By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Gay Byrne, the country’s most popular broadcaster, shocked his fans this week by announcing he is giving up both his long-running “Late Late Show” and his morning radio program.
“Uncle Gaybo,” who’s 64, has set world records with his 26 years on radio as the housewife’s favorite and the extraordinary 36 years he has hosted the ratings-topping TV chat show.
He said he plans to bow out of the radio program after his traditional live show from Grafton Street on Christmas Eve and he will quit the “Late Late Show” next June.
He had decided it was a “good time to bow out” and was not tempted to wait until the millennium. “The time has just come now and that’s it,” he said.
The loss of the veteran star — who has earned millions in advertising review for RTE during his long career — will be a major headache for the station as it strives to replace him in the face of stiffening radio and TV competition.
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He said he hadn’t the “faintest idea” what the reason was for the success of his radio show, which had started in 1972 to fill a void in the morning at a time when the station used to close down between breakfast and lunchtime programs.
“The program took us completely by surprise all those years ago because it became so successful,” he said.
At its peak, the listenership on home sets alone was about 800,000 and he said it was “like a huge village getting together every morning to swap ideas, swap notions and take phone calls and argue with each other.”
Speculation has been rife for some time that RTE’s highest-paid star was considering bowing out. He had been scaling down his involvement in both shows, hosting the radio show only three days a week. He used to present, director and produce the “Late Late Show,” but in recent years he reduced his work commitment and a producer was appointed.
He said he was looking forward to taking a sabbatical. “I want to try and see what might happen doing absolutely nothing for a short period of time and then see what might attract me after that,” he said
He told long-time colleague Joe Duffy on RTE that he would consider an involvement in some way with airplanes and flying, two of his passion.
“I would love to be involved in some way with flying,” he said, adding that he would “probably” take a directorship with Aer Lingus or Ryanair if it was offered.
Over the years there have been fears that Byrne might be tempted by offers to take jobs in Britain or America. When the national independent radio stations, the defunct Century Radio and Radio Ireland — now Today FM — were starting, both were said to have approached Byrne to anchor a huge audience for them.
His six-figure salary has remained a closely guarded secret. RTE has consistently refused requests from the Oireachtas Committee of Public Accounts for details of what the top names earn.
Just before they broke for the August holiday, the government asked RTE for details of pay rates as part of a demand for transparency from the semi-state station. The only information disclosed by RTE was in 1996 when it said its top three stars earned _1.5 million among them.
Byrne said that as freelancers with RTE, the salaries of
presenters were confidential and should remains so.
Whatever he earns, Byrne would have made a lot more money if he had abandoned his home in Howth and holiday retreat in Donegal for the more lucrative pickings of a career abroad.
He suffered a financial setback when he lost a substantial sum in the Russell Murphy affair. The high-living show business accountant was found to have defrauded several of his clients, including the playwright Hugh Leonard.