Eoin Ó Broin’s day as a Newstalk presenter sees an elephant in the studio

Radio: The Sinn Féin TD and Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty are easy and engaging presenters

Politics was always going to be the elephant in the studio when Newstalk asked the Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin and the Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty to stand in as presenters on the station’s drive-time programme, The Hard Shoulder. It’s easy to see what’s in it for the politicians; it must be hard to resist the exposure of three hours of unfettered airtime. Also, as part of their job involves being able to talk for Ireland, and to be interested, if only briefly, in just about anything or anyone, the radio nixer should be no bother.

And so it proves. Both Ó Broin, on Tuesday, and Doherty, on Wednesday, are easy and engaging presenters, the Sinn Féin TD more relaxed than we usually hear him, softening up those hard Ts and ditching the didactic pacing that’s his usual delivery style.

The first item on Tuesday’s programme quickly gets to the crux of the elephantine problem of a politician being on the wrong side of the mic on a current-affairs programme.

Climate change and how we can reduce emissions is the subject — good contributors, a lively and informative feature, well handled by the host — but as it ends he reads a text from a listener pointing out the neck of Ó Broin hosting the subject on air when Sinn Féin had sat on the sidelines last week while the Coalition partners sweated it out over an agricultural-emissions deal: “Your party showed no interest or leadership in getting agreement.”

In response Ó Broin says, “I’m under strict instructions not to use this as a party political broadcast,” which should have been the end of that. But then he gives his party’s line on climate change, ending with the election-poster-worthy slogan “Making Ireland a better place for everyone.”

The first item in the second hour is the housing crisis. As Ó Broin is Sinn Féin spokesman on housing you might have expected that would have been off the table when the show’s agenda was being set. His guest, Mike Allen, of the homeless charity Focus Ireland, puts forward ideas for keeping landlords in the rental sector, notes the severe difficulties with the housing-assistance programme and mentions there are some positive Government initiatives in housing — but he isn’t asked to elaborate on what they are.

A contributor from Finland talks about how that country solved its homeless crisis — by the public sector building houses — which prompts a listener to text in wondering about high income-tax levels on low- and middle-income earners in Finland. “Our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough tax revenue,” says Ó Broin, on party message, “but we’re not necessarily spending the money that we have in the most effective way.”

Stand-in presenters — and reviewers — are the norm at this time of year, but on Monday RTÉ goes several steps further by clearing the Radio 1 schedule because, as presenters throughout the day never tire of reminding us, it’s a bank holiday. It’s a move that feels like a throwback, a nod to old-school nine-to-five Civil Service ways of working rather than the message of a dynamic, always-on 21st-century media organisation.

It happens on other bank holidays too, and, as we have more of them than we have national banks, the clearing of the decks for a rattlebag of programming with the stars apparently on a day off — it’s a bank holiday! — comes around regularly.

Maybe RTÉ presumes all its listeners are en fete and shouldn’t be burdened with anything too taxing. But for hundreds of thousand of workers — not least the essential workers we bigged up during the pandemic — and those with caring responsibilities in the home, it’s just another day. Well, too bad if they want their regular programming or even their usual diet of news and analysis. Even Morning Ireland is reduced by half and News at One shortened.

And those listeners who have the day off and who find themselves able to listen to the radio during the day might like to hear what, say, Liveline, which they undoubtedly hear so much about, is like live. Isn’t that one way new listeners might be recruited? Instead it’s a mostly music schedule that includes two song-request shows — two hours in the morning of Ronan Collins, with his roundy birthdays, wedding anniversaries and oldies-but-goldies music, then Neil Doherty, “with some holiday airs”, for an hour in the afternoon — a show about Paul McCartney presented by Paul Muldoon, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and Mise Freshin’, an off-puttingly titled offering that turns out to be a superbly produced but fairly niche music programme borrowed from elsewhere in the station’s regular schedule. But that’s five hours of music in the working day on a station that listeners go to for talk — any amount of music is on offer farther up the dial.

The supersub Marty Morrissey covers two hours of the morning, the first of which is a surface dash through the news of the day. “Thanks for joining me on a bank-holiday Monday. I know it’s not easy,” he says to his guests, as if he’s asked them to join him for a bit of coal mining, and an interview with a woman who wrote a book about etiquette. It so mirrors the usual items in the time slot, on Ryan Tubridy’s show, that it swiftly undermines the idea that the day’s schedule has been cleared to make way for something excitingly new.

The time to fill does have an upside, though, and it’s the nearly an hour given to an interview with four of our top sportswomen, Stephanie Roche, Lindsay Peat, Nora Stapleton and Ursula Jacob. There’s nothing like listening to genuine experts, passionate about their subject. The talk ranges wide, including how to get girls playing sport and then keeping them involved, the online abuse experienced by the women in their postplaying roles as TV pundits (savage and relentless), and the skills and coaching improvements in women’s sport. A sports expert himself, Morrissey is at all times genuinely interested in the answers to the questions he’s asking and willing to learn from his guests. For a listener, that’s an appealing mix.

Radio Moment of the Week

An interview worth playing back is the award-winning author Anne Enright on Second Captains (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). When approached to appear on a sports-themed show that, away from the interviews, is heavy on the blokey banter, she had replied: “The thing is, I hate sport. I don’t mind it, but I don’t watch it ... I don’t even have a telly.” Good that they persuaded her, though, as this show succeeds on the strength of its guests, and she is (no great surprise) a brilliant storyteller, generous with her anecdotes, taking listeners off on all sorts of unexpected tangents, from the gendered view of Dryrobes to Clare GAA.

Bernice Harrison

Bernice Harrison

Bernice Harrison is an Irish Times journalist