All in the chemistry as Irish radio hopes for sparks

Toxic partnerships behind the mic can be fatal, but rapport is a joy listeners can share

Chemistry between radio presenters is one of those hard-to-define, know-it-when-you-hear-it, know-it-when-it’s-missing things. Bad chemistry in the studio is a switch-off offence. Good chemistry, even a dash of interpersonal drama, elevates a radio programme, giving listeners a reason to keep tuning in. The stakes are as high as the microphones are sensitive.

If on-air chemistry is to thrive between co-presenters, their ability to get on with each other off air is usually critical, as is a non-hostile environment. In unhappy workplaces, good chemistry can turn toxic faster than you can say: “Any good podcasts on iTunes?”

For radio bosses, it is not enough to simply recognise chemistry. They have to be able to create it too, and two different approaches to doing so come courtesy of RTÉ 2fm and Communicorp's Newstalk.

‘Breakfast Republic’

At 2fm, head of station Dan Healy began his reign by axing breakfast host Hector Ó hEochagáin and replacing him with Keith Walsh, Bernard O'Shea and Jennifer Zamparelli (née Maguire), in the hope that the "zoo" format of Breakfast Republic would give the trio the space to rub each other up the right way.


Sometimes, the easiest way to magic up chemistry is to try and replicate relationships that have existed elsewhere. O'Shea and Zamparelli had already shared screen time on RTÉ2's Republic of Telly, while one of Walsh's previous radio stints had been a partnership with O'Shea on regional station i105-107FM (now iRadio).

The importing trick was repeated with Chris Greene and Ciara King, the duo brought in from iRadio to helm a late-night slot. Whatever chemistry is, Greene and King have it, and they were last spotted filling in on breakfast, treating morning listeners to their patented Win Back Your Licence Fee quiz.

The jury is out on whether the regular "hyperactive" Breakfast Republic team is doing the trick for 2fm. As might be expected, the show's listenership swelled after its running time was extended last year, but its audience has since fallen back. It is just possible that some listeners feel excluded from the intense studio repartee.

The odds are they will be given more time. On 2fm's weekend breakfasts, meanwhile, one potential replacement for the departed Colm Hayes is his one-time co-presenter Al Porter, who RTÉ said "forged a unique partnership" with Hayes during his drivetime stint, while other possible names include Lottie Ryan, Mo K and Conor Behan – Healy says he hasn't decided yet whether the show will be a single or double-header.

No ‘i’ in ‘co-host’

Generators of radio chemistry tend to be naturally “up” people who are neither prone to sour bristling nor overly competitive – there’s no “i” in “co-host”.

Comedians, who must learn quickly how to establish a rapport with a room, are often a great bet. Stand-up Alison Spittle's guest spots on George Hook's now-finished Newstalk drivetime show The Right Hook is one recent example of how chemistry can bubble between two quite different characters, while over on Today FM the long-running success of The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show is at least partly down to Dempsey's talent for playing the straight man to Mario Rosenstock.

On Irish news and current affairs radio, chemistry was traditionally regarded as anything from irrelevant to uncomfortably showbiz. Enter Newstalk station editor Garrett Harte, who decided to put Ivan Yates and Chris Donoghue in the same petri dish, making their chemistry a point of difference between Newstalk and Radio 1's formal behemoth Morning Ireland.

With Yates leaving, various sets of would-be breakfast presenters, including some broadcasting rookies, were given off-air trials in Newstalk as it strove to play the alchemist again. Now confirmed as Shane Coleman, Colette Fitzpatrick, crime journalist Paul Williams and ex-rugby player Alan Quinlan, the new team will be hoping to make the airwaves crackle from September.

It’s all subjective, but the kind of chemistry I like on air is one based in equality, with no one extreme personality dominating. In particular, a male presenter enjoying an on-air affair with his own ego, while the female co-host is restricted to laughing at his jokes and doing the traffic, is no fun.

This was once the norm on Irish music radio. In 2016, women presenters on stations like 2fm occupy a much broader range of roles, from uninhibited comic to knowledgeable expert (culture nerd).

But one thing is missing, and it is the opportunity for broadcasting sparks to fly between one woman and another woman. That’s right, two women with their names in the show title. After decades of blokey bonhomie, it is time to give this apparently radical idea a shot. It could be explosive.