I always thought that Tony Fenton was bombproof. I can’t say I ever knew him well enough to stand up that claim but, from the handful of jobs we did together over the years, and particularly from his stint fronting 2FM’s Hotline, that was the impression he conveyed.
In December, 1996, I wrote as much in a column in The Sunday Tribune newspaper. Researching that piece, I spent a couple of memorable hours in Tony’s company, watched him in action as he put his nightly radio show to air and left the building feeling like I’d been touched by the hand of Elvis. Tony Fenton could clearly make people feel special.
Four years later, wearing a different hat, myself and my friend Dave Hannigan were well into production on a documentary film about the footballer, Denis Irwin. Setting up for an interview with the former Ireland manager, Liam Touhy, in Home Farm Football Club on the Northside of Dublin, our attention was diverted to a team photograph on the wall of the fabled Whitehall clubhouse. ‘There’, our host remarked, ‘is one of your own’, and he pointed to Anthony Fagan, snapped as a callow youth player in one of the club’s many decorated under-age line-ups. Two of that side went on to play club football at the highest level in England, one of those among the finest midfield players Ireland has ever produced.
Anthony Fagan, as he’s listed on the wall at Home Farm, changed his name and went on to become, in my eyes, one of the finest music radio broadcasters of his time.
I requested that the cameraman capture the team photograph in close-up, with an emphasis on Anthony Fagan and, although the shot was irrelevant in the context of our Irwin film, I wanted to grab it for posterity. Tony would have made little of it, I’m certain, but I thought that it was important to recognise him, even on a tape bound for the archive. Because, rightly or wrongly, I felt that Tony rarely received the attention and respect he deserved, a couple of honourable colleagues and peers apart.
Below, and by way of paying tribute on the occasion of Tony’s premature passing, we’ve reproduced in full that piece from The Sunday Tribune. I’ve made a couple of minor edits to the original copy.
Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas dá anam.
The Fastest Hour Of The Day
The recent Smash Hits road-show that stopped over in Dublin two weeks ago may well have claimed the best and most-wanted pop bill of the year. But while Peter Andre, OTT, Ant And Dec and Sean Maguire pouted and pranced for the trainer-bras and the 10-somethings, the real and most potent pop force around these parts was hanging back-stage, having just broadcast his nightly power- pop hour to the nation. That force was, and is, Tony Fenton: – disc-jockey, golfer and one-time carpenter, owner of the fastest hour of the day and the best and most mammoth pop radio programme the country has ever laid claim to.
Fenton broadcasts his 2FM Hotline nightly – a power-surge of colossal jingles, often abject pop music, a rush of give-aways, telephone callers and teen requests – and it’s easily popular music radio’s trump of diamonds. In a world of mid-Atlantic formula, classic hits and far too much of the ordinary and the well- behaved, Fenton is planets beyond the banal. His show plays more records per hour, runs more power-jingles, gets through more requests and consistently delivers a good time, all of the time. Purely and simply, no more and defiantly no less. Its brighter, its better and, despite the programme’s out-front gang- mentality, it’s very positively Tony Fenton’s.
‘There is’, he says, ‘a world of difference between presenters and jocks, and I’m very much a disc jockey. Real jocks ‘ride the records’ because they’re genuinely excited about what they’re playing. They’re enjoying their jobs and they’re having fun, that’s all’.
Fenton arrived onto national radio over ten years ago, on the day that Bruce Springsteen brought ‘Born in The U.S.A.’ to Slane. His route to ‘the fastest hour of the day’ [which, including news and sport is actually a 56-minute one] was through the familiar mires of pirate radio, scout-hall hops and late-night clubs. Which by now, of course, are soaked in nips of nostalgia and trivia but which, almost 20 years ago, meant the whole world.
