The west's awake, and Hector doesn't let you forget it


RADIO:Ó hEochagáin pumps city-country divide for all its zany worth with Dubs versus the rest quiz

Last Wednesday, lest you missed it, was World Radio Day, and RTÉ Radio 1 marked it with day-long celebratory inserts by personalities, most of whom you might even have heard of. The singer-songwriter John Spillane marvelled at radio’s ability to take listeners on a “magic carpet ride” to “distant towns and cities”, while Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte praised its superiority at teasing out debate.

But even as radio’s internationalist, socially responsible virtues were being trumpeted, Hector Ó hEochagáin was peddling an altogether different vision of the medium, with parochial concerns and trifling bagatelles the stock in trade of Breakfast with Hector (2FM, weekdays). Broadcasting from Galway – a fact he mentions almost as often as he does his hailing from Navan – Ó hEochagáin has long played up his nonmetropolitan origins as a canny branding strategy, cementing the ratings for his morning slot along the way.

On Wednesday, the presenter, in blatant contravention of the UN’s radio mandate of togetherness and harmony, delighted in exploiting local divisions with his Dubs Versus the Rest of the Country quiz. This week, a Waterford-based Dubliner called Mel was the game’s reigning champion, much to Ó hEochagáin’s theatrically expressed dismay.

When a Mayo-born contestant, Elaine, conceded she had visited the capital a couple of times, the host retorted that “once or twice is enough”. His forays into diverting factoids were similarly rooted in the rural-urban divide. Dave, an exiled Dubliner, phoned in to explain the origin of the terms jackeen and culchie, prompting a rare moment of reflection from Ó hEochagain.

He had refrained from using the word culchie when naming his quiz, he said, in order to be “politically correct and to embrace our northern brothers and sisters”.

In the end, it hardly matters that the content is so whimsical and repetitive. The show’s appeal – or lack thereof – resides in Ó hEochagáin’s personality.

If one can get over his proprietary attitude to his audience (“my soldiers of the dawn”) his hyperactive demeanour can be a welcome antidote to the national gloom. Relentlessly upbeat, he is adept at creating a zippy rapport with his callers, imbuing flimsy topics such as disastrous Valentine’s Day dinners with an infectious air.

An occasional nod to the light and shade of life’s rich pageant wouldn’t go amiss, however. Ó hEochagáin’s show is less like taking a magic carpet ride than hitching a high-speed lift through potholed backroads with a slightly delusional local.

More civic-minded radio was to be found in the nocturnal hours. The Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) has long been home to the kind of informed discussion so cherished by the likes of Rabbitte, but, as Tuesday’s edition proved, it can also deliver startling revelations.

Dr Katherine O’Donnell, who collected survivors’ stories on behalf of the Justice for Magdalenes campaign, told its presenter, Audrey Carville, that 800 pages of written testimony had effectively been omitted from Senator Martin McAleese’s report on the Catholic Church-run laundries.

Other than a few quotes, O’Donnell said, most of the material had been “disregarded”, particularly in regard to working conditions in the institutions. She contrasted this with the written evidence of nuns, included in the report “on face value”, leading to a “skewed picture” of life in the laundries.

Calm in voice, Carville knew how to ramp up the atmosphere. “Nowhere in the report does McAleese say that what the women told him was true,” the host remarked to O’Donnell. “Would you expect that?”

“I expected he would have honoured their stories,” replied O’Donnell.

The discussion eschewed emotional exchanges for considered debate that opened up the issue. The Labour TD Ciarán Lynch said that while the report did not consider some of the nun’s nonphysical punishments abusive, such behaviour would be classified as abuse under current legislation. For all its reasoned tone, The Late Debate had more surprise and impact than many of its noisier daytime counterparts.

Outre topics do not in themselves deliver great radio, as shown by Paddy O’Gorman’s report on prostitution in Dublin on Monday’s Today With Pat Kenny (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). O’Gorman spoke to a prostitute whom he characterised as a “professional”, in that she was not a drug addict, justifying the interview on the basis that such voices needed to be heard in any debate on issue. But the item still had a troubling, even voyeuristic quality.

O’Gorman’s questioning veered between the prurient – “Would the men ask you for strange things?” – to the ickily personal: “I’m presuming you’re not married. You would have made a man happy.” It turned out she once had a boyfriend who was unaware of her profession: had he known, she casually said, “he would have cut my bloody throat”.

The prostitute did not see herself as a victim – her motivation was mainly monetary, adding that she liked sex – which made it her choice as subject seem the more disturbing.

However unintentionally, O’Gorman presented a skewed, airbrushed picture of prostitution in Ireland. Radio remains a powerful medium. It needs to be handled with care.

Moment of the week: Love is on the air

St Valentine’s Day had listeners to The Ian Dempsey Show (Today FM, weekdays) suggesting suitable songs for the presenter to play, but proceedings were not as trite as feared. Dempsey, whose enthusiasm for music remains obvious, read out a request from one listener.

“He says this is a real love song – and you know what? I agree with him,” said Dempsey, before playing the Undertones’ pop-punk classic Teenage Kicks. You don’t have to be soppy to be romantic.

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