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Farewell To The Sinatra Of Irish Broadcasting (Gay Byrne)

“He was an incredible entertainer, but above and beyond that he pushed forward important social issues for wider debate, from abortion to divorce to sexuality. It’s no exaggeration to say he played a major role in helping to shape modern Ireland.”

– Richard Branson on Gay Byrne, Irish Broadcaster

If you’re Irish and over 40, you’ll know that last week saw the passing of the legendary broadcaster Gay Byrne.

If you’re not living in Ireland, think of the most famous person you know in your country, multiply it by 10 and make it personal.

That’s the kind of connection and recognition he had in Ireland. He started what is still the world’s second longest running TV late-night chat show, The Late Late Show, and in many ways the conversations he generated on TV and radio framed and informed the national conversation.

As The Sunday Times referred to him over the weekend, he was the ‘Sinatra of Irish broadcasting’.

Some of his standout moments on TV and radio included:

  • Showing the first condom on TV in Ireland
  • Refusing to shake the hand of his guest, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams (connected to the IRA)
  • Regularly having his hand slapped by the Catholic Church and the chiefs in the National Broadcaster, RTE for raising controversial issues
  • Being the first on TV to discuss previously untouchable subjects like divorce, abortion and adult behaviour in the bedroom!
  • Creating the annual Late Late Toy Show, which still occupies the most special memories in my own mind from my childhood

On TV his approach was the opposite of what you see today in many respects. For example, he would never announce guests in advance and sometimes some guests would never make it onto the show because he would let certain interviews run longer than originally planned – especially if the audience were responding.

One such interview is at a link below, when Gay Byrne is interviewing the actor Terence Stamp in 1988. Earlier he’d interviewed the renowned Irish psychiatrist Anthony Clare, who was still on the set, and he allowed him to engage with Stamp about a conversation on consciousness – which in 1980s Catholic Ireland is an achievement in itself.

After a few minutes you completely forget that Gay Byrne is there because he doesn’t interrupt.

This was his gift.

The gift and skill of deep listening that allowed him to get more from his guests and to know when to let interviews go longer or shorter.

One of the most important skills you can develop to advance your leadership, business and life is that of listening.

But most people don’t know the levels they can go to – and are really just listening to their own thinking. So they often miss the gems in front of them – in terms of ideas, opportunities and also in terms of bringing out the best in the people around them.

Irish people are known the have the gift of the gab.

But Gay Byrne had the priceless gift of the GAL – Great At Listening.

In fact, in my view he was a black-belt listener.

And maybe this week, you can take inspiration from a very professional person who was instrumental in shaping the Ireland we have today.

So this week, where can you improve your listening?

The Irish rock band U2, shared this tweet after Gay Byrne’s funeral on Friday:

[As Graham Norton said, “He allowed people to exist – people who hadn’t existed before. He put them on the TV. And you went, ‘Oh, right. They’re alive. They’re in the world. They have an opinion. They have thoughts’. And as a young person growing up it was incredibly influential.”]

RIP Gay Byrne, a special person.


PS – Credit where it’s due to John McKeon, CEO of Allergy Standards, for the GAL acronym.

PPS – You can watch that interview with Terence Stamp here.

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