The Big Interview: Anchorman Molloy ready to go mainstream

Tomorrow evening, Joe Molloy will take the next step in a lauded but relatively low-key career when he debuts as anchor of TV3’s Six Nations coverage. Even his dad has told him this one is huge so he is nervous, anxious not to ‘make a balls of it’, but also determined to trust the instincts that have made him a three-time radio sports broadcaster of the year.

The Big Interview: Anchorman Molloy ready to go mainstream

The voice will be familiar to quite a few of you but the face won’t be to most. Which is much of the appeal of Joe Molloy to TV3, if part of the trepidation for the man himself. When unveiling the station’s lineup for its inaugural coverage of the Six Nations, executive producer Niall Cogley spoke about how their choice of anchor was “a bit of a statement”.

“We think he is a real talent for the future,” Cogley would elaborate.

“He is polished, has his prep done and will ask the questions that need to be asked. And there’s also an excitement to be had in bringing someone fresh in for a significant broadcasting moment like this.”

Nobody is more aware or appreciative of the moment than Molloy himself. It’s over 21 years ago now when the notion of being a sports broadcaster first registered with him, back when he was an 11-year-old in front of his parents’ TV in Celbridge and Des Lynam famously and breezily set the scene for the seismic England-Germany semi-final at Euro ‘96: “Glad you’ve tuned in. You’ve obviously heard there’s a football match on tonight.”

Well, this weekend there’s a rugby match on in Paris and over 1m people will be tuned in to TV3.

In that moment he will be catapulted from  Off The Ball to the nation, someone with a cute indie following to the mainstream, from War to The Unforgettable Fire, if not quite The Joshua Tree. The thought of camera, lights, action brings a sense of excitement, privilege, fear.

“I’m feeling the full spectrum of emotions,” he admits with the sort of honesty and insight that he so consistently extracts from others.

“Honoured because these are national moments. I mean, the vast majority of people I know and you know will be watching these matches at the weekend. There aren’t many programmes you can say that about in a given week.

“Even my dad, who would be very laidback, went ‘Oh my God, that’s huge!’ when I told him I’d got the gig. If he’s saying it’s huge, it’s huge! So I’m a bit nervous for sure. It’s one of those things you want to get right. You don’t want to make a balls of it.

“But the most important thing is to be able to step back and say, ‘Well, how much of my self-worth is tied up in this?’ As a friend, as a partner, as a son. How much of my identity is tied up into doing a good job?”

It’s the kind of line and outlook that Molloy has often heard in the Newstalk studio: a sportsperson talking about the struggle and need to separate their own esteem and self-image from the sport they play.

And so it makes sense for him to peddle it when reflecting on his own circumstances. But does he actually adhere to it? To follow up on his own question: how much of his identity is tied up into doing a good job?

“Probably more than I would like, unfortunately. Because I put so much work into it.

“But I’m getting married later this year, in December [to fiancée Keavy]. So if I’m a well-rounded person, I have to think that 2018, regardless of how the next few weeks go, will have to go down as a great year for me.”

For all the fears that he might just be expressing here, you’d still have little fear for him.

That in venting his concerns, he’s simultaneously reducing them. That it’ll be all right on the night, not least because he’s prepared so diligently that he’ll know how to cope on the night.

He’s studied and learned from the best through the years, and just the other day, from Jim Rosenthal. The veteran British broadcaster anchored multiple Six Nations broadcasts and World Cups and Olympics and earlier this week in his capacity as a consultant called out to TV3’s studios to spend the day with Molloy.

“Quite a bit of it was on the technical end — going through running orders, getting his thoughts on some of the stuff I’d prepared — but essentially what he said to me was this: ‘Look, you’ll have lots of different people telling you what you should do, what you should wear, how you should deliver it.

"But if you try to follow everyone’s advice, you’re going against your own instincts. Ultimately you just have to be yourself. Whether it goes really well or it doesn’t go well, it will be far easier to digest it if you can look and say you did it the way you wanted to do it.’ That sounded like good advice.”

And so, he plans to heed it. To just be himself. And to remember, it’s not about him anyway.

He learned that from John Giles. Five years ago Molloy was filling in for Ger Gilroy for the first time on the Thursday soccer slot in which Giles is a regular contributor. Having been a handy soccer player himself back in the day — winning multiple Leinster Senior Leagues with his local club Ballyoulster United — Molloy was keen to impress upon Giles his knowledge and research of the game.

“My questions were sub-clause after sub-clause. ‘So James McCarthy, John, I saw him against Everton against three weeks ago and he was doing this but then the month before that he didn’t do this like a proper midfielder should and he was he like that again last night…’

“So afterwards we were chatting in the studio for a bit when he said to me, ‘Do you want some advice?’

“And I said, ‘Yeah. Please.’ Because most people don’t give you advice directly, they just tell you to your face that you were great and then tell someone else where you were poor.

“Giles said, ‘Your questions are too long. That’s only my opinion, go back and listen to it yourself, but I thought they were. Nobody cares what you think. I’ll watch the golf and the reporter will be talking to Tiger Woods after his round and he’ll say ‘Tiger, on the third you did this and on the sixth you did this brilliantly…’ And I’ll be at home thinking, ‘Don’t tell me what you think! Ask Tiger what he thinks!’ Just be like a referee. Don’t have anyone notice that you’re there. But maybe in a few months’ time people will be able to go, ‘You know what, I enjoyed that. It’s not bad when he’s on’. That’s how they’ll notice you.’”

Giles invariably was right. For each of the following three years Molloy was honoured as the Sports Broadcaster of the Year at the PPI Radio Awards. But just as satisfyingly, he’d come to win Giles’s hard-earned approval. A few times since that first encounter, they’ve recorded a piece, gone to an ad, and Giles has tapped the counter while looking at Molloy. That was good, Joe. That was good.

As much as he would seem to be a natural broadcaster, Molloy like all the great ones is something of an accidental one.

He went to college with a view to becoming an English and history teacher which is why he’d major in those subjects as part of his BA; while he’d read somewhere that such a qualification could also prove useful in journalism, he didn’t really view such a career as a likely prospect.

“‘You have to know someone to get into RTÉ’ was one of the great lines in Irish life at the time. And I would be a bit of a worrier by nature. I was disgracefully sensible for my age.”

College though wasn’t anything like he’d hoped it would be. For one, he went to Maynooth, just a few miles from home, so he was still living with mom and dad. No parties there.

Neither was there any sport; for years a series of injuries were misdiagnosed and mistreated, his aching knees and legs merely the symptoms not the cause of his discomfort, until someone finally identified his issue was a lack of flexibility in his hips.

And as much as he loved history and English, the subjects weren’t taught in third level with anything like the same passion and engagement as he’d been exposed to in Salesian College where his captain, my captain Joe Buckley was as inspiring as John Keating.

But looking back now on those dark, lonesome days, a few sporadic rays of light would sustain him. While he’d be waiting in the cold and rain for a bus to take him home, he’d turn the dial out as far as 106FM. And there it was, his Heartbreak Hotel moment: just as Elvis would rock and change the world of a generation

with that opening riff and wail, the wit and intellect of Ger Gilroy and Ken Early was unlike anything Molloy had heard in a sports show.

“It was just such a different style to what you’ve had on RTÉ. Ken Early was as likely to explain the weekend’s football by talking about a psychology experiment on rats as he was in a straightforward way about football. After that I started to follow Off The Ball religiously and began to think, ‘You probably don’t have to know someone who knows someone to get into Newstalk’,.”

If he was to be part of the new rock’n’roll, though, he first needed to get himself to a studio, do some demos, do a course.

A month out from his final exams, he spotted a flyer stuck under his window-wiper. The college was running a postgrad in radio and television production the following academic year.

After its first week, he’d made and edited a 10-minute documentary on a day in the life of his young brother’s U14 team, featuring the pre-match and half-time team talks, some animated comments from parents and players on the line, as well as a mention that his own brother had scored the winning goal. A week later it went out on Kildare FM. A month later he was doing match reports for the Liffey Champion, and presenting a Friday night slot on local community radio station, Liffey Sound.

Ahead of the 2007 general election, he’d interview all the candidates in the Dublin mid-west area, including Frances Fitzgerald. That experience in hard news would make him. And it would ground him.

In the studio they could monitor how many listeners they had at any one time and one Friday night while reviewing the local papers, he could tell there was an audience of just one. And as it turned out, that one person happened to be the computer outside the studio to make sure the feed was working.

“Literally no one was listening,” smiles Molloy.

“But it didn’t matter. I remember asking my younger brother to listen in and tell me what he thought and he said, ‘You say ‘Emm’ too much.’ I said, ‘OK, I have to work on that.’ So right from the second or third show, I was rapidly improving.”

He’d weave his way into Newstalk.

Shane Lowry, right, with Newstalk presenter Joe Molloy at the Newstalk?s official sponsorship of The Irish Open 2013.
Shane Lowry, right, with Newstalk presenter Joe Molloy at the Newstalk?s official sponsorship of The Irish Open 2013.

Do a few sports bulletins on the Sunday night graveyard shift at first, then a slot as a researcher on the Eamon Keane lunchtime show, filling in for Laura Whitmore who was auditioning for MTV.

At the time his knowledge of current affairs amounted to little outside of Dublin mid-west politics, he was winging it at the start, but he’d make up for it.

Every morning he’d be up at six, devouring the papers and morning radio shows. In the evenings he’d bring the papers home with him and highlight every page of them with lines that wouldn’t necessarily inform the next day’s show but just to get his knowledge up to speed.

By six months he was there. Good enough for the meticulous Keane to rate him anyway, and then for The Right Hook to approach him.

All the time though sport was still a passion and worrying was still his nature.

“Even at 23 I felt old and that I needed to have my shit together. Should I go back to teaching? I really thought about it. I wasn’t just content to be a researcher and see where it went. So I rang Clem Smith in Kildare FM and asked if he had any work. And as it turned out, he said, ‘Yeah, do you want to present the Saturday sports show?’”

A little while later he handed Ger Gilroy a CD and asked him to take a listen to one of his shows. Anyone else would have said, “Sure, I’ll take a listen later.” Gilroy said, “Sure, I’ll listen to it now.” And so, as he slipped it into his laptop, Molloy slipped away and waited for the verdict.

It was mostly positive. The 2010 World Cup was starting soon and Gilroy asked Molloy to be a producer on a lunchtime show they were running for that month. Then he poached him for good from The Right Hook team.

It would be wrong to say Molloy has never looked back since because he constantly looks back — reviewing his last show.

More than Giles, more than his younger brother, he’s his own harshest critic. Although he works in sport, Molloy doesn’t know if he’s won or lost when the final whistle goes, or he’s off the air, or even as he leaves the building, making his way home from Marconi House.

It’s only when he checks the tape, like the most meticulous rugby player, that he knows.

“There’s that Butch Harmon saying in golf: ‘What you feel isn’t real.’ You might feel you’re taking the club back in a good path when in fact you haven’t. Equally on radio, say the headlines on the Sunday papers review, you might feel your delivery was energetic or your pitch was right but when you listen back it didn’t come across that way on the radio.

“And the reason I listen back straightaway is because I remember how it felt. It’s still fresh in my mind. Like, I could listen back to something I did on the radio seven months ago and have more critiques then you could imagine but I wouldn’t be able to remember what I was thinking at the time, how it felt at the time.”

And so, in the comfort of his own house, and often his own bed, he’ll experience the discomfort of assessing his own performance only hours earlier: did that work?

Case in point: the recent Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini interview when the former WBA lightweight champion recounted how he killed another man in the ring. Listeners texted in how much they loved it. But for Molloy that wasn’t the measure of it.

“I was very nervous that night when I went home and got into bed. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep so I said, ‘I’m going to have to listen to this to confirm if it’s as good as I thought it was.’”

And so he listened back. Normally he’d berate himself if he repeatedly said ‘Yeah’, egging an interviewee on, but this was different. If the guest was in a studio, Molloy would just nod to the interviewee. Mancini was taking a transatlantic call.

“He was talking about a very delicate subject, killing another man, so it became very obvious to me that he was speaking in a certain rhythm and wanted to know I was with him before he moved on to the next thing.

"So when he said, ‘The priest came up to my room and I was very anxious’, I could tell he was waiting for me to go ‘Yeah.’ That he was like, ‘You understand why I was nervous, don’t you?’ ‘Yeah.’”

And listening to the interview back, Molloy’s own fears dissipated. He hadn’t lost the game that night. “Thankfully I was able to go, ‘Yeah, I can live with that. It’s not perfect but it’s good.’”

Expect the same process — and same result — with the rugby in the weeks ahead.

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