For all his relaxed, balanced style, one can’t help thinking that Matt Cooper is a glass-half-empty kinda guy. True, as presenter of current affairs talk show The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), he’s hardly inundated with cheery topics at the moment. But it can appear that the prospect of even the slightest good news causes him to blanch.
On Tuesday having negotiated the inevitable suite of grim stories, Cooper tries to lighten the mood. “Let’s get away from Covid and Ukraine for a little while, and talk about something to look forward to in 2028,” he says, before checking himself: “Or is it something to look forward to?”
Leaving aside the ever-growing odds against any of us still being here in six years’ time, Cooper adopts a suitably dubious air in his discussion on the likelihood of Ireland cohosting the Euro 2028 football finals with the UK.
When it comes to the glum matters that dominate the news agenda, Cooper almost has a spring in his step
He makes a similarly chary attempt at lifting the spirits on Wednesday, when he seeks to reassure listeners that there is more on the show than inflation and pandemic stories. “Beyond that, we have better news,” he says, before again adding a caveat: “Although I don’t think it’s better news to say that we have landlords who are looking for sex instead of rental payment.”
The subsequent item is as squalid and depressing as it sounds, all the more so when Cooper points out the practical difficulties in legislating against such predatory practices. Suffice to say, he has not missed out on his true vocation as a feel-good daytime disc jockey.
When it comes to the glum matters that dominate the news agenda, however, Cooper almost has a spring in his step. “Covid, it hasn’t gone away, you know,” he chirps on Tuesday, before examining the wave currently sweeping the country. It’s indicative of how the pandemic has pushed its way back into the public consciousness that the host gives the subject at least as much coverage as the war in Ukraine.
Of course, the tenor of such discussions has now changed: when GP Dr Illona Duffy talks about the spike in infections, Cooper asks, "Does it matter? Is it now no more than a bad flu?" Duffy replies that she's seeing an increased incidence of long Covid. Nonetheless, the overall sense is one of inconvenience rather than disaster.
In fact, while the host may have an aversion to appearing too upbeat, he sounds so comfortable engaging with potentially catastrophic stories that he ends up an oddly heartening presence. On Monday Cooper deals with the reliably (if temporarily overshadowed) eschatological subject of climate change, as Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University outlines how temperatures in both the Arctic and Antarctic have rocketed this year. But while the headline figures are alarming – Antarctica is currently 40 degrees warmer than usual – the finer details, while not exactly encouraging, are more ambiguous.
Unlike the polar regions Cooper remains reassuringly cool throughout
When Cooper, displaying an easy command of his brief, asks whether these changes are permanent, Thorne says some aspects are linked to global warming, but it may also be, well, weather. “The famous saying is climate is what you expect, weather is what you get,” he says, adding that human behaviour is “loading the dice” on climate change.
Unlike the polar regions Cooper remains reassuringly cool throughout, to the point that one does not feel as worried as one probably should. No matter how bad the news gets these days, do not expect Cooper to get too carried away one way or another.
Conversely, you never quite know what you'll get on Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays). Her cordially conversational approach notwithstanding, Andrea Gilligan seems determined that her show not be pigeonholed as a lifestyle magazine, addressing broad societal matters as well as human interest items. On Wednesday Gilligan wonders if Ireland has a "very prevalent class system". In terms of redundant questions, this is on a par with rhetorical posers about ursine defecatory habits in arboreal settings, but Gilligan cannot be accused of ignoring big issues.
The answers, however, are personal in scale. Cork resident Michael tells the host how he received no job offers when mailing CVs from the city’s working class north side, but immediately landed employment when he moved south of the Lee. “Politicians seem to work for the south side of the city,” Michael says. Meanwhile, Sinead notes that in Dublin she’s regularly asked which university she attended, which never happens in her native west. Gilligan, for her part, talks about encountering wisecracks about her home county of Donegal being lawless.
Such anecdotes certainly indicate differences in Irish society, some arguably more regional than class-based. But it is the data-focused contribution from academic Michelle Kinsella that illuminates the impact of class in Ireland’s supposedly meritocratic education system. Kinsella details the huge disparity between the high proportion of pupils from prosperous Dublin postcodes attending third-level education and the precipitously low number in more deprived areas.
It is a striking point but it also illustrates the limitations of the show’s format in dealing with such topics. Whereas the likes of Liveline use the collective testimony of callers to make broader points – and Joe Duffy’s show does nothing if not highlight the inequities of Irish society – Lunchtime Live is prone to setting out ambitious propositions but never quite fulfilling them.
Similarly, Gilligan's interview with Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew about the experience of menopause is timely and personal, as the politician recounts how her "brain fog" was so bad she worried about early-onset dementia. But what Gilligan calls the "stigma" of menopause is discussed in tandem with Sinn Féin's policy proposals on the issue. Though host and guest generally leave politics aside, the item never reaches the resonance of Liveline's week-long conversation on the condition, which really placed the issue under the spotlight.
Even so, Gilligan cannot be faulted for lack of aspiration. Moreover, while her show lacks Liveline’s reach and resources, she has her own assets: her warm persona draws out guests. Rather than posit big-ticket questions, Gilligan should trust her own abilities, and let the stories do the talking.
Radio Moment of the Week
On Sunday, Brendan O’Connor (RTÉ Radio 1) has an absorbing encounter with American actor and comedian Bob Odenkirk. Best known as slippery lawyer Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Odenkirk is open but low-key, talking of his disinterest in Hollywood fame, recalling late fellow comics Chris Farley and Garry Shandling and pondering the impossibility of perfection in his vocation. He’s also candid about the near-fatal heart attack he suffered on set last year. Asked by O’Connor to recount that “intense day at the office”, Odenkirk is disarming: “It was a traumatic thing for everyone but me, because I don’t remember a single second of it.” For an actor, he downplays the drama.