Radio’s brand new dawn? Not quite

The Great Radio War between Pat Kenny and Sean O’Rourke has begun. At times, the listeners became collateral damage


At 10am yesterday morning, two very different sounds were broadcast from the radio studios at Newstalk and RTÉ. From Newstalk, it was the splash of a great white shark landing in a garden pond. From RTÉ, it was the sound of Sean O’Rourke wondering if he’d get washed away by the splash.

Sparked by Kenny’s move to the commercial station, the Radio War actually began a little earlier than planned when Morning Ireland closed with an interview with O’Rourke. He once again, but hopefully for the last time, gave one of those odd self-appraisals in which he appears to be reporting on himself.

An hour later, the phoney war was over. Kenny began with something approaching nonchalance, introducing his show with a simple list of upcoming items, as if it was day two rather than day one of his new job. But you could sense the nervous smile as he tripped over his words before handing over to the news headlines.

When he returned it was with a welcome to established listeners and to new ones. The new ones are what matter to Newstalk, of course. The station has been running clever ads that included a helpline number for those whose radio stations had rusted on Radio 1 sometime in the mid-80s.

On RTÉ, O’Rourke began by wishing his new competitor well, before undermining that a tad when promising that comedian Oliver Callan would be along to impersonate Kenny later. It went on in that vein to such an extent that when the fuss dies down, he will have at least set a high watermark for defensive self-regard.

“Clearly we’re having more than a light dusting of promos,” O’Rourke said after an avalanche rumbled through the ad break. Even introducing former weapons inspector Hans Blix was treated as a promotional opportunity. “Thank you for joining us on Today with Sean O’Rourke.” When the Liveline skit by Callan did get an airing, O’Rourke greeted it with laughter so hearty many listeners will have been concerned they must have missed a joke in there somewhere.

Heaney tributes
On the morning of Seamus Heaney’s funeral, both Kenny and O’Rourke began and ended their shows with tributes to the late poet. Edna O’Brien was in the RTÉ studio, on her way to the church. She brought literary weight, but wielded it gently, even as O’Rourke’s current affairs background quickly pushed forward in the shape of a critical question about the Nobel laureate’s engagement with politics.

At the same time, Bono was on the phone to Kenny in an interview recorded before he too flew home. Bono’s insights were more personal, and the conversation with Kenny chattier. But after O’Rourke had moved on to a second item, a wider interview with Bono was still drifting towards the half-hour mark on Newstalk, gently pushed along by Kenny’s uncritical bonhomie. “How is Ali by the way?” he asked, chummily. “The devil wears Prada and the good guys wear Edun, is that right?” he said after a kidgloves mention of Bono and Ali Hewson’s troubled fashion line. There followed more chuckles than you’d find at a clown convention.

By contrast, O’Rourke is going to need a little softening yet. Interviewing Irish rugby coach Joe Schmidt, he still had the formal patter of a current affairs broadcaster. Every question felt like a question, even when he was clearly attempting a conversation.

Back to Kenny, and his new employers were transitioning him out of the self-promotional world of RTÉ by giving him a big interview with a Newstalk employee. Ivan Yates has returned from his bankruptcy break to present Breakfast (whose running time of 6.30-10am are breakfast hours if you happen to live in a B&B).

Engaging interview
Yet, the interview was an engaging one, in which Yates railed against the unfairness of the insolvency process and admitted that he “wanted to die” at least twice, while Kenny pushed him on his questions of his credibility as a broadcaster while reading out blunt and unsympathetic texts from listeners.

It was spoiled somewhat, not by Kenny but by his new colleagues. Newstalk instantly made the item its lead on the news bulletin, so gaining a little traction in the self-promotional tug-of-war.

After that first hour, a strange thing happened. Radio programmes broke out. Kenny’s items included interviews with Brendan Howlin and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin which, while hardly groundbreaking, were solid all the same. There was also an item on Murphy Village, “unofficial Traveller capital of America” which related to Paul Connolly’s two-part series for TV3 (the unofficial Traveller documentary capital of Ireland).

O’Rourke interviewed Niall O’Dowd and John McColgan about a collaborative online venture, after which the rest of the show was given over to live coverage of the Heaney funeral – leading the show to run 50 minutes over time. O’Rourke ended with a personal tribute to the poet. Kenny did exactly the same.

If this is a prizefight, it was only round one. A winner is some time away from being declared. But at least this latest great new dawn for Irish radio had ended. These fresh blasts across the Irish airwaves had brought us an archbishop, a Government Minister defending policy, Bono talking just a little too long, half-baked comedy, self-promotion, in-house interviews and the national broadcaster rightly dropping everything to perform its public service duty. The more things change, the more they stay the same.