TV & Radio
The Pub Radio Philosophy with KC
JOE talks to Today FM's KC on his new show, philosophy on radio and getting fired for being a f**king eejit...
By Mark O'Toole
Keith Cunningham (aka Today FM’s KC from the KC at Night show) is busy making coffee for himself and the interviewer from JOE on the top floor of Marconi House in the centre of Dublin.
The building houses national stations Today FM and Newstalk and alternative Dublin station Phantom FM. And KC makes a good cup of coffee.
In a past life the JOE reporter was a researcher in the same building and an important part of the job description was making the coffee or tea, so seeing a top, highly-rated presenter like KC make the coffee is nearly as refreshing as the fine cup itself.
In the past few days KC had been bumped up the schedule from his late night show to the 7-9pm slot straight after the long-running ratings behemoth that is The Last Word with Matt Cooper. It’s a bit of a promotion and the top floor in Marconi House is a long way from starting out in pirate, community and regional radio.
When you mention how much of an achievement it is to have progressed to this point his response is typically grounded and devoid of any sense of the diva-like self-absorption evident in some Irish media personalities over the years.
“It’s crazy because I was doing nights here the last two years and I was just happy to be doing that gig, you can’t really be talking about ‘I want to move to a different part of the schedule’ because it’s your friends and people you really admire that are already doing these shows in the schedule,” he says in the same subtle, natural Mayo accent that he broadcasts with.
KC goes on to describe his first concern when he was told he was moving slot. “When it was first decided that I was going to go into the evening slot it was ‘Oh God, it’s going to be really awkward with Paul’,” says KC of Paul McLoone, whose eclectic music show was moved from the 7-9pm slot to KC’s old time of 9-12pm.
“Paul is a complete gentleman,” KC continues earnestly leaning forward over his coffee on the boardroom table we're sitting at. “He was really cool about it, he said ‘Best of luck with it’. They wanted something more accessible in the early evening and I think his show sounds even better later in the evening, there’s just something about the music that he plays that is incredible later. So he was really cool about it and it’s a few weeks down the line now and I’m really enjoying it."
The whole principle of me getting into radio wasn’t to get into Krystal Nightclub for free or skipping the queue in the chipper. There are a lot of people in Irish radio that are in it for that element of it
It’s taken a long way for KC to get here and a gradually-paced, incremental rise to the prominent slot KC has on the national airwaves now. He has always been recognised as one of the best talents in the country from an early age and has got the accolades to prove it with PPI radio awards in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Yet KC has almost seemed to put the breakers on his own career to ensure nothing goes awry.
“For years even when I was 13 I was always listening to really big successful presenters to see what the ingredients were ... to find out what it is to be a really good radio presenter. I began to find a pattern of the most successful ones, then you start to develop your own style, you don’t try to copy what they do, you try to see how it happened organically. There’s a template on it and then you develop your own style on the back of it.”
Who were some the influences along the way, you ask.
“I‘m working with him now, but [Ray] Foley,” says KC straight off the bat, charitable as ever with compliments, “Man, he’s so good at what he does because he’s got the balls to do different stuff, I still listen to his show because he is brilliant at what he does.”
KC continues, “I love what D’Arcy does because, again, it is a show that has grown organically and has that brilliant team feel.
"I’ve had a chance to cover his show a couple of times which been absolutely f**king man-nappies – you’re s**ting it doing it!" he laughs. "But it’s really, really enjoyable.
“I mean everyone on the schedule in here – they were all radio heroes of mine – I know that sounds a little bit cheesy, but genuinely I would have been a fan of all their work so that’s why its brilliant to be working with them.”
From my own radio experiences I mention to KC that you can relate to suddenly being surrounded and working alongside professionals whose work you admired. KC feels privileged, but unfazed by that reality.
“Isn’t it such a brilliant fecking thing?!” he asks enthusiastically.
In the course of KC’s ascent to his current position from local radio in Mayo to Galway Bay FM to his famous Red Rooster programme in Cork, there were a few bumps in the road, like when he was fired from the breakfast show he presented on Galway Bay FM. You ask KC what happened there...
“It wasn’t even a few issues! I was 21... I was a f**king eejit!” he laughs.
“If you’re running a radio station do not give the breakfast show to a 21-year old! That’s what happened - I was 21, it was my first radio show and I had no respect for the job. And this is no reflection of Galway Bay FM, this was all to do with me.” he says candidly.
