Hosts keep calm and carry on talking as coronavirus stories spread

RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke and 98FM shock jock Adrian Kennedy tamp down fears but Ciara Kelly has other ideas

For a quarter of an hour, Sean O'Rourke has been quizzing his guest about the coronavirus crisis, and now, finally, he asks the really important question. "As of now," O'Rourke solemnly says to public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally, "do you expect to be going to the Canaries?" For those fretting that civilisation is on the cusp of The Road-proportioned dystopian collapse due to Covid-19, Scally's sanguine reply that he doesn't anticipate changing his holiday plans might provide some comfort.

But the interview, on Wednesday's edition of Today with Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), encapsulates the slightly unreal atmosphere that prevails across the airwaves as the coronavirus story goes properly, ahem, viral. Having been a mildly concerning issue far away in China, last week's outbreak in northern Italy makes it the main topic of radio conversation, particularly after Ireland's rugby international is cancelled. But with the situation in flux and the extent of the virus uncertain, the coverage largely relies on speculation rather than facts.

Certainly, O’Rourke’s questions involve hypothetical scenarios, such as sealing off affected towns, rather than actual events on the ground: after all, there have been no cases in Ireland by this stage. Scally, for his part, tamps down fears – “I don’t think people should panic unnecessarily” – while lauding the “impressive” international response to the disease.

In the absence of dramatic developments, O’Rourke focuses on the outbreak’s impact on people’s holiday plans, particularly after a Tenerife hotel is quarantined. It’s at this stage that Scally reveals that he has booked a break in the Canary Islands, prompting his host’s fruitless question on the subject.


O’Rourke’s other discussions on the story go the same way. Fianna Fáil health spokesman Thomas Byrne tries to balance preaching calm with scoring political points, though his noncommittal answer about coalition talks with the Green Party earns jocular praise from his host: “At least you didn’t say you’re not going to negotiate on the airwaves.”

Even the reliably contentious Dublin City councillor Mannix Flynn treads carefully when suggesting that the St Patrick’s Day parade should be called off. But despite the reassuring sentiments, there’s an undercurrent of trepidation to the contributions. Scally may insist that “we’ve got to go on living our lives”, but it sounds more aspiration than expectation.

It's not just sober current affairs programmes whose approach to the crisis is to keep calm and carry on talking. More raucous shows have got the memo too, such as Dublin Talks with Adrian Kennedy (98FM, weekdays). A veteran presenter who forged his reputation as Dublin shock jock-in-chief with his late-night phone-in on rival station FM104, Kennedy has never been afraid to stoke public fears for the sake of on-air pyrotechnics. But as he discusses the coronavirus on his mid-morning show, the presenter sounds uncharacteristically measured.

On Tuesday, this takes the form of Kennedy shutting down an excitable caller named Michael. After voicing his distrust of “mainstream media” – a dependable harbinger of outré views – Michael suggests that governments will “use” exaggerated fears of the disease. “As a controlling mechanism of their people?” Kennedy asks, a dubious note creeping into his voice. “Exactly,” Michael replies, citing the “massive nationalist movement” in Italy that’s “taking on the established government”.

At other times, or in other timeslots, Kennedy might have viewed such conspiracy theories as radio gold, but it’s all too much for him now. “Enough, enough, seriously,” he says, ending the call.

When as a merde-stirrer as accomplished Kennedy sounds concerned, maybe it's time to start worrying

The host continues to talk something suspiciously close to common sense the following day. He chats to Denise, who’s on holiday in Rome, where “life is going on as normal”. Kennedy takes comfort from this: “It sounds like the Italians are dealing with this very efficiently.”

This is disappointingly sober fare from a presenter who, with his sidekick Jeremy Dixon, also hosts a regular segment on acts of stupidity, sensitively titled “Blonde Moments”. But it turns out that Kennedy himself is due to go to Italy on holiday in June. When he tells another nervous listener that Roman vacationer Denise “has more chance of getting a bang off a bus than catching the virus”, it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as his audience.

Reality then intrudes, however. Kennedy also talks to Jack, a pseudonymous Irish schoolboy who has just returned from a class trip from northern Italy, on which he passed through one of the virus-affected towns. Ominously, Jack now has a runny nose, a cough and difficulty breathing. Though his family haven’t been given any advice by the school, he’s now getting tested for Covid-19. Jack adds that “11 of the lads in my year are sick”.

Unsurprisingly, Kennedy exhales sharply as the item finishes, but quickly composes himself. “We don’t want any panic,” he says. Still, when as a merde-stirrer as accomplished Kennedy sounds concerned, maybe it’s time to start worrying.

While shock jocks try to play it cool, Irish radio's resident doctor, Ciara Kelly, isn't afraid to jangle the nerves. The ex-GP host of Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays) hears from Tara, yet another listener bound for Italy, who cannot be dissuaded from going, despite the presenter repeatedly telling her that such travel helps spread the coronavirus.

Kelly then talks to fellow medic Dr Phil Kieran on how prepared Ireland is for an outbreak, but the lack of hard information means conjecture is again the order of the day. Except, that is, when it comes to the potential lethality of Covid-19. Kelly dismisses the notion that the virus is just like the flu, which she says kills around 1000 people in Ireland annually. Kelly then repeats the week's mantra that she doesn't want to panic anyone, before noting the coronavirus mortality rate is 20 times greater.

Suddenly, cancelling  holidays seems like the least of our problems.

Radio Moment of the Week:

On Tuesday, Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk) hears a vox pop from roving reporter Henry McKean on proposed changes to the primary school curriculum, including more foreign language education. Talking to people in Cork, McKean finds most in favour of the proposal: as one interviewee says, Ireland is a pro-European nation. But idealism isn't the only reason for such Europhilia. "I wish I could speak French," says one man, "it would be nice to go up to a beautiful French woman and say something nice to her." When McKean asks why French women are so attractive, his interviewee laughs. "I'll leave that part out, or I'll be getting divorced." Clearly, that man has some Gaul.