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Marian Finucane: A broadcaster who changed who we heard from - and what we were hearing

The veteran broadcaster spent her career giving ordinary people a platform.

NEWS BROKE TODAY of the sudden passing of veteran broadcaster Marian Finucane at the age of 69.

Finucane started her career at RTÉ in the 1970s and became a household name over the years. Through her radio programme Women Today, to its next iteration – Liveline – and finally The Marian Finucane Show, she was known for her easy manner and dry sense of humour. 

She is remembered today as a trailblazer who changed not only the voice behind the microphone but also that on the other side. She ‘invented’ Liveline, its current host Joe Duffy, admits.

She spoke to ordinary women on Women Today, about ordinary things. Being bored at home. Not being paid fairly at work. Not being able to avail of contraception.

On weekdays – in the Gay Byrne slot from 1999 –  she became a household companion. And until last month, on Saturdays and Sundays, she spoke to the people who ran Ireland. She asked them the questions that the people listening at home were shouting at the radio. She listened and picked holes in the answers. 

Source: RollingNews.ie

Her standout moments weren’t just about holding those people to account. Many came from more tender places, when she was speaking to those impacted by the decisions of power brokers, where her empathy, desire for equality and natural curiosity could shine. 

The student activist

Before she had even joined the national broadcaster, Finucane appeared on RTÉ television as the subject of a report herself. Aged 19, she was part of a student occupation on St Stephen’s Green to restore a partially demolished building.

She said she was spending Christmas week at the building because she felt it was her responsibility to ensure it wasn’t demolished.

Source: RTÉ

“My responsibility first of all as a student, being helped along by the taxpayer and as an architecture student I’m involved in the business anyway. And as well as that I feel as a Dubliner I have a responsibility to the rest of people in Dublin,” she says in a clip that has become public in recent years through the national broadcaster’s social media channels.

Women Today

Finucane’s credentials as a women’s rights advocate were solidified on 31 May 1979 when she presented her first episode of Women Today, produced by Clare Duignan.

In her book ‘Inside RTE’, Betty Purcell wrote that Women Today mirrored the subject matter of the Women’s Movement.

It gave a platform to women who had been isolated in their homes and to others who had been put upon in their workplaces. It popularised the technique of using the voices of real people on the phone to talk about subjects that were hitherto taboo or hushed.

She also wrote of Finucane’s ability to make the most intimate conversations happen over the airwaves.

“Her particular skill was to make radio presentation seem easy and casual and listeners were happy to share their live with her in a deep and personal way.”

Her feminism was textbook – making life fair and equal for men and women. So it was not unusual that in its first year, the show produced two special editions on sex education and heard from young men who said when they left school they “knew where babies came from but not how they got there”.

One said he did not know women had periods until he was 18.

Finucane had started the first in her two-part series with these words:

This is an area which, if neglected, seems to cause terrible problems in later life; sadness, confusion, frustration and indeed a lot of unhappiness.

Tweet by @Helen O'Rahilly 🇮🇪🏳️‍🌈🇪🇺 Source: Helen O'Rahilly 🇮🇪🏳️‍🌈🇪🇺/Twitter

In March 1984, Finucane reported on women training for the second women’s mini marathon. Women from a running group in Kingswood Heights in Clondalkin told her training for the marathon helped to relieve tension and boredom from housework.

This episode also featured Nell McCafferty, Nuala O’Faolain, Doireann Ní Bhriain and Thomasena Corrigan running with Finucane on a beach, timed by Duignan.

Source: RTÉ

‘Free at last’

In several of her radio and television broadcasts, Finucane was seated next to writer and activist Nell McCafferty.

One of their most well-remembered appearances was a 1980 Late Late Show, dedicated to women in the media. 

In response to a comment in a report submitted to the RTÉ Authority that Marian Finucane would never get the chair of ‘The Late Late Show’, presenter Gay Byrne offered her his seat.

Several women in the audience gave her a standing ovation as McCafferty cheered and quipped: “At last, free at last, thank God we’re free at last”.

Source: RTÉ

Liveline

Women Today didn’t just provide a much-needed platform for its target audience. It also provided the spark for one of RTE’s most successful shows – Liveline. 

Paying tribute to his predecessor, Joe Duffy today said: 

It grew out of Women Today. One of the aspects she brought to Liveline was her charm. Everyone knew going on Liveline and then going on her current programme at the weekend, that you would get a fair hearing.

“She had a most welcoming voice. She was a most gracious woman, a really genuine person.

“I just think she was the voice of reason, that lovely soothing, charming, welcoming voice that made such a difference on the national airwaves.”

Interviews

From Liveline, she honed her talent for putting ordinary people at ease and it was skill she perfected during her interviews on her eponymous weekend show, particularly when dealing with a controversial or personal topic.

Tweet by @Orla Tinsley Source: Orla Tinsley/Twitter

One of her most notable interviews was with lifelong friend, author Nuala O’Faolain, shortly before her death in 2008. 

“The certainty we all have in this life is that we will die,” she began, as she introduced O’Faolain’s terminal diagnosis. 

The broadcaster explained how those who face such a death sentence are rarely heard from and “that means they very often can be isolated as they protect others”. 

In her frank and emotional interview, O’Faolain said:

I was just reading about some best-selling man who says ‘Live your dream to the end’ and I don’t despise anyone who does, but I don’t see it that way. Even if I gained time through chemotherapy, it isn’t time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life.

She told Finucane “the very essence of this experience is aloneness”.

Armageddon

Also known for her wry style, one of Finucane’s more confrontational interviews was a one-on-one with former chair and CEO of Anglo Irish bank Sean Fitzpatrick in October 2008 during which she asked him whether he had seen “Armageddon coming”.

She also questioned whether he had “any indigestion” after he told her he was out for dinner with a friend the night Anglo’s shares were down 46%.

When asked by a listener to the show if he would apologise to the taxpayer in light of the multi-billion-euro bailout, the bank chair refused, explaining that the cause of the problem was a global one.

“Of course banks have made mistakes and Anglo Irish Bank has made mistakes because we’re in the business of risk,” he said during the interview. “But have we been reckless? No, we haven’t. We cover all our loans in a belt-and-braces way.”

‘Weekend mornings will never be quite the same’

In a tribute to the popular broadcaster, President Michael D Higgins said she “dealt with discussions and confrontations between different voices on what were controversial issues of the day”.

“She was one of the very early exemplars to those who sought a proper representation of women in broadcasting,” he added.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was “stunned and deeply saddened” to hear of her death.

Source: RTE

“She was a true broadcasting legend who reshaped current affairs radio in Ireland. Ireland will miss her voice. Weekend mornings will never be quite the same again.

“I spent many hours in the studio with Marian. She was thorough, courteous and professional.

“I’m very sad to think that we won’t hear her voice again on the radio.”

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