In radio as in life, January is a time of lean pickings for both broadcasters and listeners. For a sense of just how fallow January can be for talk-show hosts, one only has to listen to Brenda Donohue as guest host of the Ray D'Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays).
Her interview with Rory Cowan is a masterclass in inconsequential fluff. There are fruitless exchanges on why Cowan no longer watches Mrs Brown's Boys, the Brendan O'Carroll comedy he formerly co-starred in, and earnest questions about his current gig as a pantomime performer: had he expected his "panto journey" to be extended?
Potentially painful, if undeniably personal, matters are referred to but quickly elided, as when Cowan talks about Christmas Day with his sick mother. Instead, we hear how the actor was drafted into his pantomime role at short notice, which Donohue breathlessly calls “showbiz at the cutting edge”.
And this is the highlight. The presenter's phone interview with actor Patrick Bergin about his part in BBC soap opera EastEnders has all the easy chemistry of a chance encounter with a half-remembered acquaintance from a long-departed job. The awkward air isn't helped by Bergin stating that he's unable to talk much about his character, otherwise he'd be obliged to "kill everyone". By way of riposte, Donohue invokes the name of EastEnders hard man actor Danny Dyer, sort of. "You'd have to go the way of Danny Dryer," she says. Talk about a damp squib.
For a sense of what's possible, one only has to listen to Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) hosting a lengthy discussion on yawning – and "contagious yawning" at that – it's hard to know whether it's an act of chutzpah or an exercise in professional self-harm. Yet for all that Moncrieff seems to be daring his audience to doze off, his bet pays off.
The subject arises during the regular Tuesday slot with Graham Finlay of UCD, who shares his host's predilection for esoteric topics, broad knowledge and sparky wit. Thus Finlay talks about how contagious yawning is linked to empathy, and in turn provides clues about schizophrenia and autism. As to why we do it, Finlay wryly refers to "very exciting recent developments in yawn science" postulating a function to regulate brain temperature. "The longer the yawn the bigger the brain," Finlay summarises, causing ripples of (possibly unwarranted) excitement among the more somnolent of us.
He then moves on to sneezing, talking about everything from its supposed similarity to orgasm to Islam’s attitude to sneezes. All in all, it’s an enlivening item, which prompts the biggest text response of the day, as Moncrieff notes with satisfaction.
Still, the discussion’s larky air underlines Moncrieff’s somewhat anomalous position in Newstalk. For one thing, Moncrieff’s show concentrates on talk at the expense of news, more so than any of his daytime colleagues. Tellingly, the presenter is asked at one point last week if he ever was a stand-up comedian, only for him to despairingly reply no, he was a journalist.
It’s perhaps an understandable misconception. On Wednesday, for instance, Moncrieff helms an enlightening but unnerving item on the protocols required for President Trump to launch nuclear weapons (not very many) and a stark discussion about fatal farming accidents with regular panellist Maireád Lavery. But what really sticks in the mind is his conversation with academic Jean-Baptiste Leca about the excessively symbiotic relationship between Japanese monkeys and deer.
This sees the monkeys grooming the deer, in both the old-fashioned and more contemporary sense of the verb. For during mating season, the adolescent female simians attempt sexual congress with male deer, a ritual rather too vividly described by Moncrieff’s guest. It’s all suitably weird, but there’s something faintly undignified about a presenter asking the question, “Have you seen male monkeys mount female deer?” Still, it keeps things interesting. There’s little danger that Moncrieff’s listeners are yawning.
Never forget Georgia
If the post-Christmas present has little to offer, the past provides more arresting material. In REM: Out of Athens (RTÉ Radio 1), producer and narrator Ken Sweeney traces the rise of the now defunct American alternative rock group, from their early 1980s origins in the eponymous Georgia college town to their 1990s status as unlikely multiplatinum stars.
Sweeney wisely concentrates on REM's early days, uncovering this lesser-known part of their story through interviews with singer Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills, as well as with friends and associates from back then.
Amid the accounts of the four band members clicking as they play at raucous parties in disused churches, a portrait emerges of the word-of-mouth, DIY music scene that produced many seminal acts across America, such as Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and the Minutemen. It forged the egalitarian ethos that REM maintained even as they became famous. “We always did treat people well,” says Stipe. “We’re fair people.”
Throughout it all, Sweeney’s enthusiasm for the band is palpable, without unduly impinging on proceedings. But when REM’s first producer Mitch Easter digs out Stipe’s handwritten lyrics for their early classic Radio Free Europe, Sweeney has the audible excitement of a man who has just discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such arresting moments help make this a fine documentary, not just for REM fans, but also for aficionados of absorbing radio, particularly with so much dozy fare on the airwaves.
Moment of the Week: Bye-bye to Chez Shay
Actually transmitted during Christmas week, but Meenirves: A Farewell to Shaymo's House (RTÉ Radio 1) is a bittersweet treat. The premise is deceptively simple, as songwriter and broadcaster Shay Healy takes producer Kevin Reynolds around the Sandymount home he shared with his late wife Dymphna for 36 years, just before the house's sale.
Healy’s memories are impressionistic, triggered by furniture and neighbours, while Dymphna’s death and his own affliction with Parkinson’s Disease add poignancy. But Healy is also funny and wise, as he gives both a real-time snapshot of a single day and a wistful overview of a life. “It’s new beginning,” Healy says of his move. “The problem is I’m a bit old for a new beginning.”