Radio: Money talk is taxing, but happy talk doesn’t come cheap

Sean O’Rourke still has a newsreadery tendency on his RTÉ show – but his colleague John Murray made a poignantly light return to the airwaves this week

In a contemporary Ireland where nothing is certain except debt and taxes, Today With Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) should be essential listening. When it came to covering the country's manifold liabilities and tariffs, O'Rourke's show could not be faulted last week: Monday's edition opened with a discussion on the local property tax and followed that up with a piece on mortgage arrears. Talk about life's rich pageant.

Even for those who craved items of a fiscal nature, this was hard going. Given that Radio 1's midmorning slot has long had a current-affairs remit, it was unsurprising that O'Rourke addressed the confusion surrounding next year's property tax, but his talk on the subject with Mark Redmond of the Irish Taxation Institute was bewilderingly dull.

Redmond jauntily reassured listeners that the payment options for the tax were actually very straightforward, but by the time he had answered queries about direct debits, credit cards and deferred payments, he instead showed that if there is one thing less exciting than an official letter from the Revenue Commissioners, it is a taxation professional dispensing technical advice on air.

O’Rourke did his best to add some spark to the proceedings. When Redmond approvingly noted that 30,000 people had already signed up for the 2014 tax, the presenter placed this number in context, noting that more than 900,000 people were supposed to pay “the damn thing”. But such acerbic asides could not save the item from sounding like a perplexing accountancy lecture.


Things did not get much better during the item on distressed mortgages. When O'Rourke spoke to David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation about a new initiative with AIB for homeowners in difficulty with repayments, the problem lay with the tone of the interview. As has often been the case since he took the reins of the Today show, O'Rourke's clipped style of questioning seemed more appropriate for a news bulletin. Rather than forging connections or having discussions that might inform or at least amuse his audience, O'Rourke still has a tendency to take an interrogatory approach to his guests.

The presenter is well capable of forming a rapport with interviewees, however, particularly when talking about sport. His conversation with Eamon Dunphy about the prospect of Roy Keane becoming Ireland's assistant manager was very diverting, not least for the pundit's assertion that Keane "is not a nutbag".

There were encouraging signs that O'Rourke is beginning to apply this more relaxed style elsewhere. When he spoke to Dr Jim Lucey about people who hear voices in their heads, O'Rourke adopted an air of sympathetic inquiry. The resulting discussion mixed surprising detail with intriguing insight, whether it was Lucey telling how screening devices could now chart the auditory cortex lighting up when people heard such "voices" or how these auditory hallucinations varied between patients with schizophrenia and those with bipolar disorder.

Despite its troubling nature, it was a fascinating subject, during which O’Rourke was sensitive without sacrificing his natural curiosity. Listeners who desire more than current affairs in the morning will want to hear more of this voice.

Another voice returned to the airwaves on Monday, to immediate impact. After an absence of six months, John Murray returned as host of The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) – or, as he dubbed it, in wry acknowledgment of Miriam O'Callaghan's extended tenure as his replacement, "The John Murray Show with John Murray". His timbre as rich and his manner as amiably confident as ever, it sounded as if he had never been away – but for one moment of raw candour.

After his customary comic introductions, Murray explained the reason behind his hiatus. “Depression took a fancy to me and decided to take up residence for a few months,” he said. “And, boy, did it make its presence felt.” His voice wavering ever so slightly, he described how “one minute I am happily presenting this radio show and enjoying life, the next I am gripped with dread and anxiety, with the simplest task proving beyond me”.

As he thanked family, friends, colleagues and the general public for their support, his gratitude was palpable, as was his relief at being back behind a microphone: his subsequent interview with the comedian Pat Shortt was infused with the uninhibited laughter that so often follows a difficult ordeal.

It only lasted a minute or two, but for anyone with experience of mental illness at first hand or with a family member, Murray’s monologue had a poignant ring of truth.

It also had the effect of bringing some perspective to the show. During the talk with Shortt, the comedian indicated, between fits of giggles, that he had been stung by the collapse of the property bubble. Murray suggested that his guest didn’t sound too worried about this. “You can’t get depressed about these things,” Shortt responded. “It’s only money.”

As Murray reminded us, there is indeed more to life than dollars or euro. You need your sense, too.

Moment of the Week: The write formula
Arts programmes, particularly those with a literary focus, can be tricky to pull off, sounding either too eagerly populist or overly precious. But the inaugural edition of The Book Show (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday) gave grounds for optimism. Presented by Sinéad Gleeson (who also writes for The Irish Times), the show moved from stimulating interviews with the likes of the American writer George Saunders to unexpected items on football-jersey fonts from the sports broadcaster Ken Early. Most compelling was the extended piece on Maeve Brennan, which used discussion, location reports and readings to present a compelling portrait of the late Irish-born writer for the New Yorker. Like any good book, the show was intelligent, unpredictable and enjoyable: all in all, an encouraging first chapter.