How 'Off the Ball' changed the game of radio
I was all set to start this column on the virtues of Newstalk’s Off the Ball by using the Bill Shankly quote about football being not a matter of life or death but “much more important than that”. It would have been a no doubt original and insightful comment on the show’s understanding not just of the great seriousness of sport but also the divilment and ridiculousness inherent in it.
And then I looked at its website: a quote says exactly the same thing. It’s from 2011. And it appeared in The Irish Times.
So it’s not an original sentiment, and the sports show has been praised at various times over its decade-long life, but it deserves repeating, especially in the week of Lance Armstrong’s doping confession. In the curious side story that is the preponderance of Irish in this tale – the journalists Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, the masseuse Emma O’Reilly and the UCI president Pat McQuaid – Off the Ball deserves a mention at the very least for providing an outlet for the telling of whatever tales could be told, the asking of whatever questions could be asked, before Armstrong was eventually confirmed a cheat.
When the pivotal report came out, the show could face its listenership knowing that it had never been equivocal, never credulous, never timid. When much of the world’s media fought for space on the bandwagon, Off the Ball was one of the outlets with which the rest of the world was finally catching up.
Ten years in, Off the Ball should by rights have grown stale. It would be very easy for it to collapse into clubbiness and self-satisfaction; for the jazzy soundtrack underneath Ken Early’s football newsround to have become a one-note joke; for its sometimes daft home-made stings to lose their sharpness. Its maleness remains an issue. Not because of its choice of interviewees – the show’s curiosity wouldn’t allow that – but because it has no regular female voices and when it goes out on the road the audience noise is a shouted baritone, meaning it occasionally has the air of a TV panel show.
Yet, while it flirts with all of those potential pitfalls, it has retained a self-awareness to know when to step back from the edge, a sense of surreality, and an affinity with its listeners that allows it to make even the in-jokes inclusive. The ease of the presenting style, as led by its original presenter Ger Gilroy, is underpinned by a deep understanding of, and interest in, sport from the parochial to the global.
Most importantly, it has held fast to that curiosity and to an aversion to the banality of the standard postmatch interview or radio phone-in. And it sustains this for three hours a night.
It still sounds apart from its rivals. It has forced RTÉ into weak attempts at mimicry – most obviously with Radio 1’s Saturday sports show – only for that to sound forced and smothered by underlying convention. Off the Ball’s success was built partly on a sense of a team figuring it out as they went along, working off resources so tight that sincerity and reputation became their most useful currency. It led to a complete subversion of the format as previously familiar to Irish listeners.
An example: on the wireless, there has long been an unshakeable belief that the banter between radio host and sports guy is a cherished part of everybody’s radio day. The forced “what about those Reds, hey?” jollity is recurrent across the channels. Off the Ball opens each evening by subverting that in a way other shows would never have the imagination or courage to.
The opening 15 minutes of every show is an apparently traditional rundown of the sporting headlines, but it is upended by interjections and commentary from anchor Eoin McDevitt and “walking punchline” (according to his Twitter account) Ciarán Murphy. They talk over and around the sports guy – a game Cian Murtagh – rather than to him. It should sound smug and contrived. Instead, it sets the perfect tone for the balancing act between a plan and a freewheel through the three hours.
This is what great independent radio should be about. On talk radio that can be difficult, especially when facing down the resources, experience and reach of RTÉ. As both Newstalk and Today FM (Radio Ireland as was) found, it is particularly difficult when attempting an alternative to the agenda-setting Morning Ireland or News at One; a little easier but still very tough in a more reflective evening slot.
Off the Ball, though, took on RTÉ in an area of particular strength – sport – and through necessity and talent informed the rest of Newstalk’s sports coverage, influenced its rival and created a gem of Irish radio. In another week in the Lance Armstrong saga, it’s worth noting how it retained its shine among all that dirt.