Sunday, 29 June 2014

Why RTE Radio 1 Is So Awful

I am a habitual, and at times avid, radio listener. I have no television.  I grew up without one, and while I've lived at certain phases of my life with a TV in my home, I am much happier without one.  Putting the matter baldly, on the basis of what I hear talked of, and from the occasional perusal of published schedules, I am fairly convinced that most TV is rubbish: the enormous amount of propaganda/tabloid news, endless sports coverage, live shows, game shows - all of this mulch seems to me to outweigh the good things on television: the occasional good investigative programme, the occasional good film, the occasional good wildlife or nature documentary.  My fear with TV is partly, of course, that it caters to my worst, laziest, most vulnerable susceptibilities - television catches its watcher at his weakest, demands his total attention, and wastes his time.  I would be worried if I had a television that I'd spend a lot of time watching precisely the garbage I have listed above, always in the endlessly-deferred hope that I might come upon an instance of the better programming content.  I'd never read anything again, and, the Lord knows, I am a slow enough, and inefficient enough, reader as things stand.

But I do listen to the radio. I have a radio in several rooms of my apartment.  I wake up with the radio.  I listen to it as I drive.  I cook or clean my flat (not frequently enough, admittedly)  to the strains of the radio.  At least I can do that.  Of course, it must be admitted immediately that I am still listening to a rather narrow range of channels, and I don't make much effort to discriminate or plan my listening.  So I mostly end up listening to daytime 'talk radio': here in Dublin, for me, this means RTE Radio 1, and Newstalk106.  It's about RTE Radio 1 that I wish to write here.

RTE is a small national broadcaster in a small country.  It has never adopted whole-heartedly the Reithian model of its huge and powerful neighbour and rival, the BBC.  I presume the assumption has always been made by Irish governments that the Irish population's license fee payments were never going to be enough to pay for the funding of an 'adequate' service on their own.  Consequently, RTE's radio and TV activities are funded by a mixture of the license fee, and advertising on both radio and television.  And consequently the chances of RTE ever finding space for a television channel like the old BBC 2 - which when I was a child in the Seventies was a by-word for good arts coverage, interesting film programming, thoughtful drama, and educational programming linked to the often-superb Open University - were always slim.  RTE does have a music station which might be said to model itself to some degree on BBC Radio 3, though one old friend has suggested that the apt comparison is to Classic FM.  This is RTE Lyric.  Lyric, however, suffers from some of the problems I am going to list in regard to RTE Radio 1 below.

RTE Radio 1 ought to be the Irish equivalent of BBC Radio 4, which must still be one of the best talk-radio stations in the world.  It's not that I believe everything that the BBC news services tell me: I don't, of course.   But Radio 4 makes great efforts to cover news issues with serious depth and sometimes with real rigour.  It features higher-brow discussion programmes covering the arts and the intellectual world, such as Andrew Marr's 'Start the Week', and Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time'.  It features a good deal of literature read on air, fiction or non-fiction.  It features regular drama, as well as its very own soap, the eternal Archers.  Unfortunately, running with the BBC analogy, RTE Radio 1 is more like an unhappy composite of BBC Radio 4 and Radio 2.  Even during the 'Tiger' years, when advertising funding was not hard to come by, RTE Radio 1 had become ever-more conservative, limited, homogenous, and the crash has only accentuated those tendencies.  I am going to proceed here through the elements of this radio station which I think are execrable.  Some of these will seem trivial: so be it.

