Soothing Shay Byrne strikes right tone for graveyard slot

Review: The presenter even makes the awful front-page news seem somehow okay

Shay Byrne

Shay Byrne

 

The very phrase “graveyard slot” suggests quietude, decay, stillness; the very antithesis of what makes for good radio. Due in part to lower listener figures (tradition dictates that the graveyard shift is typically midnight to 7am), they hold less status than breakfast or drive-time shows. There’s a sense that the slot is used as a training ground for enthusiastic novices, but keeping the attentions of a nocturnal audience – shift workers, students, new parents – takes a certain skill in and of itself. Away from the pressures and demands of primetime radio, there’s a certain ambience to a graveyard radio slot, certainly, but are they worth catching up with during more conventional hours?

Well yes, as it happens. Remove the chaos, frantic energy, Brexit and the often exhausting debating from conventional radio, and there’s plenty to like in the stillness of early morning.

Shay Byrne (Rising Time, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays, 5.30-7am) is no one’s idea of a novice, having taken over the slot from Maxi in 2011. A seamless continuation of RTÉ Gold’s takeover (3am-7.30am), Byrne is canny enough to usher in the wee-ish hours with soothing, soporific soul tracks and soft-pop classics. Monday’s show mixes up the lightest offerings that The Smiths, Phil Collins, Saw Doctors and Waterboys have to offer. On Thursday Jesse Winchester III gives way to Rumer, Razorlight, Jared Dylan, Dusty Springfield and Elvis. The playlist picks up tempo and vigour as the morning wears on, with Soda Blonde’s Swimming Through The Night and Feargal Sharkey’s A Good Heart, but we’re talking strictly second gear stuff. Nothing overly revolutionary nor seismic on the playlist, but the snap and crackle of new music is not Byrne’s wheelhouse.

In between the babbling brook of soul and muted pop, Byrne is a soothing companion. Think the canyon-deep timbre of John Creedon and the steadiness of Tom Dunne. He even makes the awfulness of the front-page news seem somehow okay. He’s a smooth and consummate professional, yet he riffs as though he’s not really talking to anyone in particular, and it’s one of Rising Time’s greatest draws. “Isn’t that a great name? I wish my name was Jesse Winchester III,” he muses. “Saying it, Shamaling ding dong, smahamling, shamalingdongding – it’s a little cold in here, I’ll take my coat off in a second . . .” It’s the sort of inconsequential, unscripted freewheeling that is anathema on primetime radio. Yet Byrne makes for an interesting counterpoint to his more, shall we say, strenuously performative daytime colleagues.

Things are much more officious over on Newstalk with Breakfast Briefing

Over on Today FM, Pamela Joyce (weekdays, 5-7am) presides over Early Breakfast, where the vibe is much more kinetic and “wake the hell up”. Monday’s slot, for instance, kicks off with Rihanna’s S&M, a rather jolting start to the day. Coldplay, Meduza, Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa and Mabel all follow in quick succession. All very modish and bang up to the minute, leading one to believe that Today FM must take their early risers to be very energetic and enthusiastic indeed. Yet it amounts to much the same fare as on most of their other daytime slots. Similarly, Joyce is polished and perky, though largely bereft of quirk, and indistinguishable from her primetime counterparts. This is no bad thing for Joyce, and it’s likely she will migrate to a later slot in time.

Is the station reading the room right? Perhaps. Still, one can’t help but wonder what might be if Today FM took the opportunity to give the slot over to a different, more unique sort of ambience. The unnerving jangle of Bob Sinclair’s ubiquitous earworm, Love Generation, might well keep a long-distance lorry driver from dozing at the wheel, but it’s not likely to be the perfect accompaniment to a mother nursing a newborn. Just saying.

In any case, things are much more officious over on Newstalk with Breakfast Briefing (weekdays, 6am-6.30pm). It’s not so much a gentle, wee-hours start as a treadmill that’s already going at an impressive clip. Brexit, rental prices and the Tipperary team homecoming make up the bulk of Tuesday’s newspapers, with Andrea Gilligan offering these depressing dispatches (doubly depressing, presumably, if you’re from Kilkenny) efficiently and briskly. If a hefty gulp of world events without the polemical frills is your early morning preference, Newstalk is the spot on the dial for you.

FM104’s Night Time Network (weekdays, 1am-6am), meanwhile, has decided to do away with the idea of a presenter altogether, preferring instead to offer a bewildering hodgepodge of crowd pleasers. It’s the sort of mixed bag that the very idea of radio was built on: you’ll keep listening as a viewer just to see if the next song will scratch your particular itch. Is the decision to fly for five hours without a presenter due to financial reasons? Laziness? The jury is out. It doesn’t seem like a particularly wise one in the age of Spotify, and there’s a definite sense that the slot could be filled in a more productive way such as showcasing new presenting talent or offering a niche platform to a non-national community, as Dublin City FM have done with Brazilian Coffee Time.

Q102 has settled on a similar strategy with Feel Good Music (weekdays, midnight to 6am). Yet in the 6am-9am slot, Mornings With Liam Coburn and Venetia Quick effectively straddles the graveyard and breakfast realms. Vee is at large this week, leaving the slot in the hands of Alison O’Reilly. She and Coburn are an amiable pairing, certainly more nicely rough-hewn than presenters in other early morning slots, mixing MOR hits and pedestrian items like a Retro Rewind with nonsensical mentions of pets with human names (Tuesday). A cackle-spackled item on bad jokes (Wednesday) was certainly more purgatorial than was necessary. Not worth setting the alarm clock for, in a word.

Radio Moment of the Week: Coveney on Miriam

Leaving aside Louis Theroux’s glorious takeover of Amy Lamé’s slot on BBC Six Music (Sunday, 4pm), Simon Coveney’s interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on Today With Sean O’Rourke (weekdays, RTÉ Radio 1, 10am-12pm) saw the Tánaiste hold his own and stick to brief. It’s barely a political interview worth talking about without several heated “just let me finish” moments, but “what’s your agenda here?” is a new one. Eschewing his colleagues’ usual penchant for spin and soundbite, Coveney was, in the face of a pretty difficult and taxing interrogation, articulate, patient and precise. Which are, granted, not words you get to use everyday when talking about Brexit.

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