Fenton, Tony (Anthony Fagan, ‘the Dude’) (1961–2015), music broadcaster and disc jockey (DJ), was born Anthony James Fagan in Donnycarney, Co. Dublin, on 25 March 1961, the second of four sons and one daughter to Brendan Fagan, a carpenter with his own business, and his wife Ethna Fagan (née Lynskey). In an interview in 2011 Fenton recalled his childhood as a time of great happiness, despite the relative hardships of Ireland of that period. Like many families at the time, his struggled ‘to make a crust’ – Brendan Fagan worked in his carpentry business during the day and borrowed a friend’s taxi on weekends to make some extra money – but there were family holidays to Wexford and no talk of money problems at the dinner table (Hot Press, 29 June 2011). During the summer months of his teenage years, Fenton helped his father out with his carpentry business. He was an excellent soccer player, and between the ages of ten and twelve he played alongside future Ireland international Ronnie Whelan at Home Farm Football Club. Although he attended school, it was never his focus: when the bell rang at the end of the school day, he could be found in the park playing football or listening to music. It was no surprise to his family when he left Beneavin De la Salle College, Finglas, after sitting his intermediate certificate to become an apprentice carpenter with his father.
Although Fenton enjoyed carpentry, his real passion was music. From an early age he loved listening to Radio Luxembourg late at night (the radio set often placed under his pillow because his father had banged on the wall for him to turn it down). Radio was magical for him, a ‘theatre of the mind’: he loved to conjure up images of what it was like in the studio far away in Luxembourg and what the presenters were getting up to. When he was twelve or thirteen, he attended his first disco in Curracloe, Co. Wexford, where he got a taste of what he might like to do with his life – he spent the evening standing by the DJ’s turntable, watching him spin records while everyone else danced. He also spent Thursday evenings glued to Top of the Pops on BBC1, and at weekends bought records (his first was the ‘Crocodile rock’ single by Elton John). Although Fenton lived close to musicians Bono, Guggi and Gavin Friday and frequently saw them walking down the road to take the 19A bus into Dublin city, he was only ever on nodding terms with them – their interest lay in making music while his was in collecting records. Fenton’s first foray into DJing was with his friend, and future radio presenter, Barry Lang. They saved up for a set of decks and lights, and the first gig for their ‘mobile disco’ was a dance in the local scout hall. Fenton and Lang were later joined by future radio and television presenter Ian Dempsey, who lived opposite the Fagans, and the three spent weekends playing birthday parties and weddings, travelling around Dublin in a car stuffed with equipment.
Fenton’s break into radio came when he was seventeen. Although he had auditioned for Alternative Radio Dublin (ARD) in 1977, he failed to get the job when his shaking hands broke not one, but two turntable needles. Dempsey was working for ARD by that time and when a presenter failed to show up for his time slot, Dempsey suggested Fenton as his replacement. It was a baptism of fire: the owner of ARD was a harsh critic who would often berate his DJs during the ad breaks, something Fenton said could shake his confidence for the rest of the show. Nonetheless, Fenton persevered and soon established a reputation for his smooth tones and easy style. Although he loved presenting, one aspect of the job he found challenging was interviews; his first ever interview with musician Barry Moore (who later changed his name to Luka Bloom) had him sweating profusely with nerves by the end, and offering up prayers of thanks that it was over. By 1981 Fenton had been poached by the large pirate radio stations then broadcasting in Dublin, first by Radio Nova and then Sunshine Radio. However, in May 1983 the pirate stations were abruptly closed following raids by the gardaí, conducted at the behest of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, ostensibly because their signals were interfering with the emergency services. Fenton was out of a job. He spent eight or nine months abroad, DJing in Denmark and then Tenerife, but a call from Barry Lang brought him back to Ireland to audition for RTÉ’s ‘youth station’, 2FM. According to Fenton, RTÉ ‘faffed around’ for almost three years before bringing him in for an interview and offering him the job (Hot Press, 29 June 2011). His first day broadcasting coincided with the Bruce Springsteen concert at Slane Castle on 1 June 1985, so Fenton went to see Springsteen then drove to the radio station where he presented for two hours from midnight.
