To understand just how wedded radio stations are to the nine-to-five and its commuting workforce, consider that this time last year – when we were deep in the early months of a pandemic – two national stations, Newstalk and RTÉ, announced changes to their drivetime offerings.
Back then, their target audiences were no longer inching through traffic to get home – they were home, logging off and enjoying a 30-second commute to the kitchen. The changes, however, centred on new presenters, not on a reimagining of the concept of drivetime radio to suit the new reality.
And even now, when a mass return to a five-day office week looks far off, all three national radio stations still have competing and lengthy drivetime offerings.
Sitting in a car isn't the only way to hear teatime radio, but these programmes are shaped with commuters in mind. And, parked as they are in great chunks of airtime, they limit choice for talk-radio listeners
Obviously, sitting in a car isn’t the only way to hear teatime radio, but these programmes – which have expanded over the years with commuting trends – are shaped with this audience in mind. And, parked as they are in great chunks of airtime, they limit choice for talk-radio listeners. At that time of the day, if you don’t want music, it’s magazine-style radio or nothing.
And if the idea is to hang tight, as the pandemic will end and listeners will be back to their old driving ways, that's far from certain. Monday's publication of the UN's terror-inducing report on climate change suggests that how, when and why we move about will have to change, and sharpish.
The Last Word with Matt Cooper (Today FM) and RTÉ's Drivetime follow a tight, similar format of interviews, analysis, opinion and entertainment, interspersed with news bulletins and traffic and weather updates. It's largely down to which presenter you'd prefer in your ear, Cooper or RTÉ's Sarah McInerney and Cormac O hÉadhra.
Both shows are 2½ hours long – a content-guzzling length of time that can prove challenging. On Tuesday, Will O’Callaghan (standing in for Cooper) discusses at wearying length Prince Andrew’s latest fall from a low height with the Sky reporter Enda Brady.
Over on PM (BBC Radio 4) the same subject is thoroughly interrogated by contributors in London (a royal expert) and the US (a legal expert) in half the time. But then the 60-minute PM, which offers a crisp overview of the day's news, has far less time to fill, less padding to stuff into the mix.
I originally thought The Hard Shoulder's 4pm start was a case of the ratings underdog getting in first with ear-grabbing content that would so enthral, you wouldn't consider turning the dial. I don't think that now
And then there's Newstalk's drivetime offering, The Hard Shoulder. Last year, when taking over as host from Ivan Yates, Kieran Cuddihy said, "Every day we will cover the big stories with the best guests, a variety of opinion and a bit of craic to get you home."
His show comes on 30 minutes before its competitors, at 4pm, which I originally thought was a case of the ratings underdog getting in first with ear-grabbing content that would so enthral, you wouldn’t consider turning the dial. I don’t think that now.
Three hours of live current-affairs radio requires huge production resources – it’s far too long anyway – but, listening on Tuesday, there’s little evidence of that. For a start, it’s not nimble in how it responds. Andrew Cuomo resigns as New York’s governor mid-programme. It is mentioned briefly in news bulletins but not picked up on by Cuddihy. The programme kicks off with a report on rent levels, but it’s done in a soft, middle-of-the-road way – no political ding-dong here – with an estate agent and a mortgage adviser contributing and a callout to listeners to get in touch with their experiences.
Cuddihy chats to a sports journalist in fanzone detail about Roy Keane’s long career, for no other reason – he’s not dead or anything – than that the former footballer has turned 50. This penultimate piece is followed – “you won’t want to miss this,” says Cuddihy at the programme’s start – by a final item in which a doctor talks to the host about childhood urinary-tract infections.
But the weak content of the flabby Hard Shoulder isn’t the worst thing about it. The most disturbing aspect – in a “wait, what century are we in?” sort of way – is its lack of gender balance. In three hours only one female contributor is scheduled by the production team – the Eurovision winner Niamh Kavanagh comes on to talk about musical heroes. Otherwise the contributors are male.
If a programme doesn't feel compelled to address gender balance, then what hope is there of it ever reflecting minority groups and diverse communities?
All the Newstalk voices for the duration are male too; the host, the business and sports reporters, the news reader and the weather and traffic reporters. Maybe Tuesday is an aberration and usually The Hard Shoulder is a model of gender parity, though the lack of balance sounds structural. When it was owned by Communicorp, Newstalk’s gender balance was repeatedly commented on.
Here’s hoping its new owner, Bauer Media Audio, part of a German-owned media conglomerate, don’t consider the description in this paper of Newstalk as “the equivalent of a 1950s Irish pub, a safe zone where you can banter with the lads and be in no danger of having to listen to a female voice”, as some sort of quaint compliment, that its meaning is not lost in translation.
That was written in 2017, and, listening to three hours’ worth on Tuesday, I was reminded of it. If a programme doesn’t feel compelled to address gender balance – surely an easy fix, as women are in the majority in Ireland anyway, and there are no shortage of articulate female experts in every field – then what hope is there of it ever reflecting minority groups and diverse communities?
Newstalk can boast female-hosted programmes but that its flagship, primetime programme can be so male-dominated reflects a mindset. If it were a niche private station, that decision would be its own business, but it’s licensed by the State through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, which has guidelines on gender balance and diversity. You wouldn’t think it if you were driving home on Tuesday to The Hard Shoulder.
Moment of the Week: Perfect earworm
Lilian Smith's Rising Time programme on Sunday (RTÉ Radio 1) comes directly after Kellie Harrington's thrilling gold medal-winning Olympic bout, and the broadcaster gets it just right. "I'm wired and weepy," she says between records, her normally smooth and steady voice shaking slightly, capturing, I suspect, the mood of her bleary-eyed but elated listeners. And her music choice is spot on: she starts with Kate Bush singing Mná na hÉireann and ends with Alicia Keys's 2012 banger, This Girl Is on Fire, the perfect earworm for the day that's in it.