Throughout his broadcasting career, Ray D'Arcy has often come across as a member of the family. When he was the youthful foil to anarchic puppets Zig and Zag on children's TV show The Den, he was like an eager but slightly annoying older brother. During his long stint as the host of Today FM's popular mid-morning talk show, he resembled the kind of knowledgeable, opinionated but again slightly annoying relative, of the variety that The Undertones sang about on My Perfect Cousin. These days, now fully settled into his afternoon berth on RTÉ Radio 1 (The Ray D'Arcy Show, weekdays), he appears to have assumed a new role in the notional family: agony uncle.
Certainly, when talking to many of his guests, he concentrates on personal experiences of trauma or illness, teasing out their stories while throwing in a bit of self-help advice along the way. Depending on who is talking, these stories can be illuminating, affecting or gobsmackingly trivial.
When former athlete David Gillick appears on Monday's show, the focus is not on his career as a European gold medal-winning 400m sprinter, but rather the mental anguish after he retired from sport.
Gillick freely recalls his lack of direction, comparing retirement to bereavement and adding that his sporting disappointments played a part in the depression that gradually overcame him. “My career didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, I wanted to move on,” Gillick says. “I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t.”
Candid though this testimony is, Gillick talks in free-associating fashion: understandable, given the subject. But D’Arcy puts a shape on proceedings, driving the story by asking potentially uncomfortable questions about his guest’s suicidal thoughts and sudden fits of anger at the time. “We think of depression as a docile state, but rage is a part of it too,” the host observes.
D'Arcy struggles to strike up any chemistry with his guest, likeable though she is
Thankfully, Gillick has recovered now, and has written a book about the value of exercise for both physical and mental health. Given that D’Arcy frequently talks about running and swimming endeavours, it’s no wonder he’s enthusiastic as his guest describes the sensation of endorphins being released by exercise. “People overlook how it makes you feel,” D’Arcy says, his quiet zeal guaranteed to shame even the most sedentary listener into action.
When a guest has a less uplifting tale, D’Arcy still can give it a positive, empowering spin.
On Wednesday, he talks to Kathy Ryan, who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease at age 53, yet is now setting off to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It should be a grim item, and sure enough has its jolting moments: "To know your brain is dying is hard," Ryan says matter-of-factly. But her account of how she continues to live an independent life in the face of her condition is oddly inspirational too.
“You’re very strong,” D’Arcy reassures her. “You’re an advocate at a time when many would go home and pull the curtains.”
His admiration is palpable in his voice. Like a good counsellor, D’Arcy makes the guest – and the listener – feel better, even when spirits are low.
Some cases are beyond even D'Arcy's help, however. On Tuesday, he talks to Georgia Toffolo, the star of British reality TV show Made In Chelsea and winner of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, who talks about being bullied at school and afflicted with acne as an adult. Toffolo, who is plugging a book called Always Smiling, seems blessed with a preternaturally cheerful demeanour and, accordingly, doesn't dwell too much on any negative effects of her experiences.
Which is just as well, because D'Arcy struggles to strike up any chemistry with his guest, likeable though she is. When she talks about her unexpected success, the host can't help qualifying her achievement: "Yeah, talking to me with a book, and the crown from I'm a Celebrity in your wardrobe." It seems churlish, but it's fleeting. It may just be that sometimes D'Arcy would prefer to be the know-it-all cousin who ruled the morning airwaves rather than the avuncular afternoon host.
One person unlikely to be tapped up to dispense showy sympathy and wellness tips on-air any time soon is Mary Wilson, the admirably brisk host of Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays).
On Monday, Wilson displays her customary command of the facts and crisp questioning style as she conducts informative interviews with economist Dan O’Brien on property values, and with Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty on the political fallout from the housing crisis.
When she adopts the same approach with psychologist Dr Paul D’Alton about the more nebulous subject of midlife crises, however, the result is more ambivalent, if unintentionally entertaining. Even as she introduces the subject of the midlife crisis, Wilson has an air of impatient bafflement: “According to you we need one,” she says. Still, the item has much intriguing content, from the relatively recent origins of the concept to the misconception that only men have such wobbles, “a misogynistic hangover”, to D’Alton’s mind.
However, when Wilson goes looking for more concrete facts about how such crises manifest themselves, she has little joy. D’Alton talks about “moving from a concern for me to a concern for we”; he muses on the “seasonality of life” and suggests “mid-life is the invitation to simplify”.
Faced with quotes that veer close to motivational poster territory, Wilson persists with tersely practical queries – “How do we know when we need help?” – but D’Alton goes on to talk of the choice “between stagnation and generativity”. “A nice place to finish the evening,” Wilson says, polite to the last. The net effect is akin to a drill sergeant conducting a mindfulness class, but all the more enjoyable for that. Ever the diligent newswoman, Wilson isn’t about to make a drama out of a crisis.
Radio Moment of the Week: Love sick
On Monday, The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays) carries a report by Henry McKean suggesting that increased exposure to sunlight increases women's chances of pregnancy. Jennifer Haskins of dating agency Two's Company explains why to McKean, in ickily vivid terms: "When you're more relaxed, everything is flowing: the blood is flowing, the love juices are flowing, people are more attracted to one another."
It's all too much for newscaster Susan Keogh, who sounds a dubious note when she replays the clip during the hourly bulletin. The show's host, Ivan Yates, asks Keogh if she is rubbishing McKean's report, and its memorable terminology. "I wasn't rubbishing the story," says Keogh, "but I am from here on in banning the term 'love juice' forever." For which she has our gratitude.