It was the week when the full reality of the global pandemic hit home, and not just because presenters were broadcasting from their own houses. On Monday, Ciara Kelly announced that her show, Lunchtime Live, (Newstalk, weekdays) was coming live from the hot press in her house, at a stroke making even the most ramshackle pirate radio stations seem like Broadcasting House. That her programme didn't sound much different to normal despite the cramped circumstances was credit enough to Kelly. But it was as nothing compared with what followed on Wednesday, when the host told listeners she had "something personal" to share.
Once upon a time, say two weeks ago, “something personal” might have been a complaint that someone hadn’t folded the towels correctly. But so rapidly have circumstances changed that one awaited Kelly’s news with a due sense of trepidation.
Sure enough, the presenter noted that there had been 69 new cases of coronavirus detected in Ireland the previous day, then added, “I am one of them.” The former GP described how she’d felt poorly since the weekend, causing her to suspect the worst. But despite suffering symptoms akin to a “very bad flu”, she intended to keep broadcasting from her cosy studio. “Radio connects people and it makes us feel that we are all in it together,” she said, “and now we really are because I have it.”
It was a dramatic moment, making the abstract threat of the virus (as opposed to the measures to combat it) suddenly seem very real. Kelly didn’t overplay the impact of her revelation, however. While she didn’t quite adopt the ominously calm demeanour that medics reserve for particularly bad news, she was keen to crack on with the show after making her announcement.
Unsurprisingly, the programme that followed was dominated by the coronavirus crisis. There was an informative item about how older people might cope with the psychological stresses of proposed “cocooning” measures, and a quietly moving conversation about adults with special needs being isolated in care homes.
There were softer items too, of course, as when Kelly asked listeners for their opinions on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s television address, but even this sequence gave the impression of the programme being connected to the real world.
It was a compelling show, remarkably so considering it was hosted by an ill woman sitting in an airing cupboard. For all that Kelly tried to concentrate on other aspects, her own situation remained front and centre, as well-wishing texts streamed in. “You’re going to make me cry, with all the messages,” she said. “I’m fit to burst.”
One can only hope that the presenter’s optimism that she will fully recover is well placed. As it is, the experience seems to have refocused Kelly in more ways than one. Once better, she intends to start practising as a doctor again, particularly as she should then be unlikely to contract the virus again. But she also assured her audience that she would continue broadcasting, reiterating her belief in the powerful collective impact of radio.
Either way, her show feels relevant again, though it’s not due to her illness. Rather, Kelly has the same sense of purpose on air that she had in the run-up to the Eighth Amendment referendum, not because she’s a doctor, but because she sounds engaged as a broadcaster. Above all, we wish her a speedy recovery.
John Banville gave full rein to his bone-dry sense of humour as he chose books to read while confined to home
If adversity brought out the best in Kelly, it discombobulated others. For the inaugural outing as presenter of his own show, Brendan O'Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday & Sunday) had been counting on a quiet bank holiday weekend. But, as he wistfully remarked, "that was in the other world, when we foolishly thought we controlled things and people naively used to make plans". Instead, O'Connor was thrown in at the deep end, figuring out how best to navigate what he describes as "a national nervous breakdown".
On Saturday, he made a decent fist of this, considering the practicalities of tracking down guests in the current situation. There were dutiful discussions on germane topics such as the devastating effect of the pandemic on business, but the best items tackled the pandemic from novel angles. Writer Michael Harding gave his singular take on self-isolation, stocking up only on "a few extra tins for the cat".
Novelist John Banville, meanwhile, gave full rein to his bone-dry sense of humour as he chose books to read while confined to home. Asked by O'Connor whether the pandemic will change people, Banville deadpanned his answer: "Well, human beings don't change really." Cue delighted laughter from the host. The author's choices were similarly untainted by easy sentiment. Far from being escapism from reality, he said, "literature is for escaping into life". Rather than push Banville into more accessible options, O'Connor positively egged on his loftier tendencies, suggesting he has an ear for a good guest. It was a tonic of an item.
The following day, as O'Connor helmed the traditional Sunday panel discussion format so associated with his predecessor, the late Marian Finucane, there was more anxiety to proceedings. Satirist Oliver Callan, who the host noted was wearing clinical gloves, sounded uncharacteristically sombre, while political consultant Gerard Howlin was profoundly pessimistic about the economy, though his suggestion that the tourism sector be kept "on respiratory" was perhaps a tad inappropriate in the current environment.
O'Connor handled the grim conversation efficiently. As a columnist he may be something of a controversialist, but as a host, he tamped down rather than stirred up contention. Indeed, he sought to moderate one of his guests, Dr Carmen Regan, when she suggested that the mortality rate for coronavirus was hitting five per cent. "Ah no, it doesn't, does it?" a naturally spooked O'Connor said. "I don't want to alarm people unnecessarily." But far from being a lazy Sunday chat, O'Connor knew it was a terrifying wake-up call. He won't be relaxing into his new job any time soon.
Radio Moment of the Week: Moncrieff talks turkey
Always a broadcaster who can be relied upon for an irreverent item, on Monday Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) hears contributor Simon Tierney devote his regular "stuff that changed the world" slot to the hot topic of the necktie. It's an ostensibly trivial yet fascinating discussion that gets a lot of feedback, including one text expressing disbelief that some people are unable to knot a tie. Moncrieff, however, is more forgiving. "If it's something you don't do a lot of, it's maybe just a skill you don't need to learn," he says. "A lot of people don't need to learn to pluck a turkey, for instance, because they come pre-plucked." Pause. "Which is a risky thing to say on the radio, believe you me." With humour needed more than ever, hopefully Moncrieff won't chicken out of such daftness any time soon.