Andrea Gilligan: A kindly voice among the macho men of Newstalk

Radio: Beside strutting colleagues, empathetic host sounds as saintly as Mother Teresa

There are times when one wonders if Andrea Gilligan is in the right job. Harsh though it sounds, this isn't meant as a slight on her talent or professionalism. It's just that as host of Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays), Gilligan fosters an environment of such kindly reassurance that she can seem out of place on a station noted for its punchy style and provocative presenters.

Beside some of the strutting macho men who have graced Newstalk’s airwaves, Gilligan sounds as saintly as Mother Teresa, though thankfully less pious.

But while she’s so likably empathetic a broadcaster that you half-expect her to offer guests a cup of tea, Gilligan doesn’t avoid tough subjects. On Wednesday, for instance, her show contains items on domestic abuse, racism and ageism. It’s a menu which might even tax current-affairs anchors like Claire Byrne, but Gilligan navigates the topics with her customary amiability, albeit with uneven results.

Andrea Gilligan is a quietly supportive presence on Lunchtime Live, wisely hanging back on intrusive questions and helping her guest through difficult moments

Gilligan starts the show by talking to Kate, who recounts being trapped in an abusive relationship nine years ago. There’s a grimly familiar ring to her testimony. At first “everything was brilliant”, as Kate became pregnant. Then “the mask started to fall off”.


Kate tersely recounts the abuse she suffered – “punching, pulling of the hair, remotes thrown at me” – but also remembers how helpless she felt. “When you’re enclosed in that environment, it’s very hard to speak out to your friends and family about it,” she explains. Eventually, after one particularly vicious assault, Kate left her home in the middle of the night, taking her child with her.

Though Kate is sharing her experience to inspire women in similar situations to get out, it’s a harrowing listen, for all her bravery and resilience. Notably, Kate expresses regret that she didn’t press charges against her abusive partner: courts have been less supportive of her in maintenance cases as a result, she says.

Throughout all this, Gilligan is a quietly supportive presence, wisely hanging back on intrusive questions and helping her guest through difficult moments. More discussion of the legal ramifications of Kate’s tale would have been welcome, but the host’s reluctance to press further is understandable.

By providing a sympathetic space for her guest's story, Gilligan reminds listeners of the insidiousness and pervasiveness of such situations. (With depressing synchronicity, over on RTÉ Radio 1, both Morning Ireland and Liveline have women sharing truly terrifying tales of being stalked, highlighting the prevalence of male violence against women.)

Gilligan is on less certain ground when she turns to matters of race, however. After the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is found guilty of murdering George Floyd, the host hears the thoughts of black and mixed-race people here on the verdict's implications.

Stephanie, a Drogheda woman, speaks of her joy at the outcome, while Leon Diop of the Black and Irish podcast is relieved. But while Gilligan wonders what positives can be drawn from the trial, her guests stress that it is, at best, a first step. "There's a long way to go," Diop says.

Just how far there is to go is illustrated by Stephanie, who catalogues the racial epithets directed at her since childhood. As for police brutality, Stephanie notes that such incidents aren’t confined to the United States. “We don’t have to go too far. Look at what happened in December with George Nkencho,” she says, referring to the fatal shooting of a young black man by armed gardaí. It’s a crucial point, but Gilligan doesn’t explore it, instead moving on to another guest.

A more open-ended approach would give the naturally curious Gilligan the time to hear out her guests. After all, compared to more voluble peers, she's a great listener

The brisk pace of the conversation points to a wider flaw in the show. For all her friendly instincts, Gilligan is hampered not by the nature of her topics but by the volume of them. While the host is to be applauded for inviting Irish people of colour on air to discuss the “challenges” they face, the segment wraps up as interesting themes emerge.

An item on women over 40 being viewed detrimentally is likewise potentially interesting, but it is limited by time pressures, as well as being overshadowed by Gilligan’s other conversations.

Ultimately, if the show has an identity crisis, it’s less to do with the host’s approachability than with the constraints of her format. A more open-ended approach would give the naturally curious host the time to hear out her guests. After all, compared to more voluble peers, Gilligan is a great listener.

Jonathan Healy, standing in as host on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), similarly exudes a more upbeat disposition than some station colleagues. But his chirpy manner doesn't preclude him clashing with guests, as the Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry discovers.

MacSharry is in bullish form, expressing no confidence in Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s handling of the pandemic, while criticising Leo Varadkar’s optimistic speculation on reopening. “Don’t fly the kite unless we’re following through,” the deputy says, accusing the Government of “mixed messaging” even as he mixes his own metaphors.

MacSharry also fulminates that three lockdowns have been wasted without a long-term Covid strategy being formulated, prompting Healy to calmly observe: “With due respect, you are in government. Surely this should have been your responsibility.” With a populist flourish, the deputy says he’s not a party “clone” but works “for the people”.

Clearly, windbags have been with us a long time, but some presenters manage to avoid hot air

As he chides the Government for exclusively following Nphet advice, Healy firmly reminds him of his call for further reopening in December, just as cases began rising catastrophically. “I’m not afraid to be wrong,” MacSharry replies, a position which is of course easier when your errors don’t result in loss of life. It’s a spirited exchange, with Healy’s vigorous questioning placing the deputy’s vocal stance under scrutiny.

For all that, Healy sounds more comfortable in the erudite company of the New Yorker writer John Colapinto, who discusses his new book about the way the voice helped cement human dominance. It's a wryly stimulating conversation, with Colapinto detailing the evolution of vocal ability, right back to the first rudimentary animal noises made by prehistoric lungfish 400 million years ago.

“The first vocal sounds heard on earth were very much like a fart,” Colapinto ruefully remarks as his host chuckles in appreciation. Clearly, windbags have been with us a long time, but some presenters manage to avoid hot air.

Moment of the Week: Shay Byrne’s business banter

One of the features of Rising Time (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) is host Shay Byrne's interactions with bleary-eyed newsroom colleagues before they fully don their on-air personas: his casual chats with the business correspondents Petula Martyn and Brian Finn are particularly unbuttoned.

Monday’s chat with Martyn is typically freewheeling, talking about old school trips and Byrne’s singing ability, before he asks if she’s a fan of the movie Grease. Martyn replies she hasn’t seen the 1978 musical, prompting chastisement from the host: “That’s a gaping hole in your cultural education.” Martyn then sheepishly admits never having seen any of the Godfather films. Byrne goes silent, before hollering: “What day is Brian Finn back?” It’s a wake-up call worthy of a don.