, the highest numbers breakfast has ever had on Red FM; and now the nomination. We are delighted with that,” says Foley.
He adds that as a Mayo native, there was some speculation about how he would play with Cork audiences. “Jay is #moreCorkthanpureCork so I’m the blow-in. There was a bit of discussion about that when I started because RedFM is fiercely proud of being a local radio station. I said from the outset that I’m not going to pretend to know about Cork, that’s not what I’m about. On the air, we are quite honest about that. Jay will help me along or I’ll ask the questions.”
“We’ve had a lot of positive reaction with people coming up and saying they love the show,” says Coughlan.
“I was blown away by that because I had three years at a Dublin radio station [98fm] and there was none of that,” says Foley. “All I would get were references to Take Me Out, which I presented on TV3, not that I would go out expecting people to recognise me or stop me, that was just what people would react to. In Cork, in the first week or so, people would be coming up to me, ‘Foley, you’re on with Jay now, how’s he treating you?’
“Keith and Jay had built up a loyal audience which is constantly growing. If I go out and come into work the next morning, the notes on my phone are full of people’s names who I have to give a mention to. That is a testament to Red and its engagement with the audience.”
For Foley, the key to success is being as natural as possible. “We don’t want to misrepresent ourselves. In radio — and I’ve been guilty of this in the past — there can be a lot of meetings after the show is over, looking at flip charts, graphs, and focus groups. Our only benchmark is whether the show is one we would listen to.”
There has been a lot of discussion recently of how women are underrepresented on Irish radio, especially on stations such as Newstalk, which doesn’t have any female presenters in primetime weekday slots. The male double-act is a tried-and-tested format, especially on breakfast radio; does Foley think there is a danger such shows can become a bit too blokey?
“It is something I think about a lot. There is a difference between being a male presenter and being blokey. You mentioned Newstalk, yes it can be a bit blokey — they are men of a certain age, with a certain viewpoint who talk a lot about sport. The themes we discuss are not blokey.”
“We’re far from blokey,” says Coughlan.
As it turns out, I learn later on that Foley wrote his thesis for his master’s degree in journalism on the topic of gender representation in television news, so it’s a topic about which he’s well-informed.
“There is no question that radio is an impossibly sexist industry. White men of a certain age run the industry and they hire more white men of a certain age, that’s the way it goes. I am fortunate enough that I am a white man who got into it as a teenager, when nerdy young boys like me came together in pirate stations. That was a difficult nut for girls to crack — there were only a couple of girls when I was in pirate stations. It wasn’t closed to them, it was just hard to get into. Things are changing. Quotas are probably not the worst idea in the world. I’ve always been part of broadcast teams that have women. Finding talent of any gender is difficult for any radio station but when you find a talented woman, they should be championed.”
As a father of three girls, Coughlan is in agreement. “There are not enough women on air, absolutely. We have two fantastic female presenters here, Izzy Showbizzy [Isabel Bartak-Healy], who does a show in the evening, and Lisa [Lawlor] who does the Big Red Bench. Some women do get harsh treatment from people who do not know anything about radio. Quotas are probably the way to go. I wouldn’t like one of my girls, if they decided to go into radio, to be held back because they are female. Obviously, talent is the most important thing.”
Watching Foley in the studio, there’s no question he’s got the talent — cracking jokes, chatting with Jay, operating the desk, doing traffic reports, lining up competition guests. He makes it all look easy. After more than 20 years in the business, it probably is.
“It’s just like a train — you’re not really in control of it,” he says. “It’s going where it’s going, you just make sure it goes there. Jay is very relaxed. He’s nearly comatose.”
Coughlan laughs: “I was told once whatever you do don’t learn the desk because you will get caught for stupid things. So I’ve avoided it.”
“I love technology, gadgets and all that,” says Foley. “That is the least of where my energy goes. Trying to make Jay happy, that is where it goes.”
And with that, it’s off to take some shots with the photographer. I’m guessing there will be no corn flakes and a lot less awkwardness this time around.
Breakfast with Ray & Jay is on RedFM, 6am-9am, weekdays
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