As Irish radio personalities enjoy some post-Christmas downtime and look back on 2014, one presenter in particular might enjoy dusting off a copy of Aesop's Fables to reread the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. For much of the past year Ryan Tubridy (RTÉ 2FM, weekdays) appeared on course to be the biggest loser on Irish radio, as his station's schedule was radically revamped in an attempt to win a bigger share of coveted young urban listeners.
Portrayed as a bland, anachronistic fuddy-duddy in many quarters, Tubridy seemed out of sync with the brighter, brasher station developing around him since the exit of his colleague Hector Ó hEochagáin, last December. By summer the writing seemed on the wall: his show was ousted as 2FM's top performer by the arrivistes on The Nicky Byrne Show.
Yet as the year draws to a close Tubridy crosses the finish line in triumph. He has increased his audience since the summer by nearly 20 per cent, while those shouty scamps who would displace him have seen their figures tank. And, in a final twist, Ray D'Arcy, Tubridy's direct rival and ratings nemesis, sensationally departed his perennially popular midmorning berth on Today FM for RTÉ Radio 1, where he is to take over from Derek Mooney.
It’s a salutary tale for those who would constantly overhaul formats and line-ups to win over the public. Even when his show has been under siege Tubridy has stuck to his approach, hosting human-interest items and light interviews with snappy patter, inherent decency and, on occasion, misjudged lecturing, as when he told a convicted domestic abuser that if he harmed someone he loved, he would break his legs. That Tubridy is now enjoying a surge in popularity underlines the fine line between continuity and stagnation.
By contrast the show that heralded a zippy new future for 2FM, Breakfast Republic (weekdays), has lost a fifth of the audience held by Ó hEochagáin when he was the breakfast host. His replacements, Keith Walsh, Jennifer Maguire and Bernard O'Shea, have certainly brought zip to proceedings, but their frantic style and self-consciously zaniness quickly sap the already limited energy of the early-morning listener. Tubridy's recent annexation of 15 minutes' airtime from the programme only underscores the perils of building a station around noisy newcomers.
But some moves made by 2FM's boss, Dan Healy, have paid off. Nicky Byrne has made a successful transition from pop star to radio personality since his 2FM show debuted, in the spring. The content may often be wafer thin – flippant conversations with listeners and minor celebs bookended by pop tunes – but Byrne's natural charm and easy chemistry with his cohost, Jenny Greene, has proved an infectious formula. The absence of Greene's name from the show's title remains perplexing, however.
The virtues of continuity and reliability are showcased elsewhere, most notably on Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays), where the partnership of Ivan Yates and Chris Donoghue is winning over ever more listeners from RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland. The two presenters have finally found the right balance. Yates's overbearing bullishness is less in evidence, replaced by displays of hard-won experience and acerbic opinion, while Donoghue's chirpier countenance belies his rigorous questioning. Their on-air banter also provides a welcome distraction.
On the other hand The Right Hook (Newstalk, weekdays) sounds like a show on borrowed time, which in a sense it is, as George Hook has announced he is retiring in 2016. Newstalk's management may want to hasten his exit as Hook's shtick descends into a tired pattern of theatrical bluster and pantomime set pieces with the likes of Vincent Browne and the US shock jock Michael Graham.
Meanwhile, the two protagonists from 2013's big radio face-off, Pat Kenny and Sean O'Rourke, have settled into quietly satisfying grooves.
Kenny now sounds more at ease in his Newstalk surroundings – which is just as well, as he now deals with more lifestyle items than he did on RTÉ. But he remains a peerless presenter at his best. His interview with Kathleen Chada, whose sons Eoghan and Ruairí were murdered in 2013 by their father, Sanjeev, balanced sensitivity with curiosity to produce riveting if difficult radio.
O’Rourke is more at ease dealing with current affairs and sport, but the former newsman is comfortable with other subjects also. His growth into a daytime role is shown by his rapport with Marie-Louise O’Donnell when she files her quirkily enjoyable reports from the fringes of rural Irish life – postcards from the hedge, if you will. Still, Montrose hierarchy will note that O’Rourke’s audience share is being steadily eaten into by the apostatical Kenny.
Elsewhere on Radio 1 stability is veering uncomfortably close to complacency. Joe Duffy’s Liveline can produce electrifying results when tapping into public frustration or airing ignored stories – it provided a vivid forum of dissent on water charges and carried poignant testimony after revelations about mass graves at a Tuam orphanage. But its usual fare – a fishwives’ delight of crime horror stories and gripes about modern life – seems jaded.
Meanwhile, nothing better illustrates the ever-more apparent apathy of Marian Finucane’s performances than the fact that Brendan O’Carroll’s amateurish and self-promoting stint as guest host was the best thing all year in her weekend slot.
Not that audience share should be the main metric of worth. Many of the year's best radio moments came from reliable niches and unexpected quarters. Documentary on One (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday) remains as consistently intriguing as ever; standout editions included A Solemn Undertaking, Leanne O'Donnell's history of Irish morticians, and The Beach Boys of Rossnowlagh, Marc MacMenamin's portrait of a family of pioneering Donegal surfers.
Likewise, the Drama on One strand (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) produces plays that are by turns entertaining and thought-provoking, be it Kevin Barry's offbeat travelogue Toronto and the State of Grace or the season of works evoking the Great War, by the likes of Dermot Bolger and Gary Mitchell.
Overlooked factual areas were covered entertainingly, mainly on Radio 1. What’s It All About? dissected scientific themes from unusual and stimulating angles, while the subject of food – a topic curiously scarce on Irish radio – was served up with relish on History on a Plate. Newstalk did its bit, too. Turas: Learning Irish in East Belfast featured Gaeilgeoirí from loyalist Belfast.
Certain bugbears persist, notably the dearth of female presenters. Apart from current affairs, where the likes of Audrey Carville, Mary Wilson, Rachael English and Áine Lawlor shine, RTÉ stills finds little space in its weekday schedules for women. Today FM's sparky presenter Louise Duffy finds herself bouncing between time slots in an undignified manner. That Duffy was moved from her early-afternoon show to make way for the tiresomely laddish zoo radio of Dermot & Dave only underlines the point.
But Today FM executives have bigger problems. The defection of D'Arcy, their star performer, leaves a giant hole in the schedules. D'Arcy had been the natural heir to the late Gerry Ryan. Whether hosting lively interviews with Roy Keane, channelling popular discontent or airing contentious opinions, the presenter has used his keen broadcasting instincts to great success.
How D’Arcy’s approach goes down in a slot left vacant by the departing Mooney is another matter. Mooney’s cosy, frothy show appeals to an audience seemingly far removed from D’Arcy’s more tabloid style. If the past year has taught one lesson, it is that D’Arcy shouldn’t rush into anything rash.