For the next eighteen years Fenton helmed several primetime shows, contributing significantly to 2FM’s expansion. He was best known for presenting The Hotline, a show that mixed hits, jingles and quizzes for a teenage audience. Upbeat and energetic, Fenton’s catchphrase ‘You’re the winner!’ booming out over the airwaves encapsulated the energy he brought to the show. He was also frustrated, however, by RTÉ’s seeming lack of interest in promoting him. When Fenton moved to the Drivetime show (5pm to 7pm) he grew 2FM’s audience to 207,000 (60,000 more than Eamon Dunphy’s rival show on Today FM) but felt that RTÉ never acknowledged his achievement: ‘You’d see Eamon on the side of buses, Eamon on the TV shows, Eamon in the newspaper. Today FM were doing their marketing right, and RTE weren’t shouting about the fact that we had 60,000 more listeners. I’d tell people and they wouldn’t believe me’ (Hot Press, 2011).
Fenton’s old friend Ian Dempsey moved from RTÉ to Today FM in 1998, a major surprise at the time given RTÉ’s overall dominance in the ratings. Still unhappy at RTÉ’s failure to promote his show, Fenton decided to quit, the final straw came when Fenton was offered two weekend shows instead of his primetime slot during the weekdays. He left 2FM in March 2003 and, on the advice of Today FM’s chief executive Willie O’Reilly, took a year off from radio. During that time he made Hitmakers, a series of documentaries focusing on the people behind musical hits such as songwriter David Foster (who worked with Michael Jackson on ‘Thriller’) and Billy Steinberg (who wrote Madonna’s hit single ‘Like a prayer’).
In August 2004 Fenton joined Today FM. He initially presented a lunchtime show but in 2006 his slot was moved to 2.30–4.30pm, Monday to Friday. The show’s success was recognised in 2008 when he was awarded a Phonographic Performance Ireland (PPI) Radio Award for Music Broadcaster of the Year; he was also nominated in the category of Best Radio DJ (National) at the 2009 and 2010 Meteor Awards, and nominated for PPI Music Broadcaster of the Year in 2011. On 9 September 2014 Fenton was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, joining giants of Irish broadcasting such as Gay Byrne (d. 2019), Marian Finucane (d. 2020) and Larry Gogan (d. 2020). In addition to his success on radio, Fenton also appeared on television, making a guest appearance on The Panel and receiving four stars for the meal he designed on RTÉ’s The Restaurant. An avid collector of music, in a 2004 Hot Press interview Fenton admitted to storing most of his record collection in his mother’s house because he did not have room for his 15,000 seven-inch singles and 10,000 albums.
From 2010 Fenton faced significant personal and health problems. In that year he noted a mole on this thigh which was later diagnosed as a malignant melanoma. Shortly before receiving his diagnosis, his mother Ethna died of breast cancer and his sister Ann was also diagnosed with cancer. Fenton and Ann were both successfully treated, but in May 2011 Fenton was told the cancer had spread to his prostrate. Despite undergoing innovative surgery in Germany, his condition continued to deteriorate, and in October Fenton was interviewed by his friend (and fellow Today FM presenter) Matt Cooper to bring public awareness to the symptoms. To compound his woes, Fenton was obliged to file for bankruptcy in November 2011 after he incurred debts of almost €880,000 from poor property investments. True to form, he announced the bankruptcy live on air but never dwelt on his personal problems.
Despite his illness, Fenton continued to present his afternoon show, declaring that broadcasting took his mind off everything. In 2014 he underwent further chemotherapy treatments which forced him off the air and he never returned. He died on 12 March 2015 in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. Fenton's funeral took place at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin, on 16 March and was a fitting send off for one of radio’s best-known voices: U2 performed, as did the Dublin Gospel Choir and singer Paul Harrington. As a tribute to ‘the Dude’, radio stations across Ireland played Fenton’s favourite song ‘I say a little prayer for you’ by Aretha Franklin at exactly 2.30pm on the day of his funeral. Fenton’s bravery in the face of his illness, and his openness in talking about, prompted his brother Paul Fagan to establish the Tony Fenton Foundation in 2016. Nonetheless, it is as the ultimate radio DJ that Fenton will be remembered. Friend and colleague Ray D’Arcy, speaking of Fenton after his death, recalled an invite to his thirtieth birthday party that contained the letters ‘K.I.T.S.A.B.’ When asked what it meant, Fenton replied ‘Keep It Tight and Sound Butch’ (The Journal, 27 July 2015). He is buried in Glasnevin cemetery and was survived by his partner Sinéad Lynch, and siblings Paul, Ann, Colm and Kevin.