A year of stale sounds and static schedules on the airwaves

Sat, Dec 29, 2012, 00:00

RADIO:With any number of contentious issues to argue about, the airwaves were noisier than ever in 2012. But strange as it might sound, it was a quiet year for radio. In contrast to the country’s turbulent political and economic life, the radio landscape was a reassuring model of stability.

With little fresh blood and no game-changing programmes to speak of, the schedules on all the major national stations stayed much the same, and the pecking order among the big names was largely unchanged. If the reliable line-up had a reassuring quality during uncertain times, it also had an air of predictability. The nation’s most listened-to station, RTÉ Radio 1, was conspicuously static, its weekday bill the same for the past two years.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but several elements are beginning to sound stale.

Though it forged a distinctive mix of outdoor expeditions, light-hearted celebrity interviews and quirky true-life items when it came on air in 2010, the overbearing bonhomie of The John Murray Show wore thin.

Taken individually, items such as a nationwide ironing contest were fun, but the cumulative effect was to render Murray’s grounding in news a distant memory. He does not have to eschew his offbeat instincts – his coverage of the Polish widow Agnieszka Jablonska’s road trip with a donkey was poignant – but a realignment of his quirky fare might be in order.

The station’s biggest names – Pat Kenny, Marian Finucane and Joe Duffy – similarly ploughed their trademark furrows, though without the same diminution of their strengths. Duffy’s Liveline had the best year in terms of ratings, suggesting the host, for all that his format thrives on prurience and pathos, still has the pulse of his public.

Whether the story was big (the Government’s attitude to the vulnerable) or small (the conviction of an unemployed actor for shoplifting), Duffy’s show yielded remarkable glimpses into the pressures of Irish life, though one has to sift through much alarmist dross to unearth such nuggets.

It was only at the weekend that there was any movement in the station’s schedules, with Charlie Bird retiring from his clunky show in favour of Saturday with Claire Byrne. Meanwhile, 2FM also ditched an underperforming Saturday programme, the wacky but clunky Weekend Breakfast with Baz and Lucy, but more problematic fixtures remain, most notably the weekday tenure of Ryan Tubridy.

Though he has staunched the haemorrhaging of listeners, his frothy show not only remains a poor third in the ratings for his timeslot but has to contend with the ascent of Hector Ó hEochagáin as 2FM’s poster boy. With its defiantly rural phraseology (“keep her lit”), Gaeilge interjections and hyperactive, self-mythologising style, Breakfast with Hector is not tailored to the ironic hipster youth demographic. But as his rising figures attest, the presenter has tapped into a hitherto overlooked audience.

The national commercial sector was not much more dynamic than its RTÉ rivals. At Today FM, the most significant shake-up was behind the scenes, with chief executive Willie O’Reilly decamping to RTÉ, but there was some on-air movement too, with the rapidly rising Keith Cunningham moving to the afternoon on The KC Show.

But the station remained anchored around The Ray D’Arcy Show, which enjoyed a memorable year, due as much to the presenter’s on-air indiscretions – dropping the F-word in an anti-clerical diatribe – as to his increasingly candid editorialising on contentious subjects such as abortion. If D’Arcy consolidated his position as the de-facto inheritor of the late Gerry Ryan’s populist mantle, he still occasionally displays an off-putting streak that limits a broader appeal, seen in the humiliating “vajazzle” ordeal he put his sidekick Mairead Farrell through.

Beside the antics of D’Arcy, Matt Cooper’s style can be quite, well, matt. But his show, The Last Word, provided the most memorable radio moment of the year, namely Gabriel Byrne’s evisceration of the Gathering, when he called the Government’s tourist initiative “a scam”.

Another notable interview, involving Bishop John Kirby’s assertion on Galway Bay FM’s Keith Finnegan Show that paedophilia was “a friendship that crossed a boundary line”, underlined the vibrant state of local radio as a news-gathering force and trusted source. For all the national stations’ dominance of the headlines, regional radio commanded 53 per cent of the nation’s listening time.

Back on the national scene, the arrival of Norah Casey as Ivan Yates’s replacement as co-anchor on Newstalk Breakfast drew attention to the preponderance of men across all the stations. In this context, Radio 1’s Drivetime deserves merit.

Compared with the gripes of George Hook on Newstalk, host Mary Wilson can come across as somewhat schoolmarmish. But she also provides an authoritative presence, as well as a platform for other strong voices, from Olivia O’Leary to health analyst Sara Burke, possibly the most astute radio expert on air. Would that there were the same vibrant diversity across Irish radio. In this respect, as in others, a change is overdue.