TV & Radio
Subscriber Only

Seán Fleming drops the petrol can. Sarah McInerney hands him a match

Radio review: Minister’s tone-deaf interview on cost of living gains instant notoriety

You need to mind your language on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). It's not that presenters Sarah McInerney and Cormac Ó hEadhra are delicate souls – quite the opposite. Rather, as last week testifies, any verbal slip can bring forth a torrent of withering scorn from the hosts. And that's just when McInerney and Ó hEadhra are squabbling with each other about online word games.

On Monday, Ó hEadhra talks to Linda Keating, inventor of Focloch, an Irish-language version of on-trend internet teaser Wordle. Like the Béarla original, Keating’s game invites players to figure out a five-letter word, a challenge that Ó hEadhra accepts mid-interview.

“Sarah, you ask a question and I’ll see can I get it,” he commands his colleague.

Misinterpreting this request, McInerney mocks her co-anchor for not knowing how to play the game, only for him to set her right in casually imperious manner.

“Thank you for telling me how to do my job,” she replies disdainfully.

Nonetheless, McInerney takes the slack, eliciting Irish vocabulary tips from Keating, while chuckling that Ó hEadhra has been “uncharacteristically quiet” with the online puzzle.

“I tell you, it’s bloody tough,” he says, lamenting how “useless” he is at such pursuits. “Sarah, do you want to try it there?” he then asks, admitting defeat. “I’m too busy trying to host a radio programme,” she shoots back.

What larks! It’s indicative of the pair’s on-air chemistry that they never sound happier than when taking cuts at each other. But when someone else drops a clanger, it’s a different word game altogether.

Monday’s show is marked by the spectacularly tone-deaf performance of Minister of State Seán Fleming when interviewed by McInerney about the rising cost of living. It’s an item that gains instant notoriety, as the Fianna Fáil TD attempts to return fire on the Government’s critics, only to shoot himself repeatedly in the foot.

Self-immolation?

It’s slightly unfair to call the Minister’s appearance an act of career self-immolation, however: McInerney plays her part, gleefully striking matches for her guest to play with. She harries Fleming on whether the Coalition could do more to alleviate rising prices; when he rules out measures such as VAT changes, the host asks if her guest’s advice for the public is to “brace yourself for pain”.

Not so, Fleming insists. Instead, he advises listeners to “switch everything”, from energy suppliers to insurance companies: “Rather than just complaining [about] what the Government is going to do for me, you can actually have a serious impact on your own finance. But it involves people having to do some work themselves.”

As mesmerisingly disastrous on-air encounters go, it rivals former Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey's infamous 'swing-gate' interview

McInerney seems barely able to believe what she’s hearing. “So you’re asking people to stop complaining and asking the Government to help?” she wonders, agog.

Rather than taking this as his cue to row back, Fleming doubles down. He rejects the charge that he is “out of touch” with a cash-strapped public. “I’ve shopped around,” he stresses. When his host almost pityingly observes that many listeners will be “very disappointed” by his comments, the Minister stubbornly sticks to his point. “I’m saying: get the best value.”

He certainly delivers good value for the Drivetime team. As mesmerisingly disastrous on-air encounters go, it rivals former Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey’s infamous “swing-gate” interview with Sean O’Rourke, though in fairness she didn’t suggest people would be better off if they only worked a little harder. Under pressure from McInerney, the hapless Fleming appears to forget the politics part of his brief: what would be no-nonsense tips coming from a consumer correspondent sound more like lofty disregard from a Minister. It’s not all fun and games when McInerney and Ó hEadhra are around.

Curran’s tightrope

There are not so many obvious high jinks on The Business (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). But while presenter Richard Curran helms the long-running entrepreneurial show in suitably sober and pragmatic fashion, he also aims to engender a relaxed atmosphere, in a morning-after-the-casual-Friday-night-before way.

It’s a necessary tightrope act. Coming before Brendan O’Connor’s flagship slot, Curran occupies a prime piece of broadcasting real estate, so he has to attract general listeners while keeping his target audience onside.

Accordingly, some items seek to draw business lessons from unlikely sources, as when Trinity professor Andrew Burke talks about the late Pogues manager Frank Murray. Burke recalls a typically chaotic Pogues gig he organised when working as UCD's entertainment officer in the 1980s, which the band turned up late for. (Full disclosure: I too was at this show, though my memory of the event is patchy.)  Amid the turmoil, Murray maintained a calm air, reassuring the understandably stressed Burke, though neither knew for sure that the group would show.

Looking back, Burke sees Murray as an exceptional leader, capable of guiding the careers of Thin Lizzy and The Pogues without extinguishing their creative spirit. He dubs this “human resource management at its very best”, which is one way of describing the Sisyphean task of trying to corral Shane MacGowan: what they don’t teach you at Smurfit business school, as it were.

Walsh admits he didn't find it difficult to lay off staff and cut costs at Aer Lingus in the noughties

Curran also hosts more conventional fare, such as his interview with airline executive Willie Walsh. At times, the former Aer Lingus chief executive draws from the standard corporate playbook. Quizzed on air travel's carbon emissions, he replies with a nifty but meaningless soundbite: "Flying is not the problem, CO2 is the problem."

But Walsh is candid about the unpalatable aspects of his career. With Curran asking well-judged questions, Walsh admits he didn’t find it difficult to lay off staff and cut costs at Aer Lingus in the noughties, seeing no other option: “We would disappear otherwise.” He displays similar sangfroid when talking about conflict, calling it “part and parcel of the job”.

It’s an interesting insight into Walsh’s mindset, even for those who might disagree with his modus operandi. He happily concedes he was “cocky” when interviewed for his first job as an Aer Lingus cadet pilot, and admits there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. As with Curran’s show, it’s all about getting the balance right.

Radio Moment of the Week

On Tuesday's edition of The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk), presenter Kieran Cuddihy ponders the secret to a happy marriage. Cuddihy and his guests look at a survey of married couples that suggests a formula of two "barnstorming rows" – an ingredient psychotherapist Stephanie Regan is dubious about – as well as sex five times a week. The host is incredulous at the latter information. "All that tells me is that the most contented couples don't have kids," he scoffs, "It sounds exhausting."

Cuddihy then offers his own tips for conflict resolution. “What works for myself and my wife is we both have our say and then we just agree that she was right in the first place,” he chuckles.

Ba-dum-tish! Leave the advice to the experts, sir.