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Hall of Fame beckons for champion of the airwaves

It all began with a home-made medium wave transmitter – with one cable tied to the chimney pot and the other to a tree – kickstarting a broadcasting career that culminated this week when Keith Finnegan, for so long the voice of Galway Bay FM, was inducted into Irish radio’s prestigious Hall of Fame.

The transmitter was made with the help of his late father, George, at home in Mervue. George was an electrician by day but also a radio engineer – and while he would have been typical of his time in terms of being economical with praise, he went all the way to foster any passions his children pursued.

Which – in Keith’s case – was radio, and from those humble beginnings spawned a career that has lasted over 33 years. . . and is still going strong.

For most of that time, he has been the mid-morning voice of Galway Bay FM, bringing the stories of the day to the city and county – but also providing a listening ear for an audience who’ve always felt they knew him.

And away from the airwaves, he has also spent a lifetime going the extra mile to help so many, if they came to him.

“I’ve never minded helping people; giving time to people, because if they had the courage to ask you – to tell you their troubles – then I think you have an obligation to do what you can to help,” he says.

His involvement in so many charities is testimony to that – sitting on the boards of Aids West, Cancer Care West and Galway Hospice, for starters. Beyond that, he has also been a stalwart ambassador for Galway, forging deep links with many states in the US, including Chicago, Wisconsin, Missouri, Boston and New York.

For the last 20 years and again 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 Chairman of the Chicago/Milwaukee Sister Cities Committee. This, in turn, has led to large delegations coming from the States to visit the West of Ireland.

His induction into the IMRO Radio Awards Hall of Fame this week – along with RTÉ’s Rachael English and the late Albert Fitzgerald, the former head of Midlands 103FM who died just a few short months ago – puts him in exalted company with the likes of Gay Byrne, Marian Finucane, Gerry Ryan, Larry Gogan, Joe Duffy, Pat Kenny, Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh and Jimmy Magee.

Indeed he’s only the second Galway man to be inducted, following Seán Bán Breathnach – and he is understandably proud of the honour bestowed upon him.

“Not just for me, but for my family. My wife Joan has been with me every step of the way – and in a practical way, doing the paperwork at night with me, as a sort of unofficial PA – and our daughter Katie, who produced the programme for so long, and our son Aidan too,” he says.

“But it’s also for the station and for all of the great staff – past and present – who have made Galway Bay what it is,” he says.

He admits it is 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 was fresh out of school, he recalls just some of the highlights.

“I always think back to 9/11. Myself and Joan were out at the Galway Races that day, when we heard what had happened – and the next few days were among the most memorable we’ve ever had on air,” he says.

One reason for that was the connection to Tuam woman Anne Marie McHugh, who was one of those to lose her life in the Twin Towers – and the heartbreaking journey they shared with her family here.

“We also spoke with so many of the firefighters and emergency personnel from New York – so many of them with great Galway connections. It is something I’ll never forget,” he says.

Keith’s favourite guest would be the President – because Michael D was a regular in all of his guises over the history of the station. But he also makes special mention of actor Gabriel Byrne, who dropped in regularly while in Galway to visit his mother in Oranmore.

“It also gave us a chance to meet other people in incredible places – like President Obama in the White House. It put us in a position of privilege,” he says.

And yet, he concedes, it’s not about the rich and famous – it’s the ordinary people who listen every day, and ring when they have something on their mind.

“I like to think I do an awful lot of listening, and I try to help people if I can. We don’t always put them on air, but if we can, we try to help by pointing them in the right direction,” he says.

His dad George died in 2011, and while compliments were hard-won, Keith knows George was proud of him.

His mother Mary, who is alive but failing, did what most mothers do at some stage – asked him if he would ever think about getting a real job!

But he knows these were the foundations upon which his own character was formed.

“It’s about connecting with the listeners, because you are one of them; there are no airs or graces – just a listening ear with a willingness to do what I can.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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