Radio: A thin turnout on air, but Pat Kenny may yet win the populist vote

The Newstalk presenter lacked big guests but made sparks fly. Over on RTÉ Radio 1, George Lee went gloriously off-piste

Host with the most?: Pat Kenny. Photograph: Frank Miller

Host with the most?: Pat Kenny. Photograph: Frank Miller

Sat, Oct 5, 2013, 01:00

Given that yesterday’s referendums elicited, at best, a nationwide shrug of the shoulders, one might assume that the last thing the country wants is more plebiscites. So when the spokesman for a new political movement popped up on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays) calling for just that, the only reasonable response was one of perplexed awe.

Sure enough, when he spoke to Ben Gilroy of Direct Democracy on Wednesday, Kenny initially struggled to hide his incredulity – although the idea wasn’t as potty as it first sounded. The idea that citizens should be able to put important decisions to a popular vote was rooted in the original Free State constitution, and the notion that the people should have a say about momentous undertakings such as the bank bailout seemed eminently reasonable.

Gilroy also had a point in asserting that people were apathetic about the referendums because they didn’t demand them and had more important things to worry about.

Kenny began to sound amenable to his guest’s ideas, only for the discussion to get a bit wackier. Gilroy said that the EU was holding Ireland to ransom and that, as a former bodyguard, his motto was “never pay the ransom”, particularly as he believed Ireland had “as much oil and gas as Kuwait”. Kenny nearly leaped out of his seat. “You cannot make these populist statments without scientific backing,” he spluttered.

By the time Gilroy had claimed the EU was “tying us into the euro to make an asset grab”, Kenny had all but given up trying to reason with his guest.

Gilroy’s singular beliefs weren’t the most striking aspect of the interview, however. More significant was that Newstalk’s flagship show gave 20 minutes to someone whose most notable achievement to date has been a third-place finish in a byelection. The thinness of the item suggested a dilution of Kenny’s pulling power.

That said, as he settles into his new berth, some compensations have emerged. Fionn Davenport’s packages on news stories from times past have been entertaining, and last Wednesday’s regular science slot with Luke O’Neill of Trinity College Dublin was a good-natured but decisive counterbalance to Kenny’s habitual questioning of climate change.

Finally, hosting a debate on the abolition of the Seanad between Minister of State for European Affairs Paschal Donohoe and Sen John Crown, he introduced some long-overdue fireworks into the campaign. As Kenny egged on his guests – when Crown reprimanded Donohoe for interrupting him, the presenter batted away the complaints, gleefully stating, “I want that kind of debate” – he sounded relaxed and enlivened compared with the stiff persona he projected on RTÉ. Newstalk may make a populist broadcaster out of him yet.

For a man who has pursued popular approval in the past, George Lee has an admirable resistance to pandering to expectations on The Business (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). The show’s listeners may be budding entrenpeneurs and hard-nosed businesspeople, but its content veered gloriously off-piste last week.

Interviewed about the state of the Irish film industry, the director Jim Sheridan barely touched on the subject at hand. Instead, an odd conversation developed about Sheridan’s impending trip to South Korea, where he was to give a film masterclass.

“Obviously, you’ll be speaking English,” said Lee. “You won’t have any difficulty because the language for film, is it English, in Korea?”

“No,” replied the disbelieving Sheridan. “It would be Korean, wouldn’t it?”

The tone thus set, the interview morphed into a characteristically idiosyncratic dissection of Hollywood’s woes, before Sheridan rounded things off by encouraging acts of larceny. “Robbing the banks wouldn’t be a bad idea in Ireland today,” he said with a chuckle. “That would be fair play and payback.”

Even more astounding was Lee’s interview with the British advertising mogul Maurice Saatchi, which was dominated by poignant memories of Saatchi’s late wife, the Irish novelist Josephine Hart. Although she died in 2011, Saatchi thought of them as still together: “She is me, I am her, we are one.” He unflinchingly recalled her death (“Cancer is relentless, remorseless, merciless; its treatment is medieval, degrading . . .”) and spoke fondly of her love of literature, particularly poetry.

All the while he spoke in a matter-of-fact monotone, which threw Lee at times but only added to the emotional punch, right down to the final line, quoted from Robert Browning: “Love is all, death is not.”

To hear grief so pithily yet devastatingly articulated was unforgettable, particularly from such a formidable figure.

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