Radio: Merry John Murray doesn’t always hit the right note
The RTÉ Radio 1 host’s lighthearted style has its appeal, but a more thoughtful interview technique wouldn’t go amiss
Playful air: John Murray’s jolly front belies his ability for acute observations
In the uncertain world of radio, where positions are constantly under scrutiny and quarterly listenership figures cause ripples of anxiety, admitting that your real ambitions lie elsewhere is not the smartest move for a presenter. So one has to admire the candour of John Murray, who concedes that, although having a radio show is good fun, he longs to pursue another career. This is no casual slip: the presenter spends much of Tuesday’s John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) expounding on the idea that “my true calling was to be a rock star”.
Far from being a vocational cri de coeur, Murray’s revelation is made for sound professional reasons, as he brings a playful air to his report on the Brighton Institute of Modern Music, in Dublin, a kind of Fame Academy for aspiring musicians. It obliterates any faint illusions that the terminally square Murray is rock-singer material, but it highlights his strengths as a broadcaster. Which is just as well, because his limitations are unfortunately evident elsewhere.
As it is, there are moments during his visit to the institute when there is a overwhelming temptation to switch off in embarrassment. As he encounters the college’s students and staff – the latter a Where Are They Now? file of erstwhile Irish indie stars – Murray adopts a relentlessly avuncular manner, urging musicians to “give us an auld blast” of their instruments while airing his mantra of “I want to be a rock star” to ever-decreasing comic effect.
But his jolly front belies his ability for acute observations. When one class greets his arrival with an audible lack of enthusiasm, Murray undercuts the students’ affected coolness by remarking how “everyone has a beard”. The presenter mischievously asks an earnest young singer if she has considered entering the TV talent show The Voice.
Murray tops it all off with a gloriously wobbly rendition of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, leading him to reassert his rock-star ambitions, no matter his lack of vocal talent nor, indeed, his baldness. “Maybe I’ll get some advice on hair implants from my colleague Marty Whelan,” he concludes, alluding to the Lyric FM presenter’s recently revealed procedure. Such moments turn a potentially pointless segment into a surprisingly enjoyable romp.
The item harks back to the irreverent reports that were his trademark during his time on Morning Ireland and The Business, but his interview with the Australian author Thomas Keneally is frustrating. Keneally, plugging a musical about Irish convicts voyaging to Australia, is an eager conversationalist with fascinating anecdotes, such as how his novel Schindler’s Ark sprang from a chance meeting with a Holocaust survivor in a California shop.
Yet despite the rich potential, Murray’s questions aim in the wrong direction, with the emphasis firmly on the parochial, such as musing whether his guest approved that the lead role in Schindler’s List went to an Irishman, Liam Neeson. Gamely, Keneally responds, but one would prefer to hear him muse on matters closer to his heart. He quotes an old letter his great-grandfather wrote from Cork to his son in Australia, which laments that “I shall never set my eyes on any of my exiled children”. It neatly illustrates Keneally’s point that emigrating to Australia is no longer “the death sentence” it once was. But this poignant personal insight about Irish emigration is unprompted by the host. Murray’s lighthearted style has its appeal, but a more thoughtful interview technique wouldn’t go amiss.
Savage Sunday (Today FM) has the opposite problem. Anton Savage may aspire to combine the lively discussions of magazine shows such as Marian Finucane’s (and indeed that of his slot’s previous incumbent, Sam Smyth) with bright colour items, but too often he lacks the heavyweight punch needed for the former and the light touch for the latter.
Last weekend’s show offers some promising prospects, from an item on why Robert De Niro no longer makes good movies to an interview with a writer whose serially rejected novel has now been published in separate versions for adults and teenagers. But while the interview with the author Brian Conaghan has the odd startling moment – he admits he hasn’t read the edited teenage version of his book – it soon ends up in a cul-de-sac about being diagnosed with mild Tourette’s syndrome late in life.
The most notable aspect of the De Niro item is the host’s glib running gag that he thinks Taxi Driver is overrated; it’s hardly the kind of shibboleth-busting iconoclasm to set the Sunday-morning agenda.
The newspaper-panel aspect of the show is more successful. The most interesting contribution comes not from Savage, who although well informed and comfortable on air isn’t compelling, but from Jonathan Irwin, head of the Jack & Jill Children’s Foundation. Asked about the controversy surrounding charity salaries, Irwin seeks a balanced note before wielding the stiletto.
After describing some of the recently revealed salaries as “offensive”, he focuses on the refusal of Angela Kerins of Rehab to disclose her remuneration, and on the two cases her organisation has taken against the State. Speaking in immensely patrician tones, he says “every day that goes by is doing Rehab and its constituents more and more harm”, concluding that Rehab management’s directions were “dumb” and “wicked”. If only everyone on the radio spoke with such sense and directness.