Stalin’s adage about one death being a tragedy but a million being a statistic may be callous, but when it comes to the intimately scaled medium of radio it also has a ring of truth. Worse, perhaps, it is understandable.
The awful case of the missing Cork student Karen Buckley has received constant coverage across the airwaves. With the unspeakable suffering of Buckley’s parents and the fearful randomness of her disappearance from a Glasgow nightclub speaking to our deepest fears, it is no surprise that news bulletins, current-affairs magazines and chatshows are all following the dreadful story.
Meanwhile, the drowning of 400 mainly African refugees in the Mediterranean is largely confined to the likes of Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), which carries a sympathetic analysis of the tragedy. Still, without individual stories to personalise the report, it ends up as an exercise in grim number-crunching: Leonard Doyle of the International Organisation for Migration says that at least 900 men, women and children have drowned in such circumstances since only January.
This is appalling news, but in terms of resonance it is dwarfed by the single tale of horror and grief that Ryan Tubridy (2FM, weekdays) hears on Wednesday. Tubridy talks to Coral and Mark Jones, whose five-year-old daughter, April, was abducted from outside her home in Wales in 2012 and murdered by a neighbour, Mark Bridger. The couple have written a book about April's life and death to raise awareness of child pornography – Bridger had hundreds of such images on his computer – but their ordeal is so sickening that even to listen to the bare facts of the case is to strain one's emotional mettle to breaking point.
Allowed by her parents to stay outside for an extra 15 minutes, April was kidnapped by Bridger, a “fantasist”. Her body has never been found. Small details stick out, such as Mark Jones’s recollection that by 10.30pm on the night of her abduction, “I knew she wasn’t going to come back”.
Three years on, April’s parents struggle to deal with what happened to their little girl, right down to their decision to let her play longer. “I still feel guilty for letting her out,” says Coral. “I don’t think that’s good,” says Mark, trying to comfort her.
Tubridy sounds uncomfortable having to quiz the Joneses about their trauma, and at one point he asks a distressed Coral if she wants to stop: “I don’t want to prolong your pain.” There’s no doubting his sincerity. As someone who regularly talks about his own children, Tubridy’s anguished empathy clearly transcends professional niceties.
But he still feels the need to justify airing this story. Referring to the paedophile porn that Bridger favoured, Tubridy says, “It’s important that we talk about it, broadly speaking at least, because it’s a modern scourge” that “can lead to the most awful and ghastly consequences”. He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as his audience, an understandable reaction to a story that surely leaves even the hardiest listener drained. Still, his sure but sensitive manner ensures his guests talk for 25 memorable minutes.
By way of light relief, Tubridy later talks to a California mortician, Caitlin Doughty, asking her to share her “grossest” experiences from working in a crematorium. “Are we okay for that on morning radio?” she asks. “We’re all adults. The kids are at school,” replies the host, showing little regard for anyone still digesting breakfast. Although Doughty’s story is suitably disgusting (involving fat leaking from a crematory device) Tubridy pursues her for more such anecdotes: “I’ve got a taste for it now.”
Tubridy walks a fine line between the morbidly irreverent and the deeply inappropriate, particularly given his earlier encounter. But all the talk about mortality seems to enliven him. Doughty finishes by saying she’d like to have her corpse devoured by wildlife after her death. “I was going to suggest just go on Twitter,” Tubridy shoots back. He’s obviously happier talking about some aspects of death more than others.
Hearing another tale of violent loss on The Anton Savage Show (Today FM, weekdays), one appreciates Tubridy's nuanced handling of such difficult material. Savage talks to Noel Barry, a Corkman whose nephew Jack was stabbed to death in London by a 13-year-old. Noel, who raised Jack as a child, berates the 11-year prison term handed down to the teen after he was convicted of murdering the 53-year-old Irishman.
“The sentence does not reflect the seriousness of the crime,” he says, sounding more bewildered than angry. These legitimate concerns ensure that Savage’s interview avoids gratuitously wallowing in someone else’s grief, but the presenter never really sounds at ease when talking to the bereaved.
With his guest understandably reticent, Savage, who sounds happier when talking to the Blur singer Damon Albarn, is obliged to push the story along with a series of perfunctorily delivered questions. At one point he asks whether Barry blames the young killer’s mother, but he is unable to hide his alarm that someone could hold such a notion.
By the time he concludes by asking his palpably uneasy guest what was best about his late nephew, Savage sounds relieved, but the encounter is as notable for its awkward pitch as for its desperately sad content. All death is tragic, but no two tales are alike.
Moment of the Week: Courting unpopularity
On Today With Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) Valerie Cox gives one of her regular reports from the family courts, which only recently opened proceedings to the media. What's most striking is the reaction to the reporter's presence. "In Court 20 there were two applications to exclude me, both refused by the judge," Cox says cheerily, adding that she moved to another courtroom, where "there was another application to exclude me from proceedings". If nothing else, Cox's reports are a bracing reminder of the way many people view the media.