The ghost of Ivan Yates haunts Kieran Cuddihy’s Hard Shoulder

Radio: Cuddihy is skilled and energetic, yet his Newstalk show seldom hits the mark

It's Groundhog Day, so listeners are told by Kieran Cuddihy on Tuesday's edition of The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays). It's Groundhog Day, so listeners are told by Shane Coleman on Tuesday's edition of Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays). It's Groundhog Day, so listeners are told by Ray D'Arcy on Tuesday's…

Well, you get the idea. The quirky American festival is flagged more heavily than usual across the airwaves this year, doubtless because people now identify with Bill Murray’s character from the eponymous comic fantasy movie, forever reliving the same day in an endless loop.

Cuddihy even hosts an item about the curious ceremony in rural Pennsylvania, in which a groundhog "predicts" whether winter will continue for six more weeks by seeing its shadow, or not. (D'Arcy has a similar segment on his RTÉ Radio 1 show.) Cuddihy learns the origins of the custom from reporter Simon Tierney; it is rooted in old European superstitions and canny American entrepreneurialism.

Cuddihy doesn't lack hefty political guests, but the interviews don't spark into life or yield agenda-setting moments the way his Newstalk colleague Pat Kenny's encounters regularly do

It’s diverting fare, though it rather misses the point. After all, it’s not a ceremonial rodent’s meteorological ability that makes Groundhog Day now seem so resonant but the film’s premise of an unchanging quotidian existence.

If Cuddihy feels like he’s stuck on a hamster wheel of his own, however, he doesn’t show it. Since he took over the drivetime slot, Cuddihy has approached his role with energy and application. But, much like his Groundhog Day discussion, his show doesn’t quite hit the mark.

There’s no single reason for this, no glaring flaw. Cuddihy doesn’t lack hefty political guests, with Minister for Environment Eamon Ryan and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe appearing on successive days. But while the presenter asks detailed questions, and spars with Donohoe in particular, the interviews don’t really spark into life or yield agenda-setting moments in the way that his Newstalk colleague Pat Kenny’s encounters regularly do.

Cuddihy has more success with other subjects. He sounds a curious note as John Kelleher enlightens him (and this listener) about the life of the recently deceased stunt driver Rémy Julienne, and exudes a jaunty ease when dealing with pop culture in general. (His zealous belief in the perfection of the fighter jock film Top Gun is alarming, however.) But with the lighter elements more effective than newsier items, Cuddihy's show sometimes sounds slightly lost, unsure whether it's a heavy-hitting news programme or a broad-based magazine.

To be fair, there was a fair bit of filler when his predecessor Ivan Yates helmed The Hard Shoulder, but Cuddihy has yet to stamp his identity on the show to the point that such lacunae matter less. And while retaining the slot's old name may have bequeathed him a proven brand, it has also lumbered him with an ill-suiting formula.

Crucially, Cuddihy can handle sensitive subjects effectively, as during Wednesday's poignant conversation with Lynsey Bennett

Cuddihy gamely continues the tradition of voicing his personal opinions, but whereas Yates’s “rants” came across as pent-up bugbears from his life in politics and business, the current host sounds less authentically splenetic. This is not a bad thing, but the format should play to his strengths, not those of the previous incumbent.

There are grounds for optimism, however. Crucially, Cuddihy can handle sensitive subjects effectively, as during Wednesday's poignant conversation with Lynsey Bennett, the seriously ill young mother who this week settled her case against the HSE over cancer screening. Bennett recalls being diagnosed with cervical cancer after her smear tests came back clear, and outlines her difficult path since: "My body is a wreck from all the treatment."

But Bennett doesn’t dwell on the apparent lapses that landed her here. “I’m not generally an angry person,” she says. Instead she concentrates on the financial security now provided for her family: “All the fighting for my girls was worthwhile.”

Cuddihy largely hangs back, allowing his guest to tell her story with bracing frankness. When she talks about farewell videos for her daughters, the host is winded: “How do you go about making a goodbye video for your children?” Bennett’s emotional resilience is deeply affecting, as well as providing perspective.

“To think I’m giving out about homeschooling,” says Cuddihy, palpably moved. Doing the same thing every day suddenly sounds okay.

Over on Newstalk Breakfast, the advent of Groundhog Day sees Shane Coleman and his copresenter, Ciara Kelly, sharing tips on "breaking the tedium", with indoor beach volleyball apparently a big favourite in the Coleman household. Such larks aside, the pair continue to prove a deft partnership, confidently covering the news in an unbuttoned but informed manner.

Coleman gets exercised when Peadar Tóibín, the Aontú TD, suggests that Dáil deputies take a 25 per cent pay cut, characterising the proposal as cheap populism

On Wednesday, as the real-life recurring bad dream of Brexit dovetails with the seemingly immutable divisions in the North, Coleman talks to Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney about the problems surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol, not least safety fears for officials checking goods from Britain.

Though Coveney’s tone is level-headed – getting rid of the protocol is unrealistic, he says – he cannot hide his exasperation with the DUP’s opposition to legally agreed treaty obligations: “Not for the first time, the DUP are outlining problems but no solutions.” The Minister is ostensibly reassuring, but the overriding impression is of common sense upended by disruptive forces: in this case it’s the opportunistic cynicism of Brexiteers, but it could equally be an unforgiving pandemic.

Coveney’s frustration chimes with the show’s default tenor. The two anchors create an easy atmosphere, from Kelly wearing her medical background lightly when interviewing the immunologist Dr Kingston Mills to Coleman conversing with his former cohost Paul Williams about gangland influence on boxing.

But they are alarmed about the erosion of pragmatism and reason in public life. Coleman gets exercised when Peadar Tóibín, the Aontú TD, suggests that Dáil deputies take a 25 per cent pay cut, characterising the proposal as cheap populism. He’s similarly dismissive about opposition to Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s mooted White House visit on St Patrick’s Day.

With the internet (and American airwaves) awash with angry conspiracists, there’s something refreshing about two presenters being so passionate in their defence of rationality and facts, even if such vocal reasonableness can also sound like defending the establishment. Either way, Coleman and Kelly’s approach works: their show has an appealing cohesion and purpose. Some people are happy with things as they are.

Moment of the Week

On Wednesday's Ray D'Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1), the host reminds listeners that before Covid there was Aids, a virus that killed millions while wider society looked on. Senator David Norris and the activist Tonie Walsh recall how Aids devastated the Irish gay community (as well as intravenous drug users) in the 1980s, to general indifference or prejudice.

“It came tainted with this perfect conflation of criminality, transgression, taboo and marginalisation,” says Walsh, who quotes the startling statistic that Aids has killed nearly 30 million people.

It’s illuminating and moving, as D’Arcy’s guests mourn friends who died, and assess the disease’s long term impact. “I marvel how Aids changed us. It taught us something about care and compassion,” says Walsh, drawing parallels with the current pandemic: “Aids doesn’t discriminate, much like Covid.”