Radio: Absence has made Ivan better, but Tubs still has the presence

The former TD and minister Ivan Yates sounded subtly different on his return to Newstalk, but 2FM’s Ryan Tubridy was the week’s unheralded star

Sat, Sep 14, 2013, 01:00

A debatable piece of wisdom at the best of times, the adage about absence making the heart grow fonder has been put to a particularly stern test on mornings of late. Having been off the air for a year while he dealt with personal financial affairs, Ivan Yates’s return as co-anchor of Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays) may have been welcomed by those drawn to the overbearing banter, sweeping editorialising and alpha-male swagger that characterised his previous tenure. Other listeners, who enjoyed the more welcoming style of his replacement Norah Casey, may have had a due sense of foreboding.

On Thursday, Yates was in vintage form, unabashedly loosing off fusillades in favour of more building and development in the property market, a position most might think akin to urging bigger bonuses for bankers.

But Yates also provided glimpses of the talents obscured by his on-air persona. Chief among these is his heavyweight political experience as a former Fine Gael TD and minister, assets which he brought to bear on Wednesday when he skewered both sides of the debate on the abolition of the Seanad. When Fine Gael TD Simon Harris denounced the second house as “elitist” and spoke grandly of the Dáil’s legislative prowess, Yates was dismissive. “Really, backbenchers don’t have much power,” he said, with the casual authority of one who knows.

Indeed, it eventually sounded as if Yates’s demeanour had undergone a subtle but palpable shift. On a purely presentational level, he appeared less eager to dominate his partnership with co-host Chris Donoghue, ceding to his younger colleague on issues such as Syria. And while he has spoken elsewhere about the lonely year he spent in a Welsh flat for bankruptcy purposes, it was refreshing when Yates showed the more reflective side of his personality.

On Tuesday, World Suicide Prevention Day, he spoke about the benefits of staying positive and talking to people when “stress turns to distress”. When Donoghue tellingly observed that he had not once asked his co-host how he was since his return, Yates came close to dropping his armour. “In this world we have to be tough guys,” he said. “And sometimes things happen when it’s just not that way. Really bad things happen in people’s lives.”

It would be trite to say that we were hearing a kinder, gentler Yates – he remains a meaty presence – but his virtues as a broadcaster were more obvious than before. Or maybe we just missed him more than we knew.

Absence of a more profound and permanent nature was discussed at length on Monday’s Tubridy (2FM, weekdays), when Ryan Tubridy spoke to Tom Lenihan, the son of the late minister for finance Brian Lenihan. It was an interview of almost unbearable honesty, during which the young Lenihan, the president of TCD Student Union, spoke not only of his relationship with his father but also of his own struggles with depression.

Having had his first suicidal thought at age 13, Lenihan recounted that he attempted to end his life when he was 18. But, he said, the hardest thing of all was telling his dad about his problems, because he “didn’t want to break his heart”; on hearing of his son’s depression, Lenihan senior broke down in tears. “He was quite sensitive,” said Tom, “he felt he was letting me down.” He also showed poignant consideration during his father’s terminal illness, trying to avoid adding to his burdens as minister. “I was suicidal, but I wanted him to die peacefully.”

Although Tubridy did ask the odd stock question from the emotive interview playbook (eg how did he feel when he learnt his father was sick) there was no sense of prurience or voyeurism. Mainly, the host took a light-touch approach, allowing his guest to speak about his state of mind and, indeed, his political beliefs (“I can’t really reconcile my views with Fianna Fáil”). It was a remarkable interview, which reflected well on both participants.

Nor was it a flash in the pan. While other broadcasters have hogged the headlines of late, Tubridy has produced some of the best radio of his recent career, as was underlined when he spoke to the novelist Marian Keyes on Tuesday, her 50th birthday. Keyes, whose sprightly humour has always co-existed with an appreciation of life’s darker hues, was initially in giddy form, laughing about how her birthday gifts were mainly pink in colour. “I misunderstand, are you nine or 50 today?” joked Tubridy, before gently changing tack by asking about his guest’s health.

Keyes responded with an openness that was bracing. Since her breakdown four years ago, “the old me is gone,” she said, adding that she had days of “terrible blackness”. Such frankness can risk tipping into depression porn but, thanks to the chemistry between host and guest, it was an honest exchange, never more so than when Keyes spoke of the “tyranny of positive thinking” and said she now had to “graciously accept” her situation. Like the Lenihan interview, it was human interest radio of the highest order, compelling and illuminating without being glib or pat.

Moment of the week: Pat paints the town red
On Monday’s Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the gloves came off in the host’s duel with Newstalk defector Pat Kenny. Speaking to the team behind the Second Captains sports show, who used to work for Newstalk, O’Rourke made a jibe about the rival station and its promotional campaign for Kenny. “We don’t need to name the station,” he said, “because they have the town so decorated with posters it looks like Pyongyang.”

It was a spiky line, though perhaps lacking in self-awareness: it is RTÉ the public has to pay fiscal tribute to, not Newstalk. People in glass houses and all that.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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