Second Captains find a new pitch
When the five-man team that made ‘Off the Ball’ resigned from Newstalk six months ago, they wasted no time developing a podcast and, now, a TV sports show
There are no second acts in American life, F Scott Fitzgerald famously said. He turned out to be wrong, but in the media world the sentiment is much more accurate. And in the small world of Irish broadcasting it’s almost an inviolable rule: first opportunities are rare, second chances almost mythical.
So when the five-strong team that made Newstalk’s Off the Ball sports show one of the most popular radio programmes in the country resigned en masse at the beginning of March, their fans were deeply concerned about what might happen to them, with many wondering if they could find an alternative home for their off-the-cuff banter and detailed discussions of the sporting issues of the day.
The show’s host, Eoin McDevitt, copresenters Ken Early and Ciarán Murphy and producers Mark Horgan and Simon Hick had spent the best part of a decade perfecting their style and building a listenership, but six months ago they were faced with an entirely new challenge: to find an entirely new way of connecting with that audience.
To do that they reappeared as the Second Captains, and they now host a hugely popular podcast on irishtimes.com and are preparing to unveil a TV show on RTÉ. It is one of the most unlikely success stories in Irish media – and illustrates how dramatically the landscape is changing.
“We were determined to do something new. We knew leaving Newstalk was a big gamble, in that there was no work for us immediately after it, but the decision to go was a no-brainer,” says Horgan.
That determination to do something new came from a growing sense that, having taken over the show from its original host, Ger Gilroy, in 2005, they had brought Off the Ball as far as it could go as a late-evening three-hour programme. The team had grown up as broadcasters and found their voices in what was then a local radio station, affording them the freedom to be more natural, less self-conscious and less hidebound by traditional expectations of what a radio show should be.
“It was almost 10 years of working together, doing almost exactly the same thing, finishing up at 11pm,” he says. “You run the risk of the show going stale, which we were very concerned about, and we wanted to take it to the next level.”
The departure, when it came, was a surprise, the result of issues that had been gestating for a long time, as McDevitt explains. “It was a collective resignation after protracted negotiations about improving the show . . . For a year and a half before the resignation we were planning and having negotiations with management about what we thought was the best way forward for the show.”
Their plan involved starting the show an hour earlier, at 6pm, within the prime-time slot. The conventional wisdom in Irish radio is that the drive-time slot shouldn’t be the preserve of “niche” sports broadcasting. Despite Off the Ball’s being the most popular radio programme nationally in the 7pm-10pm slot, audiences decrease significantly as the evening goes on, so an earlier start would broaden their potential audience. And in any case, as Murphy points out, all the general-interest drive-time programmes feature a significant amount of sports content from 6pm to 7pm.
Ultimately, the station didn’t agree. “Newstalk felt that for commercial reasons, or whatever reasons, that wasn’t a runner,” says McDevitt. “We felt we had to move someplace else for our own careers.”
The suddenness of their departure had an element of transfer-deadline-day brinkmanship, but if there is any residual bitterness towards the radio station they don’t let it show. Horgan acknowledges the gamble they were asking studio bosses to take.
“It’s a really tough market at the moment, and people are scared to try something different,” says Horgan. “A lot of independent research showed that there was demand for sport earlier in the day, but it was a risk they weren’t willing to take in the end.”
Listeners were more shocked than the team expected. Murphy tells one anecdote that shows the scale of upset. “I was walking home in the rain with a big jacket and the hood flipped up, so I probably looked quite shady,” he says, mimicking the walk. “This cop car pulls up beside me. They roll down the window and they ask my name. ‘Ciarán Murphy,’ I mumble.
“And then there’s another garda in the back seat. He leans forward out the window and goes, ‘Jaysus, Murph, what happened the show. What’s the story?’ ” In exchange for the details, the gardaí drove him home, out of the rain.
Not that the team spent too long feeling sorry for themselves. “As soon as we left it was a matter of working immediately on the next step, as diligently as we worked on the show,” says McDevitt. “There were no guarantees, but we were hoping that we had built up enough support from listeners, that we had people who would follow us whatever that next venture might be, that at that point it was a case of finding someone willing to try something new, and that’s where The Irish Times came in. It was fortunate for us that we became available and were looking to do new things at a time when the paper was looking at doing new things. It’s been a lucky confluence of events.”
The Second Captains podcast debuted in May. It now consists of four episodes a week, capturing the essence of the radio show in a more concentrated format. Seeing them at work, it’s clear that while the presenting style is relaxed and off the cuff, the attitude is anything but: lots of preparation goes into every episode.
In many ways the format suits the programme more than the nightly radio show did. The team has lost the element of immediate feedback, as the podcast audience can listen to shows whenever they want, but has gained in other ways.
“The big thing that we hoped for when it started, and has come to pass better than we thought it would, was building an audience among listeners abroad,” says Murphy. “You see with all the GAA clubs that spring up everywhere that sport is a huge connection to home for Irish people when they’re abroad. It’s a way that they connect with home in a really profound way.”
Their new schedule also enabled them to try out television. “TV was something that we were kind of looking at from pretty early on as soon as we finished with Newstalk,” says McDevitt. “I guess it’s a logical medium, [and] we thought we could transfer our show successfully.”
After pitches to RTÉ and two pilots demonstrating that they could carry it off, a four-part series was commissioned, beginning after the Ireland v Austria game next Tuesday. How are they going to transplant their banter to the screen?
“Skinner and Baddiel are one of our influences, those Fantasy Football League shows we used to love when we were growing up. And it’s got a TFI Friday sort of feel to it,” says Horgan. “We’re also influenced by Nighthawks in some respects. The format is a big open space with a live band, a bar, late-night live show. It will be a bit rough and ready, a mixture of sports and entertainment that’s a bit of craic.”
Having a bit of craic seems to be the recurring ingredient the team point to in identifying the reasons for their success. From their first days together in 2005, the five recognised the on-air chemistry they had. Like all the best radio, the show thrives because it creates the illusion of shared conversation. Listening to that impossible-to-manufacture camaraderie, you are made to feel as if you are part of a particularly quick-witted and amusing group of mates.
Why is that chemistry so rare in Irish broadcasting? “I can only explain how I feel it worked for us, and hopefully continues to work for us,” says McDevitt. “I think people recognise that we’re friends . . . Once people got that sense they wanted to be involved in it. People essentially like to feel involved in the same conversation.”
Horgan stresses that the sense of a team runs deep. “We learned pretty quickly that we were kind of loath to lose that dynamic, so no matter what we were going to do we knew the five of us wanted to stay working together. That was a really special thing. We had a really good laugh working together, and no matter what was to happen, we wanted to stay working together in whatever guise.”
So far, at least, it seems Fitzgerald’s aphorism doesn’t apply here. Perhaps the Second Captains are merely proving that there’s a kernel of truth in that hoariest of sporting cliches: it’s a game of two halves.
Second Captains Live is on RTÉ Two on Tuesday at 10.30pm