Bad behaviour brings out the best in Anton Savage

Today FM’s morning presenter takes a surprisingly tough line with a GAA star’s gambling addiction, while Cormac Ó hEadhra’s scorn stifles the raison d’être of the Late Debate

Today FM’s Anton Savage

Today FM’s Anton Savage


With morning audiences taking a younger hue last week thanks to the mid-term break, Tuesday’s edition of The Anton Savage Show (Today FM, weekdays) concentrates on family values. This might seem an uncharacteristically wholesome move by the laconic presenter, except that we’re talking about “family” in much the same sense as the Mafia use the word. Gambling, larceny, violence and pornography are the order of the day as Savage conducts a memorable if unnerving interview with former Tyrone GAA player Cathal McCarron.

The conversation focuses on McCarron’s chronic gambling addiction, which led to a raft of problems over several years. The most lurid was an appearance in a gay porn film when McCarron’s habit had left him broke. Savage is keen to find out how his guest, who is heterosexual, fared in such a situation.

 “I’m not being homophobic,” the host says, “but the physical challenge of having to be sexual with someone who isn’t of the same sexuality is extraordinarily difficult, I would have thought.” It’s an understandable line of inquiry, though the alacrity with which Savage pursues it implicitly overlooks the fact that getting paid to have sex with strangers is pretty horrendous full stop. Either way, McCarron is clearly still haunted by what he calls his “lowest point”, coughing nervously and speaking hesitantly about the experience.

But the most striking thing is the approach Savage takes towards his guest, especially when it comes to the theft and scams committed to fund his betting. Rather than treat the story as redemptive, the presenter presses McCarron on the idea that his addiction excused his actions. When McCarron rather limply says that “God made me good”, Savage replies, “In the face of that [his actions], how do you say that?” Later on, when McCarron frames past incidences of violence in terms of anger issues arising from his addiction, Savage cannot hide his exasperation. “Ah, but there’s limits,” he says, adding such incidents “just aren’t okay”.

In favouring rigorous examination over sympathetic hearing, Savage makes a risky but arresting departure from the usual arc of such stories. Still, the item finishes on a note of détente. McCarron, who hasn’t gambled for three years, explains he has published his book to let other addicts know they’re not alone, or to use his unfortunate phrase, “to give that person, or that girl, a bit of hope”.

Savage hears of more bad behaviour, albeit of a less sensational order, when he talks to English celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson about being caught for shoplifting in 2012. Once again, Savage doesn’t let up in trying to discover what prompted his guest’s actions, though Worrall Thompson ultimately doesn’t attempt to excuse himself. “This blame culture we have is not my cup of tea,” he says. “I could blame age or depression, but in the end I put my hands up and say I did it, and haven’t been able to find out why.”

Savage soon lets the issue drop. Then again, he may have felt his audience had heard enough about a mere shoplifting incident.

Either way, Savage is on something of a roll. His obvious confidence and irreverence are hardly unique features in the overwhelmingly alpha male world of daytime talk radio presenters. But he is able to calibrate his manner enough to move easily from trivia-laden overviews of the history of cash to informative discussions on the painful uteral condition endometriosis. For all that he can dwell on the vices of others, Savage’s virtues as a broadcaster are considerable.

Meanwhile, over on The Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Thursday), Cormac Ó hEadhra shows no sign of curbing his appetite for confrontation with his panellists. He is, however, scrupulously fair. On Tuesday, as he discusses the prospect of a Garda strike, Ó hEadhra treats his guests with equally excoriating disdain, no matter what their viewpoint.

He gets into a shouting match with economist Tony Foley about the low level of entry-level pay for new members of the force. Claiming that “you can’t have a guard living with his mammy for all of his working life”, Ó hEadhra poo-poos Foley’s arguments that such wages are decent first steps for young guards as “pure academic bubble stuff”.

The presenter then shifts his cross-hairs in the direction of John O’Brien, a retired detective superintendent. Despite regularly clashing with his host, O’Brien is a regular guest on the show, perhaps because he is familiar with an interrogation room atmosphere from his former career. In this case, O’Brien makes a forceful case that the Garda are a special case among public servants. Having allowed O’Brien to set himself up, Ó hEadhra asks if the guards are “abusing that special case?” “In what way?” O’Brien asks innocently, suggesting he mightn’t do well when questioned himself. “By threatening to strike,” replies Ó hEadhra scornfully.

It’s entertaining in a gladiatorial Jeremy Paxman way. But in his determination to brook no indulgence towards platitude or humbug, Ó hEadhra too often ends up stifling the very thing his show is supposed to promote: debate. He cuts across panellists while they are outlining their views and snorts in derision before arguments can be fully articulated, meaning that the listener doesn’t get the chance to make up their own mind.

In his approach, Ó hEadhra echoes the antipathy that many people feel toward the political, media and business establishments. But there’s a fine line between healthy scepticism and empty cynicism. It doesn’t always pay to stick the boot in.

Radio Moment of the Week: O’Mahony’s error stands out
A welcome voice from the past graces Sunday With Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1), as veteran broadcaster Andy O’Mahony talks about his life and career. As well as possessing what Miriam O’Callaghan rightly calls a “beautiful radio voice”, O’Mahony displays an erudition and breadth of learning that would probably disqualify him as a presenter now. But even O’Mahony made mistakes worthy of the most low-brow blooper reel. He fondly recalls reading a news bulletin that described General de Gaulle making “his final erection round-up”. It can happen to the best of us.

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