Monday, May 29, 2006

Radio Gaga Part II

I begin with an apology to Omani and a ‘plague on both your houses’ to Ana Leddy, the Head of RTE Radio One. Some months ago, I began the Blankpaige ultimate radio selection guide. In my view, radio is most certainly a ‘hot’ medium. It just grabs and holds your attention in a way that television never could command. I’m fortunate enough in my work to be on the road a lot and so I get to hear a lot of radio. A Radio Guide would be a sure fire winner, I thought and would stave off the dreaded blogger’s block.

I did my first piece on the morning slot and, if I might be so bold, navigated my way through the choppy waters of programme selection quite well. A few bloggers told me that they liked the cut of my jib and some even altered their listening habits. Emboldened by the ease with which I could knock out a blog post, I performed a similar careful appraisal of the drive time slot. This one, I would hold back until my demanding public could take it no more. Okay, until Omani asked for it. And I was all set to unleash my analysis when what happens but RTE panic and launch their whole new scheduling masterpiece.

The conventional wisdom is that radio is becoming more and more personality driven and none more so than the drive time slot between 5 – 7pm. RTE Radio 1 allow Rachel English and the 5-7 Live team to take you home. Rachel is an excellent broadcaster. Confident, composed and articulate, she has a brilliant radio voice and is very knowledgeable. She has a nice sense of self-deprecating humour and puts her guests at ease. The emergence of her father as a betting pundit by proxy is a testament to the on-air rapport she has developed with her sports reporter buddies. Her only problem is the programme format manacles that her employers insist on shackling her with.

Today FM lead the competitive charge with the redoubtable Matt Cooper, who after a nervous start replacing Eamonn Dunphy, has grown into his own. He still has a tendency to get too caught up in arguments (believing his own opinion of the discussion subject as always worthy of an airing) and tries to elevate minor differences of opinion into fundamental ideological schisms. Nevertheless, Cooper regularly gets the best discussions and there is never enough traffic on the M50 when he is on form. George Hook (Newstalk 106) is everything that Rachel English is not and takes some of Cooper’s worst traits. He mangles the English language, often takes longer asking the question than he gives his guest to answer and constantly cuts across responses with some apparent non sequitur. Yet for all this, he consistently produces compelling radio. His Thursday interviews are a joy to behold.

You really don’t need to worry about RTE 2FM as they seem to use the drive time slot as punishment for their most incompetent or misbehaved broadcasters. Lyric FM produce another fine programme at this slot but really now is the time of the day when you want challenging debate not Mahler’s unfinished tenth symphony. If you are Dublin-based, the brilliant DCAL (Dublin City/Anna Livia) is well worth an occasional blast. Broadcast from the Road Traffic Bureau, their Live Drive programme provides the most impressive and accurate road traffic news interspersed with the most fantastically eclectic music selection.

Both Newstalk and Today FM have brought forward the start of their programmes in some pathetic attempt at stealing a march on RTE. Both stations seem to forget that the drive time slot is called that because it signals the start of the evening rush. Flexitime hasn’t become so widespread that large numbers of people are able to leave the office by 4:30pm particularly given the delays at the beginning of the day.

However, it is the format differences that are most noteworthy. RTE bookends the working day with two broadly similar programme formats. News- and current affairs-heavy, all topics are dispatched after 5 – 7 minutes of discussion. The confrontation which is the order of the day in Moaning Ireland is replaced with a discernible distain in the evening. There is no doubt but Moaning Ireland is unrivalled in the morning. But what RTE fail to notice is that for all our cantankerous ways, Irish people generally don’t like an argument first thing in the morning. For this reason, Today FM wisely steer well clear of current affairs and offer the harmless light-hearted Ian Dempsey to ease us into the day. Each subsequent Today FM presenter becomes slightly more edgy until we’ve been warmed up nicely for The Last Moan with Matt in the evening. Newstalk haven’t done this math either and put on Eamonn Dunphy in an attempt to best RTE at the serious news stuff.

It is in the drive time slot that both Today FM and Newstalk up the ante. Both stations understand that we’ve had a hard day and so are now sufficiently awake to sustain our attention on discussions over 20 minutes and longer. Both cut loose and allow the conversation to flow. Meanwhile, Rachel battles on bravely through interruptions for farm news (could this not be broadcast to the six big farmers on the am band?), business and sport, she fights a loosing battle. The way in which she has to concede the microphone to the various specialist journalists who then conduct their own interviews particularly undermines the programme.

Had RTE adopted the BBC 5 Live drive time format that allows a single main anchor, Rachel English would blow both Cooper and Hook out of the water. You see the conventional wisdom is wrong. Radio is not becoming (any more) personality driven. Radio always is personality-driven. It’s just that it is personality- not celebrity-driven. The medium is powerful enough to convey the personality provided it is not constrained by a broadcasting format that has more to do with keeping contract employees engaged than with public service.

This post is now far too long. So I’ll hold fire on the ludicrous axing of the brilliant Rattlebag (instead of broadcasting it at a time when people who work for a living can hear it).


Blogger Omaniblog said...

Well. I can't wait for your book of the topic. I love radio so much, almost as much as the sound of you writing about it. Thankfully I can see that you have several more posts to go to fulfill the promise of post number 1 on this.
One technicality: and I hope I'm not wrong on this - R5Live has a pair of presenters (Rachel Burden & Peter Allen) for their "Five Live Drive" drivetime slot. They work incredibly well together. Peter Allen is the most lovely man to work with. It's Eddie Mair on R4 that runs the 1700 show single handedly.
I'm struck by your view that Irish people don't want to start their day with heavy combative stuff. It's the same in the UK. Terry Wogan has an awesome listenership and he keeps it brilliantly light. But R4 specialises in serious stuff with heavy interviews, especially around 0810. Those interviews are public service broadcasting at its best, I think. Humphreys versus whoever. Used to be Brian Redhead versus... Those interviews set or establish a platform for political discourse throughout the day. I don't think it matters that they are minority feast. The important thing is that they happen and they do expose politicians to proper questionning. I find the Irish RTE 'heavy' interviews light in comparison. They get away with murder, the politicians. You need extraordinary calibre and intellectual acuity to be good at interviewing a politician who comes on to spin the government's (or opposition's) message.
We must discuss the demise of Rattlebag. Of course, it was on at the wrong time. The timing disenfranchised so many culturally literate listeners. The BBC R4 programme at 1920 Mon-Fri, just after The Archers, is in the right spot. So why not simply move Rattlebag?
I notice that the presenter of Rattlebag was due some sort of sabatical to go do reseach somewhere. He comment after the news broke may have been misquoted. He said that he would be interested to see what job RTE had coming up for him. That's it. No trace of indignation. No defence of the programme. No pride on display. I hope I'm wronging him but I got the impression that he was only thinking about himself and his career. If that's so, it smacks of lack of integrity, in my book. Great programmes attract and build loyalty. People adjust their lives around them. Listeners look to great programmes for their education as well as their entertainment. They imagine that the presenters of great programmes are motivated by a sense of responsibility for contributing to the quality of national culture. That's why certain programmes acquire the characteristic of being 'jewels'. Rattlebag is just what you need to educate yourself, broaden your mind and love culture. So far, the new programme promised in its place looks like a dumbed down shadow. I hope there are plans for RTE radio to have a quality arts programme on every early evening.
Thank you ever so much for writing such a substantial piece about Irish radio. I hope others chip in with similarly long views.

2:14 p.m., May 29, 2006  
Blogger Cian said...

I thought i knew and loved radio until i read the two of you. I just had to commend your inclusion of DCAL live drive. Great show to flick over to for five or ten minutes.

THe Today interviews are indeed the best in the business, the whole of bbc, sky and news coverage in general takes its lead from the Today programme.

In contrast we have a morning Ireland taking its lead from the papers and (mostly) yesterdays news. The news generation is done elsewhere and covered by Sean O Rourke (pound for pound RTEs best broadcaster imho).

Radio 1 with the axing of rattlebag seem to have answered decisively whether they were going to commit to commerce or public service broadcasting with Newstalk going national.

Finally, I can hardly take George Hook for one reason, he is nearly always underinformed about the current affairs topics. Frustrating because you feel he could be so much better. His rugby show with popey? Class.

1:55 a.m., May 30, 2006  
Blogger Omaniblog said...

Thank you for "Sean O Rourke". Who's he? You can see my level of ignorance and dependence on good recommendation.
Rattlebag: I see today's Irish Times give prime location to "Re shuffle on RTE 1" - with 5 letters. I must check some other papers.
Could we be in for a campaign for the defence of Rattlebag? I certainly hope so.
John White writes in his letter: "If BBC tried to scrap its equivalent Front Row there would be blue bloody murder..." He's right I think. But the idea of the BBC scrapping Front Row is so unthinkable that I can't imagine what kind of a murder it would be.
Let's be devious: Ana Leddy is 100% in favour of Rattlebag and wants to drum up public awareness of its value. So she adopts this plan to provoke and galvinise support for her favourite...
It'll be interesting to see how much cultural and creative backbone modern Ireland possesses.

3:24 p.m., May 30, 2006  
Blogger Paige A Harrison said...

Thanks guys for excellent observations. Rarely has any of my posts elicited such considered comments.

It's been a while since I checked out R5Live but I was thinking about the format - allowing more time per discussion item - rather than the number of presenters. Of course the BBC has sufficient resource and population numbers to run several stations. But I thin RTE could use their AM/FM band split more to their advantage especially in those talk-base programmes that don't demand hi fidelity. (e.g. Run the Farm report on AM band and Business news on FM simultaneously).

I think Myles Dungan was actually being very diplomatic and showed great generosity to RTE by floating the sabbatical reason. He is the cultural heavyweight within the RTE stable. (Omani, you might know him in his television golf coverage guise as he's a bit of a golf nutter). It's a great shame that he was broadcast at such a stupid hour.

I would love to think that Ana is showing some machievellian traits and actually supports Rattlebag's retention. I suspect she's just another media souffle who doesn't even come close to comprehending what a crown jewel she has. (RTE seem to shoot themselves in the foot regularly in this regard. After poaching John Kelly (an excellent broadcaster) from Today FM, they have messed him around unforgiveable. The irony is that as a result of that predatory move by RTE, Today FM found an even better replacement in Tom Dunne.

Cian's observation is correct. Sean O'Rourke would give any of the BBC political commentators a run for their money. In fact, I think Rachel English would also. I've no doubt Mary Wilson who takes over, will do as good a job with a still crap format. And while it's no harm changing the presenter, the format is crying out to be changed!

Finally, I cna't decide it George Hook is incredibly uninformed or if he is deliberately playing the "I'm a simple man how would I know" routine. This is probably what I thinks makes him endearing. He's not claiming to be the "more knowledgeable than thou" presenter.

7:35 p.m., May 30, 2006  
Blogger Omaniblog said...

That's a great idea: RTE should use the AM/FM resource better. In BBC, R4 moves between Long Wave and FM with ease. This enable the cricket ball-by-ball commentaries, and other specialist needs, to be broadcast.
We must stick to the view that it is all about quality not size, I feel. It isn't the size of the BBC that makes it great; it is its dedication to quality that marks its radio out as extraordinary. It has a huge challenge to measure up to. Such a diverse population to serve, and such competition.
I think there is a case to be made for establishing a radio station on which all the minority languagues (Polish, French, Irish...) can be catered for. You could have the day punctuated by Polish hour, Irish hour, Chinese hour. These would be top quality discussion, drama, music & sport in the vernacular. Much better than ignoring all minority languages but Irish and spreading the wafer so thinly that no one tastes the quality. What do you think? I imagine it running all 24 hours and including lots of educational stuff which people could download during the night. There should be someone in RTE who'd fancy a position on the Board in charge of that little empire.

I hope you're right about "Myles Dungan was actually being very diplomatic and showed great generosity to RTE..." Time will reveal all. Hopefully he is working behind the scenes, working for the Return of Rattlebag. If he has given up the ghost, he'll lose my respect because it is no good being "the cultural heavyweight" if you aren't going to defend culture with your weight.

I wish I could work out George Hook for you. I too am puzzled. He chashes into my antennae, fullblown, as if he's been born with a fabulous mouth, an accent with real cut-through. I'll see what I can pick up around the dinner party circuit.

He's such a showman. And he has timing. And he can behave as if he were a huge joke. I don't think you develop that by accident: there is serious skill behind the front. I do wish I could hear him in the kitchen because I don't find the radio half as good when it's on the laptop.

I must tell you about a coincidence yesterday: I wrote a letter to Madame La Irish Times. Hours later, without any contact between us, I get an email from the sister, a copy of a letter she wrote to Ana Leddy, yesterday - another Rattlebag letter. The sister knows what it's like from the artist's point of view: she's a serious painter, teaching young painters at third level, doing her PhD and preparing another exhibition.

Following this I am going to get the Mother involved.

10:19 a.m., May 31, 2006  
Blogger Omaniblog said...

I'm not sure if it's a good idea to add this comment here so many days after the main flurry. But no matter.

I've listened to "Front Row" while over in UK. It's such a different programme to "Rattlebag", even though it covers similar ground.

"Front Row" runs for 40 minutes and covers four x 10 minute pieces. Each section is full of energy and overall there is a wide variety of arts covered in each programme. (I'm inclined to say it's designed for 'activists'.)

There have been times when "Front Row" was devoted to one topic, like Alan Bennett's autobiography.

In contrast, "Rattlebag" is much slower in pace, covers one or two topics, and seems designed for 'reflectors')
I'm not saying one is better than the other; both are quality programmes.

At least a decent group of Irish artists wrote to The Irish Times in protest against these moves.

12:45 a.m., June 07, 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home