“Me having a job and a wage for the first time in my life, living in Galway, it was a recipe for disaster! No discipline! No respect for the show and I slept-in loads and I got f**king sacked and it was the best thing that could happen me! I look at it now and it’s a lesson I might have learnt ten years down the line. Luckily I learnt it then and it made me respect what I was doing and to never let a session get in the way of what you are doing work-wise.”
Over the course of the conversation it has become apparent that KC takes a methodical, scientific and craftsman-like approach to creating a good on-air product. Was the Galway Bay sacking the moment he decided to take that approach rather than that of a rockstar radio jock?
“I got into radio because I absolutely love the whole medium of being on-air talking to complete strangers and entertaining them, but it’s not about me, it’s about the content and what we are delivering. The whole principle of me getting into radio was to do that kind of stuff, it wasn’t to get into Krystal Nightclub for free or skipping the queue in the chipper, you know that kind of stuff? There are a lot of people in Irish radio that are in it for that element of it, not for what they do.”
Ironically despite the love and passion he has for radio, he doesn’t like bragging about his profession to people.
“If I’m in a taxi and the lad asks me what I do for a living, I just say I work in production in here. I’m really shy and awkward about it... It’s just a f**king job and I find listeners sometimes might put you up on a pedestal when they find out what you do for a living and that’s unnecessary!”
Terry Wogan once said of his presenting style, on his long-running and acclaimed breakfast show, that he wanted listeners to think he was walking down the stairs in his slippers to present the show from his breakfast table. What's KC's philosophy?
“There’s a type of radio I like doing and it’s not playing tonnes of music and saying very little. It’s a fine balance of playing music, saying stuff and doing fun little quirky bits and getting callers on and chatting to people I suppose as you would down the pub, that’s the key to a good relationship with the listener and there’s a fine line between being comfortable and being arrogant, but if it sounds like a fun place to be people want to hang out there.
I know I used the pub analogy, I know not everyone goes to the pub, but it’s a place where everybody goes to have a chat and everything is on the table and there’s an energy and atmosphere... We’re going to spend a lot of time in the pub in this chat, if I hear someone on the radio and they sound like someone who I’d like to sit down and have a pint with – they’ve got me as a listener. It’s that friendly feel on air...”
For his new Today FM slot KC is back alongside Lenny (Mark Linehan), his old partner in crime from the infamous Red Rooster show on Red FM in Cork. The duo hoovered up awards (and broadcasting complaints) in Cork and their show's fame reached Dublin. Though KC insists they’ve matured and refined their style it should make for some interesting listening in the next few months.
They first met when Lenny sent KC a recording of a song he did about Jim McDaid’s drunk-driving incident, the pair hit it off and before they knew it the partnership had grown organically.
“He had this real giddy humour about him when I interviewed him about the song and I thought this guy had a spark about him. Nothing came up for months, but there came an opportunity when we were trying to staff the breakfast show. He was working right next door to the building we were in, answering phonecalls to old women about their ESB bills and I said come in here and we’ll give it a go for a week and see how it works out... it started from there really!”
KC lavishes praise on Lenny’s talents, while saying he sounds like Roy Keane “minus the footballing skills obviously” and coincidentally both left their successful radio show to move to Dublin at the same time.
Lenny was tired and wanted to move up to his girlfriend in Dublin, a week later KC got the call from Today FM. Nothing happened for two years due to budget constraints, but now with the new slot KC can bring Lenny on board.
“It’s amazing, he’s coming up with a lot of great stuff, we’ve got two years to make it work out and hopefully it will.”
KC says that he hopes the new show can be accessible, but edgy at the same time, while hoping to bring in a big time audience to the post-drivetime slot. “It’s about becoming part of peoples’ lives and routines and pulling them into the show.”
KC cites Newstalk’s Off the Ball show after the 7pm as an example of this in the sports genre. “They did it brilliantly... It went viral and became something people talked about in pubs and now they have built up an amazing loyal audience – hopefully me and Lenny can do that on a music and entertainment front.”
In ten years’ time KC hopes to still be on air and also hopefully able to move into management somewhere to share his experience with younger presenters, but at the moment the energies are concentrated firmly on making the new show the best it can be.
The time’s up and KC has to leg it to a recording studio to interview Scroobius Pip - a colourful hip-hop artist and likely a more interesting character than the interviewer from JOE.
But KC had you speaking about your own past jobs in radio and your method of coffee-making as a researcher amongst other things.
If he engages his new 7-9pm audience as quickly the new show should be a success.