Radio: RTÉ’s empire strikes back. But where are the rebel voices?

Review of 2015: Compelling interviews, canny scheduling and engaging pairings boosted Radio 1, 2FM and Newstalk. But the best of local radio is far livelier

Perhaps it's all the Star Wars hype, but the name of one instalment of the sci-fi saga springs to mind when summing up radio in 2015.

Having come through an uncomfortable spell marked by audience erosion and big-name defections, RTÉ has reasserted its dominance over the past year, with the network's shows monopolising the top slots in the most recent JNLR listenership results. The empire strikes back, indeed.

This near hegemony of the ratings may make for pleasant reading around Montrose, but RTÉ shouldn’t crow. Given that its opposition, nationally anway, is stagnant, predictable independent radio, a surge in listeners is the least that RTÉ might manage.

Still, credit is due to Marian Finucane in particular, who rediscovered some of her mojo on her RTÉ Radio 1 weekend shows. Having for some time approached her role with the engagement of a hairdresser inquiring after a client's holiday plans, Finucane sounds more interested of late. This is particularly the case with the lengthy one-on-one encounters on her Saturday programme: it's surely no coincidence that she has enjoyed her biggest audience increase in this slot.


Still, when it came to headline- grabbing interviews Finucane was trumped by her colleague Miriam O'Callaghan. In January Minister for Health Leo Varadkar came out as a gay man on O'Callaghan's Sunday with Miriam. Varadkar's candour and the presenter's lack of sensationalism chimed in an interview that foreshadowed the open spirit of the marriage- equality referendum.

In contrast Bertie Ahern’s July appearance on the show was a shameless attempt to rewrite the past. Not that O’Callaghan can be blamed for the former taoiseach’s wheedling about unfair blame for the catastrophic economic crash; by securing such headline-grabbing guests she excelled in her brief.

The return of Ray D'Arcy, one of RTÉ's best- known prodigal sons, was another telling development, marking a reverse in the flow of broadcasting talent towards commercial stations. But since debuting on Radio 1, The Ray D'Arcy Show has been a bit of a damp squib.

D'Arcy has retained many of the elements that made him the most popular presenter on commercial radio, but on his Today FM morning show he sounded as if he had just downed a pot of coffee; in his new afternoon berth he comes across like a man fighting off a postlunch slump.

D'Arcy seems to really come to life only over contentious but personally important issues, as his reprimand by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for an abortion-related item testifies.

D'Arcy's erstwhile rival Ryan Tubridy has meanwhile enjoyed a fruitful year, albeit at the expense of John Murray. The latter's departure from his Radio 1 morning show allowed Tubridy to reoccupy a comfort-zone slot . If anything he can sound a bit too comfy. His allusions to Irish history and vintage music were an awkward fit on 2FM. Now he's free to express his occasional crankiness at modern mores.

Tubridy's move coincided with the final transformation of 2FM into a fully fledged youth station, as his midmorning slot was carved up between the manic Breakfast Republic and the cheekily appealing Nicky Byrne Show with Jenny Greene. The recruitment of presenters such as Tracy Clifford and Eoghan McDermott added further freshness to the schedule at the expense of such older campaigners as Colm Hayes, who has been exiled to weekend breakfast and RTÉ Gold.

This streamlined 2FM may not be to the taste of those who don’t share the station’s enthusiasm for slick modern pop. But its performance seems to vindicate the strategy pursued by Dan Healy. And while it hardly seems to fit into a Reithian model of public-service broadcasting, the schedule is notable for the number of shows fronted by women. That this gender balance is worthy of comment is a depressing indicator of the state of affairs elsewhere.

Newstalk, for one, increasingly resembles a nature reserve for aging male presenters, where such proud specimens can ramble on about the tyranny of political correctness. The likes of Ivan Yates, George Hook and Pat Kenny are certainly wont to grumble in this vein. But Kenny can still be an incisive broadcaster, and Yates's pantomime rants are offset by his cohost, Chris Donoghue. The latter pair's chemistry on Breakfast has seen them become Newstalk's top performers. Even so, some variety of voices over the day would be nice.

Today FM, which suffered a loss with the death of the veteran DJ Tony Fenton, welcomed Anton Savage as D'Arcy's successor. He has slowly made the crucial midmorning spot his own, with a wryly informed style that walks the right side of smartass. But Savage has been unable to really break out. His task isn't helped by Today FM's uncertain identity, which lurches between the shouty antics of Dermot and Dave and Matt Cooper's thorough if not always compelling stewardship of The Last Word.

None of this matters to the many who favour local broadcasters, as underlined by the continued regional domination of stations such as Highland Radio. Anyone who heard the Monaghan councillor Hugh McElvaney in his brazenly defiant interview with Joe Finnegan on Northern Sound will have an inkling of the lively on-air conversations throughout the country each day.

RTÉ may be back in the driving seat, but a swathe of gleefully anarchic territory is likely to remain unswayed by its imperial ambitions.