Radio: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss
As Sean O’Rourke and Pat Kenny settle into their new slots on RTÉ Radio 1 and Newstalk, it’s hard to tell what’s changed
Simon Schama: unflappable charm and erudition. Photograph: Tim Kirby/Oxford Film and Television/BBC
A mere three weeks into its run, and already Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) has found a formula that works. Unfortunately, it’s the same formula Pat Kenny used during his long tenure in the slot. Be it the mix of subjects – current affairs, consumer reports, interviews and what O’Rourke’s promotional spots chillingly called “a light dusting of fun” – or the supporting cast of talking heads, there is an all-too-familiar feel to the show. (Though, in fairness, the theme tune has been remixed.)
Some continuity between the ancien regime and O’Rourke’s new era is inevitable and at times welcome. Brian O’Connell’s reports on intriguing but overlooked stories from around the country remain. His piece on Tuesday about opposition to a new Islamic education centre in Cork was the springboard for a telling debate between the centre’s director, Farghal Radwan, and a local councillor, Ken O’Flynn, who has received complaints of noise from the centre, and insists religious prejudice plays no part in his opposition.
O’Rourke chaired the debate with customary assurance, eliciting interesting details such as the number of local Muslims who were now registering to vote.
Overall, it was a nuanced snapshot of the issues – and tensions – that have arisen in multicultural Ireland.
Some of the Today show’s old reliables could do with an overhaul, however. Paddy O’Gorman’s report from Navan courthouse followed a well-trodden path: unvarnished interviews with vulnerable people that, for all their grimness and honesty, seem to be served up solely to pique our prurient side rather than highlight any injustice.
Amid such tropes, O’Rourke himself had yet to find the right voice for his new berth. On Monday, when he spoke to the UK blogger Paul Staines and the journalist Noirin Hegarty about news reporting in the digital age, O’Rourke conducted the discussion as though hosting a bulletin. He scrupulously darted between his two guests rather than allowing them set out their stalls at length. Engendering debate on a talkshow requires different skills from those needed on a news programme.
This tendency towards the perfunctory was evident during his encounter with the historian Simon Schama, who was promoting his new book and television series, The Story of the Jews. It was the kind of heavyweight interview his predecessor would have relished, but O’Rourke opened his chat with an interrogatory gambit straight from his old playbook: was Schama’s book “really 40 years in the making?”
After a while, however, the pair hit a groove, largely thanks to Schama’s unflappable charm and erudition. He was particularly pithy when drawing comparisons between Jewish suffering and Irish historical traumas. “This is still the great issue of the Enlightenment,” he said. “How do people of opposing beliefs get on with each other without killing each other?” The newsman in O’Rourke must have appreciated such a soundbite.