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Claire Byrne seems stuck in neutral. Her show needs a kick-start

Radio: The Today host’s calm and professional approach is very admirable but an airless atmosphere often pervades the programme

On Wednesday, as Claire Byrne listens to celebrity chef Neven Maguire describe a recipe for honey and soy salmon, her mind is clearly elsewhere: namely, her kitchen at dinnertime. Byrne appreciatively informs her guest that she’ll be cooking the fish dish later that evening, but will leave out spicy ingredients such as chilis, as a concession to her children’s taste buds. Nice as it is to hear the host in easy-going form, it somehow seems fitting that she omits heat from her fare: her show (Today with Claire Byrne, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) lacks a bit of kick too.

For sure, Byrne’s daily menu of current affairs is reliably well prepared and substantial, but could do with more zing to enliven the palate. Her foodie chat with Maguire and fellow chef Brian McDermott is as zippy as things get. For the most part, Byrne runs a tight ship, methodically eliciting information from her guests while maintaining a scrupulously balanced approach. But while there’s no doubting her ability to draw out the essential facts of a story, an airless atmosphere often pervades the programme.

Tuesday’s discussion on how beer companies use non-alcoholic variants to circumvent advertising restrictions certainly draws attention to a thorny subject, the enduring hold of drink brands on sports sponsorship. But while the host hears opposing views from Cormac Healy of Drinks Ireland and Sheila Gilheany of Alcohol Action Ireland, the item never catches fire.

Byrne allows one guest say their piece, then repurposes their contribution as a question for the next speaker; quizzing Healy, she repeats Gilheany’s assertion that ads for 0.0 beers are a cynical way of getting branding into otherwise off-limit areas like rugby pitches. “We are now providing consumers with choice,” Healy replies, rather glibly, but without rejoinder from his host. Monday’s item on another charged issue – neutrality – goes much the same way, with Byrne keeping the differing takes of Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless and Sinn Féin TD John Brady largely demarcated, rather than letting them engage directly with each other. The end result is more like an election debate than a discussion of a vital topic.


To criticise Byrne for her controlled style is perhaps unfair. In an era of fractious political division and misinformation, her cool devotion to factual clarity is a vital asset. Moreover, her unruffled professionalism is understandable given the barbs and barriers that women broadcasters regularly encounter: where their male peers are dubbed forceful or confident when they assert themselves, women still are characterised as shrill or feisty if they do the same.

It’s not as if Byrne wants for decent material. Her item on the obstacles faced by learner drivers, from backlogs for tests and NCT delays, to prohibitive insurance costs, isn’t just instructive. It’s also a dispiriting snapshot of a wider trait in Irish life, where interlocking yet preventable shortfalls create intractable problems. See also the homelessness emergency. On that subject, Byrne hears trenchant analysis on why small landlords are exiting the market: “It’s not a very attractive economic activity,” says DCU’s Tony Foley. Meanwhile, she strikes a rapport with former Progressive Democrats minister Liz O’Donnell, discussing – among other things – the misogyny her guest faced from some during the Belfast Agreement negotiations. It’s an absorbing interview, relaxed without sacrificing any substance.

Too often, however, the host seems stuck in neutral, as if going up a couple of gears might erode her on-air authority. In her well-drilled yet slightly guarded approach, she occasionally recalls her sometime predecessor and current midmorning rival, Pat Kenny, albeit without his propensity for cringe-inducing implosion, which at least adds an element of unpredictability. While no one expects Byrne to drop the modus operandi that has served her well – the Today slot calls for some gravitas, after all – she might consider adding a bit more spice to proceedings, lest things get too bland.

It’s hard to imagine Kieran Cuddihy ever keeping his opinions to himself, but the exuberantly vocal host of The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays) hears a robust defence of the impartial ethos that Byrne embodies. Broadcasting his show from Boston on Wednesday, Cuddihy talks to former RTÉ newsreader Eileen Dunne, who recalls her time covering the Belfast Agreement. (She is in the US for events marking the 25th anniversary of the accord.) Asked if it was difficult to remain dispassionate amid the emotion of the occasion, Dunne is unequivocal. “You should never know how I feel about the news I’m reading,” she says, adding she is worried about the way journalism is going in the social media era. One suspects Dunne would approve of Byrne’s manner.

Cuddihy, in turn, enthuses about his conversation with his guest. Indeed, he enthuses about pretty much everything around him. Talking fondly about Boston’s topography, he sounds less like a broadcaster than a holidaymaker revisiting a favourite spot.

But if the trip is a jolly for him, Cuddihy also hears vivid accounts of one of the city’s darkest episodes. To mark 10 years since the Boston marathon bombing, which killed three and injured hundreds, the host talks to surgeon Dr David King, an army veteran who ran the race that day before going on to operate on victims of the atrocity. He also hears from David Fortier, who was injured by shrapnel as he crossed the finish line.

Both guests praise the solidarity, selflessness and astonishing efforts of citizens and first responders in the bomb’s aftermath. But what is particularly striking is Fortier’s glowing description of the hours before the bombing: “It was a beautiful day for a run,” he says, “A really good experience until the end.” Horrors can befall anyone, nothing is preordained.

Cuddihy handles his guests deftly, his easy-going curiosity encouraging them to tell their stories. Flexibility always when the goal is quietly gripping, unexpectedly inspiring radio.