Ray D'Arcy is rarely squeamish about the topics he covers – "It's all about life" is his show's tagline, after all – but it's still a bit of a shock to hear him breezily talk about throwing a little girl's rabbit into an oven. On Wednesday's programme (the Ray D'Arcy Show, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the host speaks to Catherine, whose two-year-old daughter recently "damaged" her beloved leporine companion, Bunny. "She thought she would warm Bunny up by throwing Bunny on the grandma's Stanley range," Catherine explains. For the casual listener, it's an alarming conversation, though at least being cast as a bunny baker is an upgrade on the misogynistically freighted "bunny boiler".
Eventually, in response to worried texts, D’Arcy clarifies that the unfortunate rabbit is actually a stuffed toy rather than a pet, with the host sounding a bit sniffy that people hadn’t worked this out by Mary’s talk of Bunny’s fur having been “melted”. Then again, it’s hard to believe a programme on national radio is running an item on repairing a cuddly toy, no matter how cute the tale behind it. The twist is that fixing the burned plaything is more difficult than you’d think: apparently even the nation’s teddy bear hospitals are clogged by waiting lists.
Like a lucky bag of yore, you never know what you'll get out of it, and while the contents can provide distraction for a while, chances are they won't be of premium quality
Fluffy though the item may be, it’s emblematic of the perennially scattershot nature of D’Arcy’s show. Like a lucky bag of yore, you never know what you’ll get out of it, and while the contents can provide distraction for a while, chances are they won’t be of premium quality. As an example, the host’s discussion with DIY author Laura de Barra on doing household chores while the kettle boils is as heavyweight as it sounds, but does offer some useful tips in appealingly light-hearted fashion. (Don’t rinse plates before putting them in the dishwasher, seemingly.)
Things don’t always go off cleanly, however. On Monday, D’Arcy’s interview with American actor Tyne Daly gets off to a tricky start, with the star of 1980s crime series Cagney & Lacey interrupting the presenter before he can finish his first question. “You speak so fast like all the Irish, say the last three words of your sentence,” she tells him.
This sets the tone for the conversation, which has an unsettled feel even when taking unpredictable directions. After Daly reveals where she’d been conceived – San Francisco, since you ask – both guest and host awkwardly blame themselves for going off on a tangent. By now the actor can make out D’Arcy’s diction, but can’t understand what he’s talking about, being baffled by the phrase “mickey-taking”: “What does that mean?” It makes for an often toe-curlingly stilted encounter, with neither party ever quite connecting: even by cop-show standards, Daly and D’Arcy are a mismatched duo.
In fairness, the host fares better when there's no cultural misapprehension: he always sounds comfortable chatting to contestants on his daily quiz. Moreover, he's capable of impactful items too. Tuesday's interview with journalist Alex Moffatt covers an unimaginably awful subject: as Moffatt recently recounted in The Irish Times, his wife Magda took her own life in 2017, two years after the birth of their son. But D'Arcy strikes the right note, providing a sympathetic presence for his guest while moving the story along sensitively.
Less melancholy but more unexpected is Wednesday's conversation with conductor David Brophy, whose enthusiasm for music is matched only for his disregard for the stuffiness of the classical world. It's a small joy to hear the works of cult American minimalist composer Philip Glass discussed so accessibly, and refreshing for D'Arcy to show off his own musical knowledge as he chats easily with his guest about David Bowie's experimental "Berlin trilogy".
Such surprisingly effective moments also underscore the unevenness of D’Arcy’s material, however. His ratings performance is as mixed as his subject matter: he has kept his audience figures steady, but has the lowest listenership among his daytime Radio 1 peers, bested by the likes of Ronan Collins’s midday oldies jukebox. That would knock the stuffing out of anyone, but to D’Arcy’s credit, he keeps rabbiting on.
Respiratory illnesses in dinosaurs, the history of the answering machine and a Cold War-era secret police poetry group are just some of the topics
The early afternoon berth is, of course, the closest thing to a hardship posting in daytime talk radio, squeezed as it is by juicier morning and drivetime spots. But it's possible to use that to one's advantage, as Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) has done for years. On the face of it, the content of his programme is as random as D'Arcy's, with nothing too esoteric to be covered. Respiratory illnesses in dinosaurs, the history of the answering machine and a Cold War-era secret police poetry group are just some of the topics Moncrieff discusses.
But this outwardly arbitrary approach is underpinned by a certain thematic unity. For all the ostensible weirdness of the items, they generally have a sound factual basis. Meanwhile Moncrieff helms each segment in trademark manner, alternating between laconic detachment and inquisitive engagement. His take on St Valentine's Day festivities is typical, as he talks to anthropologist Anna Machin on the physiological effects – or causes – of romantic relationships.
Machin details how the hypothalamus, the portion of the brain crucial to sexual arousal, is the “fundamental circuitry of love”. It is “lit up” during social interactions with a romantic partner; otherwise, the body’s reactions are the same as any other encounter. In this telling, “friendships can sometimes be more emotionally intimate than romance”. Moncrieff is impishly delighted by such information, while broadening the conversation, as when he wonders if “cultural or commercial forces push romantic love”. It’s a mischievously subversive segment for the day, but also informative.
His interviews don’t always gel so neatly – his discussion on the Stasi’s poetry circle is more prosaic than it promises to be – nor does his singular choice of subjects seem designed to attract new listeners. Like D’Arcy, Moncrieff’s slot is surrounded by higher-rated shows. But if anything, this only seems to encourage Moncrieff to stick to his time-tested formula. It beats baking things up as you go along.
Radio Moment of the Week
Music may be the food of love, but it can also be an instrument of torture, as Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1) discovers when broadcaster Simon Maher discusses recent attempts to disperse protesters in New Zealand by playing Barry Manilow songs. This isn't a novel tactic, but doesn't always work, as Maher explains that music has to discombobulate to be effective. In fact, many of the artists favoured in psychological warfare are pretty good, such as The Clash and Nancy Sinatra. But ultimately contrast, rather than pure noise, works best. "If you play an hour of Westlife, followed by an hour of Metallica, that's what eventually gets you into submission," says Maher. An hour of Westlife? Now that is cruel and unusual punishment.