Originally published in the Business Post, 26th July 2020
Louise Duffy was plucked from reading AA Roadwatch traffic reports to become a bona fide radio star at Today FM. But after she and the broadcaster parted company last summer, she’s now found a way to help others perform to the best of their abilities – and found time for a new podcast as well.
‘When you work in radio, it becomes you. You become this personality on air and it’s very hard to separate your personal and professional life. For me, there had been movements in my career which made it clear to me that you have to have a balance. You have to realise that this is just a job like anything else.”
In the bar area of a Dublin hotel, Louise Duffy is looking a touch nostalgic as she rewinds through time, back to when she was first hired into radio, when she was championed by Ian Dempsey, pulled from her post reading AA Roadwatch traffic reports, and served first as Today FM’s early morning presenter, before moving to a coveted afternoon slot, and then to her 7pm music programme.
For eight years, Duffy was a staple of Today FM. Then, this time last year, she disappeared from the airwaves, seemingly vanished into thin air. If you google her, one of the most common search terms suggested to you is: “What is Louise Duffy doing now?”
The answer? It’s pretty appropriate for these Covid-19 times. Duffy has reinvented herself as a training consultant with the Communications Clinic, offering support in the area of job interview training and media skills. Yes, that Communications Clinic, which also houses Anton Savage as a director, another well-known Today FM alumnus.
And Duffy looks well on it: perched with a jacket draped gracefully over her shoulders, her dark glossy hair seemingly immune to the drizzling rain she’s just encountered outside (mine has turned to frizz), she looks lively and content, radiating the same glow of friendliness that has always been a hallmark of her radio programmes.
Duffy and her husband, Kerry footballer-turned- Wexford senior football manager and designer Paul Galvin, have been managing lockdown well, she says, as we engage in a bit of small talk.
And she’s willing to admit that she’s working harder now than she ever did on radio. “Probably three times harder!” she says, with a laugh. She’s enjoying it, even if she’s been quiet about it. “I haven’t opened my mouth since I left Today FM,” she says, as I turn on my recorder.
Duffy has a reason for the silence: even if – as with almost all radio careers, it ended abruptly, with the station opting to move in a different direction last July – she’s grateful for the experiences she had, and the friends she made, friends she still cherishes. You can’t turn a clock back, but you can remember good times fondly.
Today Duffy has theoretically arrived into this quiet Ranelagh hotel (there’s no problem here with social distancing) to talk about her new podcast with the Communications Clinic, but it’s not long before she begins reminiscing over the best times in her radio career.
“Duffy, Dempsey, D’Arcy, Foley, Tony Fenton – the great Tony Fenton! – Matt Cooper, KC in the afternoon, and Paul McLoone. That was the schedule I wanted to be part of,” she says, recalling the old line-up.
When Duffy joined at 27, in 2011, the station was being run by Willie O’Reilly, and it was made known to Duffy – then reading the traffic reports on Ian Dempsey’s show – that she was being considered for a job in radio. “They gave me a shot when I didn’t have any experience other than reading the traffic,” she says.
What do you think they saw in you? “Probably a mouthy Mayo girl,” she says with a smile. “When you’re younger, you’re less considered, maybe you’ll say anything. Well, I know I did. And the voice is important.”
Duffy’s tones – soothing and melodic – fit the bill, particularly for a Dublin-based national station that understood the importance of attracting a non-Dublin audience. So did her attitude to media life.
“It was fabulous,” she says of her early years in the station. “We had such good craic. I’d be on from five in the morning until seven. And then I would just knock about the place, because it was such fun, particularly with the sales team.”
Radio was in a buoyant place during that period, with advertisers queuing up to sponsor shows, and presenters having some remarkable moments as a consequence.
“One time I had to get on a helicopter and go to Sligo and deliver a big box of money,” Duffy recalls. “We would give away ten grand a day. They were amazing, unique experiences.”
But there were bleaker goings-on too. Behind the scenes, the station was becoming a more turbulent place to work, with changes in management and direction. Duffy was moved from the early morning show to the afternoon show and then to the early evening show.
She’s honest about how the show-swapping affected her personally. “I remember one particular interaction about a change in my direction,” she says. “The conversation was like, ‘It’s not personal’, but I was like, ‘Of course it is. It’s the most personal it could be, because it’s based on my personality, you know?’ You have to self-preserve and start seeing it as a job after a while.”
There were other transformations too. On New Year’s Eve 2015, Duffy got married to Galvin. A few years later, their daughter Esmé arrived and Duffy found herself re-evaluating her direction.
“There were personal moments in my life that were probably leading me down a different road than being in a radio station every night,” Duffy says. “Because that’s not always easy. And I had been through the daytime schedule. I did lunchtime, daytime and then I moved to evening.
“I couldn’t see any further progression for me in that particular station. If you can’t see that, then that’s unhealthy for you. So you have to start looking and diversifying and reinventing yourself.”
On air, Duffy had always been a relaxed and easy-going presence: she was the kind of witty, low-key presenter who would play Beyoncé or Caribou and then tell a wry tale about something light-hearted.
It wouldn’t immediately be obvious from meeting her, but behind the glamorous image (Duffy is in jeans and flats today, but is still effortlessly stylish, as befits a presenter who, pre-Covid, also presented the Brown Thomas fashion podcast) – she is intensely practical, and more comfortable with structure than haphazardness, despite the pull towards show business.
Growing up in Crossmolina in Mayo, Duffy first moved to Dublin at 17 to study broadcasting and film at Dublin Institute of Technology. She had been flirting with the idea of law, but in a last-minute decision turned to a media degree instead.
“I was in a class of amazing creators who belonged there,” she says. “I wasn’t necessarily sure that I did. I love broadcasting, but in terms of the production side of things, I couldn’t find a niche that suited me.”
Graduating at 21, Duffy was drawn back to law and decided to sit the notoriously tough FE1 entrance exams for the Law Society of Ireland in Blackhall Place.
As Duffy tells it, she studied so hard for those exams over the course of two years that once she had got them, she never wanted anything to do with law again. “I just studied at night, worked in the day, and it broke my heart, the study,” she winces.
After that, Duffy sent in a demo to AA Roadwatch, and got the job to become assistant manager of the department. “There was a lot of chopping and changing,” she says, talking of the early days of her career, which also included stints as a junior account executive for a small firm, and in the marketing department of a construction company.
It’s standing to her now. Before she formally exited Today FM, Duffy had already begun working on a part-time basis at the Communications Clinic, having been given training by them a couple of years before.
“I had an opportunity to train with the Communications Clinic because Paul had always worked with Eoghan McDermott who is the managing director,” she says.
“They needed somebody and they trained me up. On a day to day, I look after people in the career and training side of things. If people have significant moments in their professional life, be it an interview or a presentation, or even a conversation or negotiation with the boss, we’ll work with them to make sure they’re making the most of the way they communicate, and being impactful with their communication.”
At the clinic, Duffy says, they often conduct filmed mock-interviews with their clients so they can play their footage back to them, and show them where they might be going wrong.
“We’d watch it back and people immediately recognise what they need to do differently,” she says. “From that point of view, it’s quite eye-opening. Some people hate watching themselves. They’re like, ‘I just can’t.’ Sometimes you see things that you do that aren’t evident in the moment.”
What type of client comes into the clinic generally? “I would see people from graduate level right up to high-executive CEO level,” Duffy says. “Our managing director Eoghan would be a life coach for a lot of people. He would assist them along the way. It’s about bringing out the best in people, and unlocking the potential in them, as opposed to saying, ‘Do it that way’.”
In the era of Covid-19, with so many people finding themselves out of work, the jobs market has become harder, with opportunities scarcer and competition fiercer, so it’s important for job-hunters not to get in their own way in interviews.
“Some people are so reluctant, even at a very high level, to outline what they’re capable of,” Duffy says. “The main thing I see every day, particularly in women, is humility. Humility is a big issue for all Irish people. We’re so afraid to say, ‘I’m very good at this. These are my achievements.’ Instead we talk around it, and then we’ll say, ‘Well, the whole team did that’. People are very afraid to put their hand up and say, ‘I’m good at this’ and be assertive.”
If it’s not the Irish way to be boastful, though, how does she recommend discussing one’s achievements without squirming?
“You can’t be boastful if you’re being factual,” Duffy avers. “If you’re going to base your conversation on achievements and evidence, well that’s not bragging. We work with people to outline the key points that they want to bring across that demonstrate their capacity for the job, or in the presentation. And then we would work with them to make sure that that’s really been demonstrated.”
At a wider level, Duffy believes that people need to look deep within themselves and try to understand the direction they would like for their careers. “If at all possible,” she says, “think about the times in your career where you were fulfilled and you felt good and happy, and see is there somewhere that can lead you.”
When you do get an interview for the job you want, she counsels, it’s vital to prepare properly, using your voice as well as your head.
“If people were to run a marathon, they would be running the roads every evening in advance,” Duffy says. “But so few people articulate and verbalise what they want to say ahead of these interactions. So then, the first time you’re hearing it, is in that very alien format of the interview. So you need to plan. Know your audience and speak in the same language as them, and in the tone they’re used to hearing.”
In terms of her own personal style and tone, Duffy is a relaxed presence and you can easily imagine her putting her more nervous subjects at ease. The human side of the job is appealing to her. “There’s great satisfaction in it,” she says. “When you see success with people who ring you and say, ‘I got the job’, there’s fulfilment in that.”
Because the role has offered her flexible hours, Duffy has been given the space to embark on other projects. In addition to her Brown Thomas podcast on fashion, which is on hiatus given the Covid-19 pandemic, Duffy has also been working a little with her family, with whom she is very close.
“I’ve three brothers,” she says. “My mum and dad are retired. As a project over the last while, we’re reopening a filling station that was a site that we had for years – me and my brother Kevin are working with my dad to set up this shop and forecourts. That has been a real learning experience in terms of business and all that’s required.”
I’m surprised that given her love of fashion – her 30,000 followers on Instagram are used to seeing her in eclectic looks from Marc Jacobs and The Kooples – she hasn’t branched directly into that world, but Duffy says she knows enough to approach that business with caution.
“It’s a tough business,” she says. “I see Paul and he works really hard, and he’s got a great team around him [in Dunnes Stores, where his range is sold]. You have to put together a range plan so far in advance, hoping your audience will appreciate it. I can’t imagine what it’s like for an individual designer, how tough it is.”
You wonder if work is a subject the couple discuss much of an evening, particularly now they have spent so much time toiling by necessity from home.
“Sometimes,” Duffy says. “Which is great because you do need to know what’s going on in your partner’s life and what’s stressing them out or what’s going on.
“He’s so busy with Dunnes and football. I think he has so much to offer in that capacity as a manager. It’s a big undertaking. It’s like running a business now because that’s the way counties are structured. The set-up is really tough at the moment on all those people who put so much work in and so much training.”
Perhaps because I’m used to hearing about Duffy’s interests through the medium of radio, it rings a little oddly to my ear to hear her talking about football – is she actually into sport? “Not at all,” she laughs. “The very opposite of that. I need to go to his matches and see what’s happening. I certainly wouldn’t be offering advice on the structure of the team.”
As for their own little team, Duffy is not ruling out a relocation for their family from Dublin, where they have a city-centre home, to somewhere closer to her native Mayo in future.
“Esmé has changed that for us,” she says. “Down the line, I would love to see us a little bit closer to home and to family – when it comes to school and things like that. Esmé has eight cousins all within two years of her. I’d like her to be around them because my cousins were such a big part of my life.”
For the immediate future, Duffy’s location remains Dublin and her focus is the Communications Clinic. The company’s new podcast, hosted by Duffy, will be released early next month, featuring conversations with guests on subjects related to navigating well in media and business. “We’ve got some great guests and topics,” she says. “I think they’ll be a helpful resource.”
Duffy wouldn’t rule out a return to broadcasting, but only if it was on terms that made sense for her.
“I hope that broadcasting will always be something I do in some way,” she says, as we drain coffees and prepare to step back outside into a rainy summer’s day in Dublin.
Given her training, if a return to radio is ever on the cards, you suspect she’d negotiate an excellent deal for herself.
The Communications Clinic podcast, hosted by Louise Duffy, will launch in August