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Baz Ashmawy, the manic student teacher covering for sensible history master Ryan Tubridy

The stand-in presenter wings it with breathless enthusiasm and cheeky charm

Schools and businesses may be gingerly reopening, but as the first week of 2022 unfolds, the yawning gaps in the workforce are obvious to all. About half of key personnel are absent, while an air of improvisation and dark humour prevails among those left plugging the gaps. True, it’s unclear whether the likes of Ryan Tubridy, Pat Kenny, Claire Byrne and Joe Duffy are missing because of the dreaded Omicron or merely due to extended leave, but either way the resulting radio chimes with the wider tentative mood.

Baz Ashmawy, for one, doesn't exude confidence as he fills in on The Ryan Tubridy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). "I want to be positive," he says, "but I'm a little numb." Ashmawy glumly compares the festive period just gone with the Yuletides of his childhood – "My mum worked every Christmas and that was better crack than the Christmas I just had" – and puts it down to the pressures of keeping up family spirits. "The maintaining of other people's happiness I found quite exhausting," he says, not necessarily the wisest admission from someone hosting a light-hearted talk show.

For all that, Ashmawy’s dyspepsia gives way to his more usual persona, all breathless enthusiasm and cheeky charm, with just a hint of winging it: he declares he’s forgotten the name of the late actor Betty White. Such a ramshackle can-do attitude is, however, a virtue in a show where the host’s monologue eats up half the airtime.

Ashmawy regales his audience with rambling accounts of taking down his Christmas tree, which even Tubridy at his most solipsistic might think a bit self-indulgent. But, equally, he recounts personal anecdotes with rambunctious vim. He gleefully describes the “horror show” of once being hospitalised with a collapsed lung in a ward surrounded by amputees of varying severity, all thanks to smoking. “Trust me, if you smoke, give up,” Ashmawy concludes.


His family also figure heavily in his spiel, teasingly evoking the reaction of his older children to getting antigen tests: “The teens think I invented the pandemic so I could root around in their nasal cavity.”

This upbeat approach is such that even filler items zip by agreeably, such as his interview with Cillian Hilliard, an Irish jeweller appearing in British reality show Made in Chelsea. Even when talking to others, however, Ashmawy can’t help talking about himself. As Dave Wall of the National Biodiversity Data Centre tells of an Egyptian vulture being sighted in Leitrim, the host makes a reference to his own Egyptian ancestry, not to mention his lairy nightclubbing past: “That used to be my codename in Club 92,” he chortles.

He’s not always edifying, but Ashmawy is undeniably diverting, in the manner of a manic student teacher filling in for a sensible history master.

Lurgy looms large

Even among those regular hosts who do show up for work, the Omicron lurgy looms large. On Wednesday's edition of The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays), Kieran Cuddihy starts off by revealing that he's broadcasting from a makeshift home studio. "It's fair to say, I have Covid," he informs listeners. Thankfully, there are no symptoms so far, "so we're going to plough on".

Making his announcement, Cuddihy sounds as concerned as if he had caught a cold, a telling snapshot of how vaccines have changed attitudes to coronavirus.

The virus has no discernible impact on the host's performance. He talks to reporter Simon Tierney about Dublin City Council's plan to switch the capital's 47,000 streetlamps from sodium to LED lighting. Tierney frets that this will "change how we experience the city": apparently the new bulbs have "a bleaching, washed-out effect". It's a short but absorbing report, which touches on aesthetic, environmental and public-safety issues.

Whitewashing is the theme when Cuddihy hears ex-British army officer Col Tim Collins raise objections to Tony Blair's knighthood. A Northern Irish native, Collins is furious that the former prime minister should be so honoured, accusing him of being so "addicted to his own celebrity" that he was "played" by republicans during the peace process.

In  Collins’s telling, the “murderous IRA” was given free passes while “history is being rewritten” to make the British army the “guilty party” in the Troubles. The end result is a process that “gave the working classes on both sides to the paramilitaries”.

Cuddihy gives his guest a good hearing, before gently suggesting that the North is a safer and better place than 25 years ago. Collins isn’t so sure: with no focus on reconciliation, “it’s a hopeless place for young people”. It’s quite the charge sheet, though it’s notable that Collins, who served in the 2003 Iraq War, doesn’t challenge Blair’s decision to invade that country on false claims. Nor does Cuddihy raise the matter. Instead, Collins expresses anger that the British army took a misguided softly-softly approach during the occupation, the better to buff Blair’s reputation.

It’s fair to say that these particular grievances aren’t shared by everyone, but his guest’s presence is bracing if nothing else. Clearly, Covid hasn’t stopped Cuddihy from giving airtime to provocative voices.

An impressionistic collage

Those looking for something less contentious, yet more idiosyncratic, might seek out the Drama on One: Digging for Fire (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), which has producers Eoin O'Kelly and Kevin Brew joining with composer Daragh Dukes to recreate their days in the Limerick indie scene of the early 1990s. Starting out in slightly self-conscious fashion – like any good indie group – the piece soon evolves into an impressionistic collage of anecdotes, dramatisation and rumination.

By turns wistful and wryly observed, it’s a portrait of youthful dreams meeting the reality of poky gigs and snarky reviews, as Dukes’s and Brew’s band fizzles out in London. “I’m going to have find a new way to be creative that doesn’t rely on a diet of noodle soups that comes from a packet,” laments Brew.

For all that, Digging for Fire is music to the ears, vividly conveying a time and place, and providing a lift as the new year starts uncertainly.

Radio Moment of the Week

As a regular stand-in host on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), Jonathan Healy is a calmly moderating figure. On Wednesday, however, he shows his sharper side during a discussion on school reopening. When Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon raises concerns about the preparedness of schools and the additional duties imposed on staff, Healy suddenly vents. "There is absolutely no monopoly on hard work in a pandemic," the presenter says.

As Gannon notes that school principals have had to become experts on new fields, Healy pushes back again: “I wasn’t an expert at sticking something up my snot to work out if I had a disease two years ago, but now I seem to have worked that out pretty well.” Whoa. Gannon clearly gets up his host’s nose.