Behind the Microphone – Ger Gilroy

They bring us most of the magical moments we enjoy in sport through the commentary and analysis. Their personalities and the words they choose so often become a central part of our national memory around the truly defining moments in sport but they are there for the quieter days as well, telling the story of sport.

In this second of our new Sport for Business series ‘Behind the Microphone,’ we meet with the individuals in the media who bring sporting stories to life on television and radio.

Today we sit down with Ger Gilroy, the man who created Off the Ball and brought in-depth sports discussion onto the airwaves nightly in a way they had never been before here in Ireland.

How did you get started as a radio sports journalist?

I needed a job in the summer of 1997 so I rang all the sports editors in Dublin at the time.  I was a student and had just been Sports Editor of the Trinity Times newspaper.

FM104 said they needed somebody to go out to the naming of the Dublin team before the opening round of the Leinster Football Championship against Meath that weekend.

I went out to Santry. I remember doing some interviews, speaking to Keith Barr.  They were happy enough they saw the FM104 microphone and we were local.  They weren’t doing any national media but it was fine.

I got a tax out which cost £12.  It was before deregulation, and the euro and my fee for the job was £20.  I got a lift back in and made a profit on the day so that was how it started.

By the end of the summer, I was doing all their games from Croker.  We had access to all the Dublin games but I remember Paul Bealin missing a last-minute penalty and thinking that was my summer done.

But then they had ‘reporting rights’ for the rest of the matches so I hung on all the way through the Championships.  It wouldn’t happen like that today but it worked for me.

Had you always wanted to be a journalist?

Yeah. By that stage, I had already become obsessed with journalism.  At 15 I was writing for the Kildare Nationalist in a programme they had.  I was doing English in college and the only two things I thought were for me was to work in film or as a journalist.

At that stage, I was very much a writer but when I got into radio I realised, this is great.

You’d go to an event, you’d report and then it was over.  Whereas a print journalist had to watch it and then get the whole thing down from another perspective.  The immediacy really appealed.

I loved the challenge of how to transmit what you are feeling watching a game.

My first full-time job was with which was a sports news website.  We launched the week of the first dot-com crash.  The Nasdaq went from 5,000 to 1,100 or so it was an interesting time to be starting out.

Through Off The Ball you’ve maybe done as much as anyone to deepen radio journalism to the same level of old-school print journalism.  Was that down to your sense of being a writer first?

When we started out in 2002 we had no rights.  We had a sense we were entitled to do Dublin games as a local station but we had two hours to fill every night.

You could do the x’s and o’s for part of that but it had to be more. The other stories, the sports news you had to look deeper.

The first time I thought we might be onto something was when somebody said to me ‘I really like your stuff.’ I guessed he meant around Saipan or something in the headlines but he said ‘yeah I really like pieces you’ve been doing around the Michele Ferarri.’ (Ferrari was a cycling coach who was central to doping scandals in the sport and was convicted in an Italian court in 2004 of sporting fraud).

I thought that maybe two people had heard those pieces.  Remember we had started with a zero audience and you are never quite sure if you are broadcasting into a void.

Also, Ireland had a long tradition of good sports journalism, not just as fans with typewriters.  You can either be that.  ‘Ireland are always great’ even when they’re not; or ‘the ref robbed us’, even if he didn’t; or you can tell the truth.

Life is complicated.  It can be messy.  All of us do bad things sometimes so let’s talk about that side of life.

But isn’t so much journalism really just in soundbites.  Is it a challenge to go beyond that?

We only need the soundbite.  What we do then is in the conversation that follows that.

The model was to move away from relying on other people giving us what we needed.  We wanted to make the stuff in the room and get to a point where it was the cast of characters in the room that people were tuning in for.

I remember explaining this to a radio consultant we had in and he said ‘Oh yeah, like a zoo format,’ so really there was nothing revolutionary about it.

In Ireland, at the time though it felt that way.  Sportscall, with Des Cahill on a Monday night was really the only thing, and it wasn’t even on a Sunday straight after the game.

We went nightly and within 18 months there was a nightly show on RTÉ. Sure that’s a great idea lads.

So you were being noticed but it wasn’t universally popular, was it?

We got our first review a few weeks in.  It was Liam Fay writing about us and the line I think was ‘Is there really any need for a dog-eared phone in format on Newstalk, this thing just won’t work.’

There had been a press release sent out and that had mentioned there was a phone in and he must have just read the press release and thought this sounds rubbish and wrote that without even listing to us, I don’t know, maybe he did.

The press release got my name wrong as well.  It called me Ger Kilroy so there you go.  But people started tuning in and they seemed to like it better.

We were lucky.  Saipan happened 60 days into our life.  Everybody was obsessed but we were more obsessed than most.  We were into our football like a bunch of 20-year-old lads were into football but we had microphones.

But you’ve kept that going, that passion. You caused a fair bit of upset among Munster Rugby fans last year over Gerbrandt Grobler?

You know, we were on Munster fans side there, though I’m not sure they knew it.  You want to win and for your win to come without an asterisk.

You see so many great triumphs ruined by asterisks.  An entire baseball history wiped out.  You can have an Irish person run faster or swim faster than ever before if that’s what you want but taking the shortcut of doping comes at a price.  We pointed that out.

And you have the time and space to tease that out in a conversation.  Do you plan that out to be of one voice?

There is no editorial stance which tells any of us to take a view.  We cover it and a line emerges after hearing both sides.  Then it gets debated.  There is no single line on say the future of a manager which then runs through everything.  That’s not how conversations take place, it’s not how friends talk.

Everybody in sport has an opinion.  That can change from day to day. It’s not science, there is no periodic table where A plus B equals C.

It’s not just that we have the time.  I think others could do it and I wonder why they choose not to.  There are some brilliant sports media outlets in this country and then there are some who are, I would argue, a little less brave than they might be.

What’s your favourite memory of where your career has brought you?

The access you get is special.  At the Irish Open they give you an armband to go where you want, out on the course, following the players.  Down in Killarney, I was out, on the tee box with Rory McIlroy when he was absolutely in his pomp.

He was bouncing on his feet the crowd was massive and I was there as he was hitting off.  It sounds like the ball gets faster as it leaves the club and that’s the kind of experience you get when you are so lucky to do this.

I remember being in Bernard Dunne’s dressing room after his last fight in New York.  Freddy Roche was his trainer and there were a lot of people around.  Brian Peters was there.

He had won the fight but it had been a war.  he had taken a lot of punishment and it was quiet.  After that, for the boxers, I was less objective.  Every time Bernard fought I really wanted him to win.

Who do you have respect for in the media here and overseas, outside of your own organisation?

What John Greene has done with the Sunday Independent Sports section is brilliant.  It’s a perfect mix of polemicist, reporter, columnist and good long-form sports journalism.

That’s very hard in the current climate.

I respect Kimmage.  he takes so much shit every time he writes but then he bounces back.  I also like the ghosted columns that Gavin Cummiskey is doing at the moment.

Further afield I listen to a lot of NFL podcasts and Around the NFL is really good.  Even though it’s the organisation itself that does it they are quite happy to throw barbs when they feel it’s needed.

What’s the one sporting event you’d most like to cover?

That would be the NFL.  Preferably a whole season.  It’s 32 corporations trying to make as much money as possible but there is this weird profit share idea that bad teams get better and so it’s always competitive.

Look at Jacksonville coming to London.  It felt like they were deliberately trying to put people off and now they are close to being great.

That doesn’t happen in football.  With the exception of the unicorn example of Leicester, it just doesn’t really and probably can’t really happen.

What sport do you think doesn’t get the coverage or the credit it really deserves?

This may seem strange but I think hurling.  It still seems to be treated like a ten county sport and I feel like it’s an opportunity missed.

The characters are infectious and they have real crossover appeal.

There’s a long-standing issue with Women’s sport as well.  We are trying to address that ourselves.  I think the new fractured landscape will be good for Women’s sport.  Big state broadcasters with limited time could always look away but if organisations can move quickly and are ready there is now a lot more time on the schedule.

There’s a humility in the Women’s game which actually makes them great ambassadors.

Yeah, they understand the need to be ambassadors for the games.  It’s maybe a generational thing as well.

I’m not sure the old style of shutting down commentary, closing off social media and not allowing characters to be anything more than players will survive.

It’ll be interesting to see how Brian Cody will deal with YouTubers.

What is the photo screen saver on your phone?

The maser logo from Repeal the 8th

Have you any superstitions or routines before going on air?

Don’t be hungry.  You make bad decisions when you’re hungry.

Paul O’Flynn started with us in 2003 and he pointed out that some shows were better than others and they were the ones that we had eaten before going on air.  So it became a thing.

How much of the show is scripted before you go on air?

We have a running order for everything from stings, news, sponsor mentions, competitions and all so there’s a lot we have to do and that’s all on the page but sometimes things just happen.

In the summer when Newbridge or Nowhere was kicking off we had Ned Quinn to come on the show at 7.53.  From there we would have gone into other stuff but as he was speaking others came out and wanted to put their side and we did nothing else of what was scheduled for that night.

When the story is happening you have to run with it.

Who’s the most natural pundit you’ve worked with?

Tommy Walsh has just been nominated for the IMRO Newcomer Award.  It’s taking place in Kilkenny.  He’ll be nervous, we’ll be nervous,  but he’s been great.

Most sports stars take about 18 months to decompress, to become civilians again.

We’ve been blessed to have some great pundits but Tommy was just a pure natural.  He’s a really deep thinker but he expresses things in a way that is brilliant to listen to.

What would be your chosen sporting sideline when you are not working?

I’d watch hurling all day.  My Mum won a Camogie All Ireland for Antrim in the 60’s.  My Dad coached the Antrim Minors.  I was born in Belfast and that was sport for me growing up but we traveled all over.  I remember going to Wexford to see the Buffers Alley team.  We went to club championships all over.

I’d be happy to watch a crappy hurling match any time.  If I had any time.

Who in sport would you most like to interview?

Colin Kaepernick is the most interesting story in world sport at the moment.  If there was one to really sit down with though it would be Bill Belichick the Patriots Head Coach.  He used to do scouting reports for his Dad when he was a kid.  And that kind of obsession is rewarded in US Sport.  It’s OK to be a coach.

What’s your favourite social media?

Twitter.  It’s where you get the news quickest.  Dublin celebrating on Instagram was the best place to follow them but purely from a work perspective and gathering information, if you follow the right people on Twitter, you know what’s going on.

Follow the wrong ones and you just wind up in an echo chamber though so it’s not perfect.

How do you unwind away from sport?

We’d watch the best box sets.  I’m a big fan of really good TV.  From The Wire, through The West Wing, real quality and perfect if you have 40 minutes to sit down at night.

Wormwood is great at the moment, on Netflix.  It’s brilliant and in the modern era that’s the kind of stuff which is being made.

Give us a sporting sponsorship that you think works well.

I won’t give you an Irish example because we work with so many.  Whether you think Nike is hijacking social history through Kaepernick or doing it to sell stuff or whatever, what they are doing to elevate his story is good, really good.

A lot of brands just use athletes to hold up a banner.  At least this is something deeper.

Just to finish off, when you had Lance Armstrong ahead of when we were bringing him over to speak in Dublin, and that didn’t end great, did you think at the time that this was a special interview?

That was an interview I’d effectively been preparing for over a decade.  I was ready.  It became good when he started getting angry about stuff.  Sometimes you don’t know whether it’s going to go down well or just disappear.  It was one I enjoyed.

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