RTE, as a colleague pointed out to me a few years ago, no longer makes radio programmes.  All radio is live, or is recorded and presented as if in one take.  The vast bulk of programming is in what I will call 'magazine' format, where there is a single anchor, who introduces topics, interviews persons who appear on the programme, and in a sense regulates the whole production, albeit with the unheard input of a producer.  Radio 1 starts off with an early morning light music programme, 'Risin' Time'.  That dropped 'g' is enough to wake me up shouting at the radio already.  Then we have a two hour news programme, Morning Ireland.  This is followed by John Murray's 'light' magazine, and then Sean O'Rourke's 'news' magazine.  Then we have another light music programme with Ronan Collins.  Then  we get one of the worst programmes in the entire schedule, Liveline, with Joe Duffy.  Last week, when airtravel to parts of Europe was affected by a strike by French air-traffic controllers, at least three days were given on this programme to various non-entities moaning and blathering about the immensity of their suffering while waiting two hours at Charles de Gaulle, all encouraged by the lugubrious Duffy, a bloated overpaid excuse for the popular touch. Then at 3pm, we have Derek Mooney's light afternoon magazine, given to hyperventilation about how one can win 'Mooney's Money', and, given  Mooney's background with a short and sweet nature programme some years ago, sometimes lightened by the adventures of an enterprising hedgehog or two.  Hedgehogs have more charisma than Mary Wilson, who presents Drivetime, a news magazine until 6.30.  We then have a sports magazine.  And then there follows an arts programme, Arena, presented by Sean Rocks, which gives every appearance of being a live magazine. This programme recently established its cultural credentials very firmly by reporting at some several minutes' length on the death of Peaches Geldof, an unhappy and uninteresting celebrity, while missing the death of Peter Matthiessen, a major American writer of the last 50 years.   At 8.30pm, we have a slightly more interesting light music programme, presented mostly by John Creedon.  At 10pm on 3 days a week in the political season (that is, when the Houses of the Oireachtas are in session), there is something called 'The Late Debate', which is always announced, portentously, as coming to us from 'RTE News and Current Affairs' - as if that made any difference.  In summertime, this slot is filled by repeats, when RTE joyfully tells us that we now have 'another chance to listen to' a programme we wish we'd never heard in the first place.  Then we get a late sports report, a reading from a book 'of the week', and we go to a late-night light music programme, presented on weekdays by Alf McCarthy, (possessor of one of the most grating accents, and one of the irritatingly ingratiating manners, on Irish radio) and on weekends, by Lillian Smyth.

And that's how it is, five days a week, Monday to Friday, every day.  Weekends are not much better; at this time of year, they are often worse.  Saturdays and Sundays start with a kind of graveyard shift, of programmes that might have some individual character but low listenership: a rural news magazine called 'Countrywide' on Saturday mornings, followed by a 'playback' selection of the week's listening (whose function seems mostly to be to display how uninteresting much of the week's broadcasting has been).  On Sunday mornings, we get a set of (actually pre-recorded) pieces, 'World Report' at 8am (the very location of this programme in the schedules is final confirmation, if any were needed, that RTE's news and cultural horizons are grossly foreshortened), followed at 8.30 by John Bowman's selection from RTE's archives, and then at 9am, 'Sunday Miscellany' - a venerable programme whose name goes to point up the  fact that the content of the entire schedule is eclectic to the point of incoherence.  On Saturdays at 10am, we get a business news magazine, 'The Business', now presented by Richard Curran.  On Sundays, we get a magazine/chat programme at that time presented by Miriam O'Callaghan.  At 11am on both Saturdays and Sundays, we get 'Marian Finucane', another live magazine, which covers both serious and trivial matters.  On Saturdays in the political season, we get 'Saturday with Claire Byrne', a roundtable discussion.   On Sundays, we get 'This Week', one of the better news programmes, with prerecorded interviews, and relatively in-depth treatment of news stories.   On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, we get long live sports coverage programmes.  Exorbitantly, on Saturdays in high summer when the GAA championships are in train, 'Saturday Sport' may run from 2pm until 9pm, blotting out much of one of the two remaining spaces for programmes of any particular character or slightly narrower interest.  For the fact is that it is only on Saturday and Sunday nights that one finds anything like 'niche' or properly interested specific radio programmes - coverage of books and book reviews, a programme on history, and Donncha O Dulaing's extraordinary time-warp programme from a pre-Lemass Ireland (I see now that O'Dulaing is not presenting his programme at the moment, and if he has quit altogether - he has been ill in recent times - an epoch will have passed in Irish broadcasting.  His programmes (most famously Highways and Byways, back in the 1970s) were notable chiefly for their attempts at audio-sepia, but he also has one of the nicest and most euphonious voices on Irish radio, and he'll be missed).  Other matters on Saturday and Sunday evenings include a programme specializing in live ceilidh music, RTE's one drama-per-week, and Philip King's excellent selection of popular and folk music, albeit presented in a rather ludicrously precious and hushed manner.  Such programmes all can be swept away, in the earlier part of Saturday evenings, by the apparently intensely-felt need for the entire nation to listen to some middle-grade football or hurling game.

And that's it.  There are many many faults with this set-up.  Where to begin?

When her weekend radio programmes were being instituted, I heard Marian Finucane saying on the radio that listeners had been saying that they wanted the weekends to be more like the weekdays, in regard to listening.  Well, these listeners must be happy in their benighted condition, because that is what they got.  RTE Radio 1 is characterised overall and specifically by an extraordinary blandness and homogeneity of style, tone, vocabulary, programming technique and structure, ideological positioning, cultural vision.  It is resolutely middle-brow, middle-of-the-road, inoffensive, largely uninteresting, unimaginative, without depth or heft, without context, mostly without thought.   It's like Weetabix - it fills up a lot of space but is almost weightless.   RTE Radio 1: Reader's Digest radio at its best or worst.

The sameness comes primarily from the magazine format.  The magazine format has certain advantages: it is flexible (it can cut to breaking news immediately), it is omniverous (it can tackle light and heavy issues).  But, being live, it is also constructed on the cusp of the moment, its time for preparation is minimal, its time for thought or the canvassing of a range of ideas or opinions is almost non-existent, and it seems to conduce to the production of 'stars' - 'Marian', 'Joe', 'Sean', 'Mooney', 'Gerry' and 'Gaybo'.  Even now, after the crash, these stars are mostly grossly over-paid - the idea that Joe Duffy is paid several hundred thousand euros per annum for his purportedly sympathetic grunts and moans down the phone to his interlocutors is peculiarly offensive.  Old age has revealed Gay Byrne to be a pompous and condescending stuffed shirt, and with the benefit of hindsight I can now see that, presenting the 'Late Late Show', he must have been one of the most conservative laureates of 'the Sixties' in any country anywhere.  Gerry Ryan was his successor, and his broadcasting persona - at once warm, funny, crass, capable of both delicate interview and rampaging vulgarity - was only matched in its homologous relationship to the excesses of Celtic Tiger Ireland by the ghastly manner of the unfortunate man's sudden end.

The extraordinarily narrow range of opinion on RTE Radio 1 is most obvious on programmes like Marian Finucane's Sunday morning discussion of the newspapers.  Apart from the fact that creating a programme which is largely parasitic on another media form is itself indicative of the braindead nature of RTE broadcasting, one notes the same people turning up again, and again, and again.  Figures such as the Russian neoliberal economist, Constantin Gurdjiev, or Ken Murphy of the Law Society, or David Horgan of Petrol Resources could make a living from whatever their fees from RTE are, alone.  The typical selection of people consists of a Gurdjiev or Horgan, a political correspondent, a TD (sometimes a Minister), and one other person who may be well-known from some civil society activity.  And this pattern of selection will appear on other programmes: on Sean O'Rourke's 'Gathering' on Fridays (now apparently an institution in itself and referred to as if with a capital 'g'), on 'Saturday with Claire Byrne' and on 'The Late Debate' - same people, same kinds of people, same pattern, perennially the same discussion.

One's discontent with this format is only enhanced when one realises that a great deal of the discussion that takes place is essentially ill-informed or only partially-informed bar-stool banter.  Ludicrous ideologues such as former Fine Gael Wicklow councilor Susan Philips, who has made a whole new career out of Islamophobia and wannabe-neoconservative attitudinizing, or Hazhir Teimourian, a Kurdish journalist of perfervidly pro-Western tendencies, are brought blandly onto RTE Radio 1 as 'Middle East experts', without a scintilla of critical inspection.  Or we often get Declan Power, a deeply conservative 'security analyist', whose background is never given but whose opinions are accepted by RTE anchors with dumbstruck deference.  The idea that these programmes lead to great rigour of discussion and penetrating insight - if it applies in RTE's thinking at all - is sadly mistaken.

But the extraordinary centrism of opinion is also evident.  Leftwing voices get very little space.  Admittedly, Ireland does not have that many leftwing journalists or academics, but a few exist: they are canvassed for opinion on such programmes only infrequently.  This is most evident in the way that economists working for companies or corporations working in the financial sector - Jim Power, of FriendsFirst is a good example - are wheeled on for commentary, without much thought that their ideas might come with a particular angle. This paucity of properly radical or imaginative economic analysis on RTE means that the station did not cover itself in any great interpretative glory during the financial crash.  Individual figures such as George Lee were well aware of the problems in the Irish economy and in the state's finances, and issued warnings, but would never have offered an analysis or policy prognosis other than that of austerity.  This means that RTE is mostly a vehicle for versions of neoliberal TINAism - 'There is no alternative'.  There's none coming out of Montrose, to be sure, but then one remembers that RTE tends to think that south Dublin is the centre of the universe.

The sheer vapidity of much of this programming is evident in much more trivial ways, also.  The poverty of thought in regard to programme names, for example: 'The John Murray Show', 'The Ronan Collins Show', 'The Mooney Show', 'The Book Show', 'The History Show', 'The Miriam O'Callaghan Show', 'The Marian Finucane Show'.  Endless 'shows' hung around and predicated on a 'personality'.   This latter might be acceptable if the 'personality' was interesting or fertile or productive - perhaps in the manner that for a few years Vincent Browne was.  But most RTE presenters seem to come from the same bland stable, while also being encouraged, by the very format in which they are working, to see themselves as 'stars' or celebrities, the kind of people who were paid large sums in the Tiger years to allow themselves fake-tanned reification in magazines like VIP.

RTE Radio 1 documentaries - 'The Doc on One': RTE occasionally strives for a cool or streetwise tone, and usually ends up sounding ridiculous - are limited also.  Most obviously, they seem to get no funding at all, and therefore programmes commonly seem to consist of one man or woman with a tape recorder, who interviews a number of people on some human interest topic, and splices the interviews together to produce a pre-recorded 'documentary'.   But the programme's pre-recorded nature seems to have little influence on the ideas or thought of such broadcasts, seems not to induce the documentary makers to bring in other opinion on the given topic or event. The idea of using the documentary form to explore social or political issues in a structural manner, or to explore any content of faintly intellectual interest, seems to be largely absent.  Such programmes, then, are 'documentaries' only in the thinnest and most basic sense.

RTE Radio 1 seems to shelter some truly extraordinary and often repellent accents.  Mostly, these accents are those of female broadcasters and journalists: Emma McNamara (a business correspondent who must be able to boast the most attenuated 'o' on the Irish airwaves), Kate Egan (an over-elocuted newsreader), and brassy-voiced veterans such as Miriam O'Callaghan and Keelin Shanley.  This is leaving aside the ghastly mixture of Dublin 4 and 'DART' accents on display on 'AA Roadwatch', a non-RTE production of news information on commuting, which wins all the prizes for the ugliest, most ungrammatical, inaccurate speech discourse on Irish radio.    Endlessly, everyday, we are told about 'delays southbound on the M1', for example, as if the Belfast to Dublin highway were populated by mobile impedimenta of some sort; or that 'things are heavy both ways' on the Blackrock to Merrion Gates main road into south Dublin.  Endlessly, placenames are mispronounced - my pet hate is the way that AA Roadwatch seems to think that Foster Avenue in South Dublin is in fact 'Foster's Avenue', as if Dublin streetnames were in the gift of Australian brewing companies.  It is 'things' of this sort that account for the damage to my smallest radio, which routinely gets knocked off my desk or kitchen counter when I am getting mad as hell and don't want to take any more.

A reader here may say, reasonably enough, Well, Conor, why don't you just turn the radio off?  And indeed I could do that.  But I like listening, and soon I am going to be paying for this sort of muck, whether my radio is on or off.  Minister (hopefully soon to be ex-Minister) Pat Rabbitte will shortly bring in a replacement for the Television License (which infuriating advertisements on radio currently tell me 'makes quality programming possible').  This charge will be applied to every householder in the state, on the basis that with computers, iphones and other forms of media technology I could be watching RTE television (even if I am not and never want to).  In other words, the current government is planning effectively to license all media-capable technologies.  It's in this light, that this current angry screed is justified.


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