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Should it be said the newspaper-review host is the Sunday Independent’s lead columnist?

Radio: The way Brendan O’Connor talks you’d never know he’s a top writer for a paper he’s reviewing

Brendan O’Connor: in a small country, maybe there’s an assumption everyone knows who the radio host writes for

"Listen," Brendan O'Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) says as a tee-up to many of his questions. "Listen." As conversational tics go, it's probably the most appropriate colloquialism for a radio host, though it can come across as brusque rather than folksy. He's also keen on a repeated "Yeah, yeah", which tends to make him sound bored and keen to move on. That's the thing when a programme's content tips towards the dull or predictable; without engaging substance to distract you, as a listener you tend to focus on style.

On Saturday the restaurateur Richard Corrigan, who is on to talk about a month of indoor dining in London, gets the full “Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” though he has gone off on a tangent about how “spoiled millennials need a good kick in the arse by their parents” before being skilfully pulled back to talk about still-struggling restaurants and low occupancy rates in city hotels.

His contribution is brief and lively, and, as O’Connor has opened the show with an astute observation about our national focus on hospitality being a sort of bizarre displacement obsession, there’s reason to hope there will be no more talk about indoor dining, a phrase I’m not sure I ever heard before Covid and would quite like to never hear again.

The airwaves are filled with little else but talk about indoor dining. Who knew as a nation we were such gourmands, more concerned with hospitality than hospital waiting lists?

Because after a week when the airwaves are filled with little else – who knew as a nation we were such gourmands, more concerned with hospitality than hospital waiting lists? – surely a weekend magazine show, taking place during record-breaking sunshine and with the country in holiday mood, would leave Covid to the news bulletins.


But no. Corrigan is followed by the architect Orla Hegarty talking at length and in detail about indoor dining and ventilation. The item is as downbeat and boring as it sounds, more current-affairs fodder than sunny magazine. Their discussion moves to Covid and schools. After ominous predictions from Hegarty, O’Connor’s question “Is Delta going to run riot in schools, do you think?” reminds me of why I have mostly abandoned radio for podcasts: Hegarty is an architect, not a public-health expert or an immunologist, and “run riot”? Why the scaremongering language?

Sunday’s show kicks off with Covid, too. The late Marian Finucane and her producers created the formula for this weekend programme, and her successor has kept to it, so it starts with a review of Sunday’s papers. On Finucane’s watch it was an enjoyable, easy listen, with each panellist picking out four or five articles to discuss. The near-hour clipped along across all publications and through many subjects, from culture high and low to sport and celebrity, home politics to international affairs, giving an overview of the paper’s contents and that week’s events.

'What caught your eye?' Marian Finucane would ask her guests, steering the conversation but not dominating. It's not like that now – or isn't last weekend, anyway

“What caught your eye?” Finucane would ask her guests, steering the conversation but not dominating. It’s not like that now – or isn’t last weekend, anyway.

Before introducing his panel, O’Connor does a comprehensive run-through of the headlines – the sort you’d expect his panellists to do – starting with the Sunday Times and rules on wedding numbers, and moving to “the Sunday Independent, which would probably be more relevant to more people” – by which we assume, though it’s not clear, he means that paper’s lead story, about schools reopening in September, and not the paper itself.

Kicking off the review segment, he asks one panellist, the Irish Times parenting columnist Jen Hogan: “Were you alarmed by the front of the Sunday Independent that the delay in opening schools does not seem to be off the table?” She talks about her experience as a parent, saying schools must reopen. The medic on the panel – Prof Rónán Collins, an excellent contributor – says no, he doesn’t see why schools couldn’t reopen, as the Covid risk to children is low, and he points to the success of the vaccination programme.

Determined to keep this story going, O’Connor asks the consultant microbiologist Anna-Rose Prior, “Are we losing faith with the vaccine as being the route out of the pandemic?” Where’s that come from? With equal calm and facts, Prior dispatches the question, emphasising that the vaccine programme is working.

On and on it goes. This listener is ready for another headline, but that Sunday Independent story isn’t going anywhere until every last angle has been wrung out of it. “This is not going to be politically palatable,” O’Connor says to the Mirror political editor Ferghal Blaney.

Should it be mentioned that the host of this newspaper-review slot is also the Sunday Independent's lead columnist, anchoring the front page, with a second column inside?

Then come pandemic wedding and funeral stories from the Sunday Times, and indoor-dining coverage in the Mail on Sunday. O’Connor just can’t stop talking about Covid.

Relief comes with a lengthy insert – RTÉ’s Jacqui Hurley gives a lively, atmospheric Olympics report from Tokyo – before a return, with just five minutes left, to the papers and two nonpandemic stories, the famine in Madagascar and the Tánaiste’s remarks about Twitter being “a sewer”.

The discussion on schools goes on for so long there’s time for the Department of Education to issue the programme with a statement from the Minister committing to reopen schools in September. No news there –  it’s widely understood, I think, to be the plan anyway.

Introducing his panellists, the host gives their credentials; it’s so listeners can frame them in the discussion and know where they’re coming from.

Listen, does it matter that in a newspaper-review slot the host doesn’t declare that he is a paid contributor to one  of the papers under discussion? Yeah, yeah, is that too old-school? That O’Connor is the Sunday Independent’s lead columnist, anchoring the front page, with a second column inside – should it be mentioned?

In a small country, maybe there's an assumption everyone knows. His listeners might not know, though – after all, just the week before, in introducing his panellist Kevin Doyle, group head of news at Mediahuis Ireland, the Sunday Independent's publisher, O'Connor asks, "How are we saying this?" referring to the Belgian name, and then offers alternative pronunciations: "Hoos?", "House?"

Listeners could be forgiven for thinking the name is news to him.

Moment of the week

The Olympic rowers Paul O'Donovan and Fintan McCarthy are gold across the airwaves on Thursday, but there's something lovely about Mona McSharry's interview on Tuesday's Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday-Friday). The young swimmer is just out of the pool after her final, and her sunny demeanour, positivity and determination radiate from Tokyo. "It's amazing to hear people are willing to get up at three in the morning [for the final]. It makes my heart feel warm. I love that the whole nation is behind me. I hope they're all proud of how I performed." "Sport makes everyone feel so happy," McSharry adds. This week it does.