Dunne strings his listeners along


RADIO REVIEW:AMONG THE MANY jokes musicians tell about themselves, one speaks volumes about the pecking order in the hierarchy of instrumentalists. What is the definition of an optimist? A professional banjoist with a pager. Oh, people can be so cruel. But in the face of such petty prejudice, Tom Dunne(Newstalk, weekdays) last week proved himself a beacon of tolerance when he spoke to Béla Fleck, the American cult star who has defied the odds by playing the banjo professionally for the past 35 years.

Perhaps because Dunne cut his teeth as a singer rather than as a musician, he appeared genuinely excited to meet Fleck, sounding even more genially enthusiastic than usual. True, he opened the interview by asking whether the banjo was “a much-maligned instrument”, but what followed dispelled any reservations one had about this niche item.

Fleck spoke of how he had been drawn to the banjo by the theme tune to the 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, going on to recount the instrument’s unexpectedly rich legacy, as a key element in early jazz and, later, bluegrass. He embellished his chat with illustrative musical interludes: having outlined the revolutionary “three-finger roll” playing technique introduced by Earl Scruggs in the 1940s – hardly the stuff of riveting daytime radio – Fleck brought things to life with a spirited example of the style.

It wasn’t all one-way traffic. Dunne showed himself to be something of a closet banjo aficionado by cataloguing the rock bands that have used the instrument, with the Irish acts The Thrillsand The High Llamasmaking up fully half of them. (It was a short list.) But even allowing for the banjo’s prevalence in trad music, it was a tad alarming to hear Dunne claim Ireland had a “love affair” with the instrument. Still, in these times of national malaise, it’s good to know we are world-beaters in at least one field.

That Dunne could draw such value from seemingly unpromising material was largely down to his background in music: much of his appeal lies in the deceptively casual way he shares his interests, adding to the matey persona that can make even the most trivial item enjoyable.

In contrast, Anton Savage has too often sounded as if in possession of a superciliously arched eyebrow when addressing his guests and his audience.

But hosting his new show, the unfortunately named Savage Sunday(Today FM), the presenter seemed more subdued than usual, though it was unclear whether this was down to a change in attitude or the underwhelming nature of the inaugural edition.

On paper, Savage Sundayticked all the boxes for a late-morning talk show on the Sabbath: a round-up of the day’s papers, a topical guest and some gossipy light relief to round things off. But things never took off. The newspaper review, featuring the journalists Brian Carey and Gavan Reilly, was forensic and informative but needed voices from beyond the fourth estate to broaden the discussion, as was the case with the slot’s previous incumbent, the Sam Smyth-hosted Sunday Supplement.

Later, having trailed Senator Katherine Zappone’s appearance with the slightly sensational promise of talk about “life, love, lesbianism and the law”, Savage’s interview indeed covered all those topics, but sympathetically, even dutifully. There were none of the fireworks one might expect from someone whose struggle for equality for same-sex couples has in the past caused controversy.

The most cutting contribution came from one of Savage’s closing guests, Karl Spain, whom he introduced as one of his favourite stand-up comics.

“You’re one of my favourite comedians too,” replied Spain. “I love The Savage Eye.”

Unfortunately, on this first outing, Savage’s programme had none of withering wit or unpredictability of David McSavage’s satirical television show.

There was far more stimulation to be had on Arts Tonight(RTÉ Radio 1, Mondays), which despite its potentially arid subject – classical-music criticism – turned out to be a fascinating discourse on the historical, technological and artistic contours of music as seen by Alex Ross.

The music critic for the New Yorker, Ross spoke to Vincent Woods about his own curious musical evolution, listening exclusively to classical music as a teenager before turning to the dissonant underground rock of Sonic Youth, and getting around to Bob Dylan only after he became a professional writer.

He was thought-provoking on other topics, from the wide-ranging genius of Leonard Bernstein to the changing nature of recorded music: an early fan of the iPod, Ross now fretted that music’s power and magic were being diminished by the deluge of material drenching listeners in the digital age. Throughout it all, Ross’s infectious curiosity shone through, as did his overriding optimistic passion. Thankfully, you don’t need to play the banjo to have a positive outlook.


Radio moment of the week

Despite the slagging he constantly directs at Ivan Yates, his co-anchor on Breakfast(Newstalk, weekdays), Chris Donoghue has never quite shaken the impression of being the former Fine Gael minister’s Mini-Me. On Thursday, however, there were signs that Yates’s incessant more-cuts-less-tax soapboxing was wearing thin. Promulgating his vision of drastic public-service cutbacks for the umpteenth time, Yates said his plan would “have a country fit for purpose after two years, and it would be solvent”. “And nobody in it,” replied Donoghue. Yates tetchily countered that his ideas offered a viable future, only for his wingman to offer a mocking “oooh”. It was hardly the end of a beautiful friendship, but Donoghue’s political dissent, however gentle, was refreshing.