Radio review: Kenny goes private for his public

The Newstalk presenter provided a welcome presence during the holiday period, while a guest host shone in an RTE star’s absence

The presence of Pat Kenny on the Newstalk schedules seemed to prove the veracity of one particularly well-roasted old chestnut: people in the private sector work harder than their public service counterparts. Photograph: Frank Miller

The presence of Pat Kenny on the Newstalk schedules seemed to prove the veracity of one particularly well-roasted old chestnut: people in the private sector work harder than their public service counterparts. Photograph: Frank Miller

Sat, Jan 4, 2014, 01:15

As 2013 drew to a close, the presence of Pat Kenny on the Newstalk schedules seemed to prove the veracity of one particularly well-roasted old chestnut: people in the private-sector work harder than their public service counterparts. During the first half of last week, while many of the big guns of RTÉ Radio were off wading through the last of the turkey curry, Kenny was there for his listeners, back in his usual mid-morning berth (The Pat Kenny Show, Newstalk, weekdays).

His tenure was particularly noteworthy on Monday, when he got stuck into a news-rich morning with relish. As Kenny spoke to various far-flung correspondents about Michael Schumacher’s tragic skiing accident and the horrific bombings in Volgograd, there was something strangely reassuring about having such an authoritative broadcaster on hand to deal with big stories during the supposed festive lull.

But he showed a deft touch in other matters too, as when he spoke to social justice activist Fr Peter McVerry about the continuing blight of homelessness in Ireland. McVerry, who is to be given the Freedom of the City of Dublin, gave a bracing insight into the bleak seasonal experiences of the homeless. Christmas Day, he said, was actually the most miserable time of the year for those living on the streets: it was cold, no one was about and nothing was open.

Kenny was sympathetic without being soapy. He asked his guest about the perception of many homeless being addicts who were wilfully beyond help. (McVerry quietly but emphatically quashed the notion.) But the host also extended the discussion beyond the personal, wondering about wider responsibility for the situation. McVerry’s anger was palpable that, at a time when he said six new people were becoming homeless every day, “the apathy at the political level is extraordinary”. The Government had “almost abdicated” responsibility for social housing, instead looking to the private rented sector to solve the problem of homelessness, a situation he thought “absurd”.

On this hearing, it was easy to share McVerry’s scorn for those “in the political bubble” congratulating themselves that the economy had turned a corner in 2013. It was a view echoed the following day by fellow homeless activist Alice Leahy, who said the State’s deal on promissory notes had made no difference to the lives of herself or those she helped. At a time of year when it is natural to err on the side of the cosy, Kenny did not flinch from the grimy aspects of Irish life.

If he was as professional as ever, he also, less characteristically, gave voice to his more personal side. On New Year’s Day, as he presided over a special (prerecorded) programme in which guests chose songs that evoked a special time and place, Kenny finished off proceedings by nominating his own. “For me, the time is 1968; the place is a bar on the rock of Gibraltar; the drink, Watney’s Red Barrel; the music on the jukebox, the same song all day long,” he said, before playing Hey Jude by The Beatles. It was a short but intriguing vignette, allowing a tantalising glimpse of the man behind the familiar public persona. If he continues in this vein, Kenny can take his show into fresh pastures in 2014.

Over on RTÉ, the titular marquee name host may have been absent, but Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio One, weekdays) still held its own, thanks in large part to the understated confidence of guest presenter Keelin Shanley. On New Year’s Day, Shanley showed her ability to move easily between diverse items, helping to tell different but equally gripping stories.

A conventional current-affairs piece, on the plight of those in debt to the banks, nonetheless provided gut-wrenching instances of human interest. One woman told reporter Valerie Cox of the dread with which she read threatening letters from the bank, while another spoke of how she was denied a widow’s pension because her late husband, who had killed himself in the face of financial woes, had failed to pay up-to-date tax. It was harrowing stuff, but while Shanley handled it sensitively, she was also alive to the dangers of emotive tub-thumping. When Julie Sadlier, of debt-relief organisation the Phoenix Project, attacked the banks for their approach to the matter, the host quietly reminded her guest that there was no one on air to rebut her claims.

If that item didn’t fill the listener with the hopeful glow one normally experiences at the dawn of a new year, it was a soft-focus feelgood story compared with the segment that looked at the always cheery subject of the carnage in the trenches during the first World War. Predicated by the centenary of the war’s outbreak, the segment was as much cultural as it was historical, as teacher and critic Niall MacMonagle examined the remarkable outpouring of poetry that resulted from the conflict.

Helmed with a nuanced grasp by Shanley, and aided by readings from actors Cathy Belton and Barry Barnes, the resulting discussion restored a properly tragic human dimension to the familiar tropes about the slaughter and mundanity of the war: it may be nearly a century old, but the poetry of the doomed Wilfred Owen still retains its power to shock and move. With a year of commemorative events beckoning, both presenter and guests set the bar high: with luck, other broadcasters can follow their example.


radioreview@irishtimes.com

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