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Marty's big gamble

He took a gamble, lost ... and wasn't let near an RTÉ radio studio for another decade

Marty Whelan was the first big RTÉ star to jump ship for a rival. But it didn’t work out, and he ended up down the dole office within 24 months.

MARTY WHELAN IS something of a pioneer in radio terms – although as he says himself “I never thought of myself as that”.

Years later, when the likes of Ian Dempsey and Ray D’Arcy decided to jump ship from Montrose for independent radio they would have had a fair idea of the consequences that might have for their future prospects at RTÉ, based on what happened to Whelan.

To put it another way, Marty Whelan going to Century was the Pat Kenny goes to Newstalk of its day.

More or less…

It was actually a far riskier prospect, as the ubiquitous light entertainment host explained when he dropped into for a chat (yes, he has a book out).

Gamble of the Century

What in the world was Century, you ask…

Well, it was a pretty big deal. Launched to much fanfare in 1989, the Oliver Barry-backed venture was the country’s first national commercial radio station.

marty5 RTE Archives RTE Archives

It had big money and big names behind it: Terry Wogan, who was on the board of directors, was the first voice on air, and Whelan was one of its star signings – jumping ship from 2fm where he had made his name over the previous decade.

A huge risk, but with rewards just as great – if the gamble paid off.

Says the presenter:

I was very very unsure of it, I had to be unsure – no-one had done it before.

Whether or not his TV projects would be dropped (he had three on the go at the time, including Sunday evening pre-Glenroe staple ‘Where in the World’) he had no idea.

“I took a chance that they might be but equally that they mightn’t be and I would have been able to retain them. Which would have been amazing.”

I didn’t know they were going to go. Until clearly I was told they were gone.

mart6 "It's all in the book... Have you seen the book?"

66 people were hired to work at the station, which was based in the Christchurch area of Dublin. But almost as soon as it was launched, the problems began to emerge.

As Whelan notes, he started to worry when the potted plants began to disappear from the lobby… When the paper started to disappear from the toilets he really started to worry.

Finally, in November 1991, millions of pounds in debt, the station suddenly shut down…

Video / YouTube

It just went, it just stopped. And that was very very frightening.

For the first time in his life (with a wife, and a young family) the now ex-DJ found himself down the dole office. He remembers doing laps of the building “and ringing home and saying ‘I can’t do this’ … it was a very very strange feeling”.

I had to do it. And what scared me was that I had to keep it going and the thing is, how do you keep it going?

Despite all his worries, “people were great, people would roll down windows and say ‘are you alright’?”

Income from a series of commercials for Daz washing powder kept his head above water financially until he began to pick up regular TV work again.

But as the presenter reminds us, it would be over ten years before he was allowed near a radio microphone in Donnybrook again. He deadpans:

Clearly there was no animosity and nobody meant me any ill will.

m9 "Clearly there was no animosity and nobody meant me any ill will."

Other broadcasters who had also left for Century were back on RTÉ radio long before Whelan’s return “but I was perceived to be the flag-waver… which was incorrect at every level, then and now”.

He was, he adds, very fortunate that certain powers-that-be in the TV arm of the national broadcaster said “there is no problem”.

Video / YouTube

Note: Marty Whelan’s book  - ‘That’s Life’ – is published by Gill and McMillan and available in all good bookshops for around €22.99. 

Read: Nicky Byrne’s game show axed as Marty Whelan returns

Read: The real star of the Eurovision? That would be Marty Whelan’s Twitter account

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