After the tumult, the calm. To the listener, 2021 might have seemed like an uneventful year in radio, certainly in comparison with the upheavals of the previous 12 months. Where 2020 saw both state broadcaster and commercial stations undergo big on-air changes, with high-profile resignations and sudden deaths sparking schedule overhauls, the last year has been one of consolidation and familiarisation, with new shows bedding in and old reliables keeping going. But if the airwaves seemed relatively stable on the surface – if rarely boring, thanks to the small matter of an ongoing global pandemic – away from the studios it was a case of unsteady as she goes as the Irish radio world navigated its way through funding squeezes and regime changes.
RTÉ Radio 1 remained the biggest player in the national market, bolstered by marquee names and brand recognition: programmes like Morning Ireland and Liveline have long been ratings behemoths, appearing as untouchable as The Late Late Show is on television. (Though it's worth noting that all stations had to operate without detailed listenership figures for most of the year: Covid restrictions scuppered quarterly JNLR audience surveys, the sector's traditional lodestar.) But while such trusty slots anchored Radio 1's weekday schedule, the station's new guard provided the energy.
Admittedly, Claire Byrne’s tenure in the late morning Today programme didn’t obviously exude swashbuckling élan, but having taken over Sean O’Rourke’s old spot in 2020 she made it her own this year. Her forensic approach worked well in longer-form interviews, whether getting Erin McClean to recount the anti-Irish abuse suffered by her footballer husband James, or grilling an overconfident health minister Stephen Donnelly in January. (Donnelly’s prediction that most of the population would be jabbed by September proved correct, however.) And while Byrne occasionally came across as overly earnest in demeanour – she didn’t seem completely at ease during moments of levity – she deployed a neat line in wryly dubious asides when faced with spinning politicians.
If Byrne was Radio 1’s rigorous prefect, then Cormac Ó hEadhra and Sarah McInerney sealed their reputation as the station’s maverick cops, happy to ride roughshod over niceties to get their story. Recalcitrant guests regularly ran afoul of either Ó hEadhra’s bruising style or McInerney’s scornful incredulity (or both, if they were really unlucky), as heard during the former’s memorable interview with former US national security advisor John Bolton. But the show’s bearpit side was offset by the pair’s undercurrent of good humour, by turns flighty and impish.
Between those two rejuvenated programmes lay the perennial lacuna that is the station's late afternoon shift. It's long been a slightly moribund timeslot – Derek Mooney's tenure rarely inspired – but Ray D'Arcy gave the impression of going through the motions, however unintentionally, with rote interviews and vapid patter all too often the norm. D'Arcy's pedigree and pay grade may keep his position secure but his show had an aimless feel. Meanwhile Ronan Collins still chirpily flicked through his collection of golden oldies and rolodex of notable birthdays on his midday music show, but given the presenter's veteran status, this slice of prime radio is surely overdue for change.
Overall, however, Radio 1’s programming was on an even keel, its refreshed weekday form matched by Brendan O’Connor’s assured performances on Saturdays and Sundays. (O’Connor’s contretemps with atheist biogist Richard Dawkins over the birth of Down Syndrome children, such as the host’s own, was understated but memorably charged.)
The long-standing question of whether the state broadcaster needs to maintain 2FM remains
But the overall thrust – news and live chat dominating during the week, extensive sports coverage thrown in at weekends, mostly music in the evenings – was dictated by necessity as much as choice. RTÉ’s ongoing financial crisis limited the output of expensive prestige productions, such as the acclaimed Documentary on One strand – briefly if tellingly bumped off its Saturday afternoon perch on Radio 1 in favour of the sports-themed Second Captains – or the ever-stimulating Drama on One. (To the station’s credit, the latter series is produced by one of the last radio theatre departments remaining in Europe.) With fiscal salvation unlikely any time soon, Radio 1’s talk show hosts look key to the station’s continued domination.
Elsewhere in the Montrose radio sphere, 2FM continued to grapple with the problem facing all pop-heavy stations, namely the drift of its youthful target market to streaming services, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic. Rather than thrash around, the station largely stuck to its existing schedules. The abrupt exit of morning show host Eoghan McDermott early this year provided an unexpected bump, but erstwhile copresenter Doireann Garrihy teamed up with former rugby international Donncha O’Callaghan and podcaster Carl Mullan to shore up the slot in goofily exuberant fashion.
But the long-standing question of whether the state broadcaster needs to maintain 2FM remains. The station has some accomplished presenters (despite the recent departure of the excellent Louise McSharry) and has branched out with some intriguing podcast offerings, such as the Black and Irish podcast. As has often been pointed out, however, 2FM’s format is largely replicated by identikit commercial music stations across the country.
Pat Kenny underlined he's still a tough interviewer, as when he blew up in frustration at Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue's evasion
Several of those commercial pop stations changed hands in 2021, along with national channels Newstalk and Today FM, as German company Bauer Media Audio acquired parent company Communicorp from former owner Denis O'Brien. So far, this change of proprietor hasn't resulted in any significant shifts in direction on air. (Though it did lift the previous ban on journalists from The Irish Times appearing on its stations.) Indeed, given that Bauer owns 100 mainly music-driven radio stations internationally, the company's entry into the Irish radio market could be seen as a vote of confidence. Equally, with Newstalk's cash-intensive talk radio format sticking out anomalously in Bauer's Irish portfolio, it placed the station's output in the spotlight.
Pat Kenny remained Newstalk's best-known broadcaster, as well as arguably its most idiosyncratic performer. His regular fulminations against the anti-social behaviour of "yobs" were as battily entertaining in detail as they were hard-edged in prescribing solutions. Kenny also underlined he's still a tough interviewer, as when he blew up in frustration at Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue's evasion.
Kenny may bring elder statesman heft to the schedule, but, for the most part, Newstalk preferred a scrappier approach. When they weren't theatrically disagreeing with each other, the Newstalk Breakfast team of Shane Coleman and Ciara Kelly brought a casual versatility and an informed nous to proceedings, with Kelly's medical background proving particularly pertinent in current circumstances. Moreover, their tactics frequently proved an engaging alternative to Morning Ireland's drier reporting style.
Elsewhere, the station intriguingly added former Today FM presenter Anton Savage to its Saturday morning schedule, while Andrea Gilligan's Lunchtime Live slot increasingly sounded like Liveline hosted by your dependable bestie. Either way, the days when Newstalk was a one-stop shop for grumpy old geezers decrying the woke antics of Gen Z seemed a distant memory.
Well, almost. From his perch on The Hard Shoulder, Kieran Cuddihy frequently chafed at the restrictions and contradictions of the Covid lockdown, questioning whether Government policy needed to be so proscriptive at a time when radio personalities elsewhere were more accepting. True, he also conducted plenty of thoughtful interviews, yet Cuddihy clearly enjoyed rocking the boat. It's a reliable strategy for gaining the audience's attention, and strangely apposite too: Irish radio still faces choppy waters.