It's Monday on Freshers' Week, and there's a giddy atmosphere as the new arrivals from Galway get to know each other. Indeed, so pumped is Cormac Ó hEadhra on his first day hosting Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) that he has trouble pronouncing the name of his co-presenter and fellow Galwegian, Sarah McInerney.
Then again, the excitement of being in new surroundings often leads to mistakes, as shown by the crowds of NUIG students thronging Galway city later that evening. What matters is being able to knuckle down when things get serious.
Sure enough, McInerney and Ó hEadhra soon have their news chops put to the test, first by the undergraduate carousing, then by the Leaving Cert grading debacle that leaves thousands of pupils undermarked. The pair deal with these topics confidently, though one suspects journalistic ability isn't the only reason they were chosen to replace Mary Wilson in the Drivetime seat.
With Ó hEadhra having forged a reputation as a fiercely argumentative current affairs host on Raidió na Gaeltachta and Radio 1, and McInerney making a splash earlier this year when presenting the Today show, a lively chemistry might reasonably be expected by partnering them together. But while they bring more pep to the early evening slot than the formidably phlegmatic Wilson (aided by a new, suitably dynamic theme tune), the duo are still finding their feet, or at least trying not to tread on each other too much.
Though they take turns interviewing guests, neither presenter takes a back seat during items, as is the case on the likes of Morning Ireland. Instead, they lob in additional questions to bolster their partner, or – as happens with McInerney on Monday – murmur in mild dissent when Ó hEadhra gets too worked up. It’s a potentially fruitful format, which McInerney used to some effect when co-hosting Newstalk’s early evening show with Chris O’Donoghue some years ago.
Pot and kettle
Thus far, however, the presenters' solo runs make the bigger impression. Ó hEadhra in particular enjoys getting stuck into guests, as when he speaks to Alan Joyce, the Dublin-born chief executive of Australian airline Qantas. While much of the interview deals with the effect of worldwide travel restrictions, it really gets going when the presenter asks if it's possible to be "a good guy" in the airline industry given the impact on climate change. Joyce talks indulgently about carbon offsets but, when pressed further, wheels out the old chestnut that "the way to stop all CO2 emissions is to go back and live in caves".
For his part, Ó hEadhra remarks, in a classic case of pot and kettle, that he understands why the Australian media call Joyce “combative”. Little wonder the host sounds made up with the encounter, which he describes as “a Dublin jackeen in Australia talking to a culchie from Connemara”.
Ó hEadhra's instinct for stirring things up doesn't always pay dividends. Talking to Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, he all but invites his guest to condemn the student revelry in Galway. Ryan, however, doesn't take the bait: "Finger wagging is not going to help the situation," he says. But it's a useful conversation, if only as a corrective to the breathless coverage of the topic elsewhere.
McInerney is relatively subdued in comparison, though it’s less a case of being overshadowed as lacking a subject she can get her teeth into. Instead, there are fairly rote interviews with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and sensitively handled conversations with Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole about assisted dying. But McInerney shows her talent for handling breaking stories as news of the Leaving Cert fiasco emerges on Wednesday’s show. She succinctly parses the issue, making it clear that when it comes to the Government’s handling of the matter, it’s Freshers’ Week at Krusty’s Clown College.
As for McInerney and Ó hEadhra, they’re still learning the ropes of the new gig, but overall their combination of chemistry and clarity is promising.
The scenes in Galway are also covered on Tuesday's edition of Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), where the host, despite her level-headed on-air persona, steers the discussion towards hyperbole. Byrne first talks to Fianna Fáil Senator Ollie Crowe, who's so alarmed by the scenes he suggests the Army should help gardaí control unruly crowds.
Even allowing for the public health risks of such large congregations, this seems an extreme option. But Byrne runs with it, asking publican Johnny Duggan and restaurateur JP McMahon whether the Army should be called in if the situation continues.
Both guests assent to the suggestion, which is perhaps unsurprising: such outdoor partying adds to the challenges already faced by the hospitality sector. But the way Byrne frames the conversation around sending in the Army puts a hysterical spin on an unfortunate incident. She may take a more calmly analytical approach than, say, the confrontational Ó hEadhra, but in this case a cool head doesn’t prevail.
The call for soldiers on the streets is even repeated on the hourly news bulletin, adding to the febrile air. It seems particularly rich given RTÉ’s self-congratulatory “truth matters” campaign, which pats the network’s news coverage on the back for “moving past the rage”. Army patrols breaking up student high-jinks – what could be more sensible?
Elsewhere, Byrne’s deceptively low-key style is more effective. She talks to Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny about possible delays to his. Bill seeking to legalise assisted dying, before inviting Aontú TD Peader Tóibín to outline his objections to the proposed measure. Considering how emotionally charged the issue is, it’s a civil and coherent debate – not always the case last week – with both deputies making their cases cogently.
When flare-ups do occur, such as Kenny’s irritation at Tóibín’s assertion that assisted dying would make anti-suicide campaigns more difficult, Byrne gently breaks up the clinch and gets her guests to resume sparring cleanly. There’s no need for theatrical enforcement when rational persuasion does the job just as well.
Radio Moment of the Week:
Perhaps it's the strange nature of our times, but the ostensibly naff yet oddly hypnotic patter of Marty Whelan keeps hitting the spot. On Thursday's edition of Marty in the Morning (Lyric, weekdays), the host marks the passing of songwriter Mac Davis by playing his most famous composition, In the Ghetto, as majestically performed by Elvis Presley. But rather than pay earnest tribute, Whelan instead notes that his late mother used to insist on calling the song "In the Gateau".
Far from being a half-baked aside, Whelan’s cornily unfettered stream-of-consciousness approach brightens up the morning.