Ivan Yates hasn’t gone soft, but he’s not that ‘hard’ any more
‘Straight-talking’ Yates helms Newstalk's early-evening The Hard Shoulder. It's a misnomer
Ivan Yates has had more comebacks than Sinatra. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
What is it with floridly opinionated male broadcasters of a certain age and the tersely macho titles of their shows? Eamon Dunphy started the trend with The Last Word, way back in the days of Radio Ireland, in the slot now occupied (on Today FM) by Matt Cooper.
Then came George Hook, who delivered The Right Hook on Newstalk before moving to High Noon last year. Now, Ivan Yates – billed, inevitably, as “straight-talking” – takes over Newstalk’s early evening shift under the tough, uncompromising banner of The Hard Shoulder (weekdays). One wonders what will be next in this arms race for the hardest-sounding show. The Drive-by Shooting? The Machine Gun Nest? The Tired Formula?
The fact that their show was called plain old Newstalk Drive probably sealed their fate
Either way, it’s a format that Newstalk management clearly thinks its audience wants. Yates replaces the slot’s previous incumbents, the worryingly unisex pair of Chris O’Donoghue and Sarah McInerney, a mere year into their Prague Spring-like tenure. (The fact that their show was called plain old Newstalk Drive probably sealed their fate.)
Having hosted a Sunday show for the past few months, Yates is now fully back in the Newstalk fold after he quit radio – for a second time – a couple of years ago. At this stage, he rivals Frank Sinatra in the comeback stakes. And like all good revival acts, he sticks to what he does best.
Full of loud cheer on Monday’s opening show, Yates quickly settles into his familiar on-air shtick. He recounts his first visit to Electric Picnic the previous weekend, using locker-room terminology to characterise the experience: “I lost my virginity.” Musing over the All-Ireland hurling final, he brags about watching it from an executive box and criticises RTÉ’s analysis of the game. Having waited a full 10 minutes before uttering the magic phrase, “let me have a little rant”, he complains about people bothering him for tickets just before the match starts, calling them “idiots”.
It’s all good if slightly overbearing fun, but feels like a step back after O’Donoghue and McInerney’s programme which was more news-heavy yet somehow lighter in touch. And that’s before Yates hosts a “grumpy old men” segment, complete with George Hook as guest. As reliably splenetic as ever, Hook trots out his de rigueur Winston Churchill reference when discussing Leo Varadkar’s tweets.
So far, so predictable. But as the show goes on, Yates displays his strengths as a presenter. Underneath the banter and bluster he shows a formidable grasp of issues, as one might expect from a businessman and former Fine Gael minister. Talking to Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald, Yates starts off with jibes about the British royal family and jokes about socialists holidaying in the south of France. But he conducts the substantive section of the interview in a robust spirit, particularly when it comes to the prospects for the Stormont executive, while allowing his guest the time to answer.
On Wednesday, he has a jolly chat with Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, about marriage equality
Yates also seems comfortable with the changing contours of Irish life. He talks glowingly about the “inclusivity” and “diversity” of the Electric Picnic. (These are not adjectives one would apply to Newstalk’s weekday roster of presenters, which is now exclusively male.) On Wednesday, he has a jolly chat with Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, about marriage equality. In a flash of self-awareness, he even jokes that the show was to be called The Hard Neck, but was changed to appeal to the commuters who make up his core demographic.
As it is, the title is something of a misnomer. Yates has hardly gone soft, but he’s much more nuanced and inquisitive than his no-nonsense image suggests. On the other hand, The Reasonable Bloke isn’t much of a name for a programme.
Station to station
John Kelly is another man revisiting old territory as he revives his music show, Mystery Train (Lyric, Sunday-Thursday), back on the airwaves after departing RTÉ Radio 1 a decade ago. At the time, the show’s demise was much lamented by his fanbase, including this reviewer. (Full disclosure: I was a regular contributor to Kelly’s show The Eclectic Ballroom, again way back in the days of Radio Ireland.) Having passed his afternoons since then mainly playing works by classical and contemporary composers on the JK Ensemble on Lyric, the presenter sounds positively giddy to be reunited with his old stash of records.
Early on Monday night’s (re)inaugural show, Kelly jauntily suggests it might take him a while to find his feet having spent the past 10 years playing “church music”. But he quickly settles into a groove, moving from vintage soul, R&B and jazz to rock, post-punk and even electronic-tinged pastures. Within an hour, Kelly sounds looser and more relaxed than he has in years, gleefully obliging listeners who want to hear “the music that got me thrown off the old show in the first place”.
On one level, Kelly is doing the same as Yates, simply going back to what he does best. But reviving the show has its risks, not least the chance that it might lack the old alchemy of a lugubriously witty host going off on enjoyable stylistic tangents. Meanwhile, Kelly has a prodigious musical knowledge and wide-ranging taste to match, but his selection leans undeniably heavily towards the past, albeit its rewardingly obscure corners.
Will they still be your friend or will they find you scum?
But the new incarnation of Mystery Train is proving an unalloyed treat, as the host gleefully takes his passengers on a journey to unexpected musical destinations. The clue is in the show’s name.
Radio Moment of the Week: Homeless schooling
On Monday, Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1) carries a report by education correspondent Emma O’Kelly that conveys the desperation of the homeless crisis in quietly heartbreaking fashion. O’Kelly meets Theresa, a pseudonymous divorced mother of three who has been living in a Dublin hotel since losing her home to mortgage arrears a year ago. As Theresa collects her children from school, the strain of their situation becomes clear, from the indignity of getting key cards reissued monthly, to her younger daughter’s stress about her classmates’ reaction to her: “Will they still be your friend or will they find you scum?”
It’s a searing indictment of the housing crisis, all the more damning for its low-key tone.