Second Captains find a new pitch
When the five-man team that made ‘Off the Ball’ resigned from Newstalk six months ago, they wasted no time developing a podcast and, now, a TV sports show
Second Captains: Eoin McDevitt, Ken Early, Ciaran Murphy, Simon Hick and Mark Horgan. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
There are no second acts in American life, F Scott Fitzgerald famously said. He turned out to be wrong, but in the media world the sentiment is much more accurate. And in the small world of Irish broadcasting it’s almost an inviolable rule: first opportunities are rare, second chances almost mythical.
So when the five-strong team that made Newstalk’s Off the Ball sports show one of the most popular radio programmes in the country resigned en masse at the beginning of March, their fans were deeply concerned about what might happen to them, with many wondering if they could find an alternative home for their off-the-cuff banter and detailed discussions of the sporting issues of the day.
The show’s host, Eoin McDevitt, copresenters Ken Early and Ciarán Murphy and producers Mark Horgan and Simon Hick had spent the best part of a decade perfecting their style and building a listenership, but six months ago they were faced with an entirely new challenge: to find an entirely new way of connecting with that audience.
To do that they reappeared as the Second Captains, and they now host a hugely popular podcast on irishtimes.com and are preparing to unveil a TV show on RTÉ. It is one of the most unlikely success stories in Irish media – and illustrates how dramatically the landscape is changing.
“We were determined to do something new. We knew leaving Newstalk was a big gamble, in that there was no work for us immediately after it, but the decision to go was a no-brainer,” says Horgan.
That determination to do something new came from a growing sense that, having taken over the show from its original host, Ger Gilroy, in 2005, they had brought Off the Ball as far as it could go as a late-evening three-hour programme. The team had grown up as broadcasters and found their voices in what was then a local radio station, affording them the freedom to be more natural, less self-conscious and less hidebound by traditional expectations of what a radio show should be.
“It was almost 10 years of working together, doing almost exactly the same thing, finishing up at 11pm,” he says. “You run the risk of the show going stale, which we were very concerned about, and we wanted to take it to the next level.”
The departure, when it came, was a surprise, the result of issues that had been gestating for a long time, as McDevitt explains. “It was a collective resignation after protracted negotiations about improving the show . . . For a year and a half before the resignation we were planning and having negotiations with management about what we thought was the best way forward for the show.”
Their plan involved starting the show an hour earlier, at 6pm, within the prime-time slot. The conventional wisdom in Irish radio is that the drive-time slot shouldn’t be the preserve of “niche” sports broadcasting. Despite Off the Ball’s being the most popular radio programme nationally in the 7pm-10pm slot, audiences decrease significantly as the evening goes on, so an earlier start would broaden their potential audience. And in any case, as Murphy points out, all the general-interest drive-time programmes feature a significant amount of sports content from 6pm to 7pm.