Insurgent Newstalk targets stagnant RTÉ but 2016’s real revolution occurs off the airwaves
In a year when the commercial talk station turned angry and the national broadcaster stayed still, the music radio sector provided ominous omens
Newstalk presenters: seated from left, Alan Quinlan, Colette Fitzpatrick , Sarah McInerney and Paul Williams; standing from left, Vincent Wall, Seán Moncrieff, George Hook, Shane Coleman, Pat Kenny and Chris Donoghue. Photograph: Maxwell’s
It was the year of the disrupters, those self-styled outsiders whose plain speaking and angry rhetoric was aimed at overthrowing an out-of-touch establishment and its cosy consensus. This vituperative insurgency upended the political world, but its ripple effects were also to be heard on Irish airwaves. If the populist resentment that swept much of the world in 2016 had a radio analogue (as opposed to an analogue radio), it is surely to be found on Newstalk.
Perhaps the most audible example of this change is Paul Williams, the newly installed co-presenter of Newstalk Breakfast. Best known as a crime reporter, Williams has brought an informal tabloid elan to the programme as well as a Hobbesian worldview that regularly portrays Ireland’s squeezed middle besieged by lawlessness on one hand and ineffectual, namby-pamby institutions on the other. Though he shares a rotating roster with Shane Coleman and Colette Fitzpatrick, Williams has been clearly pitched as the show’s marquee name, and his presence seems emblematic of this change of gear.
In the same spirit, George Hook has used his new midday berth on High Noon to gleefully fulminate on Islamic terrorism, immigration, the liberal elite (ho-hum), or just about anything that provides material for a rant. Even Seán Moncrieff, whose truncated show has so much whimsy that it’s in danger of becoming an extended “and finally” segment, has conducted an interview with Nigel Farage, albeit an uncomfortable one.
Such tactics have whipped up instant controversy and got social media humming. But whether it is a sustainable strategy in the long term is another matter. Provocative opinion may fire up some listeners and irritate the sensitivities of others (including the odd radio critic), but it runs the risk of outrage fatigue on the part of the wider audience, who may switch off or worse, turn the dial. So far, the hoped-for revolution hasn’t emerged.
In fairness, Newstalk’s new line-up has more subtly shaded programmes, most notably Newstalk Drivetime, where Chris Donoghue and Sarah McInerney have struck up an appealing partnership while maintaining journalistic rigour. (McInerney, it’s worth noting, is also the only woman who features daily on the station’s weekday schedule.) Meanwhile, compared to some of his extravagantly opinionated colleagues, Pat Kenny sounds as meticulous as ever, even in his more unbuttoned post-RTÉ guise. He even sounds like he is enjoying himself. (His discussion with cookery writer Susan Jane White about south Asian cooking butter, aka ghee, was a parade of tittering single entendres.)
Just because Newstalk’s overhaul hasn’t shattered Irish radio’s status quo doesn’t mean it won’t happen, however. Yet again, RTÉ Radio One proved a ratings behemoth, its schedule remaining untouched as its flagship shows – Morning Ireland, Today with Seán O’Rourke, Liveline and Marian Finucane – dominated the quarterly JNLR listenership surveys. But even as these and other shows have sailed through another year with the same presenters and formats, the line between popular consistency and complacent stagnation appears finer than ever.
It’s not that standards are slipping. On a day-to-day basis, the likes of O’Rourke and the Morning Ireland team regularly deliver bracing interviews and analysis, while Joe Duffy can still take the temperature of the nation like few others. But for all that, there are few surprises on such shows, and less expectation of any. It’s one thing ensuring listeners are comfortable, quite another to send them to sleep.
A greater diversity of voices, either presenters or guests, might help: more women obviously, but younger people too, who are surprisingly rare beasts, at least on non-music stations. But a wider shake-up may be needed, such as more structured, punchier programmes that seize the imagination. (But that inevitably costs more.) That Olivia O’Leary’s short radio essays on Drivetime regularly make a bigger impact than the rest of that show is a telling snapshot of the situation.
The day of reckoning may be coming anyway, and not just for RTÉ. Ireland does still seem to have great affection for radio and the conversations that issue forth from it. Pat Kenny’s quote in his Irish Times interview with Patrick Freyne about the typical Irish radio being in a milking parlour covered in “congealed cows**t vapour” provided a memorable image of the medium’s durability here. But it also underlined radio’s somewhat anachronistic image, vulnerable to changing habits.
On a technical level, mobile apps and podcasts provide opportunities for stations to reach wider audiences, but also subvert traditional advertising models. (They’re also less conducive towards live talk radio.) Meanwhile, the music radio sector in 2016 didn’t yield encouraging omens for the future.
The closure of Dublin alternative rock station TXFM, formerly Phantom FM, emphasised how little radio counts for those seeking out music. More ominously, having positioned itself as youth-oriented, music-heavy station, 2fm’s listenership fell steadily over the past year. It may be that the target demographic is tiring of comedy programmes (Breakfast Republic) and celebrity-fronted shows (The Nicky Byrne Show). Or it may be that it just isn’t turning on the wireless any more.
This shift, rather than any post-Trump, post-Brexit populist shock jock, is probably the most significant development in Irish radio in 2016. Just as Louis XVI wrote “rien” when the Bastille fell, the radio revolution may already be under way; we’re just not aware of it yet.