It all started with a homemade medium-wave transmitter – with one cable attached to the chimney pot and the other to a tree – the start of a broadcasting career that culminated this week when Keith Finnegan, during so long the voice of Galway Bay FM, was inducted into the prestigious Irish Radio Hall of Fame.
The transmitter was made with the help of his late father, George, at his home in Mervue. George was an electrician by day but also a radio engineer – and although he would have been typical of his day in terms of economy of praise, he went all out to foster all the passions his children pursued.
Which – in Keith’s case – was radio, and from those humble beginnings spawned a career that spanned over 33 years. . . and still going strong.
For most of that time he was the mid-morning voice of Galway Bay FM, bringing the stories of the day to the city and county – but also offering a listening ear to an audience that always felt to know him.
And away from the airwaves, he also spent his life going the extra mile to help so many people, if they came to him.
“It never bothered me to help people; give people time, because if they had the courage to ask you – to tell you their problems – then I think you have an obligation to do what you can to help,” he says.
His involvement in so many charities is testament to this – serving on the boards of Aids West, Cancer Care West and Galway Hospice, to start. Beyond that, he was also a loyal ambassador for Galway, forging deep ties with many US states including Chicago, Wisconsin, Missouri, Boston and New York.
For the past 20 years and again just last month, Keith has brought a delegation from Galway to the Milwaukee Irish Festival – the largest Irish festival in the world – to promote Galway as a tourist destination.
Keith is also chair of the Chicago/Milwaukee Sister Cities committee. This, in turn, led to large delegations from the United States visiting the west of Ireland.
His induction into the IMRO Radio Awards Hall of Fame this week – alongside RTÉ’s Rachael English and the late Albert Fitzgerald, the former manager of Midlands 103FM who died just a few months ago – puts him in excellent company with Gay Byrne. , Marian Finucane, Gerry Ryan, Larry Gogan, Joe Duffy, Pat Kenny, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh and Jimmy Magee.
Indeed, he is only the second man from Galway to be inducted, after Seán Bán Breathnach – and he is understandably proud of the honor conferred on him.
“Not just for me, but for my family. My wife Joan has been with me every step of the way – and practically doing the paperwork at night with me, like some sort of unofficial PA – and our daughter Katie, who produced the program for so long, and our son Aidan too,” he says.
“But it’s also for the resort and for all the wonderful staff – past and present – who have made Galway Bay what it is,” he says.
He admits it’s a great honour, “a very humbling experience” – and as he reflects on a life on the airwaves, a career that began with his first broadcast on what was RTÉ Community Radio in 1980 when he had just left school, he only recalls some of the highlights.
“I always think back to 9/11. Me and Joan were at the races in Galway that day when we learned what had happened – and the following days were some of the most memorable we have ever had on the air,” he says.
One reason was the connection to Tuam’s wife, Anne Marie McHugh, who was one of those who lost their lives in the Twin Towers – and the harrowing journey they shared with her family here.
“We also spoke with so many of New York’s firefighters and emergency personnel – many of whom have great connections with Galway. It’s something I will never forget,” he said.
Keith’s favorite guest would be the chairman – because Michael D was a regular in every guise over the station’s history. But he also makes a special mention of actor Gabriel Byrne, who came regularly to Galway to visit his mother in Oranmore.
“It also gave us the opportunity to meet other people in amazing places – like President Obama at the White House. It put us in a privileged position,” he says.
And yet, he concedes, it’s not about the rich and famous – it’s the ordinary people who tune in every day and ring in when they have something on their mind.
“I like to think that I listen a lot and try to help people if I can. We don’t always put it out there, but if we can we try to help by pointing them in the right direction” , he said.
His father George died in 2011, and although the compliments were hard earned, Keith knows George was proud of him.
His mother Mary, who is alive but failing, did what most mothers do at some point – asked him if he would ever think of getting a real job!
But he knows that these are the foundations upon which his own character was formed.
“It’s about connecting with listeners, because you’re one of them; there are no tunes or graces – just a listening ear with a willingness to do what I can.