Jarring monologues and baffling trivia: Derek Mooney is a caricature of a daytime radio jock
Radio review: RTÉ presenter’s nature programme marred by uneven tone, while Sean Moncrieff hears queasy animal tales
Derek Mooney: too often comes across as a caricature of a daytime radio jock
As a keen observer of wildlife, Derek Mooney surely knows that for all the majesty of the natural world, it’s also a harsh, fickle and unforgiving environment. Conditions change relentlessly, with survival determined by often brutal competition for scarce resources. One might assume that possessing such insights would ensure Mooney success in the broadcasting industry, a world as heartless and capricious as anything in nature.
Since losing his afternoon show on RTÉ Radio 1 three years ago, however, he has largely been found foraging on the margins of the station, most notably on Mooney Goes Wild (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday), his weekly late-night nature magazine. But with the changing of the seasons, Mooney is looking forward to new beginnings.
“Right now we’re coming to the end of winter,” the presenter says, “and as we emerge blinking into the rising sunlight our thoughts go to the many plants, insects and animals who’ve employed a variety of clever winter survival strategies.” It’s unclear whether Mooney counts himself among these resilient flora and fauna, but as he introduces a show devoted to “the secrets of staying alive”, his tone is triumphant.
In fact, he’s so elated that he seems to have forgotten that he’s hosting a radio show. Reading a script that veers from travel brochure speak (“the golden hues of autumn”) to primary school science lesson (“the earth travels around the sun every 365 days”), Mooney adopts a stentorian delivery more suited to a television documentary voiceover, complete with stirring musical backdrop. Such a portentous opening invites bathos, and sure enough, what follows is a discussion between two academics on the hibernation patterns of Arctic ground squirrels.
As it turns out, the conversation between Prof Cory Williams and regular contributor Dr Richard Collins is quietly absorbing, as they enlighten listeners about the Alaskan mammal whose body temperature plummets during its eight months of sleep. This establishes a pattern. Mooney introduces each new segment in verbose fashion, followed by learned contributions from zoologists and naturalists.
So the show’s resident entomologist, Éanna Ní Lamhna, hears American academic Julie Reynolds outline how insects can survive winter in a suspended state called diapause. Meanwhile, ornithologist Anthony McGeehan describes how migratory birds use magnetic fields for direction.
The latter segment is particularly fascinating, encompassing physics, zoology and evolution. The fact that Mooney conducts the conversation with McGeehan underlines the presenter’s deep interest in wildlife, the avian world in particular. When he puts his mind to it, Mooney can be a popular broadcaster in the best sense: casual and accessible, yet knowledgeable and nuanced.
But as his jarring monlogues attest, he too often come across as a caricature of a daytime radio jock, all earnest declamation or, failing that, baffling trivia. (He recently opened one show with a five-minute riff about Laurel and Hardy, before tenuously linking them with cuckoos.) A presenter who should be (and sometimes is) an informative guide to the natural world sounds more like a wannabe television celebrity or a throwback chat show host. He may be surviving in the Darwinian surroundings of broadcasting, but Mooney might want to evolve more.
Dogs and leeches
If the animal kingdom can be a dog eat dog world, Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) reminds listeners that mankind reigns supreme when it comes to predatory behaviour, as he hears of efforts to save canines from human consumption. On Monday, he talks to David Foster of Slaughterhouse Survivors, a snappily-named charity that rescues dogs from being butchered for food in China.
The conversation is suitably queasy – Foster tells of both dog- and cat-eating festivals – but it’s neither gratuitously gross nor sanctimonious. Hearing that the charity is largely run by western ex-patriates, Moncrieff proves alert to cultural sensitivities, asking how the enterprise is viewed by the Chinese. (Many support its actions, apparently.) The item also implicitly raises the question of why so many people recoil at the thought of eating dogs while happily munching other animals. But Moncrieff doesn’t follow up this line of questioning, perhaps mindful that he should only mess with his audience’s appetite so much.
By this stage, however, it’s probably too late. Immediately before his item on canine cuisine prevention, Moncrieff interviews Katie Ashley, who not only has adopted a leech as a pet, but allows it to feed on her blood. (Cue media parasite gags.) Ashley cheerily describes the sensation of her leech “burrowing” into her arm while cautioning against the temptation to end feeding time prematurely.“Their jaws can get stuck on your arm and they can vomit the blood back into your bloodstream,” she says breezily.
And so it continues, to the point that even the normally unflappable Moncrieff chuckles in disbelief. It’s a digestion-challenging piece of radio, memorable but equally so frivolous as to make Chinese dog-eating seem as crucial as Brexit. Still, it’s good to hear that the natural world can bite back.
Art of negotiation
Meanwhile, as Brexit enters endgame, there’s no escaping the topic, however one may wish otherwise. Perhaps mindful of this, Richard Curran looks at the issue from a novel angle on The Business (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), when he discusses the art of negotiation with psychologist Louise Campbell and professional poker player Andrew Black.
The latter guest’s presence ensures an entertaining listen, as much for the glimpses into his career – he was “rolling old ladies” at a recent senior poker tournament – as for his insights into Theresa May’s attempts to force the European Union’s hand. Black says that the European side holds all the cards, while May is “bluffing with no hand – and the EU know it”.
It’s a good example of how Curran’s programme can mix meaty factual report with more offbeat segments, which can prove more enlightening. Rarely has the weakness of the UK’s situation been more starkly described. What was that about survival of the fittest again?
Radio Moment of the Week: Music to Miriam’s ears
Miriam O’Callaghan scores a coup by interviewing Burt Bacharach on Sunday with Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1). Now 90 years old, the legendary songwriter is sharp and engaging, his stories of recording with Dionne Warwick and Marlene Dietrich prompting O’Callaghan to “mmmm” even more than usual. Always happy to praise her guests, she calls her guest a “master of melody”. But Bacharach also proves a master of charm, when he recalls how his musical career almost never happened. “If I could turn my life back to then,” he says, “I would have never thought I would be talking to you on the phone about coming to Dublin and doing a concert of my music.” That has to have been the dream, all right. Still smooth after all these years.