Just as Dolly Parton famously quips that it takes a lot of money for her to look so cheap, one suspects that sounding flippant is a serious business for Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays). He has, after all, cornered the market for aggregating obscure or inconsequential stories from around the world and turning them into nuggets of stimulating radio. In the last week alone, he has hosted intriguing items about a gin made from ants and a man who wore an ill-fitting wig for a year. (It's no coincidence Moncrieff is the all-time champ when it comes to items that jump out as a radio moment of the week.)
It's equally obvious that underneath the japery, Moncrieff is intelligent and well-read – his palpable glee when talking to New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee is telling – but for all that, it's rare for him to be able to deploy these assets on current affairs issues – like the recent resignation of Senator Averil Power from Fianna Fáil.
A regular guest on Moncrieff's opening interview slot for some time, Power appeared on the show to outline the reasons for her departure. If the item lacks confrontational fireworks – listeners in search of those would have done well to catch the in-depth coverage hosted by guest presenter Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) – it is memorable for its unvarnished spectacle of a politician unburdening herself of pent-up frustrations and emotions.
Speaking in the slightly quavering voice of someone going through the wringer, Power says she has had concerns about Fianna Fáil for some time. The party’s attitude towards her efforts to increase female membership made her feel she was “being used to cover up the fact that we didn’t have women”. But the breaking point came when Power, an energetic and long-standing advocate of marriage equality, witnessed the “happiness and energy” surrounding the referendum result.
It was a bittersweet moment: “It showed everything that was missing from my party.” As for what Moncrieff describes as the “ruthless and aggressive” response from Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin to her departure, Power says she then knew she had made the right decision.
If the senator sounds close to tears at times, Moncrieff’s reaction sees him eschew his usual air of wry amusement for something more like genuine outrage. Noting that his guest is one of the few politicians he has on as a regular guest – “It doesn’t matter if we agree, but you mean what you say” – he lambasts Power’s erstwhile party peers. “This bunch of fat old middle-aged white guys laughing at you because you were part of that [marriage equality] movement, it says awful tings about politics in this country,” he says, his volume rising. “Jaysus, I’m tearing up.” Just as Power’s interview provides a rare glimpse of a politician throwing off the pressures and hypocrisies of party loyalties, so Moncrieff’s uncharacteristically passionate outburst is apposite for the occasion.
If one is to believe Shane Bergin, there's no shortage of passion in Ireland's scientific community. As presenter of new documentary series Bright Sparks (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday) Bergin applies the word, or variations thereof, to nearly every scientist he speaks to in the opening episode. Presumably this is to dispel the fusty old image of scientists as eccentric boffins cloistered away from the real world. Instead, Bergin wants to show "what happens when you enable bright people to follow their curiosity and tackle the big issues of our time".
Bergin, a nano-scientist at Trinity College, is an appealing presence, with a peppy manner that avoids arid jargon. He says, for example, that he was drawn to his advanced field of study because he was “a Lego kid”. But his lightness of touch is not replicated by the programme itself.
Made by Athena Productions, Bright Sparks cannot be faulted for lack of rigour or resources. Alongside the many interviews that show off science's broad spectrum, there is an impressive command of detail: the first programme examines how research funding in Ireland is skewed toward commercial areas at the expense of innovative "blue sky" projects. But the programme's narrative thrust gets bogged down in technical minutiae.
Less than 10 minutes into this supposedly zippy new take on science, you’re treated to a dreary (and lengthy) clip of a Dáil speech by Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton.
For all the useful explanation of various disciplines, there aren’t enough attention-grabbing vignettes to appeal to the layman listener. This failing is only underlined by the exceptions, such as the exciting proposal by Gerry Murphy of UCC to convert this country’s massive bovine methane emissions into bus fuel.
It's not impossible to make a popular science show. Radio 1's previous science show, What's It All About, avoided comprehensive overviews to draw unexpected connections between different phenomena to stimulating effect.
The regular science slot on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays) with Bergin's guest Luke O'Neill balances expertise and exposition with lively anecdotes that illustrate the subjects under discussion. The producers of Bright Sparks need to be more intuitive and take its subject a bit less seriously.
Moment of the week: Dunphy’s own goal
After the sudden death of Bill O'Herlihy, his RTÉ football-panel colleague Eamon Dunphy pays tribute to him on Game On (2FM, weekdays). Describing O'Herlihy as "the greatest of them all", Dunphy says that despite on-air arguments they remained "very good friends", but he adds a characteristic twist. "John" – Giles, his fellow pundit – "and I had a falling out that had nothing to do with the programme," Dunphy says, giggling. "He gave me a bad review for a book. Can you imagine how small-minded I am?" O'Herlihy would surely chuckle along.