Airwaves give as good as they get in the eye of Storm Ophelia

Storm Ophelia brings out the best from radio’s presenters, as each show gives us their own take on Monday’s hurricane

Sean O’Rourke sounds almost jaunty with a real story on his hands

Sean O’Rourke sounds almost jaunty with a real story on his hands

 

As storm Ophelia hits on Monday, it’s not just national infrastructure and domestic property that’s laid waste by the lethal winds. Among the collateral damage is RTÉ Radio 1’s schedule, as the decks are cleared of anything remotely resembling frivolity to cover the unfolding weather event.

So it comes as something of a surprise to hear the introductory jingle for the Ryan Tubridy Show blaring out at its usual 9am slot, given that the presenter’s amiable fare is normally so light as to be blown away by a gentle breeze, let alone a hurricane.

But as soon as the promotional sting has finished, Audrey Carville appears to sheepishly explain that “you’re actually listening to Morning Ireland”, Tubridy having been bumped so that the station’s flagship news programme can continue its coverage of Ophelia.

It’s difficult to quibble with this decision. Generally, Morning Ireland (RTE Radio 1, weekdays) is the wheatgerm of the morning radio diet: listening to it makes one feel virtuous in a dutiful kind of way, but it’s not especially pleasant to consume and is difficult to digest. But when the programme concentrates its considerable resources on this all-pervasive, nationwide story, it’s more like a hotel breakfast buffet: it’s hard to tear yourself away. 

As often happens during coverage of a calamity, an uneasy ambience pervades proceedings, veering between palpable professional excitement and jags of concern about the real-world consequences of what’s unfolding. As Carville and co-presenter Conor Brophy check in with correspondents around the country, there is a similar contrast between the harried tone of those on the frontline and the expectant calm of those awaiting the storm’s arrival. 

Paschal Sheehy’s dispatches from Co Kerry are infused with a suitably windswept drama as Ophelia makes landfall, while further up north, the likes of Eileen Magnier detail preparations in a sober tone. Even at the studios in Dublin, a sense of urgency can come through, as when Joanna Donnelly of Met Éireann apologises for a slight stumble: “Excuse me if I’m pulling out the wrong numbers there; it’s been a long night.” 

And the day is just beginning. As the baton is passed on to Today with Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the presenter sounds almost jaunty: “Today, just one big story, her name is Ophelia.” But he soon sounds a disappointed note as he chastises Permanent TSB for stating that “some” bank branches would be closed. “A little bit vague there, maybe they could do better,” he tuts. And when news later breaks about the first of the three deaths caused by the storm, O’Rourke’s mood audibly changes to a grimmer setting.

As the day progresses and reports of more fatalities emerge, safety concerns come to the fore, with presenters increasingly sounding like put-upon schoolmasters, wearily repeating the same warnings to errant pupils. On Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), one caller tells of seeing a swimmer braving the rough sea at the Forty Foot in Dublin, prompting Joe Duffy to ask gruffly, “Was he wearing a swimming cap or a dunce’s cap?” 

Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) is even more forthright in his advice to would-be thrillseekers. “Don’t think ‘the wind is great so I’ll go windsurfing’,” the presenter says, adopting the nearest thing to a stern tone he can muster. “That means you’re an asshole, and you’ll probably have to be rescued.” For the most part, however, Moncrieff’s show provides shelter from the otherwise omnipresent storm coverage. 

There are nods to the inhospitable conditions outside, in the form of a discussion with regular farming correspondent Mairead Lavery on how the agricultural sector is reacting to Ophelia. Otherwise, Moncrieff hosts distracting items such as an interview with onetime TV celebrity Anneka Rice. That such a determinedly trivial item seems interesting speaks of the surfeit of worrying weather updates, although it’s possibly a symptom of storm-induced delirium.

With the storm gradually passing, Ivan Yates begins an attempt at an overview on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays). This tack is in part due to the comparative disparity in resources between Newstalk and RTÉ: when Cork-based correspondent Jonathan Healy reports on conditions in the southern city, he confesses to Yates that “this is the first time I’ve ventured out”.

But not having wall-to-wall reports gives Yates the time for analysis of the storm’s wider implications. The resulting discussions are enlightening and pleasingly non-sensational, with Dr John Sweeney of Maynooth University explaining how warmer ocean temperatures have added to Ophelia’s formation and force. 

It’s perhaps a sign of how serious things are that Yates, who normally enjoys being a troublemaker, issues uncharacteristic expressions of national solidarity. He lauds Evelyn Cusack of Met Éireann and Sean Hogan, chair of the National Emergency Coordination Group, for their straight talking about the storm’s effects and commends the efforts of ESB workers trying to restore power.

The mood is contagious. Liveline isn’t usually awash with praise for the nation’s institutions, but on Monday amateur meteorologists from Cork and Carlow line up to praise Met Éireann for calling the conditions right.

Of course, much like the storm, this generous mood soon passes. By Wednesday, Yates is loudly bemoaning the lack of political leadership on the Eighth Amendment referendum and gleefully playing devil’s advocate in an interview with oncologist Prof John Crown about denying procedures to patients with unhealthy habits. It’s back to business as usual.

But on Monday, presenters and reporters across the stations find the right tone for the occasion, vividly conveying the bigger picture. All in all, it’s a day when their medium comes into its own, and not just because there is a far bigger captive audience than usual.

Radio waves may not be as dramatic as those of the hurricane-lashed ocean, but on days like these they’re effective.

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