Radio: Good grief, Moncrieff – surely you aren’t waffling?

The Newstalk presenter marries the trivial and the serious to bracing effect, but Miriam O’Callaghan’s witty remarks fall flat

Sean Moncrieff: an accomplished radio performer who flirts with flippancy.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sean Moncrieff: an accomplished radio performer who flirts with flippancy. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 01:00

He has a reputation as an erudite and informed chap, so it comes as something of a surprise to hear Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) suddenly adopt the kind of dumb yet opaque speech more commonly associated with Mafia hoods. The unusual incident occurs after the presenter has been indulging in a long monologue. “So, what will we do? Will we go on and do the thing?” he asks, like a mobster discussing a hit. “No, we won’t go and do the thing.”

He continues to talk aimlessly for a minute, before finally confessing the reasons behind his diversion. “You probably noticed that I’m waffling, and I am,” he says. “Hands up, I’m waffling. We were supposed to talk to a fellow who’s a sous-chef and some terrible thing has happened. So we’ll move on.”

It’s an admirable display of honesty, one akin to breaking the talkshow host’s code of omerta, of never admitting that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Luckily, Moncrieff has another item ready to go, and discusses the next subject – bionic pets – as if he’s an expert. Normal service resumes.

But such moments are all of a piece for Moncrieff, who remains arguably the country’s most accomplished radio performer. He engages with ostensibly trivial subjects in a wry way, while handling weightier issues, such as Wednesday’s item about a racially charged rape case at a North Carolina university, with awareness and intelligence worn lightly.

His talk on Tuesday with the English author Caitlin Moran allows him to bounce off his zingy guest, who addresses the potentially arid issue of contemporary feminism in deceptively frothy terms. “I fit being a feminist in around going to Topshop, being in a bar, playing with my kids, and looking at pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch when he was 18,” is a typical remark.

But the conversation with Moncrieff – who described himself as a feminist in these pages last week – also makes clear the strength of Moran’s convictions. The pressures faced by teenage girls, she says, mean “you can misdiagnose your feminism: you blame yourself, but you were living in a sexist society that treated you like rubbish.” It’s refreshingly bracing stuff, all the more so as Moncrieff doesn’t give his guest a free run. When Moran says she never sees “straight white males” self-harming, the presenter ventures that adolescent boys can experience the same feelings of doubt as girls. Despite flirting with flippancy, it’s a serious item worthy of attention. Much like Moncrieff himself.

Similar themes are covered during Dawn O’Porter’s appearance on Sunday With Miriam (RTE Radio 1, Sunday). The English broadcaster and writer, and wife of the Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, talks to Miriam O’Callaghan about the insidious attitudes behind the casual sexism of wolf whistles, taking particular issue with men who say it’s a compliment. “It’s humiliating,” counters O’Porter. “Can’t we walk down the street without being embarrassed?”

The interview sees O’Callaghan deploy an intriguing double-bluff technique, using apparently probing questions to address obvious issues. “I know you get annoyed when people ask you about having children,” says O’Callaghan, asking her guest about having children. O’Porter gives a spirited response, wondering how successful a woman needs to be before not being asked “what I’m doing with my womb”.

But it is an enjoyable encounter. (It is certainly more lively than the oddly flat interview with Ardal O’Hanlon where O’Callaghan admirably avoids predictable questions about Father Ted , only to end up inquiring what the comedian thinks about the Republic of Ireland’s football set-up.) As she traverses subjects from her mother’s death to living in Los Angeles, O’Porter is a sparky presence. She even lets O’Callaghan away with a lame closing line. “One final question,” says the host. “Have you any plans to have children?” Coming up with casually witty remarks is more difficult than it seems.

Such forced humour is positively Wildean beside the woeful fare that passes for banter between Chris Greene and Ciara King, last week’s stand-in hosts for Ryan Tubridy (2FM, weekdays). Tuesday morning sees Greene declaring, in best faux-ghetto style, that he’s about to “get down to bidness”, before alighting on a report that the Irish go into work hungover more than any other European country. After venturing the notion that the Irish don’t drink “much more than anyone”, Greene opines that the study shows “we’re just harder”, going to work rather than calling in sick. “I think it’s a positive thing,” says Greene. “It shows we have a bit more stamina and resolve.” In the face of her colleague’s patter, King sounds taken aback: “It’s not really a great reflection on the country.”

Such exaggerated bravado is the stock in trade of the “zoo radio” format that dominates so much commercial broadcasting, but in the context of the cravenly yoof-oriented makeover that 2FM has recently undergone, it’s a depressingly symptomatic exchange, particularly in a slot where Tubridy at least attempts to impart some grace and intelligence. After hearing such rubbish, even waffle sounds good.


radioreview@irishtimes.com

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