Paul Williams’s hard-boiled breakfast offering not easy to stomach

Radio Review: ‘Newstalk Breakfast’, ‘Newstalk Drive’ and ‘Liveline’

In an episode of The Simpsons from the mid-1990s, a right-wing shock-jock called Birch Barlow berated the corrupt incumbent, Mayor Quimby, at a public debate for being soft on crime. Barlow, a scaremongering blowhard with an uncanny resemblance to US radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, pictures the mayor's house being ransacked, his family tied up by thugs, the scene awash with blood. Barlow then gets to the point: "My question is about the budget, sir."

Twenty years ago, this seemed like outlandish satire, at least to Irish audiences. These days, however, it could well pass for a transcript of Paul Williams's tenure on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays). On Monday morning, the crime reporter-turned-presenter is chatting amiably to stand-in co-anchor Jonathan Healy. Healy mentions an AA survey in which respondents favoured a register for those convicted of drink-driving. Suddenly, a red mist seems to descend on Williams.

The presenter says that if he wrote about the 45 serious assault convictions of “a thug who’s terrorising people in Tipperary, say”, he would be criminally investigated.

“The Garda Commissioner would have all her Gestapo in Garda headquarters, in the Kremlin, searching my phone,” he snarls. “That’s when I get angry.”


No, really?

Perhaps alarmed by his colleague’s apocalyptic vision of totalitarian persecution, Healy conciliates him with platitudes about justice. This seems to work. Williams says he wouldn’t object to a drink-driving register so long as there’s one “for all the other thugs and scumbags”. This, remember, in response to a hypothetical question in a survey.

It’s all presumably music to the ears of Newstalk management. A month into his role as a radio host, Williams’s chief asset remains his hard-boiled, fuming persona. It’s not just the criminal fraternity and the Garda hierarchy he takes aim at, but anyone who smacks of being lily-livered or politically correct. He talks about “the snobby world of literature” and dismisses President Michael D Higgins’s voluntary pay cut with a curt “big bloody deal”, while constantly making cracks about “the Shinners”.

Getting offended by any of this seems pointless, however. Most of the time, Williams’s shtick is pure pantomime, albeit without much in the way of comic timing. As he chats with his co-hosts, he has the same bulldozing wit of that gobby mate who isn’t as funny as he thinks he is. Reflecting on the (admittedly gobsmacking) fact that Dublin’s two Luas lines run on different gauges, Williams quips that “maybe they were smoking that medicinal canaboloids”. Lest anyone miss the joke, he clarifies that he means cannabis.

Yet Williams is the most memorable performer on the revamped breakfast show. For one thing, he is decent at the business end of his job, as in his informative interview with Sky News reporter Enda Brady about the migrant camp in Calais. But he also overshadows his regular co-hosts, Shane Coleman and Colette Fitzpatrick, who, for all their accomplishment as broadcasters, are also detrimentally level-headed. Williams has made a splash, but whether he wins over more listeners than he turns off remains to be seen.

In general, the Newstalk house style is for presenters to shoot from the hip rather than button the lip. Chris Donoghue and Sarah McInerney may preside over their slot on Newstalk Drive (weekdays) as inquisitive journalists rather than opinionated grouches, but should they feel the need to vent, they're given more leeway than their public service broadcasting counterparts.

Such an occasion arises on Tuesday, with the Vatican’s announcement that the ashes of cremated bodies should only be buried in consecrated ground. Or, as Donoghue pithily puts it, “Catholics should not keep granny on the mantelpiece”.

This matter, McInerney says, "has really got my blood boiling". After The Irish Times's Rome correspondent, Paddy Agnew, has explained the Vatican's rationale, McInerney suggests that it should instead "look at the law that treats women as second-class citizens in the Catholic Church". Normally a rather poised broadcaster, she exhales with such fury that Donoghue quickly moves to a commercial break. Then, when a listener claims that the issue is giving McInerney "a good opportunity to feign outrage", she lets rip.

“I am outraged – I wish I wasn’t,” she says, adding that “I don’t call myself a Catholic any more”.

McInerney sounds regretful rather than angry, which seems only to emphasise her sincerity. Coupled with Donoghue’s bittersweet memories about cremating his late mother, it brings a real impact to proceedings.

But the comparative rarity of such raw moments is what truly underpins the success of Donoghue and McInerney's stint so far. The show carries a regulation amount of editorialising, but it's the combination of thoroughness and accessibility that marks out Newstalk Drive. A report on the problems surrounding Airbnb in Dublin and New York is just one example, bringing together personal anecdotes from Irish flat-dwellers and policy discussion with American legislators.

The smoothness with which the two presenters work together underlines how quickly they have forged a natural partnership. It's an opportunity denied to the Newstalk Breakfast team, who have to contend with a rotating roster, never mind the fulminating roaster among their number.

Moment of the Week: bed-and-breakfast blues

Airbnb is very much in the, ahem, air, with scare stories about the home-stay service featuring in Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Joe Duffy talks to Seamus, who runs 40 Airbnb properties in Dublin, none of which he owns and one of which he let out without the knowledge of the landlord, Angela. The ensuing conversation is a Liveline classic, showing why its ratings are still growing.

Seamus – who, Duffy says laconically, “can talk up for himself” – sounds prickly about being asked to vacate the property and moans that Angela has “a very complaining neighbour” (for objecting to troublesome Airbnb tenants). And having boasted about how he raises prices at peak times, he gets shirty when Angela doesn’t immediately agree to donate his forfeited €500 deposit to charity. It’s all very unedifying: not so much the sharing economy as the shafting economy.