Radio: Sudden exits and welcome returns mark a year of change
Pat Kenny’s move to Newstalk was the big story, but there were more notable presences - and absences - on radio in 2013
The Second Captains team, from left: Simon Hick, Ciaran Murphy, Ken Early, Eoin McDevitt and Mark Horgan, Malachy Logan, sports editor of The Irish Times (centre left) and Malachy Clerkin, sports reporter (extreme right). The team’s sudden departure from Newstalk’s Off the Ball programme was one the biggest talking points in Irish radio this year. Photograph: Dave Meehan
In a year when Irish radio went through more upheaval than in the previous three combined, one sudden exit stands out, one that left a station bereft of one of its defining fixtures and handed a coup to its rivals. The abrupt departure in March of Eoin McDevitt, Ken Early and Ciaran Murphy from Newstalk’s sport show Off the Ball (weekdays) may have later been overshadowed by Pat Kenny’s spectacular jump from RTÉ, but theirs was the most noteworthy move of 2013.
In redirecting their talents towards television and podcasts (for The Irish Times, under the Second Captains banner), McDevitt et al have been a lamented absence for fans of original radio, one that has not been fully replaced despite the efforts of Ger Gilroy. In contrast, while Kenny’s move was the biggest radio story, prompting a shuffling of the decks at both RTÉ and his new home at Newstalk, the frenetic activity produced few fresh voices.
There was much anticipation about the midmorning duel between The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays) and Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), but for all the money, ratings and prestige at stake, the two have so far proved curiously flat affairs. In his new commercial surroundings, Kenny has sounded more relaxed and has added regular features that catch the ear. But with a noticeably less heavyweight roster of guests to hand, the show lacks the agenda-setting heft of his old berth.
Move the dial, to coin a phrase, and O’Rourke has been as assured and forensic a successor to Kenny as one would expect from a seasoned newsman. But he has yet to find the right tone for the slot, his lack of wider broadcasting experience evident in the direct quizzing style that is his default setting. Regular contributors such as Marie Louise O’Donnell and Brian O’Connell are now almost as crucial to the show’s shape. Overall, the result has been to remove variety and even vitality from morning radio. Things may change, but for the moment they target the same market with the same topics and essentially the same format.
Tom Dunne was the biggest loser from all this commotion, relegated to a late-night slot to make room for Kenny. But in his new programme, The Tom Dunne Show ( Newstalk, Monday-Thursday), he has benefitted from a focus on screen and music matters, losing his daytime show’s awkward attempts at topicality.
Dunne sounds more comfortable now than his erstwhile morning rival Ryan Tubridy, whose witty flippancy on Tubridy (RTÉ 2FM, weekdays) remained his most appealing quality but hampered the exploration of more nuanced subjects.
Tubridy had previously shouldered disproportionate blame for 2FM’s travails, but it was his early-morning colleague Hector Ó hEochagáin who ended up leaving the station. The sudden departure of the defiantly unmetropolitan host came as his show, Breakfast With Hector (weekdays), receded in popularity, in sharp contrast to the recent good performance of Ruth Scott and Paddy McKenna’s Weekenders (Saturday and Sunday).
Even Ray D’Arcy, previously the undisputed champ of populist morning radio, has seen his numbers wane, pushing The Ray D’Arcy Show (Today FM, weekdays) towards items with “cross-platform” appeal – that is, internet-friendly viral elements. Some have worked (David Norris shaving off his beard for charity), but others, such as D’Arcy’s re-creation of Love/Hate, seemed like desperate lunges at zeitgeisty relevance.
Dublin’s 98FM continued to hoover up presenters from its rivals, prising Adrian Kennedy and Jeremy Dixon from FM104’s late-night Phone Show. It will be interesting to hear how their shock-jock style plays out in a daytime setting. It is unlikely to be dull.
Other presenters courted controversy. Neil Prendeville of 96FM, in Cork, was chastised by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for his rabble-rousing monologue about “medical cards to Africans”, while the normally reasonable David Harvey of 4FM was upbraided for letting callers’ prejudicial assertions pass unchallenged. Both findings were welcome, as racist sentiment has become a depressingly regular characteristic of phone-in shows.
The year also saw big-name comebacks. After a year of bankruptcy in Wales, Ivan Yates returned to Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays), restoring the show’s testosterone quotient to its previously high level. His chemistry with his cohost, Chris Donoghue, is more equitably balanced, to the show’s benefit.
And, as ever, Miriam O’Callaghan acted as a one-woman panacea to the dearth of female voices on air. During her extended tenure as guest host of The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), her empathetic style injected a rarely heard quality.
If the Second Captains were the most notable radio absence of 2013, the most welcome presence was Murray, who marked his return to air by speaking candidly about the depression he had suffered in his six months away. To hear such an open and true account of mental illness from a public figure was rare and inspiring. Above all it was astonishingly brave: if there was a radio moment of the year, this was it.