‘I always loved just listening to songs on the radio and, just like most people my age I imagine, grew up with Radio Luxembourg on my pillow. The whole disc jockey thing kinda developed from there, really. Songs. Radio. Records. We just couldn’t get enough. Barry Lang [a radio colleague and long-time school friend] and myself were in the scouts together in Ballygall in Finglas and we did our first ever live show in a youth hall over there simply because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
‘I brought down my turntables, Barry brought down his and we both brought ten or twelve records and we just played them frontways and backways and sideways. We had one red light and we used to shout over the songs to intro them. It might have been basic, sure enough, but we thought that we were genuinely rock and roll. We even had a roadie’.
Harmless enough, of course, but a strain which, to this day, is Fenton’s key. If pop radio at it’s most potent is all about swallowing the unbelievable and about glamour and style, suspending the disbelief, then Fenton’s Hotline is positively up-there. Driven by the surge of vast, heavily-treated jingles, by the most insistent popular music anywhere and by Fenton’s hour-long energy-rush, the show genuinely flies.
‘The jingles are a very important part of the whole package’, Fenton admits, ‘just because they’re so absolutely big. There’s so much power going on in there that the whole thing just takes off. They’re actually done by this 24-year-old guy from North Carolina called Zeus. The God of Thunder. And they’re pretty damned cool’.
That said however, Fenton is cut largely from pop radio’s most enduring and endearing cloth. In his own mind he’s a tradesman who’s already served his time, an entertainer and a showman. And he’s having the best blast.
‘Most disc jockeys have people that they look up to’, he says, ‘and I’ve always looked up to classic Radio Luxembourg. To people like Benny Brown and Mark Wesley and Rob Jones. And to people like Simon Bates on BBC’s Radio One, of course. Bates was always one step ahead, always more the presenter than the jock, so that when he read the star-signs they actually sounded interesting and believable. And you don’t get that stuff anymore’.
‘I liked Brown and Jones because they were always so tight on the radio – and the records that they played were always the best records, the jingles were great and they actually sounded excited, as if they really loved their jobs. And that’s what I hope I’ve taken from those guys because my own show is very much for real. It’s not put on or anything because I’m just genuinely ‘up there’. I just love playing records on the radio.
‘For years we slogged away on pirate radio, we were paid five quid every week and the cheques always bounced. It was whoever got to the pub first to cash the cheque got paid that week. And we did it because we loved it, because we definitely wanted to be successful.
‘There were a lot of guys around at the time who just wanted the dough but they were just the short-term guys. I guess that in this line, just like in any other, you reap what you sow’.
Which, for Tony Fenton these days is nightly radio, a whole lot of spare time, commercials and voice-overs, mobile telephones, motorbikes and football. ‘I played soccer kind of seriously until my mid-teens’, he recalls. ‘I played to a decent under-age level with Home Farm, with people like Ronnie Whelan and Gary Howlett, but I lost interest when I started listening to more music and when I started buying more records.
‘I still play a bit of golf, mind you, although I don’t play often enough to cough up six grand for proper club membership or whatever. I’ve had my handicap down to 11 but I’ve just got the wrong kind of grip, a cack-handed grip. But I do get out quite a bit, especially for charity. I play quite a bit for charity’.
Which is no less that we’d expect, of course, especially from someone who knows the etiquette and the rules of where he’s at by heart and who, even when all of the jingles and all of the give-aways are stripped out, is still having the big fun.
‘Right now I’m playing records to people who really, really like chart music, today’s hits. And that was exactly what it was like when I was 15 and listening to the radio. So I guess that the whole thing has kind of evolved, if you like. After I left school I worked as a carpenter for my father. You’d be up at seven, working by eight, home by five, doing a club by eight and home by two. And there came a point when I had to make a choice between the two, where I had to decide what it was that I enjoyed more.
‘And the thing is that I don’t mind getting up at any hour of the day to play songs on the radio. If they put me on the over-night shift tomorrow I seriously wouldn’t care. I’d still do the gig because I just love being on the radio, that’s all’.
NOTE: – Tony Fenton’s Hotline, the best pop radio show anywhere right now, is broadcast nightly on 2FM between 7 and 8 o’clock. Very seriously recommended.
First published in The Sunday Tribune, December 1st, 1996.