City boys' field trip yields mixed results


THERE WAS A sly tone to Damien O’Reilly’s voice as he opened last weekend’s edition of Countrywide (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). “It’s that time of the year again,” he said, “when people converge on a field in September to cheer on their county men to All-Ireland glory.”

No, O’Reilly said, he was not talking about the football final in Croke Park, rather the annual extravaganza that is the National Ploughing Championships.

Given that he is the host of a rural-affairs magazine show, flagging a report on preparations for the biggest event in the farming calendar in this way was hardly an unexpected verbal twist on O’Reilly’s part. But he set the tone for the days that followed.

For 51 weeks a year, radio coverage of agricultural issues and country matters is largely confined to O’Reilly’s show, which pulls off the trick of being both diverting for casual listeners and, presumably, informative for its target audience: last Saturday’s item on the run-up to the actual All-Ireland mixed reports from Donegal and Mayo with locally sourced musical interludes. But to paraphrase the presenter, it was that time of year again this week when Dublin broadcasters converge on a field to connect with middle Ireland.

Some appearances were more successful than others when visiting the championships, which took place in New Ross. Tom Dunne (Newstalk, weekdays), a former rock singer who regularly trumpets his Dublin background, is far from being a hard-toiling son of the soil. Yet apart from his vague discomfort at the mannequins that dotted approach roads to the site – “a bit of a Wicker Man vibe”, he observed – Dunne was at his good-natured best amid his blustery settings, as he set about evoking “the smells and the tastes” of the event.

Dunne’s attention was fixed on the taste end of things. “You can imagine that, for a man from my background, it takes an amazing farming fact to get my attention, but in the next 40 years we’re going to need to produce as much food as was produced in the past 8,000 years to feed the population,” Dunne remarked, by way of seguing into an interview with Sophie Morris, a young entrepreneur whose company sells cookie dough.

But the segment was a good example of the presenter’s strengths. With typical charm, he elicited his guest’s personal story – she had previously worked in financial services – while drawing attention to the bigger picture. Dunne highlighted the opportunities provided by Ireland’s robust agri-food sector, as Morris gave practical advice about local farmers’ markets being ready-made proving grounds for new products.

The show had its hitches, notably a brief power outage that cut off his chat with two members of Wexford’s all-conquering camogie team. But Dunne’s easy appeal shone through, never more so than when he worked the attendant crowd as he ended his interview with the local sporting heroines. “Let’s hear it for Claire O’Connor and Michelle O’Leary,” he said, to rapturous cheers.

On a roll, he entertainingly milked the reception, urging applause for the Newstalk engineer and the Newstalk tent before delivering his coup de grace: “Let’s hear it for the Newstalk ad break.”

At times like this, Newstalk’s decision to broadcast all day from the event seemed like an inspired masterstroke rather than an obvious ploy.

By contrast, the presence of a Lyric FM tent at the site appeared a counterintuitive move, the pristine concert-hall trappings of classical music not always being associated with a muddy, bustling carnival. Then again, the man in the tent was Marty Whelan, a presenter whose breakfast show, Marty in the Morning (Lyric FM, weekdays), is a fifth column against the station’s supposedly highbrow image.

“It’s wonderful to be here. Where are we, now, where are we? I’ll get my mandolins out and then I’ll find my plough,” he chirruped at the start of Wednesday’s programme, setting the relentlessly cheery tone of the next three hours.

The sub-Wogan patter continued as he met the chef Neven Maguire: “Like me, he has not the first bull’s notion on how to work a plough.”

His banter worked less well with some passers-by, however, with one young man sounding particularly unimpressed at the jokey banter about his appearance. “Do you want some CDs?” asked Whelan at the end of the stony encounter. “No,” came the curt reply.

Proceedings were redeemed by Whelan’s most obvious asset, his easy-on-the-ear selection of jazzy standards, light classical and stirring film scores: if there’s one tune designed to rouse listeners from a morning torpor, it’s the theme from The Magnificent Seven. But the spectacle of a veteran presenter from the Smashy and Nicey school of daytime jocks representing an allegedly serious music station at Ireland’s biggest event encapsulates Lyric’s ever-more floundering identity as it desperately courts more listeners.

“You may find your signal wavering at some point,” said Whelan, as the wind blew around his outdoor studio. “Please do not adjust your set.” Which pretty much said it all.

Radio moment of the week

Speaking to Catherine Leyden of Odlums about the trend for “baking clubs” around the country, Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) plaintively asked his guest for a “less gay-looking” cupcake, prompting a flurry of texts protesting at his apparently derogatory use of the term. In response, the presenter sounded a deceptively contrite note. “Anyone who regularly listens to this show will know we’ve always been huge supporters of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender buns, and we all think they should be allowed to marry like any other small, tasty snack.” For all his own progressive social views, Moncrieff isn’t afraid to ruffle liberal sensitivities.