Katie Hannon, alert and empathetic, knows what makes Irish life tick

Radio Review: As Joe Duffy’s default Liveline stand-in, she never gets bogged down

Over the past couple of years, Katie Hannon has established herself as the automatic stand-in for Joe Duffy as presenter of Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), and for good reason. More than almost any gig in Irish radio, hosting the daily phone-in requires alertness, empathy and accessibility, qualities that Hannon possesses in abundance.

But the job also calls for a broader sense of what makes Irish life tick, an awareness of people’s everyday experiences. And Hannon is also well qualified in this respect, being all too familiar with the realities of the old sod, in every sense of the term.

“I have to say I have memories of being dragged to the bog as a child, not too happy ones really,” the host recalls on Monday. “Being eaten alive by midges  and wondering would we ever be able to get out. It’s pretty backbreaking work.”

Talk about being a bog standard broadcaster: it’s not the kind of apprenticeship normally associated with RTÉ presenters, but it allows Hannon to approach subjects such as the proposed ban on the sale of turf with an easy familiarity.

'You're saying we were basically killing ourselves for all these years'

Much like dried peat itself, the discussion on the mooted measure causes sparks to fly. Kildare woman Maria is “terrified” at the prospect of being unable to heat her council house as a result of the ban, which she thinks discriminates against older people. Another caller, Tom, is more defiant. “It’s our right to burn turf,” he says, with unbending conviction.

Hannon listens in an understanding manner, sounding out her guests rather than pushing back. Likewise, when Dee calls in to voice support for curtailing the burning of fossil fuels, the host is keen to avoid the pitfalls that usually accompany the debate. She ascertains her caller isn’t a “city slicker”, by way of moving the issue away from one of “rural people being pitted against urban people”.

Hannon herself appears ambivalent on the matter. She's taken aback when Prof John Sodeau blames solid fuel fires for, among other things, cancer, diabetes, dementia and miscarriages. "It's very hard to take that on board," she says,

“You’re saying we were basically killing ourselves for all these years.” Equally, even though she grew up with the tradition, she doesn’t necessarily hold a flame for it.

“It’s definitely part of who we are,” she wistfully observes, “but is it something we should be leaving behind?”

On Wednesday, Hannon covers a topic one hoped we'd left behind – forlornly as it turns out – when she talks to Evan Somers, the Dublin man who suffered a homophobic attack at the weekend. It's a discussion that's all the more charged following vicious and potentially homophobic murders of Aiden Moffit and Michael Snee in Sligo, though Hannon shows her legal radar is as finely tuned as Duffy's, rapidly steering talk away from speculation on the crimes.

Instead, she hears Somers recount, from his hospital bed, how he was approached, insulted and assaulted by a man shortly after leaving a Dublin bar. Somers’s cousin Kaci, who witnessed the attack, provides a particularly graphic description: “You could hear the bone in his face crack,” she says. Hannon widens the discussion, inviting Somers and others to talk about the prevalence of homophobic abuse in supposedly more tolerant Ireland. “It just becomes so normalised that it’s accepted,” Somers says of the insults directed at him, and indeed all members of the LGBTQ community.

Unsurprisingly, Hannon sounds shaken by tales such as Somers’, and that of Sam, whose (heterosexual) son was recently beaten up when he stepped in when a gay friend was insulted and subsequently assaulted. “There’s a chance that people might think these incidents are isolated, but they’re not,” Sam insists. Hannon grimly ponders the implications of Sam’s story – “We should call this stuff out, but oh my God, that’s what he got for calling it out” – but probably isn’t surprised. As Liveline has long proved, troubling secrets always lurk under the surface of life in Ireland.

On the other hand, a reliably upbeat atmosphere is one of the chief selling points on Down to Business (Newstalk, Saturday), where Bobby Kerr presides over proceedings with avuncular cheerfulness. Kerr's business magazine show is one of Newstalk's biggest ratings draws, and one suspects much of that appeal is down to the entrepreneur-cum-presenter's easygoing style and can-do enthusiasm.

He never sounds happier than when hearing fellow business people share the stories behind their enterprises, particularly when it dovetails with his own interests: with Easter looming, he chats to three Irish chocolate makers, while effusing about his love of cocoa products.

Anyone looking for insights into the formula for success are likely to be disappointed, however. Interviewing Tayto Park founder Ray Coyle, Kerr briskly runs through his guest's resumé as crisp manufacturer and amusement park boss, chuckling at wheezes along the way, but never really digging deeper. Regarding Coyle's "controversial marketing campaigns" down the years, such as his lumpenly unfunny ads for crisps featuring amply proportioned models and single entendre straplines, the host only asks: "Where does that inspiration come from?"

Then again, as former Newstalk editor Garrett Harte notes during his interview with the host on the 20th anniversary of the station's founding, presenters such as Kerr were recruited for their non-journalistic perspective. He may not grill guests, but as someone from the hospitality industry, he seeks to please people. "We don't want to bore our listeners," he remarks to Harte, by way of moving on their conversation. Similarly, Kerr talks openly about his personal and professional experiences, be it making chocolate mould in Bewleys or having had "a few bumps along the way" with his health.

As to learning the secrets of entrepreneurship, Coyle’s opinion that business is “all about relationships” may sound trite, but in his host’s case there may be some truth to the cliché. On radio, at the very least, Kerr’s trump card is his winning on-air personality: these days, affability and optimism are assets to be valued.

Radio Moment of the Week

With homophobia sadly back in the news following the assault on Evan Somers and the horrific events in Sligo (see above), impressionist Oliver Callan addresses the issue in personal, and decidedly non-comedic fashion when sitting in as guest host on the Ryan Tubridy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). On Tuesday, he talks about the intimidation felt by women and the LGBTQ community in Dublin city centre.

Observing that there’s a “sinister element in the country at the moment”, he shares his own experience as a gay man. “I personally, absolutely would not hold hands with my partner in public and I’m 41 years of age, and have been in Dublin 20 years,” he says. “It feels more dangerous now that any time I remember.” It’s a stark admission, but Callan knows this is no laughing matter.