Stories about bad parents don’t always make good radio

Ryan Tubridy’s preference for emotive impact over substantive discussion is a sign of the times

Sat, Mar 16, 2013, 06:00

As a broadcaster, Ryan Tubridy may not always be renowned for his piercing insight, but this week he provided a telling glimpse into the workings of contemporary radio. On Tubridy (2FM, weekdays) on Monday, as he spoke to a Kilkenny woman called Michelle, she sounded surprised. Tubridy’s guest said that when she originally texted the show, she hadn’t expected a reply, much less to end up on air.

“That’s how the modern radio show works now,” the presenter breezily replied. “You send in a text, and we call and ask do you want to come on and say hello.”

Of course, he hadn’t invited her on just to have a sociable chat. Michelle had got in touch about Mother’s Day, remarking she had no feelings about her own mother. Asked by the host to elaborate, she was blunt. “Ryan, she’s dead in my eyes.”

As these kinds of human-interest stories are the stock in trade of Tubridy’s radio show, the item encapsulated the strengths and weaknesses of his modus operandi. On the upside, Michelle’s tale provided the kind of personal drama that can chime with audiences. Judging by the texts and calls that followed, the interview elicited a strong reaction, generating more on-air material in the process.

The interview went on too long, however. Even after Michelle said her difficulties were down to “things that I’d rather not go into”, Tubridy still went over the same ground in the vain hope of unearthing more information, before admitting to being “boxed in a corner here, because I don’t know what happened”. As the conversation ran out of steam, Michelle sounded anxious to end her call: “Listen, I’ll leave you be.”

But the topic rumbled on. The next day, Tubridy spoke to Marianna, a Polish woman whose estranged Welsh father had died the week before. It was, paradoxically, an altogether happier experience for the presenter, allowing him to give full rein to his empathetic side.

Marianna had known her dad only since she was 13 – her mother had met him while working in London but, back in communist-era Poland, was unable to rejoin him – and thus had a “confusing” relationship with him. He was self-centred, Marianna said, to the point of never meeting his grandchildren. Although she felt little grief at his passing, she would attend his funeral: he had no other relations.

This clearly struck a chord with Tubridy, himself recently bereaved of his own father. “What an awful life, to be obsessed with money and go to the grave with no relationship with a beautiful daughter,” he lamented while praising his guest’s “big heart”. That Marianna was clearly excited to be talking to Tubridy only added to the item’s unexpected air of warmth. “When I came to Ireland, you were the second name I learned,” she said with a laugh.

The interviews showed how listeners’ experiences can be mined as a source of sustainable, self-generating content for the presenter to ping off. But for all that Tubridy dressed up the topic’s significance – “it reflects a reality that needs to be discussed” – its impact ultimately rested on emotional prurience.

On the face of it, the appearance of the web executive Louise Phelan on Lunchtime (Newstalk, weekdays) was predicated by a matter of more substance, namely the suitability of young Irish people in today’s workplace. Phelan, a vice-president at PayPal, bemoaned that many Irish graduates recruited by her company were not “streetwise”.

Rather, they had a sense of entitlement, “the undercurrent that you owe us something”.

It was a potentially intriguing subject, but it got lost amid a blizzard of cliche.

Phelan’s own work ethic and achievements were not in doubt – “I grew up in a family of 17 on a farm; you did whatever you had to do,” she said – but her analysis of the problem at hand was expressed through well-worn generalisations.

“The reality is if you want to get on and progress, you have to do hard work,” she said. “The nine to five is gone.”

This propensity for truisms was not helped by Jonathan Healy, the show’s presenter, whose questions ramped up the rhetoric rather than seek the reasons why.

“Because everything came to them when they were young, do they expect that in the workplace?” he asked. When Phelan agreed, Healy spluttered with an indignation that would be the envy of the grumpiest of old men: “Who do these kids think they are?”

Amid the outrage, the odd salient point emerged. Phelan observed that some graduates felt that merely having a degree gave them the ability to waltz into a job, which raised awkward questions about whether our third-level system engenders a sense of privilege rather than of curiosity.

But rather than forensically explore such issues, as one might expect on a news show, the usually astute Healy preferred the easy populism of the why-oh-why approach.

It caught the attention of the listener but left them none the wiser. All too often, that’s how the modern radio show works.

radioreview@irishtimes.com