By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Gay Byrne, the country’s most popular and enduring broadcaster, will sign off from his 26-year-long role as the housewife’s favorite on radio with a bumper Christmas Eve live broadcast.
The goodbye bash for "Uncle Gaybo," as he is known to millions of fans, has been moved from the traditional Grafton Street venue to St. Stephen’s Green because of the huge crowds of well-wishers that are expected.
A celebrity Santa has been lined up and leading figures from politics, show business, charities and commercial life are expected to join the radio legend in an outpouring of nostalgia and tributes.
An RTE spokesperson said the show venue was being moved to Grafton Street because of fears it would be completely blocked.
"This will be the punters chance to say goodbye, but we expect a lot of special friends to turn up. You can expect plenty of surprises. It’s the end of an era."
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
He started as RTE’s first continuity announcer in 1958 and, even as his ratings have fallen away in recent years, he is still regarded as Ireland’s most masterly broadcaster with an enviable rapport with his audience.
When Byrne, 64, started his radio show in 1972 to fill a void in the mornings at a time when Radio Eireann used to close down between breakfast and lunchtime programs, he could not have foreseen its huge success and longevity.
The ratings-topping chat has set world records and earned huge advertising revenues for the station.
With no competition at the time Byrne established a peak listenership of 800,000 on home radio sets as well as many motorists.
He has described it as being like "a huge village getting together every morning to swap ideas, swap notions and take phone calls and argue with each other."
Byrne 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.
He will continue to host his other record breaker, the 36-year running "Late Late Show" on RTE One until the present season ends in June.
There is considerable speculation about who will face the challenge of replacing him on Friday nights when the show returns next September.
Over the years there have been fears that Byrne might be tempted by offers to take jobs in Britain or America. There is speculation he may now link up with RTE competitors like TV3 or Today FM radio to do one-off specials when he retires.
He has said he will initially take a sabbatical and do nothing for a period. The only job he has said he is interested in is some involvement with his passion for flying, perhaps as an airline company director.
His six-figure salary has remained a closely guarded secret.
Whatever he earns, Byrne would have made a lot more if he had abandoned his Howth home 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 de-frauded several of his clients, including the playwright Hugh Leonard.
However, Byrne, who is married to broadcaster and writer Kathleen Watkins and has two grown up daughters, is now comfortably off and has a number of property and other investments.
A major shake-up of time slots for RTE’s radio programs starts in the new year following the veteran’s star’s departure, but it will mainly involve switching around existing big names.