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Joe Duffy, ever passionate, achieves maximum emotional impact

Radio: From Liveline to Drivetime, war eyewitnesses convey moral clarity and mortal danger

Much as you may wish you could tune out, the voices keep pulling you back in. The member of parliament sheltering in a Kyiv basement as she pleads for help from the West. The tearful teenager sending a voice message from her bathroom in besieged Kharkiv. The perennially authoritative newscaster calmly asking a former CIA chief about the chances of a nuclear strike. A week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the airwaves are thick with the fog of war, as reports and eyewitness accounts jostle with analysis and speculation across all stations. The effect of this blanket coverage can be blurring, even numbing, but there are instances that bring home the horrific reality with jolting clarity.

Monday's Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) provides one example, when Cormac Ó hEadhra interviews Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun. "I wasn't sure I would be able to join this talk, because we are under air strike right now, so I am hiding in the basement," she tells her host. Sure enough, Sovsun falls silent occasionally, thanks to a patchy line and potentially more lethal intrusions. "I'm just double-checking, because I am hearing something," she says at one point.

Joe Duffy's anger is notable, even for a naturally passionate broadcaster returning to air a week after his mother's death

In the age of Zoom, we’ve grown used to conversations dropping out due to dodgy connections. But here, the interruptions have an ominous cast, calling to mind the fuzzy wireless broadcasts from a war-torn Europe of a bygone age; bygone until a week ago, that is. But despite her circumstances, Sovsun is resolute, whether describing how buildings tremble during missile strikes or asking for a Nato no-fly zone over her country. “Please help us survive,” she says. It’s an emotive exchange, as Ó hEadhra’s manner testifies: normally a vigorous presence, he sounds more rattled than his guest.

Not everyone is so tentative. As callers debate the war's ramifications for Irish neutrality on Tuesday's Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Joe Duffy brings his moral compass to bear on Russia's actions: "How do you negotiate with someone who has their jackboot on your throat?" Duffy's anger is notable, even for a naturally passionate broadcaster returning to air a week after his mother's death. But even more striking is the recording he plays of 14-year-old Kharkiv native Anastasia, who tells of hiding in shelters to avoid Russia's bombardment of the embattled city. "I can't stand it," she says, in strained tones. It's a clip aimed at creating maximum emotional impact. Duffy explains that the recording was sent to the show by Anastasia's family. This may disqualify it as reportage, but the girl's distressed voice tells its own story.


Paranoia on the ground

There are numerous vivid news reports to be heard, too. Speaking from Kyiv on Wednesday's Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), British journalist John Sweeney breaks off his phone conversation with anchor Gavin Jennings as he approaches a checkpoint. "There's a guy shouting at me with a gun, gotta go," Sweeney says urgently. Thankfully, he resumes his reporting a few minutes later, explaining that the mood on the ground is a "little bit paranoid". Sweeney also details the horrors that have contributed to this charged atmosphere: he has recently seen the bodies of an elderly man, a woman and a girl in the aftermath of a Russian strike. "People are jumpy," he concludes.

Such moments yet again emphasise radio’s efficacy as a news medium in extreme circumstances. Television and social media visuals may effectively illustrate destruction and suffering, but the voices of those enduring the Russian attack have an unvarnished timbre that underscores the human cost of war, and an immediacy that highlights its chaos.

Later, on Wednesday's News at One (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), there's an air of palpable alarm when host Bryan Dobson discusses the situation with ex-CIA director John Brennan, who feels that with Russia having botched its initial invasion plans, president Vladimir Putin will "double down" militarily. "How great is the risk that he will turn to a nuclear strike?" Dobson bluntly asks, his usually phlegmatic delivery sounding faintly nervy for once. Brennan downplays the likelihood of such a cataclysmic development, for now anyway, putting Putin's nuclear posturing down to "sabre-rattling". But the fact that the matter even arises is a shuddering reminder of how the world has been transformed in a few days.

Everyday life, sort of

Of course, everyday life continues on, albeit under a cloud. As Ray D'Arcy (RTÉ Radio 1) ruefully notes, Monday is supposed to be a day for celebration, with practically all pandemic restrictions finally lifted. Instead, he remarks, it's been overshadowed by the actions of a "psychopathic megalomaniac". Taking up this theme, D'Arcy asks psychologist Dr Arthur Cassidy whether the Russian president is indeed a psychopath.

It’s a well-intentioned piece, but there’s something tone-deaf about Cassidy’s earnest expounding on Putin’s supposedly unsettled childhood and the resulting “dark triad” of “toxic traits” he apparently now exhibits. Even D’Arcy sounds slightly uncomfortable by the item’s end. (He fares much better during his thoughtful interview with solicitor Cian O’Carroll on Vicky Phelan’s fight to uncover the CervicalCheck scandal.) Psychological conjecture seems misplaced in the face of immense physical damage.

Pat Kenny's statement raises uncomfortable questions on why Ukraine's plight dominates the airwaves in a way other wars don't

But then, the entire kaleidoscope of voices on Ukraine provides as much confusion as certainty. What to make, for example, of Newstalk presenter Pat Kenny’s observation during his interview with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that Ukrainian refugees are “people who look like us”? On the surface, it sounds like a characteristic surfeit of candour by Kenny, as does his suggestion that an influx of people fleeing the war might help alleviate Ireland’s skills shortage. But his statement also raises uncomfortable questions on why Ukraine’s plight dominates the airwaves in a way other wars don’t. (Dobson’s discussion on atomic weapons provides another possible answer.)

Otherwise, Kenny covers the invasion in clear-eyed fashion, talking to defiant Ukrainian politicians and hearing grim predictions of greater devastation from risk analysts. As with all the coverage, the impression of the unfolding tragedy is one of confusion, uncertainty and fear, with remarkable courage thrown in.

In the face of such cruelties, one can only keep listening in despair, and hope against hope.

Radio Moment of the Week

On Monday's Classic Drive (Lyric FM), the Culture File slot features a "Los Angeles postcard" from Áine Gallagher, who visits Echo Park, an idyllic space now surrounded by a chainlink fence, in order to keep out unhoused people. She's accompanied by local councillor Maebe A Girl, the first drag queen elected to US public office. Girl, who is trans, describes how the neighbourhood has been "victimised by gentrification", pricing out long-time residents. It all adds to LA's inequality, with staggering mortality levels among the homeless population. Even so, Gallagher's piece is oddly optimistic, if somewhat incongruous amid Lorcan Murray's classical fare. Some may deem all this as wokeness personified, but to these ears it sounds more like empathy and inclusivity: qualities we could use just now.