'If Michael O'Leary rings Liveline, why can't the head of the HSE or a bishop come on?' – Joe Duffy speaks out

Joe Duffy was nine years old when his teacher told him that he was the most curious boy in the class. Fifty-three years later and he’s certainly one of the most inquisitive people that I’ve interviewed. We’re sitting in the RTÉ Radio canteen for what is supposed to be an interview, yet Joe is the one doing the investigating. Where are you living and what are you working on and how are you recording this – is that an app you’re using?

Maybe he’s trying to break the ice. Or maybe he’s just used to asking the questions…

It’s a busy time of the year for the broadcaster. He’s gearing up for the Liveline Christmas Eve special on Grafton Street and he has just finished filming a new series of Liveline: Callback.

In his spare time, he’s working on a book about The Troubles with ex-BBC journalist Freya McClements and rehearsing for the panto (we’ll get to that).

It’s a demanding schedule by anyone’s reckoning, especially when you couple it with his 6am wake-up time and his early morning swims in Westwood gym in Fairview.

The broadcaster takes his health and fitness seriously – largely because he knows he can’t afford to get sick. He drinks a Rubex [Vitamin C] solution every morning and he is seldom if ever waylaid by cold or flu. “Touch wood,” he says, before giving the table a hearty smack.

“You’re conscious of your voice as well,” he adds. A few weeks ago he went to an Abba tribute night and the next day his voice was breaking “because you had to shout it was so loud”.

Is his voice insured? “No it’s not,” he scoffs. “I’m not Lady Gaga!”

It was Gay Byrne who gave Joe the tip about Rubex. He also got him into the habit of washing his face as a pre-broadcast ritual. Joe often credits Gay for showing him the ropes of live radio and the importance of routine. However, he’d have to give himself a little bit of credit too. After all, it takes relentless drive to go from a childhood of poverty to a salary of almost €400,000 a year.

The second eldest of six children, Joe was born in a one-room home in a building on Dublin’s Mountjoy Square and brought up in a corporation house in Ballyfermot. His father – who died at 58 – had an alcohol problem; his brother, Brendan, had his own addiction issues and his younger brother, Aidan, died in a car crash in 1991.

The broadcaster sat his Leaving Cert twice. He was determined to get enough points to study Social Work in Trinity College – and even more determined to defy statistics and prove that a working-class person could progress to third-level education.

Joe started his degree in Trinity College in 1977. A couple of years later he was elected president of the Trinity College Students’ Union and four years later he became a very outspoken president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

The young Ballyfermot man had fire in his belly, especially when the then Minister for Health, Barry Desmond, announced in late 1983 that third-level students wouldn’t be entitled to medical cards in their own right.

Incensed by the discrimination, Joe and a group of students organised a number of protests, which culminated in the occupation of the Eastern Health Board headquarters on Thomas Street. Joe and four others were arrested the following day and brought to Mountjoy Prison where they were incarcerated for the next two weeks.

After completing his degree in Social Work, Joe trained as a family therapist. “I was in the first batch of family therapists qualified in Ireland,” he says, “and that was a pretty intense course.

“There would have been an awful lot of intensive supervision and checking yourself – not just knowing what the next question is but knowing what does the next question elicit and in what direction is it likely to go after that.”

If his experience as a student activist taught him how to rouse listeners on Liveline, his training as a family therapist taught him how to really listen.

Joe was working as a probation officer when RTÉ announced an open call for a radio producer training programme. “I remember when I applied for the job I said to them, ‘I didn’t do media studies in DCU, or journalism in Rathmines or whatever.’ I had never used a tape recorder; I didn’t know shorthand. I said, ‘If you’re taking 20 people, maybe take one person who is not a journalist – one person from a different background.’ And that’s what I tried to sell them – my difference.”

The powers that be in Montrose obviously liked the cut of his jib. Joe joined RTÉ radio as a producer in 1989 before becoming an accidental reporter on Gay Byrne’s morning radio show. One of his first reports was from the top of a double-decker bus. “Mobile phones had only come out – they were these big bricks – and somebody was worried about something in Malahide and it involved a bus journey from Malahide into Dublin. I said, ‘Why don’t I try to get one of those mobile phones off tech services?’

“It was more about the fun of me being upstairs on a bus,” he continues. “I remember describing going by Charlie Haughey’s house and his washing being out and all that carry on.”

Listeners seemed to like the ‘difference’ that Joe had pitched as his USP. RTÉ radio bosses did too. Before long, the accidental reporter became an accidental presenter. He took over Liveline in December 1999.

Joe describes the show as a “platform for the powerless” – a show where the listeners do the talking. “I want people interacting with each other,” he says. “I want conversations. I want people being able to hear different points of view.

“Irish people are very radio literate,” he adds. “If you tune into BBC4’s Any Answers?, the opening remark [from listeners calling in] is, ‘Hello? Can you hear me?’. Of course we can hear you! It’s very sedate and you don’t get people interacting with each other.”

The broadcaster adds that he doesn’t just listen to radio. He “monitors” it. “I could have two stations on the go at the same time,” he admits, “and my iPad never leaves my side.”

As for podcasts, he likes true crime – West Cork especially – but he doesn’t see them overtaking radio. “I don’t see that as taking away a slice of the cake,” he says. “I think that it’s all adding to discourse.”

Besides, it’s all part of his preparation before arriving into the studio every day at 1.30pm. At that point he reads over the briefs prepared by the show’s four producers and two researchers, and readies himself for a live broadcast that, more often than not, goes completely off-script.

“The nature of the programme is that you have a bit of an idea of where it’s going to start but no idea where it’s going to end,” he says. “Last month someone called in about a dog running wild in Naas. Then a farmer rang in with an idea of how to catch it. Then another farmer rang in and said you know those dogs are used for hunting hares. Within three minutes we had people phoning in about coursing – and then a big debate on coursing and cruelty to animals began.”

The Liveline team don’t always know who’s going to call in. Dublin criminal John Daly – who was shot dead in a gangland feud in 2007 – called Liveline from his prison cell in Portlaoise a few months before his death. The infamous broadcast led to a clampdown on mobile phones in prisons. More recently, Dean Russell, a man with a history of criminality, called the show to complain about five Gardai arriving to his home at 3.55am with an arrest warrant for a speeding charge.

“One thing I was very conscious of when he phoned in – and I said it to the lads – was ‘has he got current convictions?'” says Joe. “From my background in probation and prison services, I know that a lot of people grow out of crime. They get married and their kids grow up. So I said, ‘Let him have his say and let people make up their own minds’.”

Of course, for every person pushing for airtime on Liveline, there’s another who point blank refuses to go on the show. Joe says it’s the “default mode” of PR companies to advise their clients not to go on Liveline. “It’s terrible advice,” he adds. “If Micheal O’Leary – the biggest, most successful businessman ever to come out of Ireland rings Liveline – why can’t the head of the HSE or a bishop come on?”

More than 370,000 people tune into Liveline every day, but the show has its fair share of critics too. Some deride it as an echo chamber for whingebags – or ‘Whineline’ as they prefer to call it. Comedian David McSavage took it a step further when he portrayed the broadcaster as a bondage gear-wearing sadomasochist who got turned on by the trials and tribulations of listeners.

Yet even the show’s loudest detractors can’t argue with Liveline’s vast influence. And while there are certainly moments of anger, bigotry and vitriol, it is balanced by moments of common humanity and kindness.

Earlier this year, two anonymous Liveline listeners donated €8,000 to a man with spina bifida so he could buy a new wheelchair. In 2009, more than 5,000 people applied to carry organ donor cards after writer Frank Deasy’s emotional appeal for a life-saving liver transplant.

“It just goes to show, if someone is in difficulty, we will rally around and help,” says Joe. “We’re still good at that in this country.”

Liveline fans can expect stories of a similar vein in Liveline: Callback. Now in its third series, the television show revisits the people that struck a chord with listeners, from 25-year-old Taekwondo star Conor Grassick who gave up on his Olympic dream to care for his mum and brother, to Derek Burnett, the British man who wanted to find the Good Samaritan who stepped in when he was subjected to racist abuse in a Limerick restaurant.

Joe says he still finds it hard to comprehend the abuse that was levelled at Derek. “What surprised me was that in a group of five men, not one man took a leadership position and said, ‘You’re out of order there – give it a rest’. I always say to my kids, when someone gets messy, someone has to take a leadership position and say, ‘Right lads, we’re out of here’.”

The broadcaster mentions his children, triplets Ellen, Seán and Ronan (23), throughout our chat. Ellen is a 2nd class teacher and, according to her dad, “very opinionated”. Seán is completing a Masters in Public Policy in UCD and is Joe’s go-to person for anything to do with foreign affairs. Ronan recently started working with a biotech start-up firm. “He has explained to me what he’s doing but I can’t understand!”

All three children live at home, much to Joe and his wife June’s delight. “I’m glad they’re all still at home,” he says, “and they will be for a while I’d say.

“They’d be a good social conscience in the house,” he adds “They’re all involved in Saint Vincent de Paul and June is the chair of different things.”

There’s also a strong work ethos. “I’m a great believer in work – keeping busy and everyone having their routine,” he says. “I don’t like my kids sleeping in. I like everyone pulling together.”

If the children complain about long work hours, their dad reminds them that they’re not “digging coal in Arigna”. If they complain about a rude customer or client, he reminds them that they can never truly know what’s going on in someone else’s life. “If people go down, you try and go up,” he counsels.

When the children were younger, they would walk 100 yards behind Joe and June when they were out as a family. “People would walk by and they’d hear them say, ‘Is that Joe Duffy from the radio?’, or someone else might say, ‘Is that that dope Joe Duffy?’ Whatever it was, they’d get a bit of a laugh out of it.”

If all goes to plan, they’ll be laughing even harder at the opening night of the Cheerios Panto of Snow White and the Adventures of Sammy Sausages & Buffy after their dad agreed to play the role of Magic Mirror.

“I absolutely love the panto,” says Joe, “and we’ve been going to that panto since it started. We were one of the few people who turned up in the big snow in 2010 – and we walked halfway to get there!”

Joe won’t be treading the boards every night – his performance will be filmed in advance and appear as a hologram on the stage – but he’s taking his rehearsals as seriously as any other performer. “I remember Brian Dowling did it before and it was absolutely hilarious,” he says. “I said I’ll have a go at it but I’m not as good an actor as Brian.

“Anyway, we did a bit last week and Karl [Broderick, director] said, ‘On the basis of that rehearsal, you’ll be up there with Brian’.”

“Look,” he concludes, “once you say you’re performing, you just go for it. That’s showbiz, isn’t it?”

‘Liveline: Callback’ resumes on RTÉ One on Thursday, November 22 at 7pm

Photography: Fran Veale

Styling: Roxanne Parker

Shot at The Viking Theatre, Clontarf, vikingtheatredublin